Taking Responsibility for Our Wrongdoing – March 5, 2017

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A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St, Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday of Lent
March 5, 2017

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

Once upon a time, an Eskimo hunter went to see the local missionary who had been preaching to the village. “I want to ask you something,” the hunter said.

“What’s that?” asked the missionary. “If I did not know about God and sin,” the hunter said, “would I go to hell?”

“No,” the missionary responded, “not if you did not know.” “Then why, “asked the hunter, “did you tell me?” I guess ignorance is bliss after all.

No such luck for folks like me who received an indoctrination about the evils of and punishments attached to sin as early on as age 6 thanks to my Catholic school education. Not long after, about 100 of us first graders were marched to church and lined up to make our first confession. You have to wonder just how much sin can a seven year commit? Well, we all made our lists and told the priest and God that we were “heartily sorry for having offended.”

We became well versed in the varieties and degrees of sin: original sin, venial sin, actual sin, mortal sin, deadly sins, sins of commission, sins of omission, and, of course by the time we reached puberty, those terrible sins of the flesh. One overly pious nun once told us that a saint had revealed that everyone in hell was there for a sin of lust. Hell must have a lot of acreage if that’s the case.

Something I always found disturbing was the disparity between the seriousness of some transgressions that got you the same punishment. For example, committing murder and eating meat on a Friday or missing Sunday Mass were all mortal sins—all sent you straight to hell if you did not confess them to a priest and receive absolution before you died. So I was more than relieved by a softer and more reasonable approach to the question of sin in the Episcopal Church and welcomed the practice of community confession and absolution within the liturgy, leaving behind me the requirement in both the Roman and Orthodox traditions to make private and full disclosure confession to a priest a regular practice. Yet we cannot deny that sin and evil and the call to repentance are prominent themes in both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. The reading from Genesis we heard today is a very familiar story, its importance being the part it played in the development of a theology of sin, forgiveness, redemption, and grace.

It is a mysterious book, the Bible. It possesses a peculiar kind of power. It has been the best-selling book in the world. How is it possible that this book, which is almost universally revered in western religious culture, could also be the source of such misunderstanding and conflict?

What really happened in the garden that day? Simply stated, two people who were created to live in a lush garden made a choice to eat the fruit of the one tree from which God told them they should abstain or die. It was really a minor restriction and God imposed it because this Tree of Knowledge and Life would lure them into idolatry, making them want to be God—totally self-reliant and self-centered. The snake tells them what God did not—the man and woman will not die if they eat the fruit. In fact, their eyes will be opened and they will be like God. So in this first recorded act of human initiative, in spite of the Creator’s admonition, they decide to take the serpent’s bait. They exercise their freedom and wind up being evicted from the good life they once knew standing out on the curb and looking in. But the snake had told them the truth. They did not die. They just lost everything that made life a joy. And, of course, Adam’s defense was, “she made me do it.”

Clearly, it was men who framed the genesis story and recorded it because women in that time and culture had no access to that power or even the ability to write. Women neither shaped decisions about life nor engaged in any decision-making process. So it’s no surprise that this biblical narrative tries to explain the problem of evil in the world by declaring that it was the fault of Eve, the female helpmate God created. In a man’s world women have been blamed for many things from that day on.

Until this woman wised up. She had just run a red light and crashed into a man’s car. Both cars are totaled but amazingly neither of them was hurt. After they crawled out of their cars, the woman said; “Wow, just look at our cars! There’s nothing left, but fortunately we are unhurt. This must be a sign from God that we should meet like this and be friends for the rest of our days.” The man replied,” I agree with you completely. This must be a sign from God!”

“And look at this,” she said, “here’s another miracle. My car is completely demolished, but my bottle of 75 year old scotch didn’t break. Surely God meant for us to drink this vintage delicacy and celebrate our good fortune.” Then she handed the bottle to the man who nodded in agreement, opened it, drank a big mouthful and handed it back to the woman. The woman took the bottle, put the cap back on, and handed it back to the man. The man asks, “Aren’t you having any?” She replies, “Nah. I think I’ll just wait for the police.” Just remember—Adam ate the apple, too!

My intention is not to be glib or to make light of nor dismiss the reality of evil and sin. We are all profoundly aware of the existence of wickedness, malevolence and immorality in our world. The problem I raise is not that people do bad things but that, from the time of the story in the Garden, it has become part of human nature to avoid responsibility for the wrongs they do. Like Eve, we may blame a serpent or like Adam a spouse or like the woman in the accident story, we may totally abdicate any culpability for our wrongdoing.

We see this in governments, in political leaders, in entities like financial institutions and we see it in religion and in the church. If we are brutally honest, we will admit that more than once we’ve tried to avoid liability for something bad we’ve done or looked for an easy target to scapegoat. So, when we “miss the mark,” which is the simplest definition of sin, and transgress, go astray, and even really mess things up, we may be guilty as charged but we don’t need to wallow in it or be paralyzed by our culpability. We can act as an authentic and honorable child of God and claim responsibility for it, ask God’s forgiveness, make amends as best we can, and be assured of God’s mercy and that marvelous free gift we know as grace.

Martin Luther believed that the chief temptation of the devil is to try to convince us that we do not have a gracious God. Our God is not a vengeful, rancorous, ogre who sits around devising ways to put us to the test. But that same gracious God has given us this thing called “free will” and with it the opportunity to make both wonderful and disastrous decisions.

All of our choices have consequences. Our lives are shaped not only by what we affirm but also by what we reject. Sometimes we create the laboratories of our own testing. Sometimes we are given a really bad hand through no doing of our own. In all of these times, and no matter what the nature of the test, God is with us as God was in the wilderness with Jesus.

This season of Lent reminds us that the tendency of Adam and Eve to be their own God did not die with them. Human beings still have the itch to be self-reliant and self-centered. God knows that about us and yet still loves us. It is when we fully understand God—not as our judge but as our lover— that we can be transformed.

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