In a recent sermon, Sam Candler of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta spoke of his desire to rescue and salvage Christian vocabulary. Sam is not alone in that pursuit. The language of Christianity is in such a state of crisis, says Marcus Borg, that “it has become a stumbling block in our time.”[i]
From my own pastoral experience, I know this to be true. So often, people tell me that they simply cannot believe all those things that Christian doctrine teaches. They don’t believe in the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection, much less the ascension. They don’t understand words like atonement, justification, salvation, or even grace. They’re not convinced that there is a heaven or a hell, and the idea that Jesus died for our sins is a huge obstacle for many seekers and believers.
This past week, a friend called. She asked me what I was doing? When I told her that I was writing a sermon about sin, she responded, “I don’t believe in sin.”
I think that “sin,” a familiar and widely used religious word, is one that could benefit from some rescue and salvation. We say that it’s a sin to steal, murder, tell a lie, dishonor one’s parents, or cheat on one’s spouse. We also say that it’s a sin to let the last piece of apple pie go uneaten, and when something tastes or feels really good, we exclaim that it must be sinful. The dictionary defines sin as: “An offense against a religious or moral law.” The Book of Common Prayer defines sin, as “The seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” (p. 848)
St. Augustine said, “Sin is energy in the wrong channel.” In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul asserted that sin was missing the mark or “falling short of the glory of God.” (3.23) I think Paul Tillich said it best: sin is “the personal act of turning away from that to which one belongs.”[ii]
I’ve always understood sin as a state of estrangement that separates one from God, other people, the rest of creation, and one’s own self. Perhaps that’s why Leonard Cohen once sang, “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.”[iii] Estrangement can be a lonely place.
Since the earliest of times, human beings have been fascinated and intrigued with the origin of sin. Some believe that we are born in a state of original sin, that it’s part of our human DNA. Others argue that we choose to be sinful. The truth is that we are not really sure from whence our sinful state originates. But, there comes a time in the course of life when we ask St. Paul’s probing and perplexing question: Why do I do that which I ought not to do, and why don’t I do that which I know I should do? (Romans 7:19)
My short answer to that question is that we – individuals, institutions, communities, and nations – fall out of step, out of balance, out of sync, out of harmony with God, the world around us, and ourselves. We are not mindful or attentive to the presence or intentions of God and so we turn away from what Tillich called “the ground of being,” and we become estranged or separated from that to which we belong.
Think about a time during this past week when you said or did something that you regretted, or when you didn’t say or do something that you should have, when in the words of the prayer book, you might “have sinned in thought, word or deed by things done or left undone?” What was going on in your life? What were you thinking or feeling? How were your home life, work life, and prayer life? Had you been eaten well; were you getting enough exercise or sleep? My hunch is that you were not being mindful or attentive to your relationship with that to which you belong: God, the people around you, and perhaps yourself. If you had been, you probably would have behaved differently.
As I said on Ash Wednesday, I start off each morning intending to be mindful throughout the day, but by midday, I’ve mis-stepped, mis-spoken, mis-acted, or mis-thought at least once. The truth is that we all fall into sin because staying mindful; keeping in right relationship is hard work. That’s why the baptismal covenant doesn’t say, “If you fall into sin…” It says, “Whenever you fall into sin, will you repent and return to the Lord?” God assumes that because we are not perfect, we will fall out of mindfulness and right relationship and into sinfulness and estrangement; so when it happens, we are encouraged to not deny it, or beat ourselves up for it; but rather, we are invited to acknowledge our human imperfection and loneliness, turn around and once again get mindful, grounded, attentive and intentional about our relationship with God, neighbor and self.
This morning’s lectionary readings explore the relationship of mindfulness and sin. The book of Genesis tells us Adam and Eve fell into sin by not being mindful of their right relationship with God. When they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, they forgot what God expected of them, and were expelled by God from the garden. Some call this punishment for the sin of disobedience. Others say it was an essential part of God’s plan of creation, insisting that Adam and Eve needed to leave the garden in order to become fully human, like birds being pushed out of the nest by their mothers in order to learn how to fly, or children leaving their parents’ home in order to become adults. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of human beings growing up, leaving home, and returning – all the while falling in and out of right relationship with God, neighbor and self.
Enter Jesus. According to the apostle Paul, Jesus is the second Adam who overcame the human temptation to sin. He gave his unblemished, perfectly mindful life as a ransom for all the rest of us sinners, and thus redeemed and saved humanity from our fallen state of depravity and estrangement.
Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury wrote an 11th century treatise that canonized this doctrine of Jesus’ life and death. Because Adam and Eve sinned, humanity was eternally condemned. God, the divine judge, wanted to redeem a fallen and sinful humanity, and therefore, sent Jesus, his perfect and blameless son, to make restitution, accepting punishment on our behalf by dying for our sins. Thus, God could forgive and restore us without diminishing the Divine honor. Anselm’s theory of substitution atonement, which asserted that God actually sent Jesus into this world to die for our sins, depended on the belief that God’s honor, perfection and integrity would be compromised if divine forgiveness was offered without restitution.
Not all Christians understand the human condition or Jesus’ mission on earth this way. Certainly, Anselm’s contemporary, the French theologian, Peter Abelard didn’t agree with him. Abelard rejected the notion of original sin. He thought sin was created by human choice and could not be inherited. He argued that each of us have to bear responsibility for our own sins. Abelard saw Jesus as a victim of human sin and yet understood his willingness to die as the ultimate act of God’s unconditional love. For Abelard, restitution was not required for forgiveness; remorse was sufficient.
In the end, Anselm won the debate and Abelard was declared a heretic. And, while Paul’s Letter to the Romans still holds a central place in the Christian canon, the debate about sin continues.
This morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew speaks of Jesus’ time in the wilderness as he wrestled with Satan, the great tempter, about how he would carry out his ministry without falling prey not to Sin (with a capital S), but to the temptations of ministry: convenience, manipulation, magic, and abusive control.
I often try to imagine Jesus’ time in the wilderness. In fact, I can still recall sitting on a rock in the Judean desert, looking out over that forlorn landscape, visualizing in my mind’s eye what it must have been like to sit there not just for an hour, but for forty days and forty nights.
To sit for more than a month alone, in the wilds, exposed to the elements with only your thoughts, dreams, visions, and nightmares – that’s a lot of time to spend with one’s self, one’s own demons and temptations, and the ground of one’s being. I bet that Jesus spent a lot of that time in prayer: talking, arguing, pleading, probing and listening to God. When his vision quest was over, Jesus emerged, weakened by hunger but strengthened by both divine grace and his own mindfulness, able to resist the tests of the Tempter and prepared to demonstrate the unconditional love of God in a world filled with pain, disease, poverty and oppression. To stay grounded and mindful, throughout his ministry, Jesus returned to the wilderness to spend time alone in prayer with God.
So back to the dilemma of human sin: if sin is a lack of mindfulness, a separation or estrangement from God and the world, then grace is the getting it together again. The challenge is how to stay mindful in all the complicated moments and messes of our lives. Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to stay mindful all of the time, but I do think we can work at mindfulness through the practice of prayer.
Recently, a member of this congregation too me that it would be helpful I would share about my daily prayer practice. It’s really fairly simple. When I have my morning coffee, I imagine that Jesus is sitting across the table from me. And then I begin a conversation with him as if I’m talking with a friend. I tell him what’s on my mind; I remember those who have asked for my prayers; I share with him my plans for the day; I ask for his help in staying mindful, engaged and connected to the source of my being and to those around me; and I finish with the Lord’s Prayer. As I go though the day, I invite Jesus to accompany me into my meetings, conversations, emails, and visits. And then, if I don’t fall asleep too quickly, I try to review the day with Jesus, recalling both my grace-filled and less-than-gracious interactions, giving thanks, seeking forgiveness, asking for blessing, and closing with the prayer our Lord taught. When I do this, life is pretty good…no matter what happens. When I don’t, life gets out-of-sorts. I guess you could call it falling into sin.
So friends, there you have it – a little salvaging of the short but very big religious word “sin.” We can discuss and debate it origins and nature for days on end without coming to absolute conclusions. In the end, I think Tillich was right: sin is essentially estrangement from “the ground of being.” So, as we begin this season of Lent, this time of renewal, I want to suggest that you be intentional, attentive and disciplined about your daily prayer practice. For prayer keeps us mindful and connected to “the ground of being,” and that is both preventive medicine and a remedy to sin.
[i] Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian, p.1
[ii] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, Part III, Chapter 1, p. 46
[iii] Leonard Cohen, The Sisters of Mercy