We were snowed out on January 8th. We used the January 8th service for January 15th.
Chancel Choir, “Simple Gifts” arr. John Coates
Wealth Without Work
Pleasure Without Conscience
Knowledge Without Character
Commerce Without Morality
Science Without Humanity
Religion Without Sacrifice
Politics Without Principle
–Mahatma Ghandi, Seven Deadly Social Sins
When Jacob went to Egypt, his son Joseph was already there. So Jacob took his eleven other sons and their families. They were: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. Altogether, Jacob had seventy children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who went with him.
After Joseph, his brothers, and everyone else in that generation had died, the people of Israel became so numerous that the whole region of Goshen was full of them.
Many years later a new king came to power. He did not know what Joseph had done for Egypt, and he told the Egyptians:
“There are too many of those Israelites in our country, and they are becoming more powerful than we are. If we don’t outsmart them, their families will keep growing larger. And if our country goes to war, they could easily fight on the side of our enemies and escape from Egypt.”
The Egyptians put slave bosses in charge of the people of Israel and tried to wear them down with hard work. Those bosses forced them to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses, where the king could store his supplies. But even though the Israelites were mistreated, their families grew larger, and they took over more land. Because of this, the Egyptians hated them worse than before and made them work so hard that their lives were miserable. The Egyptians were cruel to the people of Israel and forced them to make bricks and to mix mortar and to work in the fields.
Finally, the king called in Shiphrah and Puah, the two women who helped the Hebrew mothers when they gave birth. He told them, “If a Hebrew woman gives birth to a girl, let the child live. If the baby is a boy, kill him!”
But the two women were faithful to God and did not kill the boys, even though the king had told them to. The king called them in again and asked, “Why are you letting those baby boys live?”
They answered, “Hebrew women have their babies much quicker than Egyptian women. By the time we arrive, their babies are already born.” God was good to the two women because they truly respected him, and he blessed them with children of their own.
Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and How They Can Be Restored
Sin is a very big word in heaven-and-hell Christianity. Within its framework of meaning…sin is the central issue in our life with God. We have sinned and need forgiveness, and Jesus’s death provides the basis for our forgiveness.
This emphasis on sin as the central issue and forgiveness as our central need is very old, the product of the process of accommodating Christianity to the dominant culture that began in the fourth century when the emperor Constantine adopted it. The result is that sin became the primary metaphor for describing the human condition, the human predicament….
Sin needs to be demoted from its status as the dominant Christian metaphor for what’s wrong among us. As noted above it is not the only biblical image for the human condition, but one of several. Moreover, it is not the primary one, not the most important one, not even a first among equals. Rather, it is a peer among several major metaphors. Demoting sin enables us to see the power and importance of the other metaphors. Ultimately it also enriches our understanding of sin.
We are making our way through a book by the late Marcus Borg, called Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and how They Can Be Restored. We are talking about churchy words. Words that we use in church. Theological words. Religious words.
Because these words have been churched that is because they have been interpreted and used in a context of church in some cases their meanings have shifted from their original use in the Bible. Much of the time churchy words have been coopted by what Borg calls “Heaven and Hell” Christianity. This is a form of Christianity that has become so dominant that we might call it default Christianity.
It basically goes like this. Humans sinned in the garden of Eden. They have been infused with original sin. The only way out of this is for God to come to earth as a human being die for the sins of humanity and thus save people who believe in this God-Man Jesus and thus will go to heaven not hell when they die.
But that is not the only way to understand Christianity. I am a Christian. I don’t think any of that is true. Not only me and not only modern Christians. Heaven and Hell Christianity came into being as Marcus Borg writes when Christianity became wedded with empire in the 4th century.
It is only within the last 120 years or so in response to modernism, that fundamentalism, that is heaven and hell Christianity, began its rise, and only since the 1980s that fundamentalism became a political force in the United States and thus has dominated Christian media and even the secular media as the voice and face of Christianity.
There is a lot to say about all of that, but that is why today’s churchy word, “sin” is a big deal for this loud form of Christianity. Sin became the central metaphor for what it means to be a human being. We are all sinners and deserve to go to hell.
That is why theologian Matthew Fox was silenced by the Vatican. It was the ideas in his important book Original Blessing that got him in trouble. He didn’t deny that sin was a metaphor for the human condition. He simply said it is not as important as blessing. There is no Original Sin as Augustine in the 5th century used to tried to beat people into submission. There instead is Original Blessing.
Even the first story of the Bible is about God creating the world and saying it is good and blessing it and all the critters and the human beings who are created in God’s image. There is no original sin there. It is original blessing.
But the Vatican didn’t like that. It is harder to beat people over the head with a sin stick if they believe they are originally blessed. You need people to think they are terrible sinners then you can control them. So Matthew Fox was out.
But Fox is part of a revolution in Christianity. A revolution to reclaim the wisdom of a creation-centered spirituality.
In this creation-centered spirituality, sin is a metaphor to describe a part of the human condition, but it isn’t the only one, nor is it the central one, but one among many.
When sin is given its proper demotion it can deepen its meaning.
Sin has been a funny thing in Christianity. It is this huge ominous power that can only be broken by supernatural shenanigans and yet it is mostly just about sex. Men made this up. And when men make things up women usually suffer. Women in Augustine’s theology of original sin became the embodiment of sin and earthiness. Eve the temptress, right?
So sexuality became equated with sin. The church felt its primary duty in the world was to control people’s sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality. Sin really isn’t about theology as much as it is a product of patriarchy. That is why fundamentalist Islam is also weird on that.
Even in the modern day Presbyterian church, we have been coming out of a 40 year battle in which fundamentalists did everything in their power to condemn homosexuality.
Because sexuality is complex and because we don’t do a particularly healthy job of educating ourselves about it, it becomes equated with sin. It is sinful and dirty and needs to be controlled by holy church people and its rules. The whole business about abortion is not about saving the lives of children. There are plenty of children who could use help. It is about controlling women’s bodies, particularly their sexuality.
That is all part of the sickness of patriarchy and superstition. We are born in sin. We need Jesus and the sacraments of the church to save us.
Then there’s the virgin birth. Because Mary is a virgin, because she doesn’t have sex, yet has God’s baby she is super holy. It wasn’t enough for Mary to be a virgin for Jesus, she had to be a virgin her whole life. The she gets to be queen of heaven.
Who makes up this stuff? Men.
Don’t think I am being sacrilegious. It is no virtue to turn superstition and fantasy into a sacred cow. The virtue, in my opinion, is being honest with what is real.
The biggest liberation we can have is to realize that human beings, mostly male human beings, made all this stuff up. There was a reason. Male human beings made up this stuff to retain power. When people realize that, then wow, no longer does it have control over our lives anymore. No longer do we have to repent and feel bad and ask God for forgiveness for simply being human.
Early in my ministry I used to go by the book. I would include a prayer of confession in each bulletin. If you go to most Presbyterian churches on any given Sunday you will find a prayer of confession of sin. I was an obedient minister and I put one in the bulletin each week.
One of the wise women of the church asked me about it one day. She was probably in her late 70s at that time. She said, “You know, I am not without sin, but do we have to talk about it all the time?”
It took me by surprise. I thought about it. I really started to wrestle with this ritual. I thought there really is something that isn’t working with it. It wasn’t so much the confession of sin as much as the assurance of pardon that followed.
We’d confess all kinds of things, we are sorry for the things we did and sorry for the things we didn’t do, including specific things like trashing the environment and starting wars and being racist and having lustful thoughts and playing cards and so on.
It wasn’t that we were going to stop after the prayer was over. We would continue doing these sinful things. But then as the preacher I was to give an assurance of pardon.
“In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.”
I realized, no we are not. We don’t get a pass. We are still trashing the place. We don’t get to just feel better about it. If we realize that we are in fact polluting the planet or if we are white and we finally realize that we have privileges because of that racist system, we don’t get a pass just for saying “sorry.” We aren’t forgiven. We have to do something about it. We have to go fix it.
Sin, in Greek Hamartia, comes Greek tragedy. It is the fatal flaw, the error, the missing of the mark the hero makes that turns things from bad to worse. It could come from an error in judgment or from ignorance. It is not necessarily tied to moral failing.
It is like an archer missing the bullseye. What do you need? You don’t need forgiveness. You need to aim better next time.
What is the first use of the word sin in the Bible? That is a good bible quiz question. Surprise. It is not in the Adam and Eve story. It is not about eating the fruit. The first use of the word sin, Katta-ha in Hebrew or hamartia in Greek is in Genesis 4:7.
It is the story of Cain and Abel. Cain and Abel are brothers. The Lord accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s offering. Cain is steaming. He is angry. The text says his countenance has fallen. The Lord speaks to him. This is what God says to Cain:
If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.
You must master this sin, this fatal flaw. You can master this desire for vengeance. You must. The Lord does not tell Cain, “Hey in a few thousand years I am going to send an avatar to die for your sins and magically take care of everything.”
No, the issue here is that it is up to Cain. Is he going to be able to master this or not? Of course, as we read this story we can let it ask us whether or not whatever it is that crouches at the door will master us or not?
When we see sin that way, as missing the mark, as an unhealthy choice, then we can make a decision to do something about it.
We can do something like the midwives in our Exodus story did. Shiprah and Puah engaged in the first biblical act of civil disobedience. From Pharoah’s point of view, they sinned, they disobeyed his command to kill all the male babies.
But their disobedience to the Pharoah was obedience to a higher law.
Sin then is shifted. No longer is it disobedience to the command of the ruler, but it is disobedience to the command of conscience—to the command of life and justice.
It was when during the time of the civil rights struggle in this country, when people began to rise up. The definition of sin changed. Previously sin was resistance to keeping one’s place. Sin was resistance to law and order.
When people began to see that sin was the law and order of an unjust system that liberation was resistance to that order.
In the lgbt struggle more recently, the definition of sin shifted. Only then did the tide change. Sin had been called deviant sexual expression. Then the definition of sin shifted and sin was homophobia. Only then could we see the proper action of change. Resist homophobia.
If we are going to use the word sin and reclaim it, it might be helpful to reclaim it in the way we find it in the Bible, as a missing of the mark, as a system of in justice, as the absence of love, as ignorance, and then we can name it and work to dismantle it.
No miraculous intervention, superstitious threats, or guilt necessary.
Let’s just do it.