I’m living a little dangerously this week, because I’m going off the lectionary grid and beginning to preach a series of sermons this summer about matters of faith: key words in our faith lexicon that we should know and wrestle with and seek to understand. And the first word I’ve chosen, that I’m going to start with this week, is….“sin”! Won’t that be fun?
I went to Oremus Bible browser on the web. You can type in any word and Oremus will tell you how many times and where that word will be found in the Bible.
I typed in “sin.” Up popped 2,307 references. I found out that there are 1,213 references in the Hebrew scripture and 536 in the New Testament. (The other 600 or so are in the Apocryphal books – that section in some bibles between the last prophet, Malachi, and the first Gospel, Matthew.)
The Hebrew scripture references are pretty evenly divided between the Pentateuch, Prophets and Psalms. In the New Testament. “sin” appears 235 times in the Gospels and Acts, 173 in the letters associated with Paul and 128 times from Hebrews to Revelations.
At another source (WikiAnswers!) I discovered that “sin” is the 5th most used word in the King James Bible behind “Lord,” “God,” “Man,” and “King.” (Actually all of these words are behind the prepositions and conjunctions. You linguistic nerds will want to know that.) So, in terms of a biblical concept “sin” is definitely the winner.
I also typed in the words “love,” and “forgive” and “grace.” 759 for “love.” 120 for “forgive.” and “grace” under 100.
But “sin” is such a bummer. Who wants to be told what they are doing wrong? I know many of you find it difficult to say the confession of sin each week. Say the word “sin” and we all think “guilt,” and “shame,” and who wants to dwell in these things?
You hear the word “sin” or “sinner” and a picture of some person dangling over an open fire pit comes to mind. You think “judgement,” “punishment” – you think you just don’t measure up.
Say “sin” and perhaps you think of some TV evangelist or religious fanatic who wants to suck the joy out life. Anything that is “fun” is sin – just like any food that is really good isn’t good for you.
And then there are those who seem to be so sure that they know what sin is and who the sinner is: like homosexuality, or abortion, or whatever – that it leads them to commit sinful acts like murder.
Say “sin” and we think of really gross stuff – stuff that most of us don’t do! So sin, in this sense, is something that doesn’t even apply. We all are pretty nice people trying to do the right thing.
But “sin” is the issue that Jesus Christ came to save us from; has saved us from.
Sin – as separation from God, missing the mark of our intentions for ourselves, missing the mark of how our world should work – these are the existential and very real crises (descriptive of reality). The reality that we are not – as persons, as a people, as societies – all that we could be or what God intends us to be. We have all fallen short of the glory of God. These are the things the prophets railed against – trampling of the poor, flaunting wealth as the mark of success. Forgetting humility, kindness, justice, civility.
In the Bible, sin is not just misdeeds. It is also failure to act. Sin is not just what we do wrong; it is what we fail to do. It is not just bad deeds; it’s failure to do good. Sin is not speaking out against corporate greed. Sin is not just personal. Institutions and systems are sinful too, including the church, perhaps especially the church.
In our new members class and in the confirmation class we spend time on the series of questions that are asked of those seeking membership: “Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?”
As you can imagine that is usually, at first, a conversation stopper! But then the question is refined a bit – “where do you see evidence of sin and evil in the world?” And slowly but with increasing speed the words come: Darfur, terrorism, sexism, racism, war, sub prime mortgages, drugs, violence, poverty, corporate greed, lack of justice for those at the bottom of the social rung … abuse… and then there is a pause and someone says; “loneliness,” “self-hatred,” and “self-doubt,” “depression,” and we begin to see that both outward in the world and inward in the deep inner parts there is longing, an awareness of separation from God, of separation from our own selves, of separation from others …. things are not as they could be, should be. Many hide, ignore, deny, but really – it is only as we hold the mirror up to ourselves (even if it is a “glass darkly”) and only as we take a good hard look at the world around us can we see the hurt, the brokenness, the emptiness. We know well our own failings.
Richard Peace in his book Holy Conversations: Talking about God in Everyday Life, writes;
“ori is a nice person. Everyone says so. She is always smiling. She never has a bad word to say about anyone. And she is always helping others. But Lori eats too much (though she does most of her binging in secret.) Lori’s lack of control with food could become the reality through which she comes to understand that she has a sin problem. Once she sees that letting food control her is a form of sin, she may then be able to see that underlying the food problem is a horrid self-image. In reality she really hates herself. And this is another expression of sin: not loving properly someone upon whom God has lavished love. (p.65)
Lori isn’t evil. Lori is a beloved child of God. But the reality of brokenness is real, a dis-ease is obvious.
Sin, as Frederick Buechner writes, is anything that widens the gap between you and God, you and others and you and your best self. Even good things like food can drive the wedge. “Sex is sin,” Buechner writes, “to the degree that, instead of drawing you closer to other human beings in their humanness, it unites bodies but leaves the lives inside them hungrier and more alone than before.” He goes on, “Religion and unreligion are both sinful to the degree that they widen the gap between you and the people who don’t share you view.”
Sin is anywhere there is a separation from that which God yearns for and what we deeply yearn for too. God doesn’t demand perfection. God desires a relationship, an offering of heart, a constant turning and seeking and asking with humility and honesty for clarity.
So what are we to do?
The second question that we ask confirmands and new members is this: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?”
In turning to Jesus Christ you are making an intentional choice away from separation and towards a new orientation (this is called “repentance” and we will get to that concept) When you accept Jesus Christ as your savior you are deciding to look at your life and seek to change where change is needed. You are deciding to walk the prophets’ walk of speaking truth to power and holding the powers and principalities accountable to just behavior. When you turn to Jesus you are taking on the cross of speaking your truth in love to others and calling it as you see it.
Yes, awareness of sin can lead to judgmentalism (against oneself or another) which is one of the biggest sins of all. But, gracefully, the awareness of our own and the world’s brokenness and the need for a constant re-orientation can lead us to deep compassion, which is the opposite of judgementalism.
There can even be a kind of wacky joy and confidence in facing my sin. Knowing that I am not perfect but I can grow in Christ, be more like him and in so doing be more my real self – this can open many a door.
We know our reality. I believe we all long for that new orientation of love which is ours in Jesus Christ. We know that when we are seeking to follow Jesus – things change, fundamentally, orientationally change. I know that when I look to Jesus there is so much more compassion than judgment. When I am walking with Jesus I actually catch a glimpse (now and again) of a different way and of a different power to help me move in that direction.
My own sinfulness, brokenness, and emptiness becomes a pilgrimage towards the light, it becomes the way of growth constantly seeking to let go.
And the sin of world becomes opportunities to witness to the power, the justice, the glory, the hope of Christ in extending the boundary of joy, welcome and love. We see other beloved children of God caught in the web of their own yearning – flailing about… and we can say with confidence – it doesn’t have to be that way.
One final note – many of us pair sin with harsh judgment. It is a fundamental mistake, I believe. For in Christian faith, sin is paired with forgiveness. You and I are assured of forgiveness.
It is trusting that God forgives that helps you explore your lives. And in the exploration we move and grow and we continue to “lay aside” as the great writer of Hebrews reminds us, “every weight and the sin that clings so closely…. and [we] run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God.
Sin is real but forgiveness for any and every sin and every condition is real too.
Sin is all around but it is nothing that should burden you, if you open yourself, confess it, turn to Jesus, and let it go because grace abounds.
Thanks be to God. AMEN.