For those of you who sometimes read this blog (poorly attended as it is during the summer), you might recognize the story I use in this sermon from an earlier prayer service I did at St. E’s. It’s a good story! In any case, the lectionary is on sin and repentance… and God’s joy at finding the lost sheep… and I’m at a new congregation, so they don’t know the story yet! Blessings- Gary
Welcome and Announcements
We welcome you this amazing morning to this house of God, this community of caring and love and service, whether it is your first time with us or whether you are a longtime pillar of the church… welcome, welcome, welcome. My name is Gary Brinn, and I am the Pastoral Intern here at First Congregational, a part of this congregation’s teaching ministry to the wider denomination. Rev. Dominic has been away this weekend, but should be landing at Logan even as we speak, and will be with us again next Sunday morning.
Please join us in the narthex after the service for coffee and conversation, and please join us again next week, when after the service we will have a barbeque! You can find a number of other announcements in the bulletin about events and ministries of the church. Here are a few additional announcements:
God, we are your people, called to and calling out, cried for and crying out. Let your spirit fill this place as we weave our broken and incomplete lives, these fragile gossamer strands, together into a shimmering garment of love, of grace, of forgiveness. Force open our stubborn eyes, penetrate our stuffed ears, break down the doors of our hearts, so that we might receive the love you offer, so that we might offer it to one another, even as Jesus broke barriers with his radical love, even broke death itself. And so we pray the prayer that he taught us saying: “Our Father … trespasses … for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”
Prayer of Confession
Divine Healer, we are your people, but our senses are dull. We become busy, we declare things to be important, we chase and we acquire. We often fail to see our mixed up priorities, the subtle webs of evil that connect our comfortable lives with those oppressed, those exploited. When we do see the connections, when we feel our guilt, we often turn away, dull the pain with some token gesture, some small luxury. And yet you call us again and again. Open our senses and let us see things as they really are, acknowledging in prayer our failures, big and small, acknowledging the opportunities we have missed to love.
Assurance of Pardon
As we have failed, so also did the disciples fail, those who heard the Good News first hand, at the feet of our savior. And as they were forgiven, so too are we forgiven, called always to our better selves, to a radical love, a radical joy that triumphs over death itself. Know that we are forgiven, we are loved, we are children of the Living God!
Prayers of the People
Amazing God, we come before you this morning stunned. How can we ever understand the love that reaches out, the love that is Christ, the love that breaks through our most stubborn hearts? How can any honor we pay you, any praise we offer, bridge the gap between our weakness and your love? How can we look honestly at ourselves and still turn to you?
And yet you call us, in our weakness, in our failures, in our fear, into a life of radical and abundant love! And though our thanks and praise may seem small, it is offered with all of our hearts… a leap over the boundaries of ourselves into a community of love that knows no limits… we praise you and thank you for the overflowing of miracle that is this moment, the next moment… that is life in your church!
And now as your church we offer up our individual and communal praise and petition, both in the silence of our hearts and in the spoken words as we light these candles, knowing that you hear, that you love, that you are with us always, patient, loving, eternal.
The epistle to Timothy speaks about sinners. In the gospel, Jesus is hanging out with sinners. The one lost sheep in a hundred is a sinner, so is the lost coin. We are inclined to focus on the rejoicing, the party held when the lost beloved is recovered. We are all about the prodigal son… and sometimes about the prodigal’s father. But we are decidedly not about the prodigal’s sin.
Sin is a hard one for progressive, modern, and dare I say, post-modern Christians. We are all about affirmation, about living full and fulfilled lives. And we like our Jesus happy-clappy, our Jesus on the felt-board surrounded by lambs and little children. Now, to be fair, we also like our morally outraged Jesus kicking butt in the Temple, throwing over tables… we’d like to believe there is a little of that Jesus in us, in fact there might have been a little of that Jesus in us in our younger days. We like little baby Jesus, we love Resurrection Jesus, and in a pinch, we can even deal with Good Friday Jesus, though sacrificial atonement makes some of us queasy. But we decidedly do not like the Jesus who looks at us and says you are a sinner, you are greedy and self-righteous and you have failed to hear what God is asking of you, you have failed to live as God would have you, you must repent. That Jesus is the Jesus of the hellfire and brimstone preachers, that is a Christianity of guilt, we’ll have none of that nonsense here.
But there it is… that preacher who walked around Galilee, who made his way down to Jerusalem, and died on a cross, that man announcing the Kingdom of God, that man who broke open death itself, did so with a consistent message. Repent! Change your lives! You are a sinner, but God is calling you… God wants you back. You are the lost sheep and I have been sent to find you.
Yes, you are a sinner. I am a sinner. Those are words we don’t say very often… but if we are to be true to the preaching of Christ as recorded in the gospels, we have to deal with it.
So what does Jesus mean by sin? Are we willing to buy into a theology of original sin, a transgression passed from one generation to the other? We rarely talk about it any more, but most of us have thrown off the concept of original sin as we have thrown off the notion that Eve, the first woman of our creation story, introduced it into human history… with a little help from a talking serpent. Maybe we are willing to accept the narrow rule-based understanding of sin that we see in some scriptures, an understanding that makes God a petty judge whose ego demands our adherence to a lengthy list of rules and standards. But we can see Jesus rejecting exactly this sort of understanding in his interactions with the scribes and Pharisees. If we are to be honest, we must admit that our Christian history is filled with this understanding of sin, even in our reformed tradition, and our conservative sisters and brothers in Christ still cling to this way of thinking. Maybe we are comfortable looking to Amos, to Deutero-Isaiah, to Micah… to a definition of sin that is found in our failure to do justice, to clothe and to feed and to visit… this is much more our speed. We can deal with that idea of sin… it is generic, it fits well with our guilt, and we can still look ourselves in the mirror.
I’m not sure how long it has been since you’ve taken a look at the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ. It’s not a creed, and we don’t recite it like one, so it might get by some of us, might get a little rusty. In reflecting on our scripture reading for this morning, I turned to my copy of Roger L. Shinn’s Confessing Our Faith. In it, Shinn devotes plenty of time to the concept of sin. And well he should! No matter which of the three forms of the Statement of Faith you prefer, the word sin is there three times…
From the 1981 Doxology form of the Statement:
“You [God] seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.”
“ In Jesus Christ… conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.”
“You [God] promise to all who trust you forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace.”
Okay, Jesus speaks of sin and repentance. In our Statement of Faith sin is mentioned three times… and it just isn’t that long! Even as progressives, we’re just going to have to deal with the idea of sin… and not the generic “gee isn’t the world unjust” type of sin, but the down and dirty, look in the mirror, personal sense of sin. I am a sinner… and I must repent. I must apologize to God, to my neighbor, to myself, for my transgressions… the traditional sins of commission and of omission. We can deal with the details of what that looks like later… but sin and repentance are central to Christian identity. And that’s a good thing! The centrality of sin in the Good News is good news! As Shinn writes…
“The traditional doctrine of sin, so often assumed to be demeaning to human dignity, actually embodies a noble conception of self-hood. Sin is possible only for persons created in God’s image, empowered with freedom. The doctrine of sin tells us that we are not basically animals, dragged down by predatory instincts, insufficiently humanized. […] The Christian doctrine tells us that our deepest nature is love, and in sin we betray our true nature and destiny.”
When I was a boy, I used to hate report card day. I’d bring home perfectly good grades, average and sometimes above average grades, and my parents would look at me and tell me how disappointed they were. And the reason was always the same… “we know you are capable of better.” Now I’d never advocate this style of child-rearing… today we would find better ways to convey that message. But there it is… isn’t this what God is telling us? You can do better… and guess what… doing better leads to life in the kingdom, to a constant awareness of the divine… it’s more fun! I, God, want you to do better because I love you… just like your parents wanted you to do better because they loved you. Be more! Live to your fullest. Your sin is not in petty rule breaking… your sin is in not reaching for the stars.
As many of you know, during the summer I head off to camp. A couple of summers ago at camp I had an experience I’d like to share with you… one that might help us understand God’s call to us… God’s search for every lost sheep, every lost coin.
Now, summer camp isn’t about discipline, its about fun, so we try to be careful, to use a light touch. Jake wasn’t one of mine. He was an intermediate boy that year, and that year I was in charge of juniors, so this twelve year old boy was one with whom I had little interaction, and here it was, the night before a changeover. Changeovers happened every two weeks, when some several hundred of the campers would leave and a new batch would join those who remained. Jake was one of those leaving. I have to tell you, camp friendships are intense. You can spend more time with a friend in a few weeks at camp than you will another friend in an entire school year. This is especially true of your cabin mates. There are often a dozen boys sleeping in one room smaller than the bedrooms each of these boys have back home in their McMansions. So changeover is emotional. One custom the kids have developed over the years is to sign shirts for one another. But kids don’t just sign…
So there I am at flagpole, the glorious end of the day, and there is this boy with his signed white shirt. And boy is it signed. I don’t know who started it, whether it was Jake or a bunkmate, but this shirt was covered in profane, sexualized words and drawings. And he had it on in front of the whole camp, in front of the whole senior staff! I had to act. I pulled Jake out of the group, asked him to remove the shirt (he did have another underneath lest you think I ordered the child to strip!) and marched him up to the Cooler. The very name is ominous. The Cooler is the office of the camp owner/director. It is where serious issues went. And if you’d read this shirt, you’d have thought it pretty serious. Violent sexual images don’t belong on a twelve year old.
We never made it. Walkie-talkie traffic was jumping, things were busy. Jake’s shirt was not going to make it onto the radar of the camp director that night. So I turned the shirt in, and prepared to turn Jake loose. He was terrified. Was he going to be DNR’ed? Ironically enough, at camp DNR means “Do Not Re-admit.” Even worse, was I going to tell his Mom when she picked him up the next day? Now, this kid was bright, personable, good looking, but he didn’t know the ways of the world… he certainly never should have told me that he didn’t want me to tell his mother, because that became the very thing I determined to do. A mother who could inspire that sort of fear could certainly teach her son about appropriate language, especially given the attitudes toward women displayed on Jake’s shirt. But somehow, that’s not what happened. God happened instead, or the Holy Spirit to be exact, because I am convinced that I could never have done what came next.
I turned to Jake before he left and asked him one question. “Jake, is this the man you want to be?” His eyes teared up, he looked up at me, and quietly answered. “No.” And the words were put into my mouth again. “Jake, the man you want to be is already there. I know you don’t really know him yet, but he’s there. Let him out. Pretend like you are already him and you will be.” I’m not sure who was more stunned, me or Jake, but we both walked away in silence.
The next morning at breakfast Jake approached me. “Do you know what is going to happen to me?” I didn’t. I told Jake that he might get a free pass, that things were busy, that the shirt was gone and the lesson learned. He thanked me, and we spoke once again about the man he wanted to be.
Several hours later as kids rolled out of camp, this boy who I barely knew came running up, threw himself around my waist, thanking me, telling me goodbye, promising to be the man he knew he could be, that he wanted to be.
This, for me, is what God is saying to us, what Jesus is saying to us, when we are called to repentance. Are you the person you want to be? Are you the person you can be? Sure you fail… we make thousands of little decisions a day, and sometimes we get them wrong. I can be petty and self-centered, I can be lazy… I can sin and yet God is there, walking the fields, looking under the couch, calling my name… come back lost sheep, come back lost coin, I will rejoice when I have found you. Be all that you can be. I am calling you.
Sin is not some theological club used to batter and abuse us into submission… it is an understanding that we can be so much more, that to embrace the life that Christ invites us into we must repent of our failures and be scooped up into the arms of the Good Shepherd. I am a sinner and I rejoice in that fact, for it means I can do better. I can dare to love more, to give more, to be more like Christ. I have an opportunity to improve and to grow. Now that’s an idea that fits into our progressive way. God calls us into abundant life, Christ shows us how to live it, breaks through all of the barriers… all we have to do is say yes… dive into the waters of a baptism of repentance! Dare to be… and God will be there waiting, rejoicing. Amen.
Go forth into the world, meeting each day as a God-given miracle, each person as a universe of love, each challenge as an opportunity to dive into the radical and amazing life in Christ, for as he was with us then, so is he now, and will be forever. Amen!