(This is the text of the sermon given on Ash Wednesday by Rev. Julia Goodall and myself at our combined service.)
There are some who say that liberal or progressive Christian churches don’t believe in sin, that we never talk about it and we never call people to confess. To some extent it is true that we don’t talk about it much and that is because of the long history of the Church naming so many things “sinful” that quite a few people react instinctively against the word “sin”. Both Pastor Julia and I have observed that many people take on guilt way beyond their need, so this reluctance to speak of sin does not mean that we feel no guilt or responsibility or remorse. But we are also confused about how to describe, define and talk about sin. We know it is not as simple as breaking the 10 Commandments, or as narrowly defined as sexual behavior. If we went to CCD or Sunday school, we know it has something to do with context. Many of us don’t believe that Jesus had to die for our particular sins to atone a vengeful God. We don’t really know what to teach children because we don’t want them bogged down in shame and guilt, yet we also want them to grow into adults who are moral and compassionate.
We recognize that there is evil in our world, and we intuitively feel that we sometimes add to that, but we don’t always know how to stop it. If we don’t know what sin is, it becomes more difficult to figure out what authentic forgiveness and reconciliation mean, and how to achieve them. Many religious and theological traditions have wrestled with this idea, and so this evening as we enter in the season of Lent, we want to share with you some of the perspectives and thoughts from these various traditions.
Judaism: Sin is “missing the mark”, refusing to listen to God, choosing a hardened heart, choosing an alternate path. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel says it is “a refusal to humans to become who we are”. Jewish theologians in general agree that the understanding of sin has evolved in Judaism, and sin is both personal and communal.
Jesus, like many prophets before him, teaches that sin comes from within us, from our hearts and minds, and that it is there that healing and balance must be effected. Sin is bad fruit and shows itself in the systems that harm people and keep them poor and powerless. The answer? Repent. Start over. Change your heart and your ways.
Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century Christian mystic, theologian, scientist and artist writes that sin is carelessness, it is drying up, uselessness, lack of passion, sterility. Those who do good are like an orchard full of good fruit. If we choose sin we remain sterile in the eyes of God.
Reinhold Neibuhr, the 20th century Protestant theologian, social ethicist and activist says that “sin is the unwillingness of a person to acknowledge his creatureliness and dependence on God and his efforts to make his own life independent and secure.”
Gustavo Gutierrez, a contemporary Roman Catholic , Liberation theologian from Peru insists that sin is simply the denial of love.
Langdon Gilkey, another 20th century Protestant theologian suggests, “Sin may be defined as an ultimate religious devotion to a finite interest.”
Duncan Littlefair, a 20th century Unitarian minister, formerly a Presbyterian and Baptist theologian and minister says that sin is “any act whatsoever that interferes with the creating of life, any act that interferes with love and the opening up of our individual, family or corporate life…anything that interferes with the evolutionary process toward a greater, nobler, more joyous humanity.”
M.Scott Peck, a 20th century author with a background in medicine, psychiatry and theology writes: ” Evil is opposition to life. It is that which opposed the life force…Evil is also that which kills the spirit…The central defect of evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it…their absolute refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness.”
Angela West, a contemporary British theologian says, “Sin is about compulsive repetition, about never being able to do a new thing to reach a new place…the ways in which we are sinful are historically and culturally conditioned…and sin is patterned according to race and class. Thus there are patterns of sin among the powerful and somewhat different patterns among the powerless.”
Valerie Saiving Goldstein, a feminist writer trained in psychology and theology, is critical of Reinhold Neibuhr’s insistence that there is a widespread tendency among humans to want to be separate, and that self-assertion is necessarily sinful. She believes that women suffer less from the sin of pride than from “triviality, distractibility and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center of focus; dependency on others for one’s self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence; inability to respect the boundaries of privacy…in short, underdevelopment or negation of self.”
Rosemary Radford Reuther, a contemporary Roman Catholic feminist theologian states: “What is appropriately called sin beongs to a more specific sphere of human freedom where we have the possibility of enhancing life or stifling it. It is the realm where competitive hate abounds, and also passive acquiescence to needless victimization…the misuse of freedom to exploit other humans and the earth and thus to violate the basic relations that sustain life. Sin lies in the distortion of relationship, the absolutizing of the rights of life and power on one side of a relation against the other parts with which it is, in fact, interdependent.”
Carter Hayward, a contemporary Episcopal priest and theologian thinks “It is exceedingly dangerous for us to allow any structure of sin and evil to go unchecked in the society because in the end, we ourselves will be the victims. Those forces in the world which, in the advanced capitalist quarters of the earth, take the impersonal shape of militarism and multinational interests, flying under the guise of ‘free enterprise’ and ‘Christian blessing’, are bound to act against women’s liberation, racial equality, gay and lesbian rights, the demands of the poor, all revolutionary movements and the integrity of the earth itself.”
Clearly, how we think about sin changes how we think about conversion and epentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. If we understand our sin to be primarily person, the burden is on us individually to change our behavior. Change in personal behavior is always good when we identify actions and thoughts that we know we need to change. But personal change does not adequately deal with destruction and hurt and evil that can come from the corporate, communal sin. For example, we might know that we have to change our attitude toward homeless persons, and we might become more generous in our personal charity. It is good to do this, but that still does not change the structural economic and political situations that will continue to result in more and more homeless people. Or, we might become aware that we personally need to be more open minded to all those who are different from us. That kind of personal transformation is good, but it does not change the systems of racism, sexism or homophobia that infuses much of our cultural landscape.
Our personal changes will have ripple effects, no doubt, but we intuitively know that there are larger forces at work, and that we, too, are part of the systems that oppress. If we are white and middle class, we may not personally prevent a minority candidate from getting a job, yet we benefit to an extent from the systems that subconsciously favor white, middle-class, educated people. That does not mean we should take upon ourselves the guilt and responsibility for all the racism in our country, but we are part of the whole system, whether we like it or not. We need to be aware that our own comfort and ability to thrive in this society sometimes comes at the peril of someone else.
When we acknowledge “corporate sin”, it is about confessing that we are part of a whole system of destructive attitudes and behaviors. We cannot ignore these and continue to live in integrity. If our sin is primarily pride or misuse of power, we need to look at how that infects all our relationships. If our sin is primarily that of not taking responsibility, of allowing ourselves to be a victim, or being without boundaries or expectations of excellence, there will always be numerous ways for us to find conversion of heart, to turn our lives around, to begin again.
So, what do we mean by forgiveness? Forgiveness is not allowing someone to trample over us or manipulate us. That is not healthy for us or for them; neither is it good for the community as a whole. Sometimes forgiveness is simply realizing that we have to let go of all the anger and frustration we carry inside; it does not mean we forget what was done to us. Other times reconciliation requires that whoever has been a perpetrator apologizes and makes restitution.
There are no easy answers, no “one size fits all” way to address questions of sin and reconciliation. We are human beings, tied into complex relationships and situations. Jesus reminds us that all of us fall short, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” What is loving in one context may not be so in another, so as we look within and around us, and perceive how profound and inclusive are evil and destructiveness, we also perceive how even more pervasive are the possibilities for good and hope and joy.
Personally, I believe that confession of sin is good for the soul, both the individual soul and the communal soul. By looking reality square in the eye and admitting our participation in what can be destructive and life-denying, we also open the way for the Spirit of truth and reconciliation and compassion to enter in.
As much as we need to confess our sin—however we define that—we also need to constantly open our ears to hear and experience affirmation and reconciliation. We are all human. We are all beloved children of the same God, called to rejoice and be glad, because we bear the mark of divinity within ourselves. We are holy and we live always in the abundant blessing of the love of God. Amen