Sunday, June 11, 2006

7 Deadly Sins -- Intro: How to Sin like a Christian

Isaiah 11:1-9; Matthew 9:9-13

A little over a year ago, I preached one whole sermon about sin,
during the season of Lent,
and I prefaced it with a little bit of humor,
as sort of a disclaimer,
so nobody would think I was obsessed with sin,
or was turning into a Bible-thumping, finger-pointing,
vein-popping, red-faced preacher
who yells at all the wretched sinners in his congregation.
I tried to soften the blow a little,
before launching into my one sermon on sin.

I wonder what I need to say this morning,
before launching into an 8-Sunday series on the Seven Deadly Sins.
How to break the news gently.
And what about the people driving down Park Road
for the next two months?
What are they going to think about our church sign,
when week after week, it advertizes sermons
on the deadly sins of greed, gluttony, lust, and the like?
What is this respectable, enlightened, worldly-wise congregation
coming to, anyway?

But the more I prepare for this series,
the more convinced I am that it’s the right series at the right time,
for the right congregation.
We need to be reminded.
I need to be reminded.

Talking frankly about sin is not a very fashionable thing to do anymore.
Maybe it was those preachers with red faces and popping veins,
that turned us off to the topic of sin.
It was a little hard to listen, week after week,
to sermons that told us what horrible human beings we were.
Some preachers were especially good
at making everyone feel so guilty and grief-stricken
over their wickedness,
that they were only too happy to weep and confess,
and respond to the altar call.

But this generation has gotten so much smarter.
Human psychology has taught us the importance of good self-esteem.
We are hesitant to critique anyone’s behavior or life choices,
for fear of damaging their self-image,
or for fear of stepping on their personal freedom
to do and to be what they want.
So sin has been virtually dropped from our vocabulary
...except on dessert menus.
We call peanut-butter cheesecake sin sinfully sweet,
and have a big slice of Decadent Chocolate Delight.
But we don’t want to call lying a sin.

We have trivialized sin,
to the point it is merely an unfortunate blunder, a foible, a slip-up.
Chalk it up to normal human limitations, shrug it off, and go on.
And by all means, let’s not call people awful names, like “sinner.”

An editorial in Theology Today talked about this trivializing of sin.
It was titled, “God Be Merciful to Me, a Miscalculator.”
Speaking of editorials, the Wall Street Journal, of all things,
in 1991, after a string of public sex scandals and other misbehavior
by politicians and athletes and clergy, had this to say,
on their editorial page. I quote:
“The United States has a drug problem
and a high school sex problem and a welfare problem
and an AIDS problem and a rape problem.
None of this will go away until more people
in positions of responsibility are willing to come forward
and explain, in frankly moral terms,
that some of the things people do nowadays are wrong.”

But even devout Christians can hesitate to speak openly about sin,
in its many forms.
We don’t want to be guilty of stepping on someone’s toes,
or being intolerant
(which may be the only universal sin anymore).
How did we get to this point, if we claim to be followers of Jesus?
Well, we have cleaned Jesus up a bit,
to make him suit our modern sensitivities.
William Willimon, Dean of Duke University Chapel for 20 years,
and now a Methodist Bishop,
wrote a book recently titled, Sinning Like a Christian,
which inspired my sermon title today.
In his book, I found this provocative statement:
He writes,
“It is odd that we have made even 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 inclusiveness,
self-affirmation, and open-minded, heart-happy acceptance
has then got 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 even worse.”

Of course, Jesus exemplified the greatest of 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.

But before we go much farther in this,
maybe we should talk about what we mean, exactly, by sin.
You might be wondering, what, really, are we talking about?
Glad you asked.
There are lots of ways to talk about sin.

But let’s start with this 4-word statement,
as kind of a baseline understanding,
as we begin this series:
“Sin is about God.”
Sin is a religious problem, not just a moral problem.
We start with our understanding of God,
rather than start with human nature or moral philosophy.
That’s a pretty key point.
And it might avoid some confusion these next eight weeks.
Virtually all human beings, believers or not,
have some sense of right and wrong.
They see the brokenness in our world.
How could they not?
So important and helpful conversations can be had,
among human beings sharing life on this planet,
simply on the level of ethics and morality,
on what constitutes the common good.
But sin is something different.
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 shopkeeper defrauds a customer,
it’s not simply an instance of lawlessness, but faithlessness.
It is faithless to the customer, and to God,
because of what we understand about the nature of God.
Criminal or immoral behavior is 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,
breaking faith with the partner joined to us in a holy bond.
That’s why the Old Testament prophets of Israel
liked to compare 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 sin like a Christian.
We’re all going to sin.
But to sin like a Christian,
is to live with a continual awareness of who God is,
and who we are in relation to God,
and to realize our sin alienates us from God.
And to sin like a Christian,
is to live with hope.
Because with a diagnosis of sin and guilt,
there is hope, because something can be done about it.

If, on the other hand,
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?
Do we think things would be better if only we tried harder?
No, 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.

Will Willimon suggests that we’ll understand sin better
if we start with the cross, instead of the garden.
In other words,
we know what sin is, by knowing the work of God in Christ,
to redeem and restore us.
If we start with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden,
and build our whole theology of sin on their “fall,”
then we end up with sin being defined
as a glitch in human nature, according to Willimon.

If instead, we start with the story of the cross,
as well as the story of the Exodus, and the Covenant at Sinai,
then we get the story straight.
It is through the gospel story of redemption,
that we can call things by their proper names,
and see the utter depth and seriousness of our sin,
and then... see the utter resourcefulness and love of God,
to use Willimon’s words.

Sin is a problem between us and God.
It’s rebellion against God,
against the way our Creator wants us to be.
But God loves us. And God is determined to save us from our sin.
That is the Bible story in a nutshell.

Creation started out in shalom—
there was peace, justice, righteousness, wholeness.
And one day there will be shalom again.
We began worship this morning with a picture of shalom,
a vision of a peaceable kingdom, that once was,
and once again will be,
when the wolf will lie down with the lamb.
But 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.

It’s the nature of God in Jesus Christ,
not human nature,
that defines sin,

In other words,
It is of the nature of God in Christ to stoop and serve,
to wash the feet of his servants.
Therefore, pride is sin.
It is of the nature of God in Christ to offer selfless, self-emptying love.
Therefore, lust is sin.
God is the source and owner of we have, all we need, and all we are.
Therefore, envy is sin.
God’s nature is to provide for us our “daily bread.”
Therefore, gluttony is a sin.
And we could go on.

We were created in the image of God.
God’s nature is imbedded in us from the beginning.
So 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 even sin systemically.
When we build systems of oppression and injustice,
we violate God’s nature and God’s intention for us.
So whether the sin is in our heart, our minds, our personal behaviors,
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.

Sin doesn’t define us. It’s not the core element of our humanity.
But if we value our life with God,
we cannot but take sin seriously,
and turn toward God in repentance,
and confess our sin and begin again—
get up, go on, resume our journey with God.

By God’s grace, we can be more than conquerors.
By God’s grace, we can be saved from sin.
Not, mind you, saved from the tendency toward sin.
Not saved from the odds that we’ll continue to sin.
When we accept God’s saving grace in Jesus,
we don’t become a race of superhuman beings.
We are still sinners, through and through.
We still have to deal with the filthy rags of our lives.

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.
Sin separates us, creates distance.
Confession and repentance frees God’s grace to move in us.
And grace closes the gap.
Grace restores the relationship.

That’s what we saw at work in the Gospel story this morning.
Jesus was an ambassador of the grace of God toward sinners.
That’s why Jesus came.
To save sinners.
To call sinners to repentance.
Some sinners weren’t ready for Jesus,
because they didn’t see their sin.
So Jesus left them in their blindness.
Others were willing to see and confess and repent.
Like Matthew the tax collector.
According to the Gospel of Matthew,
Jesus made it a regular practice to associate with sinners.
In today’s reading from chapter 9,
Jesus was criticized by the Pharisees
(they were some of the blind sinners),
because he sat in a house eating with
“many tax collectors and sinners.”
Jesus explained that he came to call not the righteous,
but the sinners.
Pharisees probably said, “I guess we’re off the hook!”
And Jesus might have said, “If you only knew...”
I think the categories are not so much
the sinners and the righteous,
but the sinners and the self-righteous,
the sinners who see their sin, and the sinners who don’t.

So...how to sin like a Christian...
And no, that does not mean,
go out and sin boldly, because grace abounds.
The apostle Paul already cleared up that misinterpretation.
To sin like a Christian,
means to live our Christian life with intentionality,
to seek to follow the Jesus way,
all the while knowing that the peaceable kingdom
is not yet here in its fullness,
that we will fail,
we will betray our covenant with God at times.
It means to lean heavily on the saving grace of God,
who came into the world to save sinners like us,
and to restore the broken relationship, to reconcile.
And it means, I believe,
to locate ourselves in a community of people
who sin like Christians,
a community of those being redeemed,
who see their sin,
and hold each other accountable.
We need others walking alongside us to prevent us
from becoming blind sinners.
Sinning like a Christian is too hard to do on your own.
It takes a team effort.

You might say, it takes a village to sin like a Christian.
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.
And that part of the job, we’re going to do right now.
We’re going to bless each other,
and proclaim God’s grace to each other.

See, while the rest of the world trivializes sin,
while they laugh it off, shrug it off,
ignore it in each other, until it’s too flagrant,
in which case they resort to condemnation,
isolating the sinner, making them untouchable,
we sinning Christians openly acknowledge that we fall,
we expect that our actions will at times
distance ourselves from God and each other.
But then we have a Gospel story to proclaim:
that by the grace of God, we can get up again, and move on.
The Lord will lift us up when we fall.

Please turn to #73 in Sing the Journey:
The Lord lift you up, the Lord take your hand,
the Lord lead you forth, and cause you to stand,
secure in God’s word, seeking God’s face,
abounding in love, abiding in grace.
Let’s sing this song of blessing to each other,
by turning and facing the middle aisle,
and singing this to the other half of the congregation,
hands extended in a sign of blessing.

—Phil Kniss, June 11, 2006

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1 comment:

April Sachs said...

Yes, this is certainly different from the Jonathan Edwards view of God and sin, isn't it? Being scared into submission leaves us without a relationship with God--without the realization that there could be such a thing. Unfortunately, that's the legacy we've been left, and now that we've realized being scared about God isn't so great, many people still don't understand about the possibility of relationship. God's gone from an angry authority figure to Santa Claus, or maybe a simplified version of Mr. Rogers--whom so many people misunderstand as well, perhaps because he was a lot closer to God than many of us!

I hope you keep posting your sermons; I would like to be able to keep reading them this summer while I am in North Dakota.