Text: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:9, 13, Luke 7:36-8:3
SIN. For progressive Christians that word is like the estranged family member missing at the Christmas dinner table that no one wants to acknowledge is absent. To be such a small word, it packs a powerful and evocative punch for those of us who consider ourselves progressive in our theology.
I began lectionary group this week by passing out blank sheets of paper to all the participants. I asked them to write, draw, express in whatever way they wanted to, what came to mind when they heard the world sin. Here are some of the responses.
- Judgment, Punishment
- Falling short, guilt, scapegoating, separation/loneliness
- Sin – early promiscuity – “They’re sinnin’.”
- The absence of God in one’s life
- Pursed lips, permanent wrinkles, wrinkled up noses, bad smell,
- “Hummph!,” judgmental tone, “It’s a sin and a shame!”
- Purposely hurting (physically, mentally, emotionally and any other way) another person, the earth
One person drew a diagram that depicted God standing on one cliff, a person standing on another cliff, and a huge gulf between the two. The gulf was labeled SIN. When I saw that picture, I knew immediately that person who drew it grew up in the Sunday night Training Union program at their Southern Baptist Church. I remember that diagram well. As a kid, it made quite an impact.
In the early years of my spiritual/faith formation, sin was defined in two ways: “separation from God” and “missing the mark.” That separation and “missing the mark” was brought about by things like—saying a bad word, or not being nice to a friend, or not telling the truth about whether or not I had done my homework, or sneaking a dip of my grandma’s snuff, or keeping secrets about my heart’s true desires and longings—things the church had taught me were sins. As a youngster growing up in a conservative Baptist church sin was on my mind a lot; mostly because it was talked about a lot in church and because I seemed to be sinning a lot by the church’s standards. It was, indeed, a prominent word, if not the central word, in the theological lexicon of my early faith.
As I approached the young adult years of my faith journey, however, I worried less about sin. And while it wasn’t an intentional shift, I realize now that it was in those years that I began redefining how I thought about sin. By the time I finished seminary my thinking on sin had shifted in three significant ways: 1) I had replaced the idea of original sin with original blessing; 2) I no longer talked about sin. Instead I talked about our moral failings; and 3) I embraced the notion that sin is not so much our individual moral failings as it is our collective/communal failings to be a just society—God’s commonwealth here on earth. In this stage of my faith, the word SIN no longer appeared or was spoken of in my theological lexicon.
Barbara Brown Taylor explains in her book, Speaking of Sin – The Lost Language of Salvation that “the language of faith, like any other language, resounds with the lives of those who speak it.” And in those early years of my faith experience the word sin resounded loud and clear and often. But in her book, Taylor goes on to write of the tension between the ancient language of faith and the need for fresh language, noting that for many of us the old words simply do not work anymore for the fresh revelations from God. This described my experience as I moved into my young adult years of faith. Speaking of this need for new language Taylor writes:
“Sin” heads the list, followed by “damnation,” “repentance,” “penance” and “salvation.”…When these words are pronounced out loud, many of them sound like language from an earlier age, when human relationship with God was laced with blame and threat…We may not know exactly what they mean, but we know that they judge us. The most obvious solution to the discomfort they provoke is to stop saying them altogether, which is what many of us have done.
She goes on to say:
Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives.
In reading all four of our lectionary texts for this Sunday, and considering Barbara Brown Taylor’s words, it struck me that maybe it was time for me, us, to reconsider sin—not just the language of sin but the role it plays in our lives as people of faith.
This week the lectionary invites us into three stories, two of which Laura read, that deal with sin. David’s sin of deception and murder in the 2 Samuel passage. The other story in I Kings that we did not read that tells the story of Ahab’s sin—also of deception and murder and greed. And then Luke’s narrative of the woman “who was a sinner.” It doesn’t take a theological genius to realize that sin and repentance is the common thread that knits these stories together. And it is, I submit, this common thread that binds us to these stories.
Now I tend to side with John Shelby Spong when he says that: “Christianity is about expanded life, heightened consciousness, and achieving a new humanity. It is not about closed minds, supernatural interventions, a fallen creation, guilt, original sin or divine rescue.” And yet, as Barbara Brown Taylor has noted, “Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away.” This is the dialect of our faith story. We are, all of us, blessed with original blessing. AND we are, all of us, wounded and broken individuals. All of us shine light. AND all of us have dark shadows that represent alienation and estrangement. In the words of confession in the Book of Common Prayer, “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Such is our lives and we need language, faith language, to name these realities. Not for the purposes of judgment and shame and punishment. But for wholeness, redemption and, dare I say, salvation.
I didn’t know, maybe you did, that the word “sin” is derived from the Indo-European root “es-,” meaning “to be.” Of this fact, feminist theologian Mary Daly has noted that “‘to be’ in the fullest is ‘to sin’.” When I read that, I had one of those ah-ha theological moments. To be is to sin. To be ourselves, to be fully human is to experience sin. Furthermore, I thought, sin doesn’t separate us from God, as I had been taught in the early years of my faith, rather our sin has the potential to bring us closer to God. And maybe that is what Martin Luther meant when he said, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” Be yourselves, be your full selves, and come closer to God.
If you wonder if I’ve lost my mind on this reconsidering sin, consider the story in Luke again. This woman, who was known in her community as a sinner—this woman whom Jesus acknowledges is a person of “many sins”—found her way to Jesus because of her sins—not because she was righteous, or perfect, or innocent. I imagine the dinner incident at Simon’s home was not this woman’s first encounter with Jesus. Surely she had been watching him, listening to him, following him. There are scholars who actually believe her encounter with Jesus and the forgiveness she sought from Jesus had already taken place. And that her coming to find Jesus at Simon’s house was an act of extravagant gratitude for that which Jesus had restored in her life.
Remember what Barbara Brown Taylor said? “Abandoning the language [of sin] will simply leave us speechless before our sins, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives.” She ends that paragraph with these words, “Ironically, it will also weaken the language of grace, since the full impact of forgiveness cannot be felt apart from the full impact of what has been forgiven.” The woman with “many sins” felt the full impact of forgiveness thus her extravagant act of gratitude.
Perhaps that is why, as progressive Christians, we have such a hard time with not only the language of sin but the concept of sin. Sin and forgiveness go hand and hand; and to be the recipient of forgiveness takes courage.
|“Perhaps the most difficult forgiveness, the greatest letting go, is to forgive ourselves for [whatever we allow to hold us back from truly being ourselves.] We need to realize that we are not perfect, and we are not innocent. “One learns one’s mystery at the price of one’s innocence” says Robertson Davies. If we want to maintain an image of ourselves as innocent, superior, or righteous, we can only do so at the cost of truth. We would have to reject the mysterious side, the shadow side, the broken side, the unconscious side of almost everything. We have, for too long, confused holiness with innocence, whereas holiness is actually mistakes overcome and transformed, not necessary mistakes avoided.
Letting go is different than denying or repressing. To let go of it, you have to admit it. You have to own it. Letting go is different than turning it against yourself. Letting go is different than projecting it onto others. Letting go means that the denied, repressed, rejected parts of who we are become seen for what they are. You see it, and you hand it over to God. You hand it over to history. You refuse to let the negative story line that you’ve wrapped yourself around define your life. You own your sin, you embrace it and then you let it go.” (Richard Rohr Daily Meditation) Not because you were born into sin, or because something is wrong with you, or because you think God doesn’t love you just as you are (God loves you because of who you are)—but because you need to let go for you.
“This is a very different way of living. It implies that you see your mistake, your dark side, and you don’t split from it. You don’t pretend it’s not true. You only forgive it.” (Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation)
Without a language to speak of this spiritual journey, I fear we may ignore it, or worse, not fully be who we are created to be. And to run that risk is to risk not experiencing the fullness of God’s grace—a grace that is greater than all our sin. Whether or not you agree with what I have said about sin, it is worth reconsidering sin; taking back our language of faith from the religious right. Sin does not have to be defined as something we were born into, or that Jesus had to die to save us from, or that if we don’t confess our sins there is no salvation. Sin, I believe, doesn’t even ultimately mean that which separates us from God or some dramatic act of “missing the mark.” Sin named and recognized, I believe, has the potential to bring us closer to God. Sin is “to be” and “to be” in our fullest is to sin. To recognize our sin in such a way is to open our hearts to the grace of God. And to experience the grace of God is one of the greatest gifts we can receive. So, in the words of Luther: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, (be you, your fullest self) AND believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” For this is the good news of the gospel.