Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Sin Nobody Is Talking About

For those who don't know, for a good many years now, virtually every Saturday night before I preach, I hang out in my office until the wee hours (although "wee" keeps getting earlier and earlier the older I get... by the time I'm 50 "wee" will be 7:15pm) kind of shaping up a sermon that usually I've been (theoretically) thinking about all week long. I have been taking a ton of grief from a few of my Beeson Pastoral pals because the last sermon I preached on campus (a sermon that looked at the parallel stories of Judah and Joseph in Genesis) I sketched out on the back of an envelope that got tossed just a couple of days later whilst packing up my study carrel. Word of this leaked out when Alicia Coltzer learned of it upon asking me for "the written draft of my sermon".

Um.... right. Written draft.

You see, I've written exactly four sermons in the last ten years or so. I wrote a sermon out in Goshen the first Sunday I returned to the Downtown Campus after creating a stir on Christmas Eve by telling those in attendance that evening in the message that I pay my father-in-law in beer to work on my car and that I had "knocked up" my wife twice (which has happened again since we left). I wrote it just to make sure that I didn't slip up and offend overly sensitive ears (as God as my witness... I had used the line about my Lutheran father-in-law in other sermons there and never had a problem, and I had no idea that "Knocked Up" was to older generations what the f-bomb is to mine. I just didn't know.) I wrote a letter to my son as a Father's Day sermon here two years ago, a letter to Wade Broadwater for a "Freedom Sunday" service this year, and the first sermon I gave at Asbury for Dr. Kalas (cause I was really nervous, and thought I wouldn't be able to remember it.... it was a disaster anyway).

But other than that, most of my sermons are scratched on small pieces of paper (usually, quite honestly, the backs of used envelopes) and aren't written out as much as they are outlined with key words that help me remember the order and place of the content. I've never really thought too much about this, and just always kind of did what I've always been doing... that is until I took a razzing this summer.

So, I'm making no promises, but this is my first (and maybe my only) attempt at sketching out in written form what I usually only do either mentally using (please don't laugh) visualization techniques or on the back of an envelope. We'll see how it goes.

One of my favorite pop songs has always been "It's a Sin" by the Pet Shop Boys (what can I say... I grew up in the eighties. So shoot me.), which is actually kind of a downer tune about a guy who feels like his whole life has missed the mark.

"Father forgive me, I tried not to do it. Turned over a new life, then tore right through it. Whatever you taught me, I didn't believe it. Father you fought me, cause I didn't care, and I still don't understand."

I like the song cause it's hits on the sensitive theme of Jesus setting the bar of acceptable conduct too high for real people to clear, and then the church working to raise that bar even higher by expecting folks to not only be sin-free, but also to be shiny, happy people with no problems all the time. That and it's eurotrash dance music, which, like disco and funk, I enjoy.

Hey, before you go throwing stones, remember that nobody has good taste in everything. You either thought "Beaches" was a good movie, "Loverboy" or "The Monkeys" or "Uriah Heep" was the next great thing in music, miss some piece of clothing or hairdo no one should ever wear, or secretly actually enjoy all this tabloid Brittney-Spears-Lindsay-Lohan dreck they sell on the shelves at the supermarket. Somehow, your "taste-o-meter" got a bit off. It happens to all of us.

Anyhow, the song does a good job of identifying the problem of sin: if you don't want to do it, you do anyway, and sometimes when you don't even know it.

But what, exactly, is sin?

In the Old Testament, sin became those things you said or did that violated the law handed down by God to Moses, and the only way you could overcome it, was to repent by making a blood sacrifice of an animal you owned. The animal was not only a gift to the priests and levites of the Temple, but a symbolic act of putting the animal in your place so it would take the punishment you deserved. Curiously enough, throughout the OT there was no "after-worldly" dimension to the sacrificial act, meaning that the act of sacrifice symbolically reconciled you to God and his community right now. Because the idea of an afterlife (outside of some references to an underworld where the dead go, particularly in a story we're told of Saul going to the witch living in Endore for the purpose of conjuring up the prophet Samuel from that underworld), the idea of "heaven" and "hell", don't really get developed in Jewish theology until the age of the Babylonian exile, and then the inter-testimental period. The idea of sin, originally, comes out of the idea of maintaining a solid relationship with God, and others, and not violating those rules set down in order to keep that kind of order.

Sin, by the time Jesus arrives on the scene, has always been for Israel a corporate and collective reality. But even then, sin didn't as much keep people out of heaven as it prevented God from showing his favor on all of Israel. Thus, religious groups like the Pharisees, as portrayed in the New Testament, don't emphasize the condemnation of sinners to an eternity in hell as the wage for their actions, as much as they blame them for God not putting Israel in her right place in the world as the ruling nation of everyone. Thus, sinners made Israel impure, which made it impossible for God to bless Israel cause He can't bless something impure, leading to the scapegoating of sinners (and usually those who committed scandalous sins) as the reason why Israel was occupied and ruled by inferior pagans.

It's hard for us now to get inside this concept of sin because we don't have the same kind of national and religious identity that Israel did in Jesus' day. Christianity is an international phenomena, and while at one time Western Europe and (to a degree) the United States viewed themselves as "Christian Nations", we've never ever had the same kind of unified vision of our place in the world that Israel has. Couple that with the reality that the balance of power in terms of numbers of practicing, believing Christians is moving south of the equator, while the west increasingly becomes more humanistic and secular, and you get the age we live in now, which is an age very, very different than that of Jesus' world.

Jesus recognizes the burden that the Pharisees have placed on the backs of sinners. Not only were they being punished in this life and most likely in the afterlife for their transgressions, but in the meantime their punishment had to bared by also their friends, family, and all their Jewish brothers and sisters.... condemning everyone to God's punishment in this life.

The ironic aspect to all of this is that by doing this, the Pharisees sin themselves by judging themselves better than others... an irony not lost of Jesus. He gets to this as much when, in the Sermon on the Mount, he mocks the "holiness" of the Pharisees by telling all those listening that if they behave better than the Pharisees, they'll invite condemnation by God. For example, if you follow the logic of the Pharisaic thinking, not only can you not engage in sexual sin, but even thinking about a sinful sexual act will get you, and everyone, the same punishment than if you actually committed the sin you daydreamed about. That's the endpoint to the Pharisees definition of holiness, and its a standard Jesus says is not achievable in the real world. Trusting in a system of belief as ludicrous as one that scapegoated sinners while trying to shame them into better behavior so God could finally act, Jesus concludes, is like building a house on a foundation of sand directly next to an ocean. The system, and your place in it, is bound to fail.

And, eventually, it did.

Instead, Jesus offers sinners hope. Hope in believing not just that whatever sin beguiles us can really be overcome because God wants to give us the strength to do so, but more importantly, hope that God will bless the world even though sinners live in it. A blessing, I might add, available to us all, if only we ask for it.

The significance of this cannot be understated. People's sin couldn't force God into not acting, or universally condemning everybody. Humanity doesn't have that kind of power. And, in fact, God does redeem Israel as the hope of all the nations in that the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob becomes the God available to all.

But the funny thing about history, is that eventually, even though Jesus willingly breaks Jewish law as a means of demonstrating how his teaching is not only superior, but also that the real needs of people are more important that rules than prevent real needs being met for the sake of "purity", that in funny ways, we often treat sin the same way the Pharisees do: as a collective force that will eventually doom us all.

And that is the sin nobody is talking about: the sin of the church offering the world, not hope, but a sense that individuals had better save themselves as the world goes to hell in a hand-basket. Once again, sin cannot be defeated cause it's too pervasive and becoming nothing but more abundant... and all in an age where never before in all of history have we been more blessed by God than we are now... educationally, technologically, medically, and in a host of other ways that past generations could only dream.

Now is the time for hopelessness?

I think not.

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