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July 26, 2016, 9:27 AM

Let's Talk About Sin

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
15 Look here! Today I’ve set before you life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong. 16 If you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I’m commanding you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in God’s ways, and by keeping God’s commandments, God’s regulations, and God’s case laws, then you will live and thrive, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and so are misled, worshipping other gods and serving them, 18 I’m telling you right now that you will definitely die. You will not prolong your life on the fertile land that you are crossing the Jordan River to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live— 20 by loving the Lord your God, by obeying God’s voice, and by clinging to God. That’s how you will survive and live long on the fertile land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
1 John 3:1-6
See what love Abba God has lavished on us in letting us be called God’s children! Yet that in fact is what we are. The reason the world does not recognize us is that it never recognized God. My dear friends, now we are God’s children, but it has not been revealed what we are to become in the future. We know that when it comes to light we will be like God, for we will see God as God really is. All who keep this hope keep themselves pure, just as Christ is pure. Anyone who sins at all breaks the Law, because sin is to break the Law. Now, you know that Christ, who is sinless, appeared to abolish sin. So everyone who lives in union with Christ does not continue to sin, but whoever continues to sin has never seen or known Christ.
Matthew 22:35-40
35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,[a] and with all your mind. 38  This is the first and greatest commandment. 39  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself40  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
“Let’s Talk About Sin”
 “Sin.” It seems like such a tiny little word, so short, so small, just three little letters. It takes up very little room in our liturgy. But that teeny weeny little word carries so much weight. It is heavy and burdensome and uncomfortable and awkward. Perhaps when we say it we should draw it out in a parody of that southern stereotype—Seeeee-iiiiinnnn. Or, perhaps we would just prefer to not talk about it at all. Because, if you start talking about sin than you have to talk about sinners, and then somehow we end up with conversations about judgment and punishment and the whole thing goes to hell—sometimes literally. That is what we do when something is painful or uncomfortable, (right?) we don’t talk about it, we avoid it like it were the plague.
But, if we are honest, we have seen what happens when you avoid important topics and refuse to talk about them—important issues and needs and situations never get resolved, and in fact, can become worse. I remember the first time I went to a mandatory white privilege workshop when we were part of Wyoming Conference. It is interesting to note we haven’t had one since we became Upper New York Conference seven years ago. The workshop was tense and intense. Many clergy were only there because it was required. The whole day was a struggle, to come face to face with something we didn’t want to talk about—racism, white privilege, our own complicity in the system. But at the end of the day, we were better for it. We had a deeper understanding of how the world is stacked against minorities. We had a glimpse of how those of us who are white have been completely oblivious to our own privilege. Because we were willing to talk about the issues of racism and white privilege, we were able to live more aware of how our actions impacted our culture and full equality.  We needed to talk about it. Our culture today is screaming to talk about it. Our people are dying, quite literally, because of our failure to truly talk about racism and privilege and broken systems. We need to talk about it.
We need to talk about sin. I know that over the generations that tiny, little word has taken on some heavy meaning, especially as it has been used as a stick with which to beat people into submission. However, in reclaiming the word and its meaning, according to our scriptures, we can address the sin in our lives and live into a new relationship with God. So let’s talk about sin.
Sin, over the generations, has come to be something we invoke when we want to put someone down—you committed a sin. You are a sinner. You are dirty and wrong and you need to be cleansed, corrected, or fixed in some way. Many in our church have been the victims of those boldly proclaiming, “hate the sin and love the sinner,” which is just another way to offer condemnation and to make oneself feel superior. Sin is loaded down with those medieval images of purgatory, confessionals, and acts of penance. Sin is something we throw at someone else—we condemn their behavior and label it sin. But that is not how scripture speaks of sin.
Our three readings today all address this troublesome word—sin—and highlight its meaning in our life with God. Deuteronomy… Deuteronomy is a series of sermons given by Moses to the people of Israel as they stand on the border of the Promised Land, about to enter in and be a settled people for the first time in 40 years.  Moses will not be going with them, and he takes this moment to impress upon them how life with God should be in this new life in the land flowing with milk and honey. In many of his sermons, Moses points out all the times in the past when the people have turned away from God and things have gone poorly. The book of Deuteronomy was finally written generations after the Exodus and the settlement of Israel. Its words were put to parchment and scroll while the people of Israel were living in exile in Babylon, having lost everything—land, temple, identity. Moses’ words echo down to them centuries later—choose life or choose death.
These words from Deuteronomy 30 are the essence of a definition of sin—sin is the choice that takes us away from God and from God’s way of living in the world. Holiness is the opposite of sin—to choose God’s way of living in the world. Deuteronomy waxes poetic to speak of this choice: love God; walk in God’s ways, keep God’s commandments, love God, obey God’s voice, cling to God. This is the essence of discipleship, the essence of holiness, the opposite of sin. Deuteronomy 30 is pointing back to the beginning of the book, the heart of God’s Law, the heart of the Torah—chapters 5 through 7, and the heartbeat of Law found in Deuteronomy 6:4 and following, the Shema.
            Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!
            Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.
            These words that I am commanding you today must always be on our minds.
            Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house
            and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up.
            Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol.
            Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city gates.
When Jesus is challenged in our Matthew reading today to sum up the whole of the Law, he turns immediately to the Shema—but he expands it. We are to love God with all our heart, all our being, and all our MIND. And, we are love our neighbor as ourselves—from Leviticus 19. This is what it means to be a child of God, to be a follower of Jesus. It is a whole life commitment to God’s way of living as we see in the life of Jesus. In the first letter from John, the author calls us to live as adopted children of God—we take on a whole new identity and live as new people, part of a new family. Anything that is not God’s way, Jesus’ way, is sin. That seems like such a simple definition, but if we stop to think about it, this is a heavy, different king of heavy but still heavy. It is a hard definition to live with.
Holiness and sin are not just about the big, momentous choices in life. They are about our daily practices, the moment-to-moment choices we make throughout our day. Will we choose to hear God’s voice, to cling to God, to follow Jesus…holiness? Or will we choose the world’s way, our culture’s demands…sin?
  • Will I get myself moving in the morning and take care of those few household needs, or will I veg in front of the iPad and play my games?
  • Will I give extra time to a person looking for assistance or will I quickly send them on to Caring Connections and let their volunteers handle the need?
  • Will I take time to write some notes to family members who love to get mail, or will I put it off once again for another day?
  • Will I put down my smart phone in the checkout line at the grocery store to engage with those standing around me?
  • Will I make sure that I have quality time each day in prayer and devotion or will I let the pressures of my calendar, to-do list, and obligations drive that time away?
Perhaps at first glance we wouldn’t consider these things choices between holiness or sin, but when you start to pile all the choices together, a pattern begins to emerge—a pattern of life holiness or not. Giving myself permission once in a while to linger over my games, or acknowledging that I cannot make time at that particular moment for someone because of another important obligation, those as rare instances are not in themselves sinful. But if they become a regular pattern, am I still living in the light of Christ? How will a pattern that leans toward games and busy-ness and excuses sabotage the bigger choices that have a deeper impact on my life and identity with Jesus? How will it affect me when I have to choose to speak out in courage or to remain silent? How will it affect me when I am called to choose between the comfort of what I know and the terror of the unknowable? How quickly will I begin to get lost in self-reliance and worldly pressures if I let busy-ness interfere with time with God and my faith community? What happens if we avoid conversations about sin?
God knows we get distracted easily by the world’s ways. God knows that the pressures of life, as we perceive them, can lure us down other paths than Jesus’ way. God’s instructions in the Shema are not just metaphors for devotion, God calls us to put reminders before us of holiness, to steer us away from sin. Bind those reminders to your hands, set them on your forehead, place them on the entrance to your home—remember the importance of your choices! Choose life! Choose God! Choose holiness! And be ever mindful of sin. Yes, we need to talk about sin. We need to talk about specific sins and seek to change into patterns of holiness in our lives and in the life of the world around us. Let us not avoid the difficult topics. Let us stand in courage and in the light of Christ.  Amen.

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