Lent 1: Sin, what is it good for?


I may be wrong, but I think most of us in the Episcopal church today have an issue with sin. The whole concept makes us uncomfortable, makes us itchy. The developments—historically, intellectually, culturally—of the past 75 years or so have made us tremendously sensitive to talking about sin. Perhaps it is because we do not want to give the impression that we are better than anyone else, after all “judge not lest ye be judged.” Maybe the notion of “I’m OK, You’re OK” has sunk into our subconscious so deeply that we do not believe anyone is a sinner anymore. Theologically, we definitely do not like the idea of a God who punishes those who have disobeyed him; it all feels too much like an abusive parent and definitely not a style of parenting that Dr. Spock would have advocated. And if you don’t recognize the book, I’m OK, You’re OK (by Thomas Anthony Harris), or the reference to Dr. Spock, that’s OK; they pre-date me as well. Yet I do believe their general approaches to psychology and human interactions continue to have a significant impact on our society, even if we are no longer aware of their origins. To paraphrase another phrase from the 60s, “Sin, what is it good for?” (Absolutely nothing!)

Anyone nervous yet? Worried I am going to preach an ultra-conservative sermon? Well, I don’t know how conservative this sermon will sound to you, but it will be orthodox, with a lower case “o.” Sin is real, it is a part of every service and prayer that we utter, and we ignore it at our own loss. But let me return for a moment to those trends that I seemed to be maligning a moment ago. I am, in fact, very sympathetic to their inclination. We are not better than anyone else, remember the verse, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We are all susceptible to temptations and vices, and we all, all too often, succumb to them. 

We must, indeed, be careful in our judging of others. It is far too common today to find people judging others, presenting themselves as, if not holier than others, then certainly more patriotic and moral than their neighbor. That sort of puritanical finger pointing is destructive of ourselves and our society. Yet when we quote Jesus “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged,” we must also remember the full context. 

The point is not that our neighbor doesn’t have some sins in their lives that need to be sorted; the point is that you must first acknowledge your own “log” before you can help anyone else. 

The theological ideas that God is mean or vindicative or that the death of Jesus for our sins is a weird kind of child abuse are appropriately repugnant, if true. Fortunately, they are not and that is a good thing, but we need to appropriately understand the mercy and grace of God and God’s own act of self-sacrifice on the Cross. But first, as a friend taught me, you should always define your terms, so what is sin? 

Sin, simply put, is disobeying God. Sin can seem at once both suitably vague as to be infuriating and specific (through the Law) to seem arbitrary and capricious. That is why the prophets remind us that it is not the actions, but the heart that God cares about. As we read on Ash Wednesday, (Joel 2:12-13) “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” The Bible tells us that God created this world for us to be in a joyous relationship with one another, creation, and God. By disobeying God, sinning, we harm that relationship, all of them. The “holy history” of Scripture is the story of God reaching out to us, to bring us back into that loving and gracious relationship. But first, we must acknowledge that we, each of us, have done our part to contribute to the divorce. As John Wesley wrote, “We know no Gospel without salvation from sin.” 

We must acknowledge the reality of sin in our lives and this world, if only so that we can understand why this world is the way it is. While talking about sin can make us uncomfortable for all sorts of good reasons, we avoid it at great risk to ourselves and our relationships, with God and one another. Think about our own relationships, if you are married or as a sibling, or even a co-worker. Let’s assume you have done nothing wrong, but if your partner has hurt your feelings, done something that you asked them not to, or broken your trust, that relationship cannot be restored until you are both honest with each other. Most importantly, you have to be honest with yourself. You have to acknowledge that you have been hurt and that you are hurting the other. We know the consequences when we are unwilling to humble ourselves and repent. 

God is not at fault in our relationship, yet he is always reaching out, willing to take us back when we repent. This is what Lent is all about. On Ash Wednesday, we were called to into Lent with these words: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” This is a time, first and foremost of “self-reflection and repentance” not to beat ourselves up, but to fully recognize our need for forgiveness and God’s amazing love in the gift of his Son, that covers all our sins. 

This is why we celebrated Christmas just a few short weeks ago. God came to Earth as a child to live as one of us, to die for all of us. St. Ambrose wrote, “What was the purpose of the Incarnation but this—that the flesh which had sinned should be redeemed by itself?” We have moved to Rite 1 for our Eucharistic prayer in this season of Lent and the prayer preceding consecration states it succinctly, if in some old-fashioned language. “All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” 

Sin is real. Thank God, so is Jesus. “Jesus came to us, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” Amen.

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