March 5, 2017, Lent 1, No Dirty Little Secrets – sermon by Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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My Mom was a good and truthful person, but I remember vividly one time that she told a lie – and not the fun, Santa Claus or surprise party kind of lie, but a real lie. I had gone with her in to the emergency room because she had fallen and broken her wrist. The ER doctor had come in to take her medical history, and as they always do, he asked my Mom if she was a smoker. Now, my mother had been a smoker, on and off, her whole life, and I happened to know for a fact that she was definitely on in those days. She never smoked when the kids or I were with her, but you know these things when you spend time with someone. So I was quite surprised to hear her answer the doctor, “No.” I think the doctor was surprised, too – I suspect he was pretty sure she was a smoker – so he asked her again, and she denied it absolutely. For my Mom, smoking was her dirty little secret, something she couldn’t bring herself to stop doing, and equally something she couldn’t bring herself to admit to anyone – and especially, I think, she was ashamed to admit it in front of her daughter.
I never said anything about it later, and I had never thought badly of my Mom whether she smoked or not. Other than worrying about her health, I have certainly never thought of smoking as a moral issue at all, for my mother or anyone else. But I bring up this experience, because I think many of us think about sin the way my mother thought about her addiction to cigarettes – that our sins are our dirty little secrets. We know we do things we shouldn’t do, and we feel badly about doing them, and we are ashamed to admit it, especially to the people who matter to us. Sin is a black mark on our record, and we come to church on Sundays, in the privacy of our hearts, or we pray in the silence and dark as we go to sleep at night, to ask God to forgive us and to clear our record once again. We think of sin as our private shame, and as we get older we get better at hiding our more egregious sins, the better to keep them private – and not because we are bad, sneaky people, but because we believe that is what we are supposed to do as good people.
But here we are today on the first Sunday in Lent, and in Lent we are going to spend a lot of time talking about repentance, as we always do in Lent, and so we also spend a lot of time talking and thinking about our sin, and it is absolutely crucial for us to understand first of all what sin really is, even though sin is probably nobody’s favorite sermon topic. And the first thing I want to say about sin is that sin is NOT anyone’s private, personal dirty little secret. Our sins are not a matter of breaking the rules we carry around with us, like the Ten Commandments, and the things our mothers drilled into us, and the things our society tells us are what bad people do. In other words, sin is not a matter of keeping the rules. But what is it, then?
If you look farther back in your Book of Common Prayer than we ever usually go, you get to a section called “An Outline of the Faith, Commonly Called the Catechism”, and on page 848 at the very bottom is this question: what is sin? And the answer given in the catechism is this: “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” The thing you notice at once about this is that this definition doesn’t leave any room at all for privacy. No dirty little secrets here, no rule-breaking that silently chalks up demerits on the personal scorecard of your heart. Sin can’t be private at all, ever, according to this definition, because sin is all about relationship. Sin, the catechism tells us, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sin is when we choose to pursue our own will in such a way that it distorts, or breaks, or does violence to, our relationship with someone else – either God himself, or our fellow human being, or the natural world over which God set us. We never, ever sin – according to this definition – without hurting someone else.
So the question is: is that a good definition? Why did whoever wrote that catechism give that particular answer for that question? And the answer to whether that is a good definition relies on what it means to NOT sin; in other words, what it means to be good, obedient people. And we have that answer from Jesus himself. On a day when a lawyer had come to give Jesus a hard time, he asked, “What is the most important commandment?” And Jesus answered him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Obedience, it turns out, isn’t a personal thing at all – obedience, being “good” – is ALL about relationship with others. Obedience, Jesus told the lawyer – from the very beginning, obedience was neither more nor less than love. Perfect obedience is love of God and love of our neighbor. That’s it. Which is exactly what Paul said in that verse from Romans, that I am forever quoting: “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
And so, as the catechism answer tells us, sin is less about breaking rules and more about – in fact, ALL about breaking connections: connections between us and our God, or our brother or sister, or any of God’s creatures that dwell in this creation with us. If the way of perfect obedience is love, then the way of sin is simply – NOT love. To sin against another another person, or against our God, is to choose not to love them. And that explains a great deal about why obedience, being good, is both more complicated and much simpler than we sometimes think it is.
If “being good” is just a matter of following rules, then it is absolutely simple. If the commandment tells us X, then not-X is sin (there’s a little math metaphor for you). But let’s take a real-life example from the Bible – what about the Hebrew midwives, back when Moses was a baby, who flat-out lied to Pharoah when he told them to kill every Jewish baby boy that was born? Not only did God not punish those women, he rewarded them richly, with families of their own, which was the greatest joy he could give them. Not because it’s OK to lie when you need to, but because they acted out of love – love for their people, love for God. And you could even say they showed love to Pharoah, who would have had the blood of all those children on his hands if they had not refused his command. The choice before the midwives was not – to lie or not to lie. The choice was what it always is: to love, or to fail to love. We can easily sin against another person with the absolute truth – people do that all the time. We can wound each other cruelly without technically breaking any “rules” at all. But we who have been loved by God are called to do more – not less – than follow rules – we are called to love as we have been loved. And that’s the choice that is before us always, every day, every moment – love, or fail to love.
That connection of love is exactly what Satan was trying to destroy when he tormented Jesus out in the desert. Hungry, and weary, and alone, the temptations Jesus faced, one by one, were attempts to weaken the bond of trust and love between the Son and his Father. Will he really provide for you? Will he really protect you? Will he really reward you as he promised? Did the Father really mean it when he called you his beloved, the one in whom he delighted? And it was the connection of love, not just adherence to the rules, that held firm. Jesus was tempted in all ways as we are, but he did not break that connection of love.
When Adam and Eve failed in their test of love, the shock waves of that failure rippled through the whole world so that every connection between every creature in the whole of God’s Creation was distorted and weakened, and those disrupted connections are the source of all sickness and all hatred and all racism and all greed and all fear and all cruelty and all exploitation – and death itself. If Jesus, the second Adam, had sinned, if the Son of God had chosen not-love, that would have been a cosmic failure of love that rippled out and out until every connection in the entire Creation had been broken and corrupted beyond hope of repair. All would have been lost. But Jesus chose love. And the healing began.
Now, today, as we move forward in this journey of Lent, it is important to understand what it means for us to repent of our sins. In the silence before we make our confession together, instead of reviewing a laundry list of broken rules and failures of character, God calls us to seek where the connections in our lives need healing and strengthening. How have our choices this week done harm to the people in our lives? How have we broken faith with God? How have our choices failed to nurtured the creation within our care? Like John Donne wrote, no man – none of us – is an island. None of us stands alone. Everything we do, every choice we make, affects our connection with our companions in this creation – for good, or for harm. We love, or we fail to love, in everything we do, in every choice we make. There are no dirty little secrets in our closet that we can hide away as our private shame. We are not stand-alone creatures, whose choices affect only ourselves, and who are not affected by the choices of others.
Like our own human body, each part rejoices when the other members rejoice and each part aches when the other members hurt. And if we fail to love one another, we are like a body suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, whose connections crumble one by one until the body can no longer function at all. That is the effect of sin on mankind.
Repentance is not about hiding our dirty little secrets; repentance is about restoring broken connections by turning away from our own not-loving will, back to the will of the One whose will is always love: connections between ourselves and the Father; and connections between us and our fellow human beings, and the connection between us and this whole Creation that our God created to be good and beautiful and whole. And every time we repent, every time we reject not-love and turn ourselves back once again to love, we join our Lord Jesus in the process of bringing healing and restoration to our Father’s world.