Monday, March 28, 2011

Why Do We Still Have to Talk About Sin?

Sermon preached at an Evensong for Lent at St. Stephen's Church: John 8:1-11

Occasionally when I have worked with a couple preparing for their wedding, they have expressed concern about a part of the marriage liturgy. In the Prayers for the Couple, there is this petition:

Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love in this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquers despair. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 429)

Those who are concerned about these words, usually ask to leave them out. Their reason is usually that they don’t want the word “sin” in their wedding or that they do not believe the world is “sinful and broken.” I’ve heard, “We want our wedding to only be positive,” and, the most recent time this happened, “Why is the church still talking about sin all the time? Don’t you know it’s a turn-off?”

I do. I do know what a “turn-off” it is, having been called “a sinner” by church people more times than I can remember.

The problem is not with the word “sin,” however. It is how people understand, or misunderstand, it and use it, or misuse, it.

The story from John we just heard is a great story for correcting our understanding and use of the word “sin.” This is one of the stories that most of us know, at least in its basics, yet we never hear it on Sunday. In fact, it has never been in anybody’s Sunday lectionary throughout history that I have been able to discover. The church has seemed determined not to read it. Why?

For contemporary lectionaries it may have something to do with the fact that its place in John’s Gospel has been thoroughly discredited. It very clearly doesn’t belong here. Several ancient manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel have it in chapter 21 (v. 38) and most biblical scholars today think that is actually where it belongs. But none of them doubt the authenticity of the story, at least anymore than any other Gospel story. No one discredits what it has to say about Jesus.

It’s not been in the lectionary because the church didn’t want to hear it. The church wanted the power to condemn and could not stomach this merciful of a Lord. They could not deal with the radical change in the understanding and use of sin that this story proposes.

Religious people, of most any faith actually, have long taken the logical and easy route that the remedy for sin is punishment. And here we have that big time. The woman was caught in adultery. There need not even be a trial. The Law says she should be stoned to death. The Bible says she should be stoned to death. The religious authorities, with utter contempt for her, decide to use the woman’s situation to test Jesus. Will he follow the Law?

Jesus is clearly disturbed by this whole thing. I don’t know how else to interpret what his writing in the dust is all about. Perhaps he did not want to show his anger, maybe he wanted to show his utter indifference to their excitement. At any rate, there come the famous words

Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her.

Sin is not remedied by punishment. Sin is remedied by mercy and by repentance. Forgive and determine to change. The Lord of the Universe, the Son of Almighty God, says, “neither do I condemn you.”

What does this do to our understanding of just what sin is? Sin does not happen when I break a rule, violate the Law. Sin is what happens when I violate a relationship.

If this is true, do the Ten Commandments, for instance, just disappear? No. Read them. Those commandments are all about maintaining right relationship with God, with one another and with yourself.

So the job of recovery from sin is the repair of relationships. It’s why saying “sorry” is so often not enough. It’s important. You don’t get anywhere if you don’t start with “sorry.” But the next step is what is crucial, “And I want to repair our relationship.”

If you think about sin in this way, the petition in the marriage rite becomes very important. Part of our intention in marriage is for us, as a couple, to be a sign, a sacrament, of right relationship. And the world needs such signs.

To call the world “sinful and broken” is not to say everything about it we have to say, but it is to say something real. There is broken relationship all around us and it is not something that just occasionally happens out there, the way the world operates depends on broken relationships. The world thrives on them. Marriage can be a very daring, courageous thing. The couple is saying that they are going to commit themselves to a different way of life. They are not, for one, going to use one another.

We have to talk about sin still, even if it is a turn off, because it is our way to new life. We can only repair our relationships with God and the world and ourselves, bringing new life, if we are ready and able to recognize when those relationships are broken, so that, as the prayer says, “unity overcomes estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt and joy overcome despair.”

Which means that it is true what Barbara Brown Taylor says, even though it sounds so nonsensical. “Sin,” she says, “is our only hope.”[1]

[1] Speaking of Sin: the Lost Language of Salvation (Cowley, 2000), p. 59.

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