“What Sin is and Isn’t”
Scripture: Isaiah 25: 6-10; Romans 7:15-25a
I’m here today to say that I think that the word “sin” has gotten a bad rap. The word and indeed the concept have fallen out of favor in our society, and most certainly in our mainline churches. Don’t get me wrong: We were right to distance ourselves from it, as it was being used. The concept of sin has, over long centuries, been used as a battering ram to shame people and keep them in line. The church has wielded it like a weapon, annihilating healthy self-esteems and crushing vulnerable souls and personalities. People go into counseling for years to try to undo the permanent psychological damage brought on by shaming religious ideologies. It was indeed, a concept that needed reexamination. And as a result of the human-potential, self-help, “I’m OK and you’re OK” era, that reexamination happened, and many rejected the whole idea. But as so often happens in our world which prefers absolutes to nuances, I think we might have been guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater! I’d like to posit today that there is a place for the concept of sin in our religion, as long as it is redefined and broadened. In fact, the old cartoon asked a fair question. It showed Jesus hanging on the cross and saying, “If I’m ok and you’re ok, why am I hanging on this cross?”
The problem, it seems to me, lies in the definition. The more traditional understanding of sin had to do with isolated behaviors of an overt, moral nature, as in, “I don’t smoke, drink or chew, or go with girls who do.” I grew up Catholic, until I joined Federated in ninth grade, and I remember as a Catholic, going to confession with my list of “sins,” maybe “talking back” to my mother, teasing my brother, cheating on my homework or the like. What I learned later, and what made infinitely more sense to me, was the understanding of sin held by theologian Paul Tillich who described it as an overall condition of brokenness, estrangement, struggle. The Isaiah text for today calls it “a shroud that covers the earth.” First Corinthians thirteen says, “now we see through a glass dimly.” It’s as if our vision is blurry and we don’t have any glasses.
For example, my personal spiritual practice includes a time of daily confession. What I mean by that is not so much a shameful rehashing of isolated behaviors I may have indulged in, though some of that may be part of it, but those are more the symptoms. What I mean by confession is simply naming the places in my life or in myself that are still broken, or somehow less than whole. So while I may confess, say, that I gossiped about somebody, what I really mean is that I still struggle with feeling “less than” and so gossiped in order to raise myself up! But it’s the feeling inferior and insecure that are the problem, and those, obviously, need to be met not with harsh judgement but with compassion and love. And they certainly are from God.
That’s what Tillich meant by sin: that which is still broken, estranged, diseased, not whole. That which makes us less than the strong, whole, love-based people made in the image and likeness of God! That’s our deepest identity: the imago dei, the pre-fall Adam and Eve who danced in the garden with Yaweh without shame! That’s the deepest truth of who we are! But somehow, some-way, that crystalline vision, that beautiful clarity, became blurry, and everything sort of slipped off-kilter, or warped with it. We still see lots of places where the original goodness stands in all its beauty and delight, but now we also see places where it is distorted. Our creation story tells us it was about Adam, Eve, a snake and an apple. But those are really metaphors that try to communicate the deeper truth that in our experience, life is both glorious and beautiful, AND broken and sick. Our world includes robust joy and singing wholeness, people of tremendous nobility and love AND tragedy and horror and people of evil and hatred.
If the Isaiah text gets at sin as an overall condition, the shroud that veils the original, intended wholeness of the whole world, then the Romans seven text gets at the more specific human condition. Its sort of like how racism is the large and over-arching systemic sickness, but gets manifested in tangible, isolated acts. Romans 7 is where the rubber meets the road, and I have to say I love this passage. It was one of the first that let me know that maybe the Bible did have something in it for me, something that would, “speak to my condition.” Because who can’t relate to this:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I don’t want to! I can will what is right, but I sometimes cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” I don’t know about you, but boy can I relate at times! I still struggle with some of the same issues I have struggled with for decades! I can spiritually prepare myself for a situation where I know I will face temptation, and can even feel strong, then I walk into the situation and it’s as if the bottom drops out and I’m in it up to my neck again!
And here’s the thing: sometimes the shroud, or the “doing that which we hate” comes through no fault of our own. Sometimes we just get lost from our own higher selves and from the Good Shepherd not because we have failed personally, but simply as a result of the fact that we indeed live, as our creation myths tells us, in a fallen world. Everything is blurry and sometimes we figuratively bump into each other. Sometimes we get lost not because we have chosen to run away, but because, given the fog, we genuinely cannot see the path. Sometimes we are pushed into confusion and lostness by the circumstances of life: by things like illness, economic reversals, unemployment, being the victim of betrayal, watching a child or other loved one self destruct. So sin in that sense has nothing to do with our own failure, but with that overall condition of fallenness, as our creation stories tell us. So there are all kinds of ways that we can get there, to those places of sin, of raw, unimaginable pain, some that we bring on ourselves, many that we don’t. Some dramatic, like David’s affair with Bathsheba, some subtle, like the small ways we let ourselves and others down, or fudge on the truth, or participate in subtly injuring someone’s spirit.
Well, the long and short of it is this: because of sin, because of the fact that everything is sort of a quarter turn off, If we live long enough, I believe we will all experience some kind of rock bottom with it. Into every life, it seems to me, some crisis will come along which exposes this fault line. If we do not bring it on ourselves, life, at some point, always seems to. This is what so much of great literature tries to get at: the hero’s journey where the protagonist has to face his or her dragon or demon, whatever that may be. Can you relate to this? Do you, or have you had something or some time in your life that was so broken that it brought you to your knees? Struggles you had to face and engage and walk through or maybe even army- crawl through, one day, sometimes one hour or moment at a time? I have. I’ve had plenty of the subtler ones, and one or two of the really big ones. So I speak to myself this morning too. And I speak to all of those who have ever known that feeling of life turning on a dime, and everything caving in; or maybe of having had to face our own demons and the ways they have been self destructive or other destructive; I speak to anyone who has been gripped by a shame or guilt or fear or grief so oppressive that there didn’t seem to be even a single shaft of light. Anyone who has experienced rock bottom either because they put themselves there or because life put them there.
There is good news. First, from writer Glennon Doyle who tells of her rock bottom with alcohol having been when she “came to” on a bathroom floor, not knowing how she got there or what might have happened. She now says, “many magnificent transformations, many dramatic healings, begin on bathroom floors.” Indeed, rock bottom, insofar as it is the place where one can no longer deny or minimize the problem, can also became the place from which one takes that first step back up. And let me say, as an important aside, that rock bottom is different for everybody. The twelve step program says, “the elevator goes all the way to the basement, but you can get off at any floor you want to, and for you, that a will be your bottom.” In any case, rock bottom can be the place where transformation starts. The chrysalis before the butterfly, the crucifixion before the resurrection.
Second, and related, is the fact that if used well, and given time, these devastating experiences become that which gradually transform us. We are all undergoing a spiritual process of ongoing transformation wherein we are gradually becoming the fullest version of ourselves that God made us to be. That’s the whole purpose of life if you ask me. To grow gradually into our highest self! Bit by bit, to rediscover that pre-fall, crystaline, made in the image of God-ness! Theology calls is sanctification. And nothing moves that process along more quickly than these experiences where we have to face our own brokenness head on. There is pain in that, just as there is pain in numbing, avoiding or denying. But the former is pain that at least gets you somewhere in the long run.
These kind of experiences, if used well, transform us into more wise, loving and compassionate people instead of too often unkind, judgmental people that we can be before life kicks us around a bit. And it would seem that Jesus would rather hang around with the sick, the poor, the outcasts, in short, the sinners! than the pharisees, the judgmental church people; not to put too fine a point on it. If I were told I had to spend the day with one of two people, the first being a buttoned up, pharisaical, judges church person whose whole life was devoted to compulsively avoiding mistakes, or with someone who had known deep failure, or the pain of deep loss, I can tell you I’d take the second any time.
And that leads directly to my final point. The last piece of good news is that Jesus, and we, can extrapolate to say the fullness of God, indeed loves the lost, the prodigals, the spectacular failures, the sick and broken and outcast and addicted and depressed, in short, those who have known hell on earth. Its hard to fathom but Jesus seems to prefer being with people like the woman caught in adultery, the women with five “husbands”, the prodigal son, tax collectors, sinners, and the likes of you and me. Its not that Jesus doesn’t also fiercely love the pharisees, the holier-than-thou, but he knows they are not yet ready. He can’t work with them yet. So he will wait as long as it takes, and in the meantime will hang out with those who are desperate enough to be ready.
I once knew a church that was in a lovely, charming, old historical building. The problem was that they treated it like a museum. The AA group that met there was harassed so frequently by one of the board members for leaving even a tiny piece of paper on the floor where they met, that they finally quit meeting there and went to the town hall. What do you think all of those AA people thought about church people after that? What the church people didn’t realize was that the God they claimed to be worshipping in the sanctuary, was actually down the hall at the AA meeting where people were hitting rock bottom and getting transformed all the time.
So take comfort, oh sinners! you who are at the bottom, through your own choices or through the random winds of life itself. God has a special love for you in the same way that a mother’s favorite child can be said to be whichever one most needs her at any given moment. Take comfort, you who have hit a bottom in ways large or small, dramatic or subtle. Our creative, redemptive, unconditionally loving God wants to get right down there in the mud with you, and help to transform this experience, this way of being, into something better, stronger and more whole, not so that God will love you more, because God already loves you infinitely, but so that you will find the joy of growing into wholeness. Good news, all you who are lost or sick or betrayed or broken, and all you who feel like failures and sinners, and are filled with shame.
“God will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
and will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord… has spoken.”