Sin Is Our Only Hope

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!

Co-Redeemers with Christ

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, on August 25, 2013
Season of Creation, Year C, Cosmos Sunday

All week, I have been immersed in the world of Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelung as interpreted by the Artistic and Design teams at Seattle Opera.

The magnificent sets draw us into a world of mountains and forest inhabited by giants and dwarves, gods, demi-gods, mortals, and various supernatural beings.  We see gods behaving badly and heroes without honor.  We find brutality and tenderness, power, love, and lust, impossible choices and a whole range of human emotions and experience.  It is a  story about nothing less than The Beginning and the End of the World.

But I didn’t just go to the almost nightly performances,  I have also been going to pre-performance talks each evening and three-hour classes each morning that explore the world of Wagner – the world he inhabited, his inner world, and the world he created through myth and music.  In studying the work in more depth, we learn so much more about the world created by Wagner.  And in studying the creation, we also learn something of the creator.

In theology, we separate the field into several broad areas, such as Anthropology, Christology, and Soteriology.  One of those is Revelation and within revelation, we distinguish between Special Revelation and Universal Revelation.  Examples of special revelation are God’s revelation to us in the Bible or through Jesus.

Universal Revelation, on the other hand, is available to anyone.  God’s Creation is perhaps the most obvious example of universal revelation.  The Creation reveals the Creator.  What if we were to treat all of creation as Holy Scripture?  Any area of study becomes like Bible Study – from astrophysics to microbiology; from art and music to psychology; from archaeology to sociology.  Any area of study can be revelation.  We can take the same questions to the Holy Scripture of the Cosmos as we do to the Bible.

  • What is the nature and will of God?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • What is our place in relation to the rest of creation? To one another?  To God?
  • What is Sin?
  • What is Salvation?
  • What is Redemption?

When the answers seem to differ, it’s probably because we are misunderstanding one source of revelation or the other – or both!

Last week, I caught part of a story on the radio about the Kepler spacecraft.  It has been damaged severely enough that NASA has given up any attempts to repair it.  The reporter emphasized, however, that the mission has exceeded expectations and has provided researchers with a great deal of valuable information.  The question Kepler was sent to answer was this, “Are planets like Earth, rare or common?”

The answer is that they are surprisingly common.  Scientists will be studying and analyzing the data already sent from Kepler for years to come.  And it is still sending data, we just can’t steer it anymore.

Now this is a far cry from the description of the cosmos in the Bible.  In the stories of Genesis, there is the dry land of earth, which has a dome above.  The sun, moon, and stars are in the dome.  Then there’s the water.  Water exists in two places: under the earth and above the dome.  The water under the earth forms streams and rivers, lakes and seas and is held back by dry land.  The water above the dome is the source of rain and is held back by the dome.

It doesn’t mean the Bible is “wrong” – as a matter of fact, the stories are based on the peoples observation of their world.  That’s what it looked like.  Based on our own observations, we would describe the cosmos differently.  And 2,000 years from now, we will probably look pretty primitive in our understanding.

If we study the Cosmos as Holy Scripture, what does it reveal to us about God and about ourselves?  If nothing else, the Kepler mission offers the possibility that while we are precious in God’s sight, there may be other worlds, other life that is just as precious to God.  It is a reminder that all life, indeed all of creation, is precious to God.  All of Creation is sacred and Holy.

If all of Creation is Holy, what about Sin?  When you think about sin, does your mind immediately go to the Ten Commandments?  Or the Great Commandment?  Or maybe to the Seven Deadlies.  If you were to read the world as Holy Scripture, as God’s revelation, what do you learn about Sin?  From climate change to fracking; from how we get to work to how we produce our food; from the ravages of famine in sub-Saharan Africa to the ravages of chronic unemployment in the deserts of our inner cities. What does all this tell us about the result of Sin and our own cooperation with evil?

And what about Redemption?  What does the Holy Scripture of the Cosmos teach us about Redemption?  What would it look like?  The idea of Co-creator has become a popular buzzword these days.  Today, though, I suggest we consider the idea of becoming co-redeemers with Christ.  Might we be invited to be co-redeemers of the Sin of the world?  How would we do that?  Is it different from repentance?  I think it is.

Today, on this Cosmos Sunday, the last Sunday in our celebration of the Season of Creation, when you leave here, I invite you to look at the world with fresh eyes, seeing it as Holy Scripture.  What do you learn about God, about yourself, about your place in the cosmos?  What do you learn about Sin and Redemption?

Is Christ calling you to be a Co-Redeemer of the world?

Why Are We Here?

Preached at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma on July 21, 2013
The ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11, Year C)

I don’t know about you, but it’s very easy for me to procrastinate and be distracted by  any number of tasks – especially when I have something really important to do that’s difficult to define and harder still to accomplish.  Now the activities I may busy myself with are, in fact good and even important and necessary – but they’re a distraction from what I truly need to do at that time.  You know, it’s just so much more satisfying when I know what to do, how to do it, and I can tell that it’s finished and it’s done well.  And everyone else can see it, too.

Mary and Martha are both attending to the requirements of hospitality; Martha is attending to providing food for their guest while Mary attends to the guest himself.  She is giving him her presence, her attention.  Both are necessary and I’m sure Jesus will enjoy the meal Martha is busy preparing, but to many eyes, it appears that Mary is a slacker. 

The church can get distracted, too.  We can be very busy doing good, important, NECESSARY activities – often because they’re easily identified, described, measured, and completed.  They can be checked off the to-do list and we can all feel successful.  However, when we focus ALL of our attention and energy on those needed activities, do we ever ask ourselves how they relate to our core purpose?  Do we even check to make sure that we’re focusing ANY of our energy and attention on that core purpose?

Paul writes about the purpose of the church in his letter to the Colossians.  After singing this magnificent him about the glory of Christ – through whom and for whom absolutely everything was created and through whom absolutely everything has been reconciled to God – he brings it down to the local congregation.  He says even you, this one little congregation, are the Body of Christ.  Christ is in you. He has made you holy and blameless before God.  And you have one purpose: to Proclaim Jesus Christ.

And there’s the rub, isn’t it?  How do we proclaim Jesus Christ?  What does that even mean?  Who IS Christ to us?  How can we even know if we’ve succeeded?  It’s so much easier to hold a potluck, or clean out closets, or focus on the budget – all of which are good and important and necessary and MAY be used to further our core purpose or may be used to procrastinate.

In his book, Youth in the Community of Disciples, David Ng addresses this very topic.  He reminds us of our essential identity and our central task when he enumerates the many purposes that distract us from our core purpose.  These include:

  • Entertainment, where worship leaders put on a show and everyone has fun
  • Refuge – a sort of life raft in the sea of brokenness and evil that will keep us safe until Christ comes again.  Here the goal is to keep everyone comfortable.
  • Fellowship – forming and maintaining social relationships; everyone feels they “belong”.  Of course this is important, but it’s not the core purpose.

No, the core purpose is to proclaim Christ.

  • We talked about the core purpose of the church at the College for Congregational Development, too. There we described the purpose as:

  • To Gather the People of God as the Body of Christ,
  • To Transform us, and then
  • To Send us into the world as Transformative Agents for the Commonwealth of God.

It can be tempting to focus on the Gather part rather than on the Transform part and especially on the Transformative Agents part.  After all, we can count how many people have Gathered and we can tell if there are new folks.  But how do we transform lives?  And how do we know if what we’re doing is working?

For that matter, Who are the new people?  Are we Proclaiming Christ to those who don’t yet know Christ?  Recently, I read a blog post titled,

“9 Signs Your Church Is Ready to Reach Unchurched People.”  I’d like to share a few of them.

Your main services engage teenagers.  The writer contends that if your Sunday morning service is boring, irrelevant, and disengaging to the teenagers in your church, it probably will be to unchurched people as well.

  • Your members know unchurched people.  It’s important to have relationships outside of church – people you know well enough that you would feel comfortable inviting them to church.
  • Your members are prepared to be non-judgmental.  Nuf said.
  • You’re good with their questions and don’t feel the need to answer them.  You’re comfortable letting them find their own answers.
  • You’re honest about your own struggles.  We’re not perfect, so let’s be honest about it; it opens a lot of doors, surprisingly.

I’ll stop there.  If you’re interested you can read the rest of the post yourself.

What do you think?  I know several of them made me pause.  They remind us that it’s not all about us.  They remind us that our purpose is to Proclaim Christ.

So, How do we proclaim Christ?

We Proclaim Christ when, like Martha, we feed hungry people.  We Proclaim Christ when, like Mary, we attend and listen.  We Proclaim Christ when we share our stories, telling how Christ has transformed our lives.

That’s why we’re here – to be transformed so that we may be the Body of Christ in the world; agents of transformation for the Commonwealth of God.

Let’s not be distracted, we’re here to proclaim Jesus Christ.