Sunday, September 16, 2001

On Meeting Sin Again for the First Time

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 15:1-10


Today our hearts are heavy. With our children, and with the world's human family, we have had to watch the sinful, terrorist destruction of a part of our one city, New York.

It recalls the night, July 1977, our first year of marriage, in which we stood atop the Union Seminary roof and looked out at a completely darkened New York, shut down by the blackout of that hot summer weekend. Not a light burning, save the cabs rocketing down Broadway. Like the darkness of sin which is our natural condition, East of Eden.

It further recalls an evening in the Union Seminary quadrangle, June 1979. The President made an effort to mention something personal about each graduate. Of me, he said, I thought it odd at the time, "we shall miss Bob's love of New York". He was remembering, I guess, a poem I had written about walking from Battery Park, underneath where the World Trade Center once was, north, and gradually, to Spanish Harlem. Wall Street. The West Village. Soho. Times Square. Columbus Circle. Central Park West. Morningside Heights. A city of such lust, avarice, pride, like the sin which the Scripture describes, yet one that in the autumn is as dazzling in color and sound and life as any place on earth. (The stickers for our children last week, the Van Gogh prints, came from 54th street, the Museum of Modern Art.) In heaven it is always autumn, said John Donne. And in New York the autumn is just heavenly. Which has made this week's attack all the more hellish.

Perhaps it is fitting that this week's lesson presents Jesus, in his primary colors, not as teacher of righteousness, but as savior of sinners. Perhaps this is one week, maybe the best week in my 24 pension years of ministry, to think about sin. Maybe we are ready to meet sin again for the first time. For when, only when we have brought ample appreciation to the nature and power of sin, will we ever be able amply to appreciate the grace of God in Christ, who has come into the world to save us from our sin, both collective and personal. Once we have met sin again for the first time, we may be ready to meet Jesus again for the first time. For "where sin abounds, grace over abounds".

Truth to tell, we do not use well or regularly the verb "to sin", the noun "sin", or the related personification "sinner". Our use of these words, in general, lacks any significant confidence or regularity. As Gardner Taylor so memorably said 25 years ago, "sin may be out of our personal lexicons, but it is not out of our lives". In 24 years of ministry, I cannot recall a single week in which such a consideration of sin would have been more timely than this week terror and loss.

For the most part, the word resides outside of our regular vocabularies, at least our workday verbal wardrobe. The word does not seem to fit well, any longer. It droops in the midrift, and the collar, ever stiff, runs high and starchy. Thoreau said, "nature is right, but man is straight". Sin is neither, neither right nor straight, and so the word is ill-fitting. This puts us worlds apart from the author of the Third Gospel, for whom the word (verb, noun, all) carries a meaning so readily clear that it needs (much to our later misunderstanding and consternation) no definition or clarification. Luke says "sinner" with the same unselfconsciousness that we would use with words like felon, patient, criminal, or victim. What does it mean? What does this ancient word, propped for a moment on the lips of the Lord, tell us about the hidden, mysterious, strange Jesus of this far too familiar set of stories?

1. Scripture

a. It is curious that church-wide (for the most part), the other numinous oddities of language in Luke 15 we do understand and use. We hear you use these great words, and use them well. One says to his son, in the pew, as the Scripture is read, "I remember—a parable is a story with a message, and I remember that Jesus always taught using parables. He taught by telling stories. These parables were set in the countryside, and were about people and about justice. Jesus taught adults with simple stories." You understand 'parable'. Someone else, driving home today, interprets the word 'joy' for her rider: "Joy is God's delight, given us by God's spirit. You is one of the footprints, hallmarks, earmarks, landmarks, benchmarks of the Holy Spirit. What pleasure is to the body, joy is to the soul." I might have thought that 'repentance' would throw you, but no. In the choir, disrobing, an alto tells a bass, "Repentance means to turn around, to head home, to dust off and try again, like that story about the son and the pigs." And angel means messenger, and presence means joy, and heaven means the message of the presence of joy. You have passed, and more the Scriptural SAT, to this point.

b. But what is a sinner, and what does this tell us about the grand mystery of Christ? Our passage holds itself several clues, but finally the two fundamental meanings for 'sin' we shall have to intuit, congruent with Luke's usage, from the rest of the Bible. For Luke uses the word as if we all did know what he meant. And maybe after this week, we clearly do.

Here are some random clues, found in Luke 15:1-10. A sinner is somehow a cousin to a tax collector, one who represents, that is, an alien unjust power, who inflicts that power for ill upon the children of God, and who yet has a conscience with which to listen and draw near to God (vs. 1).

A sinner, next, is one whom Christ Jesus welcomes and with whom Jesus shares the intimacy of the common table (vs. 2).

Jesus comes for others, as Paul said, "the saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost". A sinner, primarily here and also in the later account of the Welcoming Father, is lost, dislocated, and alone. For this reason, then, a sinner found is the cause of inexpressible delight, joy. Including the lonely, discovering the dislocated, reconnecting with the disappeared—these moments provide a heavenly joy, a consequence of the discovery of the sinner (vs.7)

c. Luke trusts, as he recalls or recasts or casts these parables out of his own past, that there is a divine purpose coursing through history, building the church, propounding the Gospel, and saving the lost, and gradually and expensively and individually finding people who have been lost in the rubble of life, darkened and dislocated by sin. But what is sin?

2. Personal Sin

In the first place, sin is utterly personal. This we understand. The covenantal commands of the decalogue have a personal consequence (Exodus 20). For we confess, too a personal dimension to the apocalyptic sway of sin. The angels in heaven—and perhaps a few others—may "need no repentance". As grace touches ground in Jesus Christ, sin touches sand in personal confessions. We get lost. It is our nature, east of eden. We get lost in sex without love: lust. We get lost in consumption without nourishment: gluttony. We get lost in accumulation without investment: avarice. We get lost in rest without weariness, in happiness without struggle: sloth. We get lost in righteousness without restraint: anger. We get lost in desire without ration or respect: envy. And most regularly, we get lost in integrity without humility: pride. If you have never known lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy or pride you are not a sinner, you are outside the cloud of sin, and you need no repentance. (You also may not be quite human).

3. Pervasive Sin

a. In the second place, sin is pervasive. (On this point, today's sermon bears down, because its sibling is so much better understood.) Sin has a corporate, expansive, even institutional reality. We mistake its power, if we see only, say, several dozen individuals acting to destroy property and life in lower Manhattan. That of course is real, and true. But sin is the power of death, throughout life. Sin is the condition of life under which such treachery takes place. Sin is the absence of God. Sin is an orb of confusion in the world. Sin is the advance or retreat of a great thunderstorm, a frontal advance, though theological not meteorological. Sin is like a city blacked out, a power far beyond any individual lamp turned down, any individual light switch hit. Sin is a shadow, the one great shadow. Whatever is not of faith, is sin. And that is quite a lot in this world. All have sinned and all have fallen short of the glory of God. All. Sin is the air we breathe. Sin is the architectural design for our natural state, east of eden. Sin is the controlling legal authority of our being. Sin is the occupying army that has our beloved homeland, love, under siege. Hence, sin is the knock at the garret door, late at night, and the thud of the storm troopers' boots, and suicide bombing of the terrorist. Sin is a force, a wind, a phalanx, a competing entity. Sin is all that mutes the voice. Do we blame sheep for being lost—hardly by the way a comprehensively intelligent beast—for getting lost? It is his nature. Do we blame the coin—inanimate, hardly noticeable—for getting lost? It is Isaac Newton's gravity at work. But we only sin clearly when we are ready to see it, by revelation, and often only once we have left its borders behind. Like all lasting reality, we know it in retrospect. Read again the works of William Stringfellow.

b. That is, the power of sin vastly surpasses any individual, human attempt at cure. You might as well try to stop a reeling boat hoist wheel, holding 2000 lbs, with your bare arm. It is just that impossible, that foolish. Individuals may behave morally or imorally, usually some of both. But corporate sin marches on, R Neibuhr showed in 1932: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary". Sin is that 'inclination'. "If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is impossible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice is impossible without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict?" Sin is that 'impossible'. As a rule, in American Protestant Christianity, we vastly underestimate this primary, pervasive form of sin. This is both our achievement and our defeat.

Perhaps the stock market symbolism may work again for us, 70 years later. The power of sin is as free before any single individual, as is the stock market before any lone investor. The market moves due largely to corporate, institutional, fiduciary choices, which themselves are not influence by individual courage, but first by the fiduciary responsibility of corporate officers, thinking of and for the collective. The same is tragically true of nation states, and alliances. They march to the beat of a different drum. The chief weakness of my beloved Methodism, so American and so optimistic, is its congenital naivete about pervasive sin.

While it took individuals to knock down the twin towers and kill thousands, it took more than individuals, too. That 'more' is sin.

Getting rid of males or females will not destroy sin, nor the exodus of caucasians, nor the ostracism of the wealthy, nor the browbeating of heterosexuals. Sin is a pervasive, brute, existential reality, which does not give ground before any merely ideological assualt. As Wesley, "sin remains even when it does not reign."

Sin traps us in an endless cycle of social conflict. For this theological reason, some US response to Tuesday's heinous crime is probably inevitable. We may hope that as a nation we shall have the courage not to overreact, and, indeed not to react at all, but to respond. It is devilishly difficult not to overreact when you have been humiliated, even as an individual, and perhaps impossible for a collective. But let us hope not to react, but to respond, and to respond justly, mercifully, humbly, prudently, rightly, and effectively.

That is, if we are to use force to bring order and protect peace, then may it be force that does not create more disorder and less peace.

If we are tragically to find military action necessary to address a clear and present danger, then may it be action wisely chosen that makes danger less present rather than more.

Let us summon the faithful courage of collective patience, and take our time. We have all the time we need.

We recognize that there are times when force, alone, is the required and necessary response (December 1941), but that there are also times when force is wrongly used and unnecessary (August 1998), bringing only further retribution. Not to have responded to Hitler militarily in 1941 would have been as lasting a collective sin upon the conscience of this country as we could imagine. We may be entering such a time, both similar in tragedy and different in scope.

May we respond with courage, not react with vengeance, as, in Christ, we grapple with pervasive sin.

Christus Victor

Luke's little stories assume a recognition of sin, pervasive and personal. You know, it takes a while in life to know what you are up against. Once you begin to see, you begin to appreciate. Once you see the reality of sin, you can appreciate the awesome gospel, "Christ died for our sin." You come to yourself. But that is another, nearby, parable. Once we have fully met sin again for the first time, we may also meet Jesus again for the first time. Not the Jesus of Marcus Borg's self-portrait (wisdom teacher, religious mystic, social prophet), but the Jesus of Luke's Gospel. Jesus Christ is not a teacher, only, but a Savior, a Lord. And his grace, alone, carries enough power to grapple with sin, pervasive and personal. That is why, on this Lord's day, with heavy hearts, and nostrils still full of the stench of body parts in lower Manhattan, we may yet lift our heaviness to God. Sursum corda! Lift up your hearts.

We have much to do. Jane Addams said it of our nation, but her insight now fits our world: "The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent. The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, utnil it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life". How prophetic her words do sound this week.

Have faith, people of faith.

Terror may topple the World Trade Center, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, hub of global economies may fall, the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national pride may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (Niehbuhr) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes
That soul though all Hell should endeavor to shake
I will never, no never, no never forsake.

No comments: