These are the times that try a preacher’s soul.
My first instinct in any set of readings when I’m preparing to preach is to reach for the stories or some juicy little metaphor to get me going. Did y’all hear those readings? Not a story or a character among them. (Throw me a bone, here!) Just talkin’, talkin’, talkin’. Jeremiah, Paul, Jesus. All worth listening to, no mistake. But man.
My second instinct is to go for where the shoe pinches. What really bugs me in the readings? Is there something I have a hard time swallowing or that I have a beef with? Luckily, that usually yields a starting point, as it has this week. So, brothers and sisters, let’s have a look together at the reading from Romans. That’s right, I’m going to talk with you this morning about sin.
The first thing I have to admit from the get-go is that when I read Paul’s saying, “do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions,” involuntarily, my hackles stand up in anticipation of threat. As a gay man in the midst of a culture war about my existence, morality, and rights, this language has more often been used to accuse me and my LGBT brothers and sisters of being intrinsically disordered, mired in disobedience and licentiousness, and perverse in our deviant insistence that there is nothing wrong with our God-given sexual identity. So ingrained is this fight-or-flight response that many of us have rejected the language of sin entirely as belonging to another age of social control and cruel moralism.
Yet the way Scripture has been used in the centuries-long history of interpretation and church conflicts is not the final word in the value of these words that come to us across the vast distances of time and space. No, these Scriptures are God’s Life-Giving Word to us, today. In an act of humble faith, then, let us cast up this wheat and chaff and see what the wind blows away and what grains of nourishment will fall back down for us to be fed.
Let’s begin by exploring sin itself. Sin, simply put, is everything that alienates us from ourselves, from one another, and from God. A theologian I really love talks about the three R’s of sin: refusal, rupture, and reversion.
We can refuse to cooperate with God’s loving will for creation. Turning away from grace, from the great “Yes” that can allow our selves to open like flowers in the sun, we can say “no” – to life, to joy, to love, to ourselves, to our neighbors.
We can rupture our relationships. Turning away from solidarity, we can dominate and ignore our fellow creatures, far and near. We are capable of cruelty, neglect, destruction, scarring, maiming, criminal ignorance.
We can revert to our developmentally self-centered and impulsive infantile selves. Turning away from growth, we can remain stuck in earlier developmental phases, unable to take the perspective of others, to sacrifice a small good for a greater good, short-sighted, driven by evolutionary instinct for food, sex, nurture, and power.
Refusal, rupture, and reversion. Expressed in that way, I don’t need to make a grand leap of faith to believe in sin. I know in my bones that all of those are familiar ways of being. I look inside myself and recognize that turning away from what is good because of fear or inconvenience or short-sightedness. I look around and see suffering in all kinds of relationships around me, between and among humans and also in the web of relationships in which we are embedded in creation.
And there’s more. It turns out that sin is not just single acts or bad moods or mistakes. There’s something about sin that is more pervasive, more enduring, more ingrained than lying to my parents or being mean to my sister. It’s as if sin lays down tracks, habits of mind and heart that become unconscious and self-reinforcing. We can even institutionalize sin, goad one another into it. Yes, it’s as if sin builds a house, a lonely, dark, scary, ash-dusted house that over time becomes our whole world, everything we’ve ever known, more familiar than our own kin. We are entombed slowly into a living death, cold and alone. Or we spend our days and nights in the basement, shoveling everything and everyone that begs for our love into the furnace as a sacrifice to the false gods who will never be satisfied.
So what do we do with sin? Is there hope? Are we stuck for good? Paul’s argument is based in a then-and-now contrast. Then we were this, but now . . . He is testifying to his conviction of the transformation that is accomplished by Christ in those who enter into his death and resurrection through baptism.
But what does that transformation look like? Do we stop sinning immediately after baptism? Are we perfectly faithful, perfectly hopeful, perfectly loving? Are there only two choices: perfect or back-sliding?
There are those in the history of the church who have argued that baptism must be followed by a sinless life (thus the penchant for saving baptism to the deathbed, I suppose!). But the mainstream of the church has understood that we are likely to fall down and get up again many, many times after baptism. The grace is in the return and in Christ’s everlasting welcome.
But this transformation, this conversion, is a cornerstone of our life together. We are called, again and again, failure after failure, to leave the house of sin for good. Because God wants us to be perfect, to be slaves, to not have any fun, ever again? No. Because God wants us to be resplendent in our glorious humanity, full and free and alive. But in order to live, to say “yes” to all that sparkly, warm, juicy joy, we have to leave the house of sin behind. It was never our home. I wish it were easy all the time, but it’s not. There are impulses, influences, people, rules, habits, beliefs, and institutions that are dead-set on keeping us there, keeping us stuck and scared and passive. But there are no locks on the doors. All it takes is courage and the faith to put one foot in front of the other. No one can do it for you, nor can you do it for anyone else.
All of us who are baptized have partaken in the mysteries of that journey from the land of sin to the land of salvation. Having made the journey through the waters of death and rebirth once, we will always know our way home. The trek is not easy. It’s best to travel light, stay together, sharing meals and stories on the road. It turns out that God is not only our destination, but also our constant traveling companion, our guide, and our food along the way.
June 26, 2011
St. David of Wales, Portland
The Rev. Gabriel Lamazares
Jeremiah 28:59 and Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18