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Genesis 4:4-7 & John 9:1-12
The problem is sin. The problem is sin and we agin’ it!! That’s how it starts off, I’m sure some of you are aware, and then the talk about Jesus as the solution, or more specifically the sacrifice of Jesus as the solution to the anger of God produced by our sin. The God of love so angry that only his son’s brutal death will appease him. But don’t worry, it happened and now he loves us again.
So let me confess, probably won’t be a shock to you, that I don’t believe that Jesus died for our sins, at least in what I would call a conventional sense. But, I do believe that sin is a problem. Also not in the way that we’ve been told, at least most of us, all of our lives. We’ve spend the last few Sundays revisiting God, Jesus and the Bible, and now we turn to some very foundational theological concepts for Christians – sin and salvation. And for that I’m going to have us look at a specific and very poignant example.
It’s easy to look at the horrific pictures of small children locked up in pens, to hear the heartbreaking stories of the forced separation from parents, of children not allowed to touch their brothers and sisters, of one year-olds placed in front of immigration judges for a court proceeding with no representation and be outraged. That is easy. And right. And it’s easy to point fingers and assign blame and cast disparagement at people whose policies have caused this immediate crisis. It is easy. And right.
What is less easy is to be aware of how we got to this place. What is less easy is to see how complicated this situation is and how many working parts make up this machine of dehumanization and greed. What is less easy is to make the connection between those heartbreaking images and our $8 t-shirts, or our year-round bananas, our quick roof repairs after a hailstorm or our well-mowed green spaces. What is less easy is to understand that we are part of something larger, part of a combination of individual and corporate sin, and none of us is pure or unstained.
It’s a harsh reality. And it is the only way I ever have any connection to one of the central tenets of fundamentalist Christianity – the so-called “doctrine of original sin.” Because we don’t often, in the so-called “progressive” church, speak about personal sin, typically because the people who sit in our sanctuaries have had sin used as a club, to beat them into submission. This stands in direct contrast to the practice of Jesus, who does talk about sin, but doesn’t wield it against people. As Russell Rathburn says in his commentary on the passage from John, “The Pharisees…see God work as restrictive. Jesus sees God’s work as permissive. They see sin as transgressing the restricted, Jesus sees sin as limiting the continuing of God’s work of creation, that work which is imaged from Genesis forward as bringing light into the darkness.”
How we think about “sin” matters. If it is only a list of prohibited actions, then we’ve missed the point entirely. It is, after all, totally possible for me to follow the rules and act immorally. It was the defense at the Nuremberg trials, “I was only following orders.” The point of the lists in some parts of the Bible is to evoke in the followers a sense of morality that is inherent, not depended on legislation to tell us what to do…or not do. But we have our idea of sin all out of whack. We keep trying to refine the list, acting like we may not know exactly what sin is, but we know it when we see it. But Jesus teaches us this – that which harms is sin. That which does not promote life is sin. He says take the 2×4 out of your own eye before you point fingers at the toothpick in someone else’s eye. In other words, sin never works aimed at someone else. My knowing that there is evil in the world is one thing, my knowing that I can sometimes contribute to that evil is another. Let me be clear, I don’t think that I intent evil, but there is intent and there is impact. Living my life as a straight, white, cis-gendered male in this world means that I will impact others in a negative way despite my intent to not do so. Because I participate in the systems that are evil, without meaning to do so. As we head into the 100th anniversary of one of the worst race massacres in our nation’s history right here in Tulsa, we should be painfully aware of how we have not named the sin of those days, and how that lack of seeing makes our reconciliation so hard, if not impossible.
So, while it seems important to know what constitutes this life-denying, hurtful thing we call sin, it can be difficult to define, because it is so contextual. Here are just a few comments on sin from our tradition through the centuries:
- In Judaism, sin is “missing the mark”; refusing to listen to God; a wrongful path; hardness of heart; stiffness of neck; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel called it; “a refusal of humans to become who we are”
- Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century Christian mystic, theologian, scientist, and artist says that
sin is drying up. It is care-less-ness; as in not caring. It is also “uselessness”; lack of passion; sterility. Those who do good are like an orchard full of good fruit. If we do evil, we shall remain sterile in God’s eyes.
- Contemporary Roman Catholic liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez says simply this:
Sin is denial of love.
- Langdon Gilkey, a 20th century, U.S. Protestant theologian, who was my conversation partner for my final theology paper in seminary says, “Sin may be defined as an ultimate religious devotion to a finite interest.”
- Rosemary Radford Reuther, a contemporary, Roman Catholic, feminist theologian, says:
“What is appropriately called sin…lies in the distortion of relationship, the absolutizing of the rights of life and power on one side of a relation against the other parts with which it is, in fact, interdependent.”
The distortion of relationship, care-less-ness, an ultimate religious devotion to a finite interest. Boy does that last description hit home? For what do we see around us now but almost fanatical devotions to political or ideological ideas as if they were ultimate truth? It makes me think of the immigration crisis as an example of sin…primarily systemic, but driven by a personal devotion to a finite interest, a twisted narrative that both wants to claim the United States as a immigrant story and deny the reality of colonization, a narrative that wants to reject people from certain countries while ignoring our own role in the histories of those same countries economic and social plight…a distortion of relationship.
Personal transformation is good. Reconciliation from personal “sin” is good, but that does not change the systems in which we are bound — racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc. We may rightly admit to our personal racist notions and seek to admonish them in our lives, but that does not end the systemic weight of racism. And that is the double whammy of this thing we call sin. There is a personal component, yes, but our focus on that often pulls us away from the larger and more nefarious side of sin – the systemic sin that we create which alienate and isolate, which break relationship and seek power over justice, choosing not to see, hear or understand certain people in favor of others.
What if we moved beyond the language and liturgy that speaks of sins as only personal and our need for forgiveness? What if we acknowledged sin as a power that seems to hold us in bondage? What if we imagined, as the Psalms do, of sin that rules our lives like an unwanted Pharaoh, or keeps us in exile as if we were trapped in Babylon, or blinds us with self-interest, keeping us attached to distraction and entertainment as a means of anesthetizing the pain that is around us? What if we thought of sin more like idolatry, getting the centers of our lives confused, our identities tied up with the wrong things?
Now I’ve spent all this time on sin and the title of the sermon is sin AND salvation. So, I’d better get moving. Fortunately, the second part is deeply connected to the first. If sins are the things that take life and deny love, then salvation is that which brings life and love. Salvation, like sin, looks different in different places. Sometimes it is liberation from bondage, real or spiritual. Sometimes it is economic or cultural. It may mean finding a place where you are truly accepted for who you are, or finding your meaning in being that place of sanctuary for others. It can be a move from sickness to health, from fear to trust, or something more systemic, like a move from injustice to justice or violence to peace. And, yes, it may even mean a salvation to come. Our opening song, Orphan Girl, by Gillian Welch, tells the story of an orphan with no family who sees no possibility of that relationship in her life so her salvation she envisions coming at her death when she meets her family at God’s table. But I don’t think salvation is primarily talking about our afterlife, rather it is concerned with here and now, with what Marcus Borg calls the “twofold transformation of ourselves and the world.” This may be more radical a shift than we think – but what if we no longer thought of our salvation as primarily about an afterlife? What is the point of Christianity then? What if it isn’t about the prize at the end of the race at all, but the race itself? And what if our salvation is not the forgiveness of sins, but our liberation from sin? What if our stories about Jesus are here to remind us of what Dr. Borg calls the “three tenses” of salvation – what God has done in the past, what can happen in the present and what has not yet happened, what is not completed, neither for us as individuals nor for the world?
We live perhaps more than we’d like to admit in the same sin scenario that Jesus did, where a person’s misfortune is a result of their sin. He refutes that. I hope we heard that clearly this morning in John’s gospel. Jesus calls that bunk. And he uses this encounter with a blind man to make his point to the Pharisees about their own blindness. Perhaps this is the whole work of sin and salvation, helping us to understand the ways in which we are blind – blind to our own transgressions, blind to one another, blind to brokenness which we may not have even created, but in which we participate. And that blindness is precisely what Jesus came to save us from, letting us see in his own life how we might continually work to shift our centers away from the pharaohs and the Babylons of this world, binding and exiling us, and towards the God of liberation, seeking our wholeness, transforming our hearts and minds and souls. Let us not lose sight of how Jesus’ actions change the expected story in John’s Gospel, surprising everyone with God’s love for this so-called sinner…letting the blind man, and maybe others, too, see again, like Amazing Grace…
I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.