Sunday, January 13, 2019

Phil Kniss: Talking about sin in a world gone mad

On vice and virtue, sin and goodness
Isaiah 11:1-9; Romans 3:21-26

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Today is the first in a series 
on what is supposedly the preacher’s favorite topic—sin.
It’s a well-worn cliche.
I always do a little eye-roll
when the daily crossword puzzle has the clue:
“sermon topic” . . . and it’s always a three-letter word. 
And the answer is never God.
It’s SIN.

That, despite the fact that most of our culture, 
including much of the church,
has moved pretty far beyond that stereotype,
the pendulum has swung in the other direction.

Not too many years ago, after a funeral, 
an out-of-town relative of the deceased, 
someone I assumed didn’t spend a lot of time in church,
came up to me afterward,
complimented me on the beautiful service,
but expressed dismay at the scripture I read,
which the family had requested.
I think it was actually Romans 3, the one we read today.
And she said to me, “Why did we have to read about sin?
I thought the church had gotten over all that years ago.”

I forget my response on that occasion.
But I wonder what she would think 
of my planning six Sundays to dwell on the topic.

Actually, I’m kind of stoked right now to be starting a series on sin.
Partly, but I haven’t done it in a long time.
My last sermon that focused entirely on the topic of sin 
was four years ago.
The last series I planned on the topic was 12 years ago.
So I don’t fit the old stereotype very well.
Whether that’s good or bad, you can decide.

But I think we Christ-followers have a lot to think about and talk about
concerning sin,
living as we are in a world that seems to have gone off the rails,
when it comes to matters of morality and integrity,
not to mention basic kindness and civility.
We live in an often good and beautiful, 
and often evil and cruel world.

So I hope this series gives us all an opportunity,
not just to name, accurately, the many offenses against God
that we observe in the world around us— 
but also to be honest about our own sin,
but not fall down some dark hole
and wallow in guilt and shame and self-hatred.

My aim is to find the right balance,
and give us the language we need
to speak honestly about the brokenness in us and in the world,
and to speak hopefully about the redemption that is available.

As we look at all the craziness in our world,
the jockeying for power at the expense of the most vulnerable,
the reliance on fear and anger to motivate people,
the sheer devastation we are wreaking on each other,
we need, as Christians, an appropriate language
so we can deal with it honestly, and without losing hope.

And we need a way to reckon honestly with the brokenness
in our own lives — 
brokenness that often goes deeper that we can easily assess.

And for that, I don’t think words like shortcoming, or error, 
or misjudgement, or even vice, 
are quite sufficient.
We need a theological word, like sin, if we want to be honest.

Those other words are helpful.
In fact, we will be using them often in the coming weeks,
as we look at the so-called “seven deadly sins”
and consider the sort of practices we might undertake
that cultivate a life of virtue, 
rather than reinforce our tendency toward vice.

Historically, this list of seven deadly sins
has gone by different names — 
cardinal vices
capital vices
mortal sins
deadly sins

Then, of course, we have their opposites — 
the seven corresponding virtues

It could well be worthwhile to spend our energy in this series
focused entirely on cultivating virtue
and ridding ourselves of vice.
It could be a good investment of our time
to focus entirely on practices that shape us for the good life,
and on practices that keep us from the good life,
however we choose to define that.

Virtue is formed by engaging in healthy practices.
And vice is reinforced by continuing unhealthy practices.

So we will, in fact,
be talking a lot about practices.
My aim is that this series will be practical and useful.

But before we get into all that,
in order to build a lasting house of virtue
we need a solid theological foundation.

We need to ask, “What kind of design does God have on us?”
What is God’s intention for us as human beings?
So we have to talk about sin.

Sin is more than a mistake.
More than a character flaw.
Sin is a spiritual state of affairs
that we must take seriously.


But today’s culture often trivializes the seven deadly sins,
takes a quick, surface look at them,
and declares them basically harmless, maybe even desirable.

For instance, some confuse gluttony with feasting,
so they laugh it off.
On occasion, stuffing yourself at a celebrative, abundant feast
can be a joyful and harmless thing.
So let’s get over this sin thing.

And some confuse sloth with rest,
and dismiss it as a sin.
Saying we are already overworked and overstressed 
and sleep-deprived,
and we need to stop, rest, breathe, 
and sometimes do absolutely nothing.
All true.

But that’s sloppy, superficial thinking.
In the classical Christian tradition
gluttony is not the same as feasting,
sloth is not the same as taking a sabbath,
lust is not the same as enjoying physical pleasure,
pride is not the same as having high self-esteem,
anger is not the same as a passion for confronting injustice,
greed is not the same as maximizing profit,
envy is not the same as admiring the success of others.

So whenever I hear someone dismiss one of these sins as outdated,
I say “not so fast!”
Let’s go a little deeper.
Let’s dig beneath the surface.

Yes, we are modern and enlightened,
but I suspect we all have to admit
there was wisdom even in the early centuries of the church.
Let’s at least try to understand more deeply
what our tradition has had to say about these matters,
and see whether the tradition has something of value 
for our present day situation.
There are no doubt some things we can leave behind.
But there is probably much more we should treasure, and even defend.

So let’s think a bit about what we even mean by the word “sin.”
If we can be as clear as possible in our definition,
we will be in a better position to see 
how this list of seven 
informs the way we live in a chaotic and broken world.

Whereas vice refers to some character trait 
or flawed habits or behaviors,
sin speaks to our connection with God.
Unfortunately (I think) for too long
we have made sin simply a category of behavior
and not much more.

So as a church, we have spent a gigantic amount of collective energy
on list-making,
on trying to properly categorize behaviors into one of two columns.
Does doing this act belong in the “sin” column
or the “not sin” column.
If it’s in this column, then repentance and forgiveness are the response.
It it’s in the other column, then I guess no response is necessary. 
It’s all good.

There are at least three problems with this approach.
Maybe more, but I can think of three right off the bat.

First, we will obviously never all agree 
on which column something belongs in.
Different denominations put the same behavior in opposite columns.
And different congregations do the same.
And different groups in the same congregation.
And different individuals in the same group, even the same family,
will have different lists in both columns.

And second, again rather obviously, 
moral discernment is always on a spectrum.
It doesn’t lend itself to two distinct columns.
No matter what behavior is in question,
there will always be the matter of greater or lesser goods,
and greater or lesser evils.
Context matters.
Lying to avoid facing the consequences of my own misdeeds,
is a different thing, morally,
than lying to the Gestapo in Nazi Germany, 
while hiding Jews in my house.

And third,
when we spend all our energy on the two columns,
it distracts us from the real issue.
how does this way of living, this way of being human 
impact my God-given vocation and identity?

We start with the assumption that our life has a purpose,
that we were created by God for a reason.
Yes, we have freedom.
We are not being coerced into serving God’s agenda.
We have choice.
We have agency.
But there is no doubt, within our faith tradition, 
we were created with purpose.
We are not self-determined or self-defined beings.
We have a Creator to answer to.

What is that purpose?
It is to join in God’s work, to engage in God’s mission.
We are God’s agents and ambassadors.
Or, to say it the way N. T. Wright describes it,
we were made to be God’s image-bearers.
When God created human beings,
and placed in us God’s own image or likeness,
from that moment it was our destiny, our purpose,
to let that image be seen.
We were made to reflect God to the world around us,
and we were made to return to God worship and praise.
It’s that angled-mirror metaphor that Wright uses,
we reflect God’s glory and image to creation,
we return worship and praise to God on behalf of creation.

So then, sin is a failure to worship.

The Greek word for sin, hamartia, literally means to miss the mark,
like an archer whose arrow flies wide of the target.

That’s a lot different than saying we didn’t check off 
all the right behaviors on the list.
It means we miss the main mark, 
the primary intention of our existence.
It means we fail to reflect God’s image to the world.
And when we fail to return our worship 
to the God who deserves it.

So sin, in every sense of the word, is idolatry.
When we sin,
we cause a break in our worship of God,
and give power to beings or forces other than God.

Another way of putting it, 
informed by the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans,
is that sin is breaking faith with God.

Yes, we put our trust (our faith) in God,
but God also puts trust (or faith) in us,
to be good stewards of the gift.
It’s a two-way faith connection.
Sin breaks that faith.

When we break trust with God,
we miss the mark of our created purpose,
we sin.
And all have sinned and come short.

The good news is that there is grace, there is forgiveness.
What has severed can be healed,
because God will do anything to heal the break.
God is motivated by that vision of shalom we heard in Isaiah,
and is steadfastly working toward that,
depending on us as partners and stewards.

Sin is a relationship problem between us and God.
Sin violates the shalom vision.
It makes the world “not the way it’s supposed to be.”
It severs an intended relationship
between Creator and creature.

But that’s not the end of the story.
God loves us. 
And God is determined to rescue us from that alienation,
to save us from our sin.
That is the story of the Bible in a nutshell.

There is redemption from our sinful condition, personally.
There is redemption from the sin 
that penetrates our systems and structures.
There is redemption from the sin that pervades the universe.
In Christ, in the cross,
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 good news for us Christian sinners.

The rest of the world may well take this Christian tradition
of the seven deadly sins and brush them off.
They may trivialize the idea of sin itself,
laugh it off,
consider it passe,
and ignore it in each other . . . 
until it gets just too flagrant and offensive.
Then the knee-jerk response is to condemn and isolate the offender,
treat them as a lesser class, and one of the untouchables.
And there is no clear pathway back.

But we Christian sinners, at least when we’re thinking straight,
we 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 Paul proclaimed.
There is a pathway to redemption.
By the grace of God, and with the aid of the family of God,
we can get up again,
and move on, restored, redeemed.

Thanks be to God.
I assure you this series on sins coming up
will not be a downer.
Yes, we will be honest about the brokenness.
But we will not despair, because we have no reason to.

—Phil Kniss, January 13, 2019

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