Sermon preached at St. Stephen' Church on the 4th Sunday in Lent: Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
We were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. Ephesians 2:3
But those who do what is true come to the light. John 3:21
My question this morning is: How honest can you be about your life before God?
It may seem the easiest of the questions. “Absolutely, totally honest” is the obvious answer. It wouldn’t do any good not to be. God is, after all, the one to whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from [whom] no secrets are hid,” in the words of the familiar prayer.
Yet we all play games with God, and we all play games with ourselves. “Denial,” as they say, “is not just a river in Egypt.” It is how we get by a great deal of the time.
How honest can you be about your life?
For my money, honesty about my life is what the second question of our baptismal covenant is about:
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
In traditional Christian language, being honest about my life with God means being honest about sin. It means being able to repent. It means continuing to live into my salvation. Sin, repentance, salvation: three words that will turn off the minds of most Episcopalians almost as quick as words like stewardship and evangelism.
They are words about “the bad news,” and we would much rather spend our time thinking about the good news and using words like grace, faith, and love. Fair enough. Me too. When I hear Paul refer to us as naturally “children of wrath,” something in my brain starts protesting. “Oh, Paul, give it a rest, most of us aren’t that bad.”
So why talk about sin?
Barbara Brown Taylor asks that question, and gives the following answer,
The only reason I can think of is because we believe that God means to redeem the world through us. We have been chosen, in the language of Genesis, not only to be blessed but also to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Our participation in that high calling requires us to understand God’s grace as something more than the infinite remission of our sins. If we want to take part in the divine work of redemption, then we will also understand God’s grace as the gift of regeneration—the very real possibility of new life right here on earth—complete with new vision, new values, and new behavior. (Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, p. 5)
Of course, the language of sin has been abused by many in the Christian community. It is language that has been used to exclude and control and abuse. It is language that has been primarily about inducing guilt and controlling behavior. This is why many of us hear the word “sin,” and start thinking about where we might go for lunch after Church.
But the language of sin, rightly and necessarily used, has never been primarily about guilt. It is primarily, as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, about salvation, about transformation and liberation. It is about getting to really good news. As Taylor also says, quite wonderfully provocatively, “Sin is our only hope.”
How can this be? She puts it this way,
Sin is our only hope, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again.
Pretty obvious, right? But also, frequently, not pretty at all. Recognizing and naming that something is wrong in my life is not a particularly easy thing to do. It sometimes takes time. It’s often a messy business, because there are few neat and clean answers. It’s rarely as simple as, “I stole something from the grocery store and that was wrong.” What is wrong in our life is often all tangled up in what is right, and untangling the skein is tricky and risky business. And, what’s more, my tangled life is different from yours. What’s wrong for you, in some situations, might be right for me, and vica versa.
It’s complicated enough for one to throw up your hands and say, “Why does it matter anyway? God loves us. Grace is real. If it turns out something was wrong in the end, I’ll say I’m sorry, and that will take care of it.”
And it’s true. It probably will. But, you will have missed a chance to change the world, to participate in God’s work of transformation. And that, too, is sin. “What we have done, and what we have left undone,” the General Confession says.
We are all of us asked to become children of light. In the words of this morning’s Gospel, we are all asked continually to bring our lives into the light, unafraid of what will be exposed. There’s nothing that can be exposed that God cannot deal with, nor that you cannot change with the grace of God being your helper. It is God’s desire that we not remain children of wrath, but are always becoming children of light.
I say “we” quite deliberately here because sin, from the Bible’s point of view, is more a communal problem than an individual one. That is not how we tend to think of it, but it is how the Bible thinks of it. Sin is a communal problem. It is why we Anglicans have always been comfortable with the General Confession we use in the liturgy. “We confess that we have sinned against you . . . by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” When we say this confession we are standing before God on behalf of the whole human family, and confessing our participation in the larger problem that is sin.
Which is not to say, of course, that each one of us as individuals does not have to take responsibility for our own behavior. We do. But it is to say that most of our behavior that is sinful in the eyes of God is our participation in a much bigger problem.
That bigger problem is the alienation, degradation, violence, slavery, complacency, greed, and prejudice that drives so much of human interaction.
The answer to that bigger problem does lie on an individual level, however. The answer to the problem is human beings, you and I, naming the sin and choosing not to participate in it. That’s what repentance is, choosing not to participate in it, turning to a different way.
Just like sin is not primarily about guilt, repentance is not about punishment. It is about acceptance and change. It is about recognizing one path and choosing a different one. It is about a child of wrath becoming a child of light.
Can you be honest with God about your life? The answer is yes, of course. And the reason is that God does not want to be just wrathful in his relationship with you or anyone else. God wants to love. God wants to transform, liberate, and heal.
This is ultimately what that very strange story from Numbers is all about, Moses lifting up a bronze snake in the wilderness to heal the people of their snake-bites. One of the messages there is that it is only when we lift up the “snakes” in our lives, that we can be healed from their venomous effect. Hauling those things that are wrong in our lives—our sins—into the light of God’s love, is the only way for anything ever to be different.
Sin is our only hope, when it is named and offered to God. And we need not be afraid, because God does not want our guilt. God wants our liberation. And that is why we can be honest with God about our life, our whole life.
 Ibid., the title of chapter two.
 Ibid, p. 59.