Once upon a time there was a couple that lived in a lush garden, surrounded with citrus trees, camellias, and clover. Every morning they got up and greeted the okapis, the orangutans and the otters. The garden was filled with every kind of wonder and they had access to all of it….well, except for one thing. God had told them to enjoy everything in the garden except they shouldn’t touch the tree in the very middle of the lush garden. If they did, God said they would die.
The crafty snake that lived in the garden told them that was a fib. They wouldn’t die. They would just become like God, knowing good from evil. It didn’t take them long to decide to eat from God’s tree and as soon as they did they lost their innocence. Life after they lost their innocence was suddenly harder. Sure, they had established their free will but they also lost their intimacy with God.
Everyone knows the story of Adam and Eve. We all know this story so well because it is our story. It rings true for us. We remember when we lost our innocence. Maybe it was when you made the decision to keep the quarter your mother gave you each week for the church offering plate and use it to buy candy. Maybe it was when you were visiting your favorite uncle’s house and found his stash of adult magazines in the basement.
We also remember when we did the exact thing we were told not to do. My mother always warned me not to touch a hot stove. I did and I still carry the scar on my right hand…which is how I learned to tell my right from left and when I fully realized that when Mom said “Don’t” there was probably a good reason.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
It really is a wonderful story, not because there are no problems in it but because it tells the truth about the way things really are. We really are free to make disastrous decisions. Our choices really do have consequences. And there really are some flaws in the whole setup, whether they come in the form of talking snakes or in the form of this almost biological urge we have to choose things that we know are ruinous for us and for the whole creation.
It is what we have done with this story that feels most ruinous to me. We have become reluctant to talk about sin in churches across America because of the way it has been used against us. We each have a story or multiple stories about someone who told us we were a sinner doomed for hell. I remember when my son came home from elementary school frightened for my soul because the substitute teacher in his classroom that day said, “I heard your mother is a minister. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this but women aren’t supposed to be ministers. Your mother is sinning against the Word of God and she will, I’m sorry to say, go to hell.”
My other son called me this week and said he was in his yard digging holes to plant citrus trees when a man walking by approached him and called him a sinner. He told him it was people like my son who are destroying Las Vegas. I guess the man didn’t realize that Las Vegas was called Sin City long before my son moved there.
I am tired of the dominant culture naming me, my family and those I love as “sinners” while failing to acknowledge the real sins of corporate greed, degradation of the environment, institutional racism or mass incarceration. In order for us not to be lumped in with these crazy people who use the language of sin to abuse and exclude….people who talk about love but use fear…..we have dropped the word altogether. We comfort ourselves with the idea that words morph and evolve. We don’t talk about circumcision anymore in a theological context even though the Apostle Paul couldn’t seem to stop talking about it. We no longer use words like forsooth, twixt, hither. We have put sin in the category of archaic and left it behind.
But as Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away.” Plus, when we leave these theological words behind we inadvertently place them fully in the hands of those very people who have used faith to harm us and others.
It is time to take back sin. I think that is the weirdest sentence I have ever used in a sermon but I mean it. It is time for us to recover this word. Because if we don’t we also hand over the whole meaning of salvation to those who will use it to abuse and exclude. If we lose sin, words like grace and forgiveness become cheap and weak. People are exiting churches at record numbers these days and I believe it is because they are searching for something, anything that will offer them newness…transformation…salvation. When we lose our language the whole thing collapses in on itself. Neither science nor psychology nor law can substitute for theological relevance.
So what is sin? Is it a list of violations like stealing, killing, coveting your neighbor’s things, adultery, gluttony? Here is the list from A to Z, find your sin. If that is true then we have to be very careful of who is in charge of writing the list down for us. I think sin needs to be seen differently than as a list enforced by the privileged.
So, let’s look at the story of the Prodigal Son. After squandering his father’s money on “wild living” the prodigal heads home, with his tail between his legs, hoping his dad will let him become a hired servant. When he meets his father on the road he has his speech ready. He confesses, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” He doesn’t say, “I gambled, drank and fornicated.” No, his confession is that he violated relationship. Actually sin is whatever violates relationship — with God, with others, with your own self. Stealing violates relationship. Killing violates relationship. Adultery violates relationship. Talking trash on social media violates relationship. Lying violates relationship. Mass incarceration violates relationship. Degradation of creation violates relationship. Choosing to let a broken relationship fester violates relationship.
Rita Nakashima Brock writes: “Sin is not something to be punished, but something to be healed.” Redemption and salvation are the next steps in this healing process but what do those words mean in this era of the lost language of faith? Again, salvation is a word that has been misappropriated by people who want to scare the hell out of you. Salvation has been billed as something we each have to work at individually. Actually, some people don’t think you have to work at it at all. Just believe correctly, they say. Have you had that experience where someone explained to you that all you needed to do was pray the Sinner’s Prayer and once and done you would now be on the life raft to heaven?
Sorry to burst that bubble, but salvation is not a once and done thing. Salvation is living in right relationship with God and all of creation every day. It is a constant call to choose the good. It requires the careful balance of caring for self and the other. Salvation is a community thing. Personal salvation is impossible. You can’t say you are “saved” while people are starving to death. You can’t be free if others live in oppression. Sin is not an individual action and neither is salvation. No relationship is right if not all people are right. The Kingdom of God requires others or it is not a kingdom.
So what do we do? Well, the realization that something is wrong is the first step towards redemption. The acknowledgement of sin is the fire alarm that heads us towards repentance. Remorse won’t do it. Remorse doesn’t require we change but repentance means we plan to do things differently. And church is the place we do this work. Church is the place of community and transformation where we work together at naming what we, collectively, need to do differently so that we can be in right relationship with self, others and ultimately God. The church, at its best should be the place where we use the gift of these God-given relationships to be about the business of living faithfully…of calling each other to truth telling …of transforming our relationships with each other and the world into right relationships. We have to do it together for the Kingdom of God requires connection…all of us working together to repair the torn fabric of relationships.
Us working together to honor creation, stop oppression, care for the poor, feed the hungry…these things please God…God who never abandons us…who holds all our torn fabric in mercy and love…who waits for us to pay attention to the sound of the fire alarm so that we can lean into the restoration that God intends for us. Thanks be to God for her never failing love and for the gift of each other. Amen.