Sunday, February 17, 2013

Be of sin the double cure

It's the most wonderful time of year.

Now I know that isn't a lot of people's first reaction to Lent.
What's so great about Lent? Lent is so wonderful because we finally get to talk about sin. Woo hoo. And... no one here is cheering along with me. We don't like to talk about sin. And that's a real tragedy, because the reality of sin is what makes the Good News so good. We live in a world broken by sin, where so so many things aren't right, and that can make us feel powerless or guilty, but the Good News is that sin doesn't have the final word. We need to acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, but once we do, it's good news from there.

To explain, I'd like to introduce a lesson from the modern prophets Lou and Peter Berryman, singer-songwriters from Wisconsin:

Thanksgiving day Uncle Dave was our guest
Who reads the Progressive which makes him depressed
We asked Uncle Dave if he'd like to say grace
A dark desolation crept over his face

Thanks he began as he gazed at his knife
To poor Mr. Turkey for living his life
All crowded and cramped in a great metal shed
Where life was a drag then they cut off his head

Thanks he went on for the grapes in my wine
Picked by sick women of seventy nine
Scrambling all morning for bunch after bunch
Then brushing the pesticide off of their lunch

Thanks for the stuffing all heaped on my fork
Shiny with sausage descended from pork
I think of the trucks full of pigs that I see
And can't help imagine what they think of me

Continuing, I'd like to thank if you please
Our salad bowl hacked out of tropical trees
And for this mahogany table and chair
We thank all the jungles that used to be there

For cream in our coffee and milk in our mugs
We thank all the cows full of hormones and drugs
Whose calves are removed at a very young age
And force-fed as veal in a minuscule cage

Oh thanks for the furnace that heats up these rooms
And thanks for the rich fossil fuel it consumes
Corrupting the atmosphere ounce after ounce
But we're warm and toasty and that is what counts

I'm grateful he said for these clothes on my back
Lovely and comfy and cheap off the rack
Fashioned in warehouses noisy and cold
In China by seamstresses seven years old

And thanks for my silverware setting that shines
In memory of miners who died in the mines
Worn down by the shoveling of tailings in piles
Whose runoff destroys all the rivers for miles

We thank the reactors for our chandelier
Although the plutonium won't disappear
For hundreds of decades it still will be there
But a few more Chernobyls and who's gonna care

Sighed Uncle Dave though there's more to be told
The wine's getting warm and the bird's getting cold
And with that he sat down as he mumbled again
Thank you for everything, amen

We felt so guilty when he was all through
It seemed there was one of two things we could do
Live without food in the nude in a cave
Or next year have someone say grace besides Dave

Sin is rampant. The evil we have done, the good we have left undone, and the evil done on our behalf. When we itemize the ways the world about us is broken, the ways it dehumanizes and mistreats God's children, and the ways we are complicit in these systems of exploitation that sustain our own ways of life, it becomes overwhelming.

We face a dilemma. It seems like we have two choices: be trapped by sin's guilt, or be trapped by sin's power. To believe we must live without food in the nude in a cave is to acknowledge our contribution to the sinful social structures that oppress, to aspire to amend our lives, and to be utterly crushed by the guilt of sin. But is the alternative to silence the voice of the Uncle Daves? If so, we become slave to sin's power. In denial, we continue to oppress others, and continue in our alienation from God. Denial is less unpleasant than constantly calling to mind all the ills of the world. As the prayer book so aptly describes our sins, "the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable." But failing to acknowledge them increases the likelihood that we repeat them, over and over and over.

So we face this difficult position: remain enslaved to the power of sin by denying its role in our lives, or remain enslaved to the guilt of sin by wallowing in its immeasurable enormity.

My brothers and sisters, we have a third choice. The good news is this: if we confess our sins to God, we are forgiven, healed, and empowered. The old hymn "Rock of Ages" says it well:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee
Let the water and the blood from thy wounded side that flowed
Be of sin the double cure: save me from its guilt and power.

The double cure: we are freed from both the guilt and the power of sin.

Now the guilt part we have to somehow take on faith. In the mysterious cosmic accounting scheme, the guilt of sin is wiped off of our accounts. We have done evil, we have benefited from evil, we are culpable. But God somehow erases our culpability. We are forgiven. God's accounting system is a mystery, but somehow, and we don't know how, our sin no longer "counts".

But the power of sin is no mystery. We see it all too clearly. Despite our desire to be good, to do good, we are trapped by sin. We go on oppressing and mistreating others despite our best intentions. How can we possibly break the power of sin? How can we possibly "go and sin no more" in a world where our daily bread comes from a system built on the backs of the poor? How can we go and sin no more when our own impatience or addiction or weakness or foolishness or flaws seem to have so much power over our good intentions?

We acknowledge our brokenness, and bring the pieces of our life as an offering to God. We offer what we are.

Which means that a sinner's place is in the church. There's no such thing as not being good enough for church. No one should ever feel like they shouldn't come because they're "doing it wrong." We should never give anyone the impression that they somehow have to meet some standard to be "worthy" to come here before the Lord. None of us are worthy, but God calls us all.

If you want to sing praise to God but you're not particularly good at carrying a tune, don't let anyone convince you that you shouldn't offer your voice in praise to the Lord. God wants you as you are.

If you want to worship the Lord but it's one of those mornings where the alarm doesn't go off, and the coffee spills and the garage door won't open, don't let anyone's dirty looks convince you that you shouldn't come to church for whatever portion of the service you can make it for. God wants you as you are.

If you know you care about issues of the day but you're completely overwhelmed, and you feel like writing a single letter to a single leader about just one of the many topics that worry you seems too trivial, don't let anyone tell you contribution is too tiny to matter. God wants you as you are.

There's an old story about a rabbi who visits a remote congregation who don't have anyone nearby to teach them or lead them in prayer. And the rabbi hears one old man praying, in Hebrew, because that's the language God speaks, of course, and he's humbly but passionately praying over and over again "Alef Bet Gimmel Dalet He Vav Zayin..." And after listening for a moment, the rabbi realizes that the man is reciting the alphabet over and over again in Hebrew. And the rabbi asks, "Why are you reciting the alphabet?" And the man says that it's all the Hebrew he knows, but if he gives God the letters, God can put them together into words.

We are broken by the power of sin. But we offer God the broken pieces of our life, and God puts them together into something amazing. One doesn't make a mosaic out of whole pottery. It's the little broken shards that can become the beautiful new whole. We must not hesitate to offer our lives to God because they're broken. It's the broken pieces of our lives that God, the great artist, can assemble into the new creation.

As a broken people, we acknowledge our sin.
As a forgiven people, we experience God's reconciling love.
And then we get to Lent.
Now, we make space to listen.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton prayed:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Our model for Lent comes from todays Gospel: Jesus went out to the desert to fast and pray, to listen, to discern.

Lent *is* about sin, but it is not about wallowing in guilt. How could it be? Jesus, who is without guilt, is our model. We acknowledge and confess our sins, and they are absolutely forgiven. Gone. Our sins are absolved. Lent isn't about guilt; we have nothing more about which to feel guilty. God has taken that away. Our fasting and prayer isn't to somehow make up for our sin - we couldn't do that even if we wanted to, but God doesn't ask us to. This beautiful season of quiet and prayer and fasting is so we can listen. So we can hear what we are called to do as we step out of the power of sin and into the work of building God's Kingdom.

We offer the broken pieces of our lives, and we pray and listen to learn how God wants us to use them. God invites us in all our brokenness, in all our sin, in all our despair, in all our self-perceived inadequacy to know love and healing and forgiveness, and to make room to listen for what we are called to do to spread God's love. Have no guilt that what we do is not enough to break the power of sin. We are not alone. We are with God. So I invite us all to confess our sin, to know God's forgiveness, and to listen for God's call: in short, I invite us to observe a Holy Lent. Amen.