When visiting a new congregation I like to show off my sense of humor, trying to offer a nice mix of comfort and challenge, so I spent much of the week looking for something light-hearted and funny to say about the first Sunday of Lent. “Satan walked into a bar,” “Knock knock. Who’s there? Temptation.” You won’t be surprised to hear that none of these worked out. To tell you the truth, sin and temptation just aren’t funny. It is hard to do an upbeat sermon for Lent.
We have become accustomed to avoiding the subject of sin lest we make someone uncomfortable. In an age of religion-consumers, we try to keep things happy. And we certainly we need some comfort and happy in our lives. It sometimes feels as if we are under constant assault, as if beloved institutions and systems have been corrupted by a “me-first” culture. But even in dark times, the Way of Jesus demands that we avoid corruption and sin. So, yes, this is a sermon about sin. Those who were contemplating a nap might want to settle in.
This past Wednesday I opened the newspaper to the “Dear Abby” column and got quite a shock. A single gay man explained to Abby his discomfort at being sexually propositioned by a heterosexual couple. No matter what you might think about same-sex relationships, the question and Abby’s response were about the ethics of inviting someone into adultery, as if adultery could ever be ethical. In fact, as a country music fan, I have become increasingly alarmed at lyrics which condone sex outside of a covenanted relationship. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I preferred the day when country songs condemned rather than celebrated that lyin’ cheating dog of a man.
We are awash in a sea of sin. Our televisions, newspapers and web sites are filled with the drug-addled self-centered anti-Semitic celebrity, athlete or politician of-the-week.
It took hard work to follow Jesus during the decadent days of the Roman Empire, and it takes hard work to follow Jesus in the decadent days of American empire. Such hard work that we cannot do it alone.
Michaela Bruzzese, a frequent contributor to Sojourners, writes this: “The manual for discipleship, if it existed, would come with this warning: Do Not Try This Alone.” Bruzzese is right. Jesus offers us only one model for being disciples. I know it is popular to claim a “religion-less Christianity,” to believe you can be Christian without belonging to a church, but it is a lie. To be a Christian is to be part of a covenant community, as inconvenient as that might be. The individualism of much of Western philosophy has overrun our faith, as it has overrun our economics systems, our politics, our values. Yet individualism and its extension tribalism are the heart of sin. Jesus calls us into community to be transformed, to be sanctified. To be sure, covenant community is messy. If we are honest with our sisters and brothers in Christ, we find ourselves feeling exposed. We create walls, calling this a “personal matter” and that “nobody’s business.” And Bruzzese’s answer? Christ’s answer? Do Not Try This Alone.
We humans are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. We are called to transcendence, to love and art and to radical openness. Our hearts long to soar, but we find ourselves bound by fear. In that fear we create false divisions: the “us-versus-them” of racism, tribalism, homophobia; the lies that allow us to believe we are superior to the rest of God’s amazing creation. It is fear that convinces us that if we just buy product X, take pill Y and vote for politician Z, everything will be okay. We are drowning in a sea of false promises, for product X was poorly manufactured and is designed to break, pill Y will wear off while damaging your long-term health and requiring more pills, and any day now the news will break that politician Z was caught taking bribes.
It doesn’t matter what the demagogues say in order to stoke the flames of fear. There is an answer. Through Christ comes freedom from fear, liberty, and real transformation. And Christ is realized in our lives through covenant community. The church is the agent of transformation This is not individualistic, it is not my “personal Jesus,” it is communal.
God has the power to liberate us from our fear, from all of the silly games we play to convince ourselves we’re in charge. God chooses to liberate us from our fear, from aimlessness and fear. But to be saved, we must let go. We must let go of the notion that we are in control. We must let go of our hard fast rules about what is private, what is our business. We must give ourselves to our covenant community in faithful service and faithful obedience
Today’s scripture is a challenging word, for at times, individually or collectively, we will stumble back into sin. And we are polite, oh so polite. We don’t like to confront, to name. We leave sin and accountability to the radicalized religious right. The Protestant Mainline has long abandoned the notion of accountability in the church. We avert our eyes and avoid the unpleasant.
Our statement of faith tells us the Jesus offers and answer to those mired in aimlessness and sin. That cannot happen if we are too polite to name sin when we see it. That cannot happen if we are unwilling to hold one another accountable, if we are unwilling to confess, not in order to wallow in our misery, but that we might be transformed. So that we might be continually sanctified, might become more holy through the work of the Spirit.
Church is so much more than appealing worship, a comforting message and charitable giving. It is about changing lives, not just the lives of others but our own as well. God has dreams for you, bold dreams, dreams that you dare not dream for yourself. To love into those dreams you must be liberated from your fear, and we all know a thing or two about fear in these anxious times.
I am a sinner, damned but for the grace of God and the love of Christian community. We might do well to learn from our more conservative brothers and sisters in Christ. In many of those communities they set up small groups covenanted to holding one another accountable. Sometimes it isn’t even institutional, it is just something we do for one another. Evangelist pastor Tony Campolo writes about his own accountability group, four men who help one another stay on track. Campolo writes, “Once, when I was out in California, I got a telephone call in my motel room at 5:00 a.m. The voice on the other end of the line asked, ‘Are you alone?’ I answered, ‘It’s five in the morning, of course I’m alone.’
‘Just checking,’ my friend answered. He hung up.”
Campolo goes on. “If you’re thinking ‘How horrible that you need to be checked up on from time to time,’ I ask you to consider the possibility that Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker might not have gotten so messed up if some good brothers in Christ had been holding them accountable.”
Now I’m no fan of the Swaggerts and Bakkers of the world, but I agree with Campolo about the need for mutual accountability. Accountability groups might be formal or informal, but I am with Campolo when he states that without accountability, you don’t “have much of a chance over the long haul of living a consistent Christian life.”
My own circle of accountability includes my best friend of many years, Ruth, who reminds me on a regular basis that she knows how to reach my church secretary and will know if I get a case of minister-big-head. Not that that could ever happen. Then again, I sometimes get to hold her accountable when she is over-functioning, trying to fix the problems of others, carrying far too much weight on her shoulders. I stand before you a sinner saved but by the grace of God. And by Ruth. And by my congregation. And by you.
This is hard news that flies in the face of our individualism, but it is, in fact, the Good News. Our faith offers us a method for turning away from aimlessness and sin. That method is the church. We covenant to one another, and when we are at our best we are real with one another, naked and raw and vulnerable. And blessed and challenged and called. We walk together on the Way of Jesus.
So maybe it wasn’t so hard to write an upbeat Lenten sermon after all. Sure there is sin in this world, big bold sins like Goldman Sachs and tiny little sins like cutting someone off on the highway or watching the train wreck that is Charlie Sheen. But there is an escape. In this world charged with the grandeur of God we have the people of God, fellow pilgrims, brothers and sisters on the way. We have a chance to love one another in all of our good, all of our bad, in the messy complicated mystery we are. And that is a blessing.
May this Lenten season will be a season of renewal for you and for this covenant community, this people of God. May it be a time of transformation. May you find freedom and forgiveness in this beloved community. Amen.