Sunday, June 22, 2014

Phil Kniss: How to be a good Christian sinner

Journey through Romans: We all have sinned
Romans 3:22-31; Luke 7:36-50; Psalm 32:1-7

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Contrary to what you might think,
there really is no shortage of talk about sin these days.
You should find that surprising, and not surprising, at the same time.

Surprising, in that we live in a culture that is increasingly tolerant,
that many would describe as morally permissive,
a culture where sin is rarely a topic of public discourse.
Some years ago, after a funeral, I don’t remember whose,
a relative of the deceased came up to me afterward,
said it was a beautiful service,
but she expressed dismay at the scripture I read,
which had been requested,
and might actually have been Romans 3.
At least it mentioned sin at one point.
She said to me, “Why did we have to read about sin?
I thought the church had gotten over all that years ago.”

Many seem to assume that sin-talk 
is a bit backward and unsophisticated.
And psychologically unhealthy.

But then, it’s also not surprising that we talk a good bit about sin
because the talk we do have, for the reasons I just stated,
is on a fairly superficial level.
Sin, as a theological concept, is diminished and trivialized,
and therefore, it’s easier to throw around
in a light-hearted manner.

Even in the church,
conversation about sin often remains on the surface.
When we are having a serious conversation about sin,
more often than not,
the conversation is focused very specifically
on particular behaviors, particular acts,
and the matter of discussion or debate,
almost always centers on whether that behavior
is a sin, or is not a sin.
And if it is, where it ranks on the hierarchy of sins.
The ancient church fathers have even given us
two distinct categories,
to weigh the seriousness of our sins.
The more serious are mortal sins (or deadly sins),
the less serious are venial sins.

Most anytime “sin” comes up in a typical church conversation,
and every time it comes up in public conversation on the streets,
“sin” is used as an adjective to describe, or categorize, an act.

Such as, is lying a “sin?”
Is joining the army, and going to war, a “sin?”
Is sex before marriage a “sin?”

And the sin-question of the day . . .
Is sex anytime outside of a marriage
between one woman and one man, a “sin?”

And there are many more mundane sin-questions, like . . .
Is under-reporting on our tax return a “sin?”
Is purposely going over the speed limit a “sin?”
Is alcohol consumption a “sin?”
And the list goes on and on and on . . .

I think these are very interesting questions.
And actually, important questions.

And in every case, the church has answered those questions
in some way, at one time or another, with a “yes.”

But questions phrased in that way are notoriously hard to answer.
Because not only are there different categories of sin,
there are different degrees within the categories.
We know there is a moral difference
between breaking the speed limit,
and marital infidelity.

While lying to gain personal advantage may be a sin,
is it a sin, if a lie would save someone’s life,
such as the lies many persons told while hiding someone
during the Holocaust,
or the Underground Railroad?

And for some potential sins, we draw the line at different places.
All Christians agree that killing a human being is a sin.
Some sincere Christians make no exceptions.
Some sincere Christians make exceptions
for self-defense,
or for defending another human being,
or for killing in a military action.

Many, or most of us would not consider it sinful
to drink some wine with dinner.
But it’s one thing to drink a glass of wine with dinner,
in the company of adults whose conscience does not forbid it.
It’s quite a different thing, from a sin perspective,
for an adult to pull out a bottle of wine
and empty it, glass after glass,
in front of a party of teenagers
you are chaperoning in your home.

We might all agree that cheating on your income taxes is a sin.
But the overwhelming majority of people
don’t keep records of all online and out-of-state purchases,
and file the Consumer Use tax they owe to Virginia
as the law requires.
Is that a sin?

And about speech . . . 
Most words, in themselves, are innocent.
But when certain words are delivered to certain people,
in a certain way,
at a certain time,
and with a certain tone of voice,
sin might enter the equation.

Sometimes doing absolutely nothing
could be discerned to be a sin against God and people,
and might call for the same response
as if we had done a violent act.

Having conversations in the church,
over ethical and moral situations like these,
for the purpose of discerning what is right, and what is wrong,
and even assigning these acts
different degrees of rightness or wrongness,
seems to me to be a good thing for disciples of Jesus to do.
We ought to engage in conversation and communal discernment,
to test the moral goodness of particular ways of behaving
in particular circumstances.

But, having said all this,
I also wonder whether it’s a little problematic
to focus our sin conversation almost entirely on the issue
of identifying the correct label for behavior.
of focusing exclusively on the question of whether a certain act
belongs in column A, labeled “sin”
or in column B, labeled “not sin.”

Categorizing and ranking sins makes for interesting debate, of course,
but I doubt it’s the most productive approach
in terms of discipleship,
in terms of leading us toward human flourishing,
in terms of forming us for the life our Creator intends for us.

So how do we, as Christians, as followers of Jesus,
talk about, and discern, and deal with,
the sin that is an inevitable part of the human experience?

Frankly, this is a hard question.
Partly because some Christians are wearied by,
or skeptical of, sin-talk of any kind.
Too many so-called Christians talk so loudly about sin
in such unhelpful and distasteful ways . . .
And a few too many angry, sign-toting, and self-righteous preachers
have dominated the air-waves,
that any talk of sin gives us a gag reflex.

Or maybe some of our old Mennonite baggage
of legalistic perfectionism,
of calling people to make confession in front of the church,
for the sin of hiding a radio in the attic,
or wearing the wrong color stockings,
has given some of us life-long allergic reactions to sin-talk.

Or maybe that’s all distant history,
and we’ve learned from it all, and gotten over it all,
and assume we know something about good self-esteem,
that our ancestors didn’t realize.
So we hesitate to mention sin,
for fear of injuring someone’s self-image,
or restrict their personal freedom
to do and to be whatever they want to do and be.

So it’s hard to address sin in a healthy way,
because we are not practiced in it,
or comfortable with the vocabulary
. . . except on dessert menus.

Isn’t it interesting?
We call peanut-butter cheesecake sinfully sweet,
and call chocolate decadent . . .
but we stop short of using the S-word
when talking about how we spend our money,
or throw around our influence,
or how we talk about our immigrant neighbors,
or how we treat the homeless,
or how we use our bodies,
and express our sexuality.

I wonder if we all have ended up trivializing sin . . .
joking about it, where the word doesn’t really apply,
and refusing to use the word, where it clearly does apply.

Do we even distinguish between an unfortunate blunder, a foible,
and the profoundly important
and theologically nuanced concept of human sin.

An editorial in Theology Today talked about this trivializing of sin.
It was titled, “God Be Merciful to Me, a Miscalculator.”

How did we get to this point, we who say we follow Jesus?
Well, we had to clean up Jesus a bit,
to make him fit our modern sensitivities, so says Will Willimon,
who served 20 years as Dean of Duke University Chapel,
and is now a Methodist Bishop.

He wrote a book some years ago titled, Sinning Like a Christian.
In it he makes a rather provocative statement, and I quote.
“It is odd that we have made . . . Jesus into such
a quivering mass of affirmation and oozing graciousness,
considering how frequently, unguardedly, and gleefully
Jesus told us that we were sinners.
Anyone who thinks that Jesus was into . . .
self-affirmation and open-minded, heart-happy acceptance
has . . . to figure out why we responded to him
by nailing him on a cross.
He got there not for urging us to ‘consider the lilies’
but for calling us ‘whitewashed tombs’ [and vipers]
and even worse.”

Of course, Jesus did demonstrate
the most profound love and acceptance,
especially for those rejected by the religiously self-righteous.
But he also had no difficulty calling people out for their sins.
Sometimes with great intensity.

Of course, we should clarify what we mean, exactly, by sin.

There are lots of ways to talk about sin.
But let’s start with the way Paul talks about it in Romans 3.
“Sin is about breaking faith with God.”
Sin is a theological problem,
not just a problem of moral philosophy.
We start with our understanding of who God is,
and what we believe God wants
out of this relationship with us.

That’s not to bypass moral philosophy.
Those discussions are also useful.
All human beings, believers or not,
have some sense of right and wrong.
We can talk rationally about ethics and morality,
with anyone in the world.
And we should have those conversations.

But sin is different. It’s a uniquely theological concept.
It’s about breaking faith with God.

Neal Plantinga, in his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be,
says, for example, if a business owner defrauds a customer,
it’s not just against the law, it breaks faith.
It breaks faith with the customer, and breaks faith with God,
because of what we understand about God’s character and will.
Criminal behavior becomes sin,
when it offends and betrays God.
Sin is not a matter of breaking the law,
it’s a matter of breaking covenant with God our Savior,
it’s infidelity to the partner joined to us in a holy bond.
That’s why Old Testament prophets, more than once,
compared their people to a harlot.
Israel had an affair, they cheated on God.

This understanding of sin—
as a problem between us and God—
is what we need to get a handle on, I think,
if we’re going to, in Will Willimon’s words,
“sin like a Christian,”
or in the words of my sermon title,
“be a good Christian sinner.”

We’re all going to sin.
As the apostle Paul said so clearly in today’s text,
“All have sinned, and come short of God’s glory.”
But to be a Christian sinner,
is to be realistic about that, and hopeful as well.
It is to live with awareness of what it means
to come short of God’s glory.
It is to embrace knowledge by faith,
of who God is, and who we are in relation to God.
It is to realize our sin alienates us from God,
breaks faith with God . . .
and . . . nevertheless, to live with hope.

Because good Christian sinners realize
that accepting a diagnosis of sin and guilt,
is not a path to condemnation or self-abasement.
Rather, it opens us to what God has done about the sin problem,
and is still doing about it.

There is redemption from our sinful condition, personally.
And there is redemption from the sin that pervades the universe.
In Christ, we are saved from our state of alienation,
and saved for reconciliation and shalom.
We need not remain cut off from God, from others,
from ourselves, or from the earth.

That is the theological way of talking of sin,
rooted in Christ,
rooted in the cross,
rooted in God’s redemptive purposes for all creation.

On the other hand,
if we only talk about our wrongdoings in terms of human limitations,
or moral depravity,
or not reaching our human potential,
then where is the hope?
We are, and always will be, limited by our human condition.
We will miss the mark. Guaranteed.
We will not achieve our highest potential. Count on it.
We will fail. Repeatedly.
That is human nature.
And that is not going to be our fount of hope.

We will understand sin better if we start with the cross,
instead of the garden.
We will be closer to understanding what sin is,
if we see it as alienation from God
that was addressed by the Incarnation,
when God chose to “be with us,” in our messy sinful state,
and restored us to a right relationship
through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

But if we focus only the story on Adam and Eve and the “fall,”
we end up with sin being defined
as a fundamental and irreparable flaw in human nature.

Sin is a relationship problem between us and God.
It’s rebellion against God,
against the way our Creator wants us to be.
Sin violates shalom.
It makes the world “not the way it’s supposed to be.”
It violates the nature of God.
It severs an intended relationship
between Creator and creature.
That’s what makes sin, sin.
But God loves us. And God is determined to save us from our sin.
That is the story of the Bible in a nutshell.

God’s nature is imbedded in us from creation.
When our actions, our choices, our thoughts,
betray God’s nature,
it creates distance between us and God.
And we sin.
We sin personally and individually.
We sin collectively.
We sin systemically.

Whether the sin is in our heart, mind, and personal behavior,
or in our complicity in the sinful structures of the world,
the problem is still a problem between us and God.
We cause God pain.
We distance ourselves.
We separate ourselves from God.

But by God’s grace, we are saved from the alienation that sin brings.
We are saved from being condemned
to a life of separation from God.
Confession and repentance frees God’s grace to move in us.
Sin separates us.
Grace closes the gap.

And I must add, finally, that this grace becomes operative
within the community of disciples called the church.
That’s the other reason why it’s inadequate to focus entirely
on labeling and categorizing sin,
as if once we get the labels right,
we have found the secret to holiness.

No it takes a village to be a good Christian sinner.
We need to be part of a community
that will not only help us see our sin more clearly,
but who will be generous with dispensing God’s grace,
who will gladly and frequently bless us,
and pronounce us loved and forgiven.
Who will provide a safe place to give account for our lives.
Who will, in the context of authentic love and vulnerability,
be a place where we may give and receive counsel,
and be glad for it.
Who will embody, in our life together,
this state of shalom that our Creator desires for us.

So while the rest of the world trivializes sin,
laughs it off, shrugs it off,
ignores it in each other, until it’s too flagrant,
in which case they resort to condemnation,
isolating the sinner, making them untouchable . . .
we good Christian sinners will openly acknowledge that we fall,
we expect that our actions will at times
distance ourselves from God and each other.
But then we proclaim the same Gospel story that Paul proclaimed.
that by the grace of God, we can get up again,
and move on, restored, redeemed.

So now, in full expectation of God’s grace,
please join me in a prayer of confession . . .

Almighty God, Spirit of purity and grace
     whose dwelling is with the humble and contrite heart,
     hear your children’s confession of sin and grant us mercy.
    For all that has been evil in our lives;
     for unholy thoughts and impure motives,
     for any scorn of goodness, trifling with truth,
     and indifference to beauty,
     for being petty when we could have been gracious,
“Lord, have mercy.”
For lack of love toward you,
      whose love has never failed;
     for doubt in your providence,
     for acts of ingratitude,
     and for disobedience to visions we have been able to see,
For the wrong we have done our neighbors;
     for silence in the face of war,
     for neglect of charity and failure in justice,
     for forgetfulness of other’s pain,
     and for advantage taken of another’s weakness,
“Lord, have mercy.”
For our faulty following of the Master;
      our slow faith in his power to save,
      our timid, hesitant answers to his call of service,
      our insensibility to the meaning of the cross;
     for all that mars our discipleship
      and makes it difficult for others to believe in him,
“Lord, have mercy.”

May God, who is almighty and merciful
     forgive our sins and enable us to love as Jesus loved.
And with the psalmist we say,
Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven,
   whose sins are covered.
Blessed are those
   whose sin the Lord does not count against them
   and in whose spirit is no deceit.
When we kept silent, our bones wasted away . . .
   our strength was sapped . . .
Then we acknowledged our sin to you . . .
   and you forgave the guilt of our sin.
Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
   while you may be found . . .
You are our hiding place;
   you will protect us from trouble
   and surround us with songs of deliverance.

—Phil Kniss, June 22, 2014

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