Sunday, June 10, 2012

You will be like God (St. Alban's, June 10, 2012)

Sin is an ugly word. A lot of us grew up conservative churches that talked about sin a lot. Quite a few of us grew up in conservative Protestant churches. Some of us grew up in conservative Roman Catholic churches. But in a lot of cases they had the same attitude toward sins.

These churches had long lists of sins: drinking, smoking, dancing, and –to put it delicately– associated behaviors were at the top of the list (although drinking, smoking, and dancing weren’t nearly as problematic for Roman Catholics, which may be part of the reason that I found Roman Catholicism so attractive when I was much younger!).

Probably the most important thing I can say about sin is this: Sin cannot be reduced to a list of behaviors. I am not a moral relativist. The Ten Commandments are an excellent guide for living our lives. If we follow them, we will be better people. If we follow them, we will not only lead good lives; we will lead satisfying lives, lives that are fully human.

 But these things are not sin itself; they are symptoms of sin. The story from Genesis we heard this morning tells us what sin really is.

“…the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die;  for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." “You eyes will be opened… and you will be like God…”

That is what sin is – the desire to be God. Sin is the desire to be like God, to take the place of God. Even if we never again take the Lord’s name in vain or drink to excess or do any of the numberless things that our parents and clergy told us not to do, we will still sin.

That is why the most dangerous sins are the sins associated not with bad people but with the best people. That sounds paradoxical and it is a little paradoxical. But keep in mind that the sins that Jesus most often condemned were the sins of the good.

One of the problems I have with the gospels is their treatment of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were one of the sects or parties of Judaism in the age of Jesus. In a sense, they were the most liberal of the Jewish parties, and I use “liberal” in the best sense of the word. They were looking for new and creative ways to understand, interpret, and apply the Torah or Jewish law.

The word we most often hear associated with the Pharisees is “hypocrite.” In the gospels Jesus calls them hypocrites, so we believe this means that they said one thing and did another. But we don’t have to believe that this is true of all the Pharisees. Undoubtedly it was true of some of them, but of course, it is true of some Christians as well.

My late friend Peter Gomes used to say that an excess of virtue is worse than an excess of vice because there are no constraints on virtue. I had a hard time understanding that at first, but it finally made sense to me.

Look around the world today or think of history. One of the criticisms of religion is that it has made the world worse, not better. There’s some support for this. Think of the Crusades or of present day “jihadism”, that is, Muslim extremism. The problem with deeply religious people is that sometimes they think they can do no wrong. And it is precisely when we think we can do no wrong that we are at our most dangerous.

The Crusades were launched by a decree of the pope himself, and they did so much damage to the people of the middle east that they are still remembered. Some people in the middle east still refer to all Europeans as “Franks” because most of the Crusaders were Franks. They killed Muslims, Jews, and eastern Orthodox Christians indiscriminately.

Protestants are not immune from committing violent acts in the name of God. When the English civil war brought the puritans to power, one of the first things they did was to try and execute England’s King Charles I, a man who was guilty of nothing but stupidity.

Jesus’ criticism of some of the Pharisees was a criticism that could be leveled against some, perhaps many, Christians, too. The temptation of deeply religious people is that we set the bar high and fail to live up to it. Then we rationalize our behavior.

This is exactly the behavior we see in Genesis. When God says to Adam, “Did you eat from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”, Adam says, “the woman you gave me tricked me and so I ate.” And when God asks Eve the same question, she says that the serpent tricked her.

We always blame someone else.

I still vividly remember one Sunday School class. I could not have been more than ten years old. My mother was the teacher and the lesson was this story from Genesis. My friend Ronny Armstrong had poked me with his pencil, so I poked him out, and my mother fixed me with her death ray stare. “But he started it,” I said, thus proving the truth of today’s story from Genesis.

Many of you have probably read Angela’s Ashes, the autobiography of writer Frank McCourt. McCourt also wrote an account of a time he spent as a teacher. In it he tells the story of the excuses many of students gave for not handing in assignments. Many of them were allegedly by the parent of his student, but they were plainly forged.

"Arnold doesn't have his work today because he was getting off the train yesterday and the door closed on his school bag and the train took it away.  He yelled to the conductor who said very vulgar things as the train drove away.  Something should be done about this."

"A man died in the bathtub upstairs and it overflowed and messed up all Roberta's homework on the table."

"Her big brother got mad at her and threw her essay out the window and it flew away all over Staten Island which is not a good thing because people will read it and get the wrong impression unless they read the ending which explains everything."

"We were evicted from our apartment and the mean sheriff said if my son kept yelling for his notebook he'd have us all arrested."

McCourt reflects, "Isn't it remarkable, I thought, how they resist any kind of writing assignment in class or at home.  They whine and say they're busy and it's hard putting two hundred words together on any subject.  Why?  I have a drawer full of excuse notes that could be turned into an anthology of Great American Excuses."

But the essence of sin is not blaming other; it is putting ourselves in the place of God. And this brings me to the final thing I want to say.

There are some things Jesus said that I wish he had not said. I’m sure that if only he’d thought more carefully, he would not have said them. Probably the most problematic thing Jesus said is in today’s gospel reading.

"Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"

Every religious leader knows people, usually with some mental or emotional illness, who believe they have committed or afraid they are going to commit the unforgiveable sin.

Let me set your minds and hearts at ease: There is no such thing as the unforgiveable sin.

I believe that Jesus is talking about the nature of sin. Remember that the nature of sin is to put one’s self in the place of God. That was exactly what the serpent tempted Adam and Eve to do: Eat this fruit and you will be LIKE God.

The paradox is this: If we put ourselves in the place of God, then who is going to forgive us? Strangely, many of us are less willing to forgive ourselves than God is.

Think about that for a moment: Have you ever done anything that you fretted over, worried over, loast sleep over? All of us have done that. But there is a cure for that: Ask God’s forgiveness. Ask the person you have wronged to forgive you and try to make amends. However, we often go for years and sometimes even for a lifetime, worrying over something we have done wrong. And when we do that, then we have put ourselves in the place of God. We cut ourselves off from the source of forgiveness. But the psalmist tells us that God is always ready to forgive us:

Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
O LORD, hear my voice; *

If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?

For there is forgiveness with you; *

O Israel, wait for the LORD, *
for with the LORD there is mercy;
With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

We are so ready to believe that we are the biggest sinners in the world and so reluctant to seek God’s forgiveness. But with the Lord “there is mercy, and with God there is plenteous redemption.” Amen.