Text: John 1:29-42
“The story goes that a public sinner was excommunicated and forbidden entry to the church. He took his woes to God. ‘They won’t let me in, Lord, because I am a sinner.’ ‘What are you complaining about?’ said God. ‘They won’t let me in either.’” (Brennan Manning) It was Mark Twain who once said, “There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.” And Mae West said of sin, “To err is human—but it feels divine.”
I want to get straight to the point this morning. The church has lied to us. Sin is not a list of forbidden acts that a few sanctimonious people wearing clerical robes and occupying ecclesiastical positions wrote in some leather-bound book and then declared it the ultimate truth. The sins of the world are not those unspeakably desirable human tendencies and explorations such as sex, alcohol, dancing, gambling, lying, cheating and playing cards. Although, all of those things can get one in trouble and can do great harm. No, the sins of the world are not divorce, homosexuality, adultery—all of those other things the church has used, while quoting Bible verses, to make good people feel shame and guilt and unworthy of God’s love.
If we wonder why the church in North America is in significant decline, we might not need to look any further that how we have categorized and mis-categorized what the sins of the world are and what they are not. Who wants to come sit in church and be pounded over the head and made to feel like dirt simply for being human—exactly the way God created us. Had the church taken more seriously the wisdom of Martin Luther who said, “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!” Luther did say that but that’s not really the quote I was thinking of. The quote I am thinking of is when Martin Luther said, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” Somewhere along the way, the church got the emphasis wrong. Instead of believing and rejoicing in all the good that Christ represents, the church has focused on the message of sin and sinner thus alienating the very people who would come to the church seeking mercy and grace.
So if you buy my thesis that the church has not told us the truth about what the sin or sins of the world are, then what is it that this “lamb of God” came to take away from the world? If we hold to that good Baptist definition of what sin is—anything that keeps us separated or estranged from God—then what is the sin(s) of the world today that, I believe, Jesus desperately wants to take away?
Over the holidays, I read two books and two articles that have shaped what I want to say to you today about the sins of the world—at least the world we live in. The first book is titled Just Mercy. It was written by Bryan Stevenson, Harvard Law graduate and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery, Alabama. The book is a powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice.
With a mandate to serve the poor and voiceless, Stevenson, a professor of law at New York University and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal firm providing services for the wrongly condemned, describes in his memoir how he got the call to represent this largely neglected clientele in our justice system. He notes that, with no parole in some states and a thriving private prison business that often pushes local governments to create new crimes and impose stiffer sentences, America has the world’s highest incarceration rate and, at 2.3 million, its largest incarcerated population. In an early case during his career, Stevenson defended Walter McMillian, a black man from southern Alabama, who was accused by a white con-man of two murders, although the snitch had never even met him and was himself under investigation for one of the murders. Through a series of bogus legal situations, police harassment, racism, and phony testimony, McMillian found himself on Alabama’s death row, fully aware of the legacy of class and race prejudice that made poor Southern blacks susceptible to wrongful imprisonment and execution. Stevenson’s persistent efforts spared McMillian from that ultimate fate, and the author’s experience with the flaws in the American justice system add extra gravity to a deeply disturbing and oft-overlooked topic. (Review by Publisher’s Weekly Review (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved) […the injustices in our justice system.]
Just Mercy brought into focus for me the sin of the world that I am calling “the sin of certainty.” Our criminal justice system is but one example in our societal structures where we function from a place of certainty rather from a place of curiosity and questioning. For so many of our citizens of color, particularly black and brown men, “innocent until proven guilty,” has been replaced with “guilty until proven innocent.” We have become a society that so values being “right” that we have compromised our curiosity and the value of doubt and questioning, even at the expense of truth. As our prison population rises, we look to commercialize prisons and build more rather than asking why and being willing to see hard truths. We have failed to realize that the opposite of certainty is not uncertainty. It is rather openness and curiosity. It is a willingness to embrace ambiguity, rather than condemn the wrong man.
H.L. Mencken one of the most influential and prolific journalists in America in the 1920s and ’30s wrote: “Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant…His culture is based on ‘I am not too sure.'”
The apostle Paul reminds us of the sin of certainty this way: “For now we see in a mirror dimly… Now I know only in part…” Even Paul knew the traps of the sin of certainty.
The second book I read was the #1 New York Times Bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy written by J.D. Vance. The book is an intriguing reflection on class, culture, and the American dream. “On the checklist of modern privilege, Mr. Vance, 31, has the top four in the bag: He is white, male, straight and Protestant. But his profile is misleading. His people — hillbillies, rednecks, white trash, choose your epithet (or term of affection, depending on your point of view) — didn’t step off the Mayflower and become part of America’s ascendant class. ‘Poverty is the family tradition,’ he writes. His ancestors and kin were sharecroppers, coal miners, machinists, millworkers — all low-paying, body-wearying occupations that over the years have vanished or offered diminished security…[At the risk of over-simplifying the book] Hillbilly Elegy…is divided into two components: the family stories Mr. Vance tells…and the questions he raises. Chief among them: How much should he hold his hillbilly kin responsible for their own misfortunes?” (Jennifer Senior, Books of the Times)
As Vance explores this question, he highlights for me another possible sin of the world: the sin of attachment. Vance writes of a people for whom poverty has become not just a condition, but an expectation. His family and neighbors are entering generational poverty, the shift from “we are poor” to “our people will always to poor.” Vance experienced the hopelessness that accompanies that shift. But along with the hopelessness, he describes a kind of identification, something that resembles perverse pride – people become attached to their poverty as part of their identify.
In this context, those attachments seem more clear and more harmful to us – men and women who don’t attempt to work because they know they can’t make enough to lift their families from poverty. But we all carry attachments, those places where we have accepted a truth about ourselves that limits us. I am a bad parent. I can’t stop drinking. I am not lovable. These deep beliefs become our comforts and our consolations, but they rob of us hope and of the conviction that hope brings. Think of how often Jesus’ words compel us to let go, to detach—to be reborn, to be like a child, to rethink our nationalism and our social class. We often talk about our attachments to “things” but this sin of attachment goes much deeper—to our very identity. The sin of attachment puts as at odds with Christ’s call to freedom—to letting go of those things that have us trapped and oppressed. The sin of attachment.
The first article I read was a mind-bogging piece by Alan Lightman titled, What Came Before the Big Bang? As a physicist himself, Lightman introduces in his article a “small platoon of physicists” who focus on figuring out such things as what happened at the very first moment of the big bang, whether time or anything else existed before it, and exactly how we distinguish the future from the past. While I understood very little in the article, I was fascinated by the concept of chaos and its role in the universe as described in the article.
Lightman explains that physicists believe that order is intimately connected to the arrow of time. In particular, the forward direction of time is determined by the movement of order to disorder. He gives the example of a movie of a glass goblet falling off a table and shattering on the floor and how that looks normal to us. If we saw a movie of scattered shards of glass jumping off the floor and gathering themselves into a goblet perched on the edge of a table, we would say that the movie was being played backward. Likewise, clean rooms left unattended become dusty with time, not cleaner. He makes the point that, “What we call the future is the condition of increasing mess; what we call the past is increasing tidiness.” Fascinating concept.
Lightman’s article has me considering the possibility that our insatiable need for order is another present day sin of the world. We have forgotten that it is out of chaos that God creates and within that chaos God calls us to be co-creators. I think it was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” We have become a people so obsessed with order and control that we are missing the opportunities that come in the chaos and disorder around us. The creation story that begins our sacred text begins with chaos—“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…” Chaos is the law of nature. It is the fertile ground out of which God’s creative spirit grows. What could it mean for us, as God’s people to let go of our need, our sinning, for order and live more fully and attentively into the chaos? It’s chaos out of which God creates, not order.
The last article I read, and I will be brief here, was an article in The Atlantic titled, The Obama Doctrine. Authored by Jeffery Goldberg the article is a conversation with President Barak Obama talking through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world, specifically the President’s foreign policy.
There will be much debate in the coming months and years about President Obama’s foreign policy as this article demonstrated the complexities, but the one thing that the article highlighted for me was that in times of intense conflict President Obama often sought a different path from the perceived “convention” that has guided past leaders. The article made me wonder about the sin of “simply following the convention of others” and how it often blinds us to new possibilities and a more prophetic imagination. Simply following the convention of the day has the potential to keep us from taking the necessary risks that God requires of us in being peaceful and justice-loving people. In church terms this sin is articulated as: “we’ve never done it that way.” The sin of convention.
If we truly want to consider what keeps us separated and estranged from God maybe we need to do away those old lists of sins devised and contrived by the righteous and sanctimonious, and consider the more relevant sins of our world:
- our need for certainty that keeps us focused on who is right and therefor who must be wrong;
- our attachments to unhealthy identities that trap us in despair and hopelessness;
- our insatiable need for order and control that limits our ability to experience how God might be doing a new thing in the chaos and disorder of our lives and our times; and
- the sin of being stuck in a kind of convention that has us doing something simply because we have always done it that way blinds us to new possibilities and keeps us from using our prophetic imagination.
What if these are the sins of the world that Jesus came to take away? What if the church got it wrong when it handed us that old list of sins? The question looming is this: Will we have the wisdom and courage today to re-write that old list of sins for generations and tell the truth about the real sins of the world?