In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is our first Sunday of Lent, that season of the church year where we prepare for Easter through spiritual practices. The worship service is more austere and there is a great deal of language about sin, death, and repentance. You may have noticed this morning–practically just as we said “hello”–we confessed in words, stronger than usual, that we have “erred and strayed like lost sheep…. We have left undone those things which we out to have done, and we done those things which we ought not to have done…”
The word “sin” has disappeared from public life and popular culture. We don’t hear it much at all from our politicians any longer. It’s a word we hear less frequently in many churches these days maybe because the language of sin can sound old, outdated, or even medieval in our progressive age and out of step with our inherent goodness. Besides that, there is no doubt that some churches have used this language in highly negative and disempowering ways that some people have for good reason found to be unhelpful at best and bad for them at worst. Sometimes when it comes to our own worship service and we get to the part where we confess our sins, which is right up front during Lent, I wonder if I really need to do this right now?
But before we throw the language of sin and repentance out the way so much of our culture has, it is worth pausing and looking at what we lose exactly when we lose this word. Bad things done by people still happen even without the word sin. And then we feel the need for a word for it. And, as could be expected, some other word has filled the void. Sin has been replaced by “evil.” We don’t hear about sinners that much, but we hear about evil more than ever. Bad people are said to be evil. Bad governments and their dictators in the world, evil. Policies of all kinds that do harm are evil.
The most curious effect of the language of evil is that if we are not evil, then we must be good. Our movies are saturated with good superheroes violently opposing evil villains. Conflicts of all kinds then become a battle between good and evil. It is now this way even in our own politics, which then becomes really divided and divisive because we who are “good” don’t have anything in common with those who are “evil.” What, then, are we supposed to do with evil? The only responsible thing to do is to destroy it because it is, well, evil. This language of “good” and “evil” isn’t giving us the help we need to understand our complicated world or to solve our collective problems. It does not help us understand why bad things happen. And it does not help us understand ourselves, as everyone of us lives a life that defies the overly simplistic sorting of good and evil where our personal responsibility for ourselves weighs on us in a manner that demands a more sophisticated moral framework than we currently have.
I suggest to you that the Bible’s language of sin is precisely the subtle analysis we need. It’s not only helpful, it is accurate, and explains way more about the world than the language of evil. Christianity may be ancient to us, but all the horrible things that afflict us were already here before Christianity ever existed. It came after to supply its own resources to oppose them, cope with them, or to overcome them. In other words, it came to help and one of those ways is to bring us out of the eternal cul-de-sac of the forever combat between the cosmic forces of good and evil.
It does so partly through its language of sin. What does the Bible mean by “sin”? Far from saying we are “evil,” sin is something good people do when they want something, and somehow, despite their best intentions that desire tragically turns against them and other people. The Bible is a one of the great books–no matter what you think about it religiously–because it is the story, over and over again, about how good people are led astray by their own desires and intentions. Each collapse in the Bible is both totally unnecessary, and in retrospect, inevitable because of the echoing depths of the human heart. Sin” is not evil, it is a misguided form of love. It is something good people do even as it results in untold psychic and physical suffering.
This biblical analysis has enormous explanatory power about oneself and others if you live in a world where all sorts of things go wrong. None of us, or our institutions, in this biblical view, are quite as good as we might think, but those who we consider evil are not as thoroughly bad either. As the Bible says, “All people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). It is not like real people wake up and decide, “Hey, today is the day when I am going to make a disaster. This is the day when I am going to ruin everything!” After the fact, we ask, “what were you thinking?” If you are tempted to stand in judgment of another person, think of it this way. Have you ever had a do-it-yourself home repair project go terribly awry? Maybe a little amateur plumbing or electrical work on the fly, or deck building, or roof repair? It’s only funny when it’s not you and your house! Legitimate desires, real needs, go terribly wrong all the time. None of that makes any of us evil. It makes us sinners in need of help and true repair.
In the Bible, human conflict isn’t between good people on the one hand and evil people on the other, but between sinners of varying types competing for what they construe as their own good. In fact, that we are sinners is one vast common ground that we share and one of the things that we have in common with each other. No matter what else is happening, at least at church we all kneel and confess our shared identity as children of Adam. Rather than bad news, this shared identity as sinners opens up a world of possibility, a world of humble joint action for the common good, that wells up out of the compassion we have for one another as sinners in need of mercy of grace.
The story we read this morning about Noah and the ark is not a story of good people verses evil people. It is an ominous story of all the children of Adam, through a millions little bad decisions ending the world for everyone. Well, not just exactly everyone, Noah and his family survive only because of a single extraordinary act of divine mercy that, according the story, hangs over the world like rainbow over the waters. That mercy creates the possibility for saving confession and repentance. To confess one’s sins is not to repent of being evil; it is not even necessarily an attempt to head off some future penalty at the final judgment. We confess, repent, and amend our lives in the overall effort to live in a way that is good for us, that enables all our capacities, wants, and needs to flourish together. When we say, “We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves” we are not saying we are bad or evil (we are not), but we are asking for our love of the right things to grow so that we can love with our whole heart in a way where that love leads to what is good for us and for other people and our world.
In the fight, tragedy, and chaos of this world, there is this vast shared ground that unites us as sinners, that is people driven by loves and failing again and again to get them right. If you find yourself thinking someone is evil, chances are the truth is they do not love what you love in the way you love. I once had a friend who used to say, “When you see massive dysfunction, it is worth asking “who is putting the fun in the dysfunction”, that is, it is working for someone. We only understand that when we see the misguided love, that is, the sin. But that is the kind of understanding that makes change possible, because the root of the problem isn’t evil, it’s love failure. The world is the way it is not because evil has had its way, but because sinners sin and continue to do so in astonishingly destructive ways despite their best intentions. Unlike evil which is to be destroyed, sinners can be saved and redeemed.
If sin is misguided love, then its remedy is a love that is so big that it becomes the object of our desire and draws all our loves into its service. This is where God comes in. Because it is possible to so fall in love with God that all these other loves fall into line, move from disorder into order where they are now put into service of this higher passion. Misguided love receives the guidance it seeks, sin is redeemed, and love is all in all. Growing that love is what we do here at All Saints’ with sinners pulling together rather than turning on each other. So this Lent and at others times in church, when you hear the language of “sin,” hear both the human goodness it implies and its naming of unnecessary failings that need not afflict us how they do, if we turn and turn again to a divine love that is more constant and reliable than we are. That turning, that attentiveness to the growth of God’s love in us, is the purpose of our Lenten spiritual practices. Avail yourself of them!
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet