Words Matter: SIN

by susan on September 17, 2019

The following message was shared during our Sunday gathering on 9.15.19. It is part of our “Words Matter” series & was given in reponse to the question, what are we talking about when we talk about sin? The central text was Luke 7:36-50.

This week marked the 18th anniversary of the tre tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks which killed nearly 3,000 people.

If you were alive then, there’s a really good chance you remember exactly where you were on that day. I was working as an occupational therapist in a skilled nursing facility and happened to be walking by the day room where patients gathered to watch daytime television. I noticed there had been a break in regular programming and I wathed in horror as a second plane plowed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

Something we never thought could happen here had happened.

One of the messages repeated annually on 9/11 is this: “Never forget”.

Never forget.

We could take that advice in so many different directions:
Never forget how precious life is and how we must make the moments count.  Never forget that we are vulnerable to evil, that bad things happen to good people. Or this: never forget that we have enemies and we must never let them do this to us ever again. We must rid the world of terrorists (and anyone who resembles the profile of one!).

After 9/11, much like we started a war on drugs,
we immediately began a war on terror.

Isn’t this so often how we deal with our problems?
It is certainly how we have historically dealt with the SIN problem.

It’s sad to say, but in some cases, Christianity has been reduced to little more than a war on sin, as if we can rid ourselves of this beast.

A beast – that’s how sin is referred to in its first mention in Scripture.

The first humans, Adam & Eve had 2 sons. One became jealous of the other. Cain was mad because God was less pleased with his offering than with his brohter, Abel’s offering. The first mention of sin comes amidst a warning in response to Cain’s anger & disappointment.

God tells Cain, “if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:7).  Cain, you must learn to master your anger instead of allowing it to control you and to separate you from your brother. Much to the pain of God, Cain would not learn to master his anger, at least not then.

The word for sin here is the Hebrew word Chatta’ah (kattawa) and it’s root is chat’a (katah), a word that means “to miss, to miss the goal or the path”.

It can also mean “to forfeit”.

Sin is forfeiting the truth of who we are & who we were created to be. God created us in divine likeness & called us good & God desires us to live in harmony with one another & creation.

But as the backstory goes, instead of believing this voice of goodness & love, we thought it was too good to be true. We trusted another voice – the one that belonged to a serpent – the one that told us we were not good enough, that we needed something more, bigger, better in order to be something or someone. We let that voice guide us & we took from the one tree in the garden that was off limits.

We have called that event in the garden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit “the fall” and we have made it the defining event of humanity. The way we have retold the story, it is like God had a PLAN A, but then humans (being as terrible & sinful as we are), came in and screwed everything up, so God had to come up with PLAN B.

Is that really how tiny we believe God to be? God creates us with the freedom to do wrong but never expects that we might actually do it? Think about this for a minute.

Genesis is not a history book. It is a collection of stories. It is not telling us what happened once a long time ago. It is describing what happens in many moments in all lives.

We do fall – it’s part of being human.

Sin happens – we rebel, we mistreat one another, we forget our way, we get greedy, we want to be someone other than who we were created to be and we suffer because of it.

We let the voice of not-enoughness lead us & not the voice of you-are-beloved. We fall, but there’s always a next part to the story.  There is a consistent urgent invitation to return.

We hear it in the call of prophets like Joel (2:13):

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.

We hear it in the call of the prophet John the Baptizer (Matt. 3:2), who prepared the way for Jesus:

Repent (or return), for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

There has always been a way forward. There has always been an invitation to reconnect with the Giver of Life & the source of goodness. And we see this invitation most fully in Jesus. In Jesus, we see something else, too – we see that one of our worst sins has been the way we have dealt with sin.

The woman in our scripture reading for today is a casualty in the war on sin.

For a long time, the solution to sin had been purity. Law keeping, rituals, sacrifices & a long list of do’s & don’ts were then, and in many ways still are the solution to the sin problem. We manage sin & we manage sinners.

Introduced as a “sinner”, Luke never tells us this woman’s name. Despite traditionally being idenitified as Mary Magdalene, she could be any well known “sinner”. In fact, the Greek word for sin here is “hamartia”. It also means “to miss the mark”, but it’s roots mean “not” and “a part”.

This woman was not a part – something about her life has painted her outside of the circle.

To be labeled a sinner in Jesus’ day could mean many things. She may have been a Gentile or non-Jew. She may have been an unfaithful Jew. She may have made a very public, habitual practice of wrongdoing. She may have been the source of a sexual scandal. She may have been someone who was abused as a child. Her identity as “sinner” could have stemmed from something totally beyond her control. We are not told her sin.

But one thing is clear: according to the sin management system, she is an outsider – she does not belong here.

She is not a part, but that would not be the end of the story.

When she hears that Jesus, who by now is known to be a “friend to sinners,” is in town having dinner at Simon’s house, she comes to anoint him with oil. This is not just a token act of appreciation; it is a wholehearted expression of love.

Her resources, her body, her tears, her heart are present & participating in this moment.

Can you imagine the courage it must have taken this woman to arrive at this Pharisee’s home full of men, knowing what they thought of her?

Despite the stares, the shame, the self-hatred & the stigma – she is there – she is there because something about Jesus has made her believe she is worthy to be there, too. Jesus confirms that yes, her sins are many, and yet *without requiring anything at all of her* announces her sins are forgiven. In fact, her forgiveness of sin is evidenced in her expression of love.

Perhaps the pain of her sin or the experience of being labeled sinner were the very things that allowed her to express a love that no one else in the room seems able to show.

And suddenly I am thinking that life after the fall is not PLAN B at all, but rather there is no other way for us to learn great love.

It is impossible, in fact, to know love until we know our need for it!

That was certainly true for Simon, who saw this act as a violation & an intrusion. If the characters in the story were to cast a play of The Return of the Prodigal Son (another story Jesus tells), Simon would be cast as the older brother. If you remember, the older brother was so caught up in making sure he was rewarded for his good deeds that he did not show up to the party celebrating his careless brother’s return.

That is the sin that most irritated Jesus and one of the hardest to notice & return home from. It disconnects us & keeps us from keeping the greatest command of all: LOVE.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us, “Our purity systems … are mechanisms for delivering our drug of choice: self-righteousness” (Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, p. 26).

I don’t know about you, but I get a little boost from seeing Simon called out. Isn’t that funny? My own self-righteousness sneaks in as if I’ve got everything figured out. Kind of like the feeling I got when I heard that a very large fundamentalist church would need to sell off a bunch of their downtown property this week (’bout time their judgmentalism & exclusion caught up with them, right?).

Sin is crouching, friends. It is always ready to disconnect us from our neighbor, from God, from our purpose in this universe, and it will never be defeated through war, but only through love.

Sin is not meant to define us.

We fall. We get labeled sinner, sometimes by something that is totally out of our control. And the truth is we can let sin be the death of us. We can make our spirituality revolve around proving our worth, our understanding of God center around sin, our lives all about trying to overcome sin.

But that is not the way of Jesus.

Jesus did not come to launch a war on sin.
He came to show us a way through it:
a way to live as God’s good creation,
a way to be human in a world where good & terrible things happen,
a way to reconnect with a God who loves us without end.

What would it look like for us to stop letting sin define us and instead allow it to wake us up & invite us to reconnect with God’s love & with our true identity as God’s good creation?

This poem by Mary Oliver is dear to many of us. Let them serve as our closing prayer: 

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Amen.

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