What We Have Left Undone

And this is not something we want to hear. It means that we, too, are responsible for our communal sins, even if we as individuals haven’t committed them.

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Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-17
Psalm 51
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1-21

Growing up, there was one part of worship I really didn’t like or understand. No, not the sermon. That was my doodling time.

I’m talking about the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness, page 56 and 77 in the Lutheran Book of Worship, the hymnal we used when I was a kid. I never liked that part of worship. I don’t know if it was because it was just a long block of words that were said, or because I didn’t necessarily understand it all, or because it delayed the first hymn and I loved to sing, or what. But wow, what a drag that was. Nothing like beginning your Sunday morning by talking about how bad you were. Woo-hoo, yay Jesus.

Now that I’m grown though, and now that I’ve been exposed to a very different world than I thought existed in my childhood—a world where sin seems to rule and injustice is not only present, but fostered in so many open, public spaces—I find my reaction to Confession and Forgiveness has changed. Now, I think it might be the second most important thing we do on Sunday morning (after Holy Communion). It’s one of the few times we directly confront sin in ourselves and in our midst, and it’s something we don’t do often enough.

But what is sin? You’d think that for something so important to our understanding of, well, everything to do with our faith, there’d be one easy, concise definition of sin. How foolish of me to think so.

It turns out sin is surprisingly hard to define. Everyone seems to define it differently. Probably the most basic definition I recall being taught was that sin was a small, fancy word that meant doing bad things. So of course, I did what I always do when I don’t know or don’t understand something: I looked it up.

The dictionary in the back of the Bibles my wife and I received at our Confirmations defines sin as “An offense or rebellion against God…; deliberate defiance, wickedness; iniquity; ungodliness.” The Master Builder Bibles for Men glossary defines sin as “to break the law of God; the act of not doing what God wants.” Hmmm.

Turning to our liturgy, I took the following from our Confession and Forgiveness out of Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Sin is described as something that comes out in what we think, what we say, and what we do. It’s something we actively choose to do, but it’s also something that happens when we actively choose not to do something. It’s described as not loving God fully, and not loving the people around us fully. It’s a turning away from God and focusing only on ourselves. It’s something we do intentionally and something we do without even knowing it (which is scary, when you think about it).

All of which is, again, kinda unhelpful and confusing. That describes sin, but doesn’t clearly define it. Sin appears to be one of those words we use all the time and just assume everybody knows, but as it turns out, nobody really knows.

So let’s do a little definition work. Given all of the definitions and descriptions above, let’s work with this summary of sin: sin is a word we use to describe the wounding of a relationship. That relationship can be between us and God, or it can be between us and each other. Sin does not exist in a vacuum—it always involves more than one person. So sin is anything we think, say, or do—and even things we choose not to do—that harms our relationship with someone else.

This changes the dimension of sin, doesn’t it? Sin is no longer just something I do that’s bad. It’s something I do that’s bad to or for someone else. It gives a relational dimension to sin that is often missing in our discussions around sin, especially as it regards how our actions or inactions hurt others.

For example. We all know it’s wrong to take money from someone. That’s stealing. That’s sinning. But if we look at sin as something that breaks our relationship with others, then this is also sin: withholding our money from others when we have too much and they have none. Because it causes them harm. Ouch. We haven’t -done- anything to someone else. But by not doing something that would help our neighbor, we are just as guilty.

Martin Luther understood this dual nature of sin when he wrote his explanations of the Ten Commandments for his Small Catechism. For the Seventh Commandment—”You shall not steal”—he writes this:

“What does this mean? We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.”

So you see, there are two sides to breaking that commandment: taking our neighbors’ money, and failing to help them protect it from others trying to take it. Both hurt our neighbor.

Do you see what I mean when I say that sin is a wounding of our relationship with others?

And it gets even more complicated than that. The contributors to the Disrupt Worship Project, whose work we will be using through the Lenten season, point out that we are very good about pointing out individual sins: -I- did this, or -I- did that. It fits well into our cultural narrative that each person is responsible only for themselves. Sin is something personal, individual, and each person will be judged individually.

But remember, sin is never something that is done or that happens in a vacuum. Sin is a breaking of relationships. And just as sin itself separates us from each other, it also binds us together in its deadly grip. Sin is not just individual sin. It is communal sin.

This is the kind of sin that the prophets of the Old Testament rail against. This is the sin that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Micah all preach about. In their view, the whole community, the whole nation of Israel and Judah, was guilty of sin as a group. Because even though each person may not have cheated the poor, their society cheated the poor. Even though each person may not have turned away from God’s promises, their community did. Because of this, the whole community suffered the consequences of that sin. The whole community was responsible.

And this is not something we want to hear. It means that we, too, are responsible for our communal sins, even if we as individuals haven’t committed them.

Our society, our church is racist. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that racism, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction. We have left the work of healing undone.

Our society, our church, is sexist. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that sexism, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction. We have left the work of healing undone.

Our society, our church, is homophobic and transphobic. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that homophobia and transphobia, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction. We have left the work of healing undone.

Our society, our church, favors the rich and looks down on the poor. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that classism, we are responsible for owning that sin.

Our society, and even our church, favors the right to shoot and kill 17 adults and children in a school in Parkland, Florida over protecting them. And even if we don’t individually contribute to the gun fetish of our culture that allows mass shooting after mass shooting to happen, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction—we refuse to take any action to stop it, choosing instead to offer quaint and useless “thoughts and prayers”. We have left the work of healing undone, and because of our inaction, more people have died. That mass shooting just happened a few hours ago, by the way; this afternoon.

We confess that the things we have done and the things we have left undone, the communal sins we have allowed to flourish because we won’t address them, are just as deadly as, if not deadlier than, the sins we commit as individuals.

Lent has traditionally been a time of preparation for those seeking to be baptized. It has also been a time to really focus on sin—not to cower in fear before it, but to confront it, name it, challenge it, change it and ourselves, and refocus on the God who forgives.

Because sin can be fought. It already has been. I said that sin not only separates us but ties us together into one big ugly mess. During Lent we look forward to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which broke the ties of sin and death, freeing us from the tyranny of sin. When Jesus told the woman about to stoned to go and sin no more, he didn’t mean that she could be perfect and would never sin. But he gave her freedom from sin that no longer had to be obeyed, sin that no longer held her in its prison without escape. Without Jesus Christ, she wouldn’t be free.

Without Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t be able to name our sins, both the individual ones and the collective ones.
Without Jesus Christ, we would be stuck in an endless cycle of things we have done and things we have left undone, slaves to the constant voice that says, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Without Jesus Christ, sin would still have total mastery and control over us, over our society.
Without Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t be able to challenge our communal sins, repent of our actions and inactions, and change the society around us.

Thanks be to God that Christ broke the power of sin and death, bringing liberation and freedom to those imprisoned by it, and in doing so gave us the strength and power to break sin’s power over our communities. For just as sin wielded power over all in an abusive relationship, the liberation through Jesus Christ brings freedom over all to unite them in a new relationship.

Today, you will receive the sign of the cross,the sign of Christ, on your foreheads. You will bear public witness to your faith. You will show others the liberation you have in Jesus Christ. And through you, as we name aloud tonight our sins and confront them, casting them off, you will bring that freedom and liberation to others.

Featured Image: “Repent Forgive Rebuke” by Jon Worth is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

One Page at a Time

This bit of truth-telling, this watershed event, can’t be taken away. It’s important to remember for the disciples, and it’s important to remember for us.

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church and Chapel in the Pines in Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

By now I’ve answered the question, “How did you become a pastor?” enough times that I almost have a script memorized in my head. It’s what we call our “call story”, or the story of how our lives led up to the point at which we knew God was calling us to be ministers of Word and Sacrament or, in the case of Deacons, Ministers of Word and Service.

The way I tell it (and no, I’m not going to give you my whole call story) is that as I lived my life, God slowly closed off alternate pathways until the path I’m on now was pretty much the only path left.

Back in high school, when I was totally carefree, I was convinced I’d follow in the steps of a hero I adored and become a band director and a music teacher. When I applied for college, that’s what I was looking for. It’s why I went to Capital University to study under Jim Swearingen, who is a legend in the music education world. I was pretty sure I knew where my life was going. Yeah, people had said I’d be a good pastor, but that’s not what I was interested in.

Shows how much I know, doesn’t it? It wasn’t a year before things started to crack and fall apart. For one, music education required a level of dedication and practice to my musical craft that I simply didn’t have. There are actually quite a number of things I can imagine myself doing for six hours a day, including very constructive things, but playing my tuba or studying music scores just isn’t one of them.

I also discovered that while I love teaching, I would not survive in our education system. I didn’t enjoy my education classes at all. I hated my field visits, not because they themselves were bad, but because I could no longer imagine myself doing that work.

Finally, half way through my sophomore year and having failed a class with a C, just before Christmas break I wrote a letter to Jim Swearingen explaining that I was dropping out of the Music Education program. It was the scariest letter to date I have ever written. I went home that break and had to figure out what I was going to do when I got back, because now, I needed a new major.

I ended up taking a general Music major and picked up a religion minor. And the more I had conversations with my professors in the Religion and Philosophy Department, the more they urged me to consider going to seminary. I still wasn’t convinced, but I was at least willing to hear them out.

Eventually, I declared a religion major simply because I could. And as graduation approached, I grew more and more anxious. I had no idea what I was going to do after I graduated. I had no career plans. I had no savings left. I was thinking about seminary. But I knew that once graduation came, the stability I’d enjoyed for the last four years of my life was gone. It was terrifying.

Graduation came. I moved back in with my parents and started working construction and restaurant jobs. When I moved back out to Columbus a few months later to live with a friend and her fiancé, I was still lost and trying to figure out what I was going to do.

Finally, after putting it off and putting it off and putting it off, I figured I had nothing else to lose and applied to seminary. By some miracle, I was accepted, and we started orientation.

I don’t remember much about that first day, except a session where all the new students stood in a circle in the chapel and introduced ourselves to each other. But what I do remember is getting home that night, falling into my bed, and thinking, “This is it. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be. This is exactly what I was supposed to do.”

Now, it’s not always been a rosy journey since that point. Some of you have heard some of my stories about struggles in seminary and after I graduated. But I hold onto that memory, that feeling, that statement: “This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

It’s important to hold onto statements like that. It’s important to be reminded of them.

When Jesus and his disciples visit the city of Caesarea Philippi, what happens there becomes one of these moments. I’ve been to Caesarea Philippi. It’s the site of what was once a massive spring gushing out of a cave dedicated to the Greek god Pan (the spring still exists, and is a wonder to behold, but it no longer gushes as it once did because of an earthquake). Here, Jesus sees the convergence of three worlds: the Greek, the Judean, and the Roman.

It’s been a long journey to get there. Jesus has been traveling through Judea and Galilee, preaching, teaching, healing, and exorcising. He’s made friends and allies, but also enemies. So far, no one’s really asked the question that’s on his mind: “Who do people think that I am?”

When he asks his disciples this question, they posit a number of theories: some say that he’s Elijah or Jeremiah or another prophet who’s returned from heaven to lead them. Some say he’s the reincarnation of John the Baptist, who had just been executed (don’t ask me how they got that idea, I don’t know). Despite everything Jesus has been doing, it seems no one really gets it.

And then he turns to his disciples and asks them: “Okay, but, who do you say that I am?” I can almost hear the anticipation in his voice. I can almost feel his anxiety, his caution. If you’ve ever heard me talk about the disciples before, you’ll know that for the most part, they are a group of people who just never seem to get it. Would they stay true to form, Jesus might wonder? Would they disappoint again?

But Peter has his moment. Peter, who I usually call the dunce of group. Peter, who better resembles Kelso from That 70s Show than he does Bill Nye the Science Guy, actually comes through. He gets it. When Jesus asks that fateful question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

I can almost feel the warmth of Jesus’s smile. They have been listening! They have been paying attention! All of his work hasn’t been for nothing.

Because here, at Caesarea Philippi, the disciples glimpse what’s so important. Here, even for just a moment, they understand who Jesus is, who God is, and why Jesus came in the first place. Here, more than anywhere else during Jesus’s lifetime, the disciples are the best that they can be.

Now, it doesn’t last. The very next story in the Gospel according to Matthew—literally, today’s story ended at verse 20 and the next one starts at verse 21—Peter goes and screws it up, gets called Satan, and basically returns to his regular, stupid self. But this moment, this strong, defiant, truthful proclamation of Jesus’s identity out of the mouth of Peter sets things in motion that can’t be stopped.

It’s after this that Jesus starts his journey back toward Jerusalem, his last journey to the city. It’s after this that he gets into real trouble with the religious authorities of his time, and they start plotting to kill him. It’s after this that he shows the world what it means to be the Son of the Living God and the chosen of God—it means suffering and dying, all in the name of love. This confession of Peter’s is a turning point in the Gospel story that sets everything into motion.

And yeah, Peter screws it up, and the disciples screw it up, and sometimes I wonder if Jesus never did think he made a mistake in the people he’d chosen to follow him. But this moment, this bit of truth-telling, this watershed event, can’t be taken away. It’s important to remember for the disciples, and it’s important to remember for us.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by this thing we call being a Christian. In my church for example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we lay out in our constitutions what it looks like to live out our baptismal callings. We are to:

Worship God in all that we do,
Proclaim the Gospel,
Carry out the Great Commission to make disciples,
Serve in response to God’s love to meet human needs, which includes caring for the sick, advocating for justice for all, working for peace among the nations, standing in solidarity with the poor and the powerless,
Nurture the faith of our community,
Get along with other Christians,
Provide regular worship services,
Provide pastoral care,
Teach the Word of God,
Be witnesses to Christ’s words and deeds,
Challenge, equip, and support all members as they try to carry out their calling.

It’s a lot to keep track of it. It’s a lot of work, being a Christian. And a lot of the time, it’s too much to do all at once.

One of my key failings is that I’m easily overwhelmed. I’ve never been sicker in my life than when I was trying to write my senior thesis in college, because I was on a ridiculously shortened schedule. When I’d sit down to write, I’d stare at the blank page, then remember that I had to have something like 40 or 50 pages by the time I was done. The thought alone would literally overwhelm me, and I’d have a breakdown.

People who cared about me, my friends and family, would remind me, constantly, that I could do it. That one page at a time was how every paper was written, no matter the speed. One page at a time.

Sometimes, we only have enough strength to be Christians one page at a time. And we are Christians one page at a time:

When we feed the hungry, through programs like the Three Lakes Christian Food Pantry and Caritas.

When we take those few minutes a day to open up the Bible and read a little bit of God’s word, even if we don’t understand what it means.

When we confront our own biases and sins, recognizing that all human beings are in need of forgiveness, even us.

When we speak out against injustice, even and especially when it makes us uncomfortable.

When we actually talk about our faith, and aren’t ashamed of it.

One step at a time, like Peter.

One step, one page, one day at a time. That’s what the Christian life, the life of the disciple takes. Each day, each moment is a single page. We may not be able to do it all at once–to squeeze a week of Christian discipleship into one day a week, or a life of discipleship into a single month. But we can do it one day at a time, one page at a time.

Featured Image: “an open book” by imanka is licensed under CC BY 2.0.