Preached on September 15, 2013 at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma
17th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year C
Sin is our only hope.
That’s the title of this sermon. But I have to admit I borrowed it. It’s the title of a chapter in a book called Speaking of Sin by Barbara Brown Taylor. She is an Episcopal priest who has served urban parishes and country village churches as well as teaching in our seminaries. She is an acclaimed pastoral theologian and is one of the best – some would say THE best – preacher in the Episcopal Church today.
And as I was reflecting on this week’s readings, I felt the need to re-read her book on sin. And if you were to read her book, you would find that much of this sermon comes from it. Now most people really don’t like to talk about sin. They avoid even the word and substitute words from the languages of law or medicine or mental health. And to tell the truth, most of us clergy don’t like to preach about it either. But there you have it, sin is all through our readings today.
The Hebrews worship a golden calf and inspire God’s wrath and then God relents when Moses intercedes on their behalf. Paul writes to his protégé, Timothy, proclaiming that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners! And finally in our gospel, Jesus tells two parables one about a lost sheep and the other about a lost coin. And if we were to keep reading, we would hear the parable of the lost son, the prodigal son. All of these parables are about us – lost sinners.
All of the readings are about Sin and Grace; Repentance and Forgiveness.
Then we have Barbara Brown Taylor.
Sin is our only hope, she claims. Not committing it, I might add, but naming it and talking about it.
Let’s unpack that a bit.
First, what does “sin” even mean? We so rarely use the word anymore, we are at risk of forgetting what it means of forgetting its power.
And second, how does it offer hope, of all things?
Sin is a little word with great depth of meaning.
Simply put, it is about wreckage; about wrecked relationships – with each other, with the earth, with God, even with ourselves. We experience sin on many levels from existential angst to individual wrongdoing to corporate sin, like the Hebrews worshiping the golden calf. Sin may be the result of willful choices on our part or we may be trapped in sinful systems beyond our direct control. Regardless of how we get there, the result is wreckage.
Contrary to what many people think, sin is not a violation of rules or law.
Sin is a violation of relationship.
It is the ache inside – the sense of being cut off from that which really matters – from each other, from God, from our true selves. This pain is not something to get used to and accept as “Normal” or something that can’t be helped. It is a sign that something is wrong and deep inside, we recognize that to be true.
Sin gives a name to a reality we all experience.
The language related to sin gives us language to describe the darker realms of human experience – where power is a problem, not an asset. In the aftermath of an atrocity in Afghanistan, New York Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote that the one Christian doctrine that can be proven without doubt is the doctrine of original sin. The doctrine that says we carry within us the capacity for grave evil. It’s important to remember that. And it’s why it’s important to be able to talk about sin.
Sin is the experience of being cut off from life.
It robs us of joy! Even as it pretends to offer us pleasure By naming this alienation, Sin, we are stating that “Something is Wrong” and that it can change. It is not simply “being human,” and therefore “normal,” so get used to it.
That change is called repentance. And this is where Hope comes in. Naming it Sin admits our frailty as well as our responsibility. It holds us accountable. And most important, it offers the opportunity for transforming our lives. It admits that we have the capacity to change through the grace of God. It may be painful and it will require hard work and lots of grace – but it’s available to us. We’re not trapped. There IS Hope.
Now, we often confuse repentance with remorse. That’s probably one of the reasons we avoid talking about sin – it just makes us feel guilty. It’s been said that chronic guilt is the price we are willing to pay for not changing our lives and our behavior. Remorse alone doesn’t change anything; it doesn’t heal the rift in our relationships. Nor does the suffering we may endure through punishment.
Guilt avoids change. Repentance chooses change.
Repentance starts with a decision to return to relationship, to accept our place in community. It is the choice for a way of life that increases the abundance and joy of life for all members of the community; for all members of humanity.
Lest you think I’m promoting some kind of self-help program, I am not. Repentance is the first step, turning back toward God and receiving God’s grace and salvation – the restoration to spiritual and relational health. While it requires our participation and that may be a lot of hard work, our transformation, our salvation, ultimately comes from God.
True repentance takes on the work of repairing the harm that was done. In Scripture, Jesus promises us God’s forgiving, healing grace. We hear it in the parables of the lost coin and sheep. We hear it in Paul’s letter to Timothy. And we see it in God’s forgiving the Hebrews for worshiping the golden calf. God desires our well-being and wholeness. There is rejoicing in heaven when even one person repents of their sin and chooses life. Together, repentance and grace promise us reunion with God and one another. They promise restoration to community and to the responsibilities that go with relationship.
So, you see, Sin IS our hope. It gives us the footing so we can turn away from alienation toward the salvation of a transformed life through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God!