Reclaiming Sin

A Sermon by Barbara W. ten Hove, co-minister
Paint Branch UU Church - March 20, 2005

Two Readings:

1. Heaven Can't Wait by David Schimke, adapted from Utne Reader, March-April 2005

INTRO: The Utne Reader is a Readers Digest for progressives and it is always full of provocative writings from within and occasionally beyond the liberal media. The current issue has, as its central focus, the promise and perils of faith. In this excerpt from an article by David Schimke, a senior editor at the magazine suggests its time we start speaking from the left about religion in language the right can understand

READING:

I spent my childhood running through the halls of my family's big old church. Mom taught Bible school, Dad directed the choir.... The Jesus they taught me about lived and died in the name of justice, in the spirit of peace. ... [They taught me that] ... he provoked the powerful, considered economic injustice a sin, and welcomed all people-no matter what their race, religion, sex ,or sexual [identity]-without judgment or expectation. In short, I believe Jesus was a radical, and the time has come to start saying so.

For many, what matters most is that Jesus was a divine spirit who died for their sins. To accept him as your savior is to be saved, and the pursuit of salvation is paramount. For a smaller percentage of believers, Jesus is a peasant revolutionary who lived by example and died for it. To model your behavior after his is to bring earth closer to Heaven.

Schimke goes on to write about how, in years past, he would never identify himself as a Christian. But when he was invited to be interviewed on a radio show by a fundamentalist "attack dog," he took up the challenge

The interview began just as I'd hoped. "Are you a Christian?" he asked. Yes, I answered.

Before he could recover, I went on to explain that while I appreciated his preoccupation with salvation, my main concern was good works. That the Jesus I met in the Bible would be more concerned about curing AIDS than outlawing homosexual marriage, more troubled by hunger and violence than an erosion of "family values."

His tenor changed, the phone lines lit up, and we had a conversation. He listened to what I had to say [and] so did his audience.

If progressives want to reclaim the moral high ground it will require a commitment to a set of values.On the core issues that once defined the liberal tradition-such as charity and justice-there must be resolve, expressed in the language of right and wrong. In fact, [we] should be encouraged to speak about sin or redemption or prayer, to use words like God and forgiveness, if only because it will perk up the ears to those who might not otherwise listen.

 

2. Inventing Sin by George Ella Lyon (from Life Prayers, ed. by E. Roberts and E. Amidon)

God signs to us
we cannot read
She shouts
and we take cover
She shrugs
and trains leave
the tracks

Our schedules! we moan
Our loved ones

God is fed up
All the oceans she gave us
All the fields
All the acres of steep seedful forests
And we did what
Invented the Great Chain
of Being and
the chain saw
Invented sin

God sees us now
gorging ourselves &
starving our neighbors
starving ourselves
and storing our grain
& She says
I've had it
you cast your trash
upon the waters-
it's rolling in

You stuck your fine fine finger
into the mystery of life
to find death

& you did
you learned how to end
the world
in nothing flat

Now you come crying
to your Mommy
Send us a miracle
Prove that you exist

Look at your hand, I say
Listen to your sacred heart
Do you have to haul the tide in
sweeten the berries on the vine

I set you down
a miracle upon miracles
You want more
It's your turn
You show me

 

SERMON: RECLAIMING SIN by Barbara W. ten Hove

In one of the most gripping stories in the Christian scriptures, Jesus arrives at the Temple on an early morning, after spending the night on the Mount of Olives. A group of interested listeners gather around him and they begin to talk. All of a sudden, the air is rent with screams. A woman is dragged into the temple and thrown on the floor in front of Jesus. In my Bible, the story from the Gospel of John, reads like this:

The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman along who had been caught committing adultery, and, making her stand there in full view of everybody, they said to Jesus, "Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, and Moses has ordered us in the Law to condemn women like this to death by stoning. What have you to say?"

Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger. As they persisted with their question, he looked up and said, "If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Then he bent down and wrote on the ground again. When they heard this, they went away, one by one, until Jesus was left alone with the woman, who remained standing there. He looked up and said, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she replied. "Neither do I condemn you," said Jesus. "Go away and don't sin anymore."

I have always loved this story, for it captures in its brief lines the compassion and loving spirit that I was taught to believe lies at the heart of true Christianity.

I am also intrigued by this story for the way it approaches the concept of sin and condemnation. My grandmother Brooksie Stillwell Wells, who was a devout Methodist, once wrote a book based on the Gospel of John. She titled it Jesus and Broken Personalities. This story intrigued her as it has so many. In her version, she imagines a subtext that the Bible only hints at. In this tale from the Gospel of John, twice Jesus writes on the ground. Don't you wonder what he was writing? My grandmother imagined that he was writing the symbols for the various commandments that the accusers had broken, reminding those who were so eager to stone this woman that they, too, had sinned. Once they realized their own guilt and shame, they were not willing to condemn hers.

Sin is not a popular topic among Unitarian Universalists. As a faith that has at its root a belief in the universal salvation of all humankind (Universalism!) the concept of sin has often been dismissed as old-fashioned and inappropriate for our times. And it is certainly true that sin has been used by religious people as a club with which to beat others. Like the stones that lay ready to be thrown at the adulterous woman, sin has far too often been used as a weapon.

Sin has also come to be way over-identified with sex. Perhaps this is inevitable since human beings by nature always seem to be preoccupied with sex. This Bible story is a great example of this tendency. The gospel is pretty explicit: the woman who is brought before Jesus has been caught in the act-"the very act"-of adultery. Her accusers must've been watching to catch her in the act itself! And what about the person with whom she is committing adultery? Where is he in all this?

While the Bible certainly is not prudish about sex and its implications both positive and negative, the hyper-sexuality of our culture has turned the concept of sin almost exclusively into something related to sex. Christian fundamentalists blast away over sexual sins to the point where they are unwilling to teach their children what positive human sexuality looks like. The right wing of Islam obsesses over what part of a woman's body can or cannot be seen by people other than her family. And, of course, homosexuality has become the sin of choice for fundamentalists of all kinds.

Sin equals sex, and almost all sex (except the kind between two people of the opposite gender seeking to make a baby) may be considered sinful. No wonder Unitarian Universalists don't like sin! If this is what sin is about, it is not for us!

I understand this. Yet, I am reluctant to give up on sin entirely. For sin is a concept that carries with it some power worth exploring. So, bear with me as I seek to reclaim sin for religious liberals.

When I was in seminary, I was taught that the word sin comes from an ancient word meaning to "miss the mark." I always liked this definition, for it allowed the concept of sin to be understood as something one could get over. If you miss the mark, odds are you can hit it the next time. In other words, if you sin today, you might do the right thing tomorrow.

This definition allows for the concept of redemption. It allows for forgiveness. It speaks to the kind of loving acceptance that Jesus had for the woman caught in the act of adultery. "Go," he says, "and don't sin anymore."

As you know, Jesus was a Jew, thus for him sin was related to the laws of Moses that he and other Jews attempted to follow. But what made Jesus such a radical was how he, in situation after situation, defined sin in ways that moved beyond the rigid codes of Mosaic law. He knew, for instance, that one of the ten commandments, the most important laws of his people, was "Thou shalt not commit adultery." But rather than focusing on the act itself, he focused on the person. He recognized that she had done wrong but he also knew that her accusers were as sinful as she. Thus, he spoke those powerful words, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Who among us could pick up a rock and throw it?

Throughout the gospels, there are stories like this. For what Jesus did, over and over again, was to focus on what to him was most important-the healing, holy power of love. When asked what the greatest of the commandments were, he said, "To love God with all your heart, mind and spirit, and your neighbor as yourself." Not rules, but love.

So why is it, in today's world, we have let the Christian right set the agenda for what is religious in the eyes of Jesus? What Jesus are they talking about? For any Christian scholar worth his or her salt will tell you that Jesus broke rules right and left. Even Christian fundamentalists have to admit that it says right there in their Bible that Jesus forgave people who broke the rigid rules of the day but had little but righteous anger for those who did not love.

I realize this simplifies much of what Christian scriptures teach. I have studied the New Testament and other early Christian sources and know that it is never easy to determine what Jesus said or who he was since so much of his teachings are based on ancient texts. But I do know that the Christian right does not have a lock on what Jesus said or did. We don't either. But the liberal perspective has, for the most part, been ignored in recent years. We have let the right define for us so many things like God and prayer and even religion. It's time to take back some of those ideas and reframe them in ways that make scriptural as well as moral sense.

How would we do that? I like David Schimke's suggestion "If [we] progressives want to reclaim the moral high ground it will require a commitment to a set of values.On the core issues that once defined the liberal tradition-such as charity and justice-there must be resolve, expressed in the language of right and wrong." Charity and Justice-these are words Jesus would understand. And I think that Jesus would say to religious liberals: It's time to call a sin a sin. Do not the ten commandments include "Thou shalt not kill?!" Why then are many Christian fundamentalists so happy about the war in Iraq? Is the killing of innocent civilians not a sin? Didn't we "miss the mark" on that war? No nuclear bombs. No hidden stash of biological weapons. No great plot to attack the US. No connection to al-Qaida. I'd say we "missed the mark" on that one big time. Isn't the war in Iraq a sin? Should we not call it what it is?

And what about the dismantling of our national safety net? While we give huge tax breaks to the richest of our citizens, children are going hungry right here in Prince Georges County. Where is the charity and justice in that? Jesus sought to help the poor, told the rich how hard it would be for them to enter the kingdom of heaven (you remember the eye of the needle, don't you?) and told the rich young man to sell everything. Do you think Jesus would be selling prosperity as God's will on TV? Is it not a sin to let the poor suffer while the rich become richer?

I think you see where I am going with this. It is hard for Unitarian Universalists, I know, to say that something is sinful. But folks, what is going on all around us looks a lot like sin to me. While so many religious folk yell at each other and at us over who does what behind the privacy of the bedroom door, they are ignoring the most grievous sin of all-the hatred that breeds violence and war.

On this, I agree with the poet and author Alice Walker who wrote, "Love is not concerned with whom you pray or where you slept the night you ran away from home. Love is concerned that the beating of your heart should kill no one."

The beating of our hearts should kill no one. And yet each day people from all walks of life in every country on our planet kill and maim. Each day people die from malnutrition in a world where no one should ever go hungry. Each day people die from polluted air and water. Each day people die because of war.

I believe it is time to name this for what it is: sin. But I realize that I may be only one of a handful of Unitarian Universalists who is comfortable with this fierce language. So perhaps another tack is in order. If we won't call this sin, can we at least call out in our religious voices for people to live out of love instead of hate? Can we remind people that Jesus preached that God was love and that we are to love our enemies? Can we do our part to bring about the beloved community, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, here on earth?

George Ella Lyon, in her poem Inventing Sin, speaks in the voice of a mother God, chastising her children for inventing sin. She writes of all the ways we gorge ourselves, and hurt each other. She writes of death and violence:

You stuck your fine fine finger
into the mystery of life
to find death

& you did
you learned how to end
the world
in nothing flat

Now you come crying
to your Mommy
Send us a miracle
Prove that you exist

(But she does not end the poem there. This God of Love says to us:)

Look at your hand, I say
Listen to your sacred heart
Do you have to haul the tide in
sweeten the berries on the vine

I set you down
a miracle upon miracles
You want more
It's your turn
You show me

It is our turn. We have the right to name war and hatred as sinful acts that harm our planet. We do not need to believe that people who make war are evil to call war a sin. We do not have to despise those who hate, but we do have the right to call such hateful acts unjust. For too long our voices have been silenced by those who claim religion is all about who we can marry and what we can wear. Religion is much more than that, my friends. Religion is that which calls us into community, and in our community we preach the gospel of love.

I do not intend to take up the language of sin as a regular feature of my preaching. But here it is, Palm Sunday, when Christians around the world celebrate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and it just seems right to speak of the wrongs being done in his name.

Today also marks the second anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. And for me, at least, that war weighs heavy on my heart, for despite some of the good that may have emerged from the violence, I know that as an American I have been a part of the sinful act of creating war upon another. And for that act, I ask forgiveness. And promise to do my part to atone for that collective sin as best I can.

Someday I pray we humans will learn how to live and love together in harmony and peace. Until then, we need to call each other to account when we have done wrong. Call it sin, call it missing the mark, call it injustice, call it whatever you will. It is time to walk a different path as a species. A path not of triumph over others but one of a shared commitment to building a land where sisters and brothers, anointed by all that is holy may then create peace. Where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an overflowing stream. Amen & Blessed Be.

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