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.

Take Heart

And it’s important to call white supremacy out for what it is: evil. It’s important to call it out as absolutely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

1 Kings 19:1-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

For two days in a row now, I have walked around feeling very much like Elijah.

For two nights in a row now, I have gone to bed feeling very much like the disciples.

For 48 hours, I have been afraid. I have known fear. And so we’re going to talk about fear.

Fear is generally defined as a rational, unpleasant feeling that is a response to a perceived or real threat to a person. It is one of our most very basic emotions, a primal response to stimuli in our surroundings, that causes us to either try to escape from the danger, confront it, or freeze.

Rational fears help keep us alive by keeping us out of danger. Irrational fears are called phobias, and they are responses to stimuli that aren’t dangerous, but are still perceived to be. The fear of getting shot when someone is holding a gun to your head is a rational fear. The fear that your goldfish is going to hurt you is an irrational fear, a phobia: and it even has a name, ichthyophobia.

Fear permeates our scripture readings this morning. Elijah is running away because he’s afraid. It’s a rational fear: he has every good reason to be afraid. He has just executed as many prophets of Baal as he could, prophets loved by Queen Jezebel, who also worshiped Baal. And he has just received a message from the Queen basically saying, “I swear on my life: because you killed my prophets, expect that by tomorrow, I will have killed you, too.”

I don’t know about you, but if the leader of my country sent me a message saying that they were going to use all of their power and authority to have me killed by tomorrow, I’d be terrified too.

In response to this well-founded, rational fear, fear for his life, Elijah runs. He runs for over forty days, so far away that he ends up in the desert, at the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb, where God met the Israelites after liberating them from slavery and formed the covenant with them. Here, he hopes he can finally be out of reach of Queen Jezebel and her vengeance. Thinking himself the only person left in the kingdom faithful to God, he hopes that here, God will keep him safe.

The disciples, too, experience their share of fear. They have gotten into a boat, on a lake, and are caught in a storm. Now, I’ve never been in that exact situation—perhaps some of you have, and can attest to the horror of it. But my wife is a big fan of Deadliest Catch, and I’ve seen clips of their boats caught in storms, and it is the last place I’d want to be.

I once made a hobby of studying the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald—the real event, not the song. I know the names of ships like the Carl D. Bradley; or the Argus, and the Henry B. Smith, just a few of the 19 ships destroyed and 19 ships stranded during the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, resulting in the loss of more than 250 lives. Being on the water during a storm is a terrifying experience, and a very rational fear.

It’s no surprise then that the disciples, caught in this perilous situation, think that the sight of Jesus walking towards them across the water is actually a ghost. And it’s no surprise that they cry out in fear. It’s a rational response to the danger they found themselves in.

Of course, we know that fear is alive and well in our world today. It’s been brought into sharp focus over the last 48 hours in Charlottesville, Virginia, so much so that I, too, am afraid.

Friday night, hundreds of white supremacists bearing torches, intentionally calling to mind images of hooded KKK members marching with their torches in the heyday of the Klan, marched on the campus of the University of Virginia. They shouted “Sieg heil!” and “Blood and soil!”, two slogans of the Nazi party. They shouted “White Lives Matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!”. They fought with counter-protesters, and the police had to break up the fights.

They surrounded St. Paul’s Memorial Church, where the Charlottesville Clergy Collective held a prayer meeting and had set up a station to help care for people wounded during the protest, and the people inside held each other in fear that the hatred shouting and marching past their door would burst through it at any moment to attack those hiding inside.

Yesterday morning, hundreds more white supremacists marched on Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. They waved Nazi flags, the symbol of one of the worst perpetrators of genocide in modern history. They waved Confederate flags, symbols of an army whose sole purpose was to fight for the right of white Americans to own Africans and African Americans as property, as slaves. They came armed in camouflage body armor bearing assault weapons, claiming to be militias sent to “protect the peace.”

In an act of domestic terrorism, a car drove straight into a crowd of people opposing the white supremacists, killing one and injuring nineteen others. More than a dozen others were injured in skirmishes across the day. The governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, has declared a state of emergency so that he can mobilize state resources to deal with the crisis.

People are afraid. They are terrified. And they have good reason to be. The KKK used to wear hoods to hide their identity when they burned crosses on people’s lawns and lynched them. Now they and other white supremacists who share their ideology of hate walk and chant openly, spewing their hate and bigotry with pride. They have been empowered and emboldened to share their hate. And they are acting on it.

Like Elijah fleeing in terror because the one with all the power sought to use that power to hurt him; like the disciples caught in a storm that they alone couldn’t resist, the targets of the hatred of these white supremacists—of this evil—are afraid: genuinely, rationally, in fear.

And I am afraid–afraid of the truth that my own silence makes me complicit. That our own silence allows this to continue. That we as white Americans have a lot of work to do, and most of us are unwilling to do it.

Contrast that with the phobia—the irrational fear—of the white supremacists. A friend of mine, a deacon in our own ELCA, reported last night that one of his wife’s students in Ohio expressed that he was afraid of black people because he was taught that they were violent. He’s in the first grade. It doesn’t take long for the hate of white supremacy to take root when it’s being taught to our children.

And it’s important to call white supremacy out for what it is: evil. It’s important to call it out as absolutely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because white supremacy has in the past, and continues today, to be supported by perverted interpretations of the Gospel. Yes, people still use the Bible to justify white supremacy. When Christians do not speak up against hatred and evil like white supremacy, our silence speaks for us. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when we don’t want to offend. Even and especially when we’re part of the problem. Despite a supposed dedication to diversity, the ELCA is the second-least diverse church in the country. Thirty years after our formation as a church, we are still over 96% white. Why do you think that is? We need to speak out against sin and evil, especially when it’s this important.

And it is important. It’s important because, as the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, which we read this morning:

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”

The only way the good news of Jesus Christ will be heard is if we speak up. Is if we shout it. Is if we confront the ways in which it is warped, perverted, and twisted to serve sin and evil.

But why here? Why today? Why do we have to talk about it today? This isn’t Virginia. This is Wisconsin. We don’t have any connection to those folks over there, do we?

But we do. Just as Paul reminds us, “the same Lord is Lord of all”. We are Christians. We are part of the church that exists beyond our walls—which is where the vast, vast majority of the church exists.

We do, because the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

This is the same Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963:

“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevances and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of… racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say, ‘These are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ Yes, I love the church… but oh, how we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect.”

Because it is true, what the eminent theologian the Reverend Karl Barth once said about preaching: that it is done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, interpreting current events through the lens of Christ. And Christians need to stand up to white supremacy just as much now as they did when the Reverend Doctor Dietrich Bonhoeffer did during the Nazi regime, and was martyred for it.

Because if we do not speak up and proclaim the Gospel, who will? If we do not speak to those living in fear, like Elijah and the disciples were, who will?

It is up to us. It is our responsibility. It is our calling to be lights in the darkness, to be the cake baked on hot stones and water that strengthened Elijah; to be the great wind, earthquake, fire, and sound of sheer silence that draws attention to God’s presence; to be the voices that calm the storm and remind those living in the grip of such terror that, like Elijah and the disciples, they are not alone; that there are other voices that stand with them.

…That God is present with them.

…That we worship the same Jesus who said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

…That following the example of Jesus Christ, Christians have spent millenia standing up to oppression and injustice, for just like preaching, what good is the Gospel if it doesn’t affect people’s lives?

And that’s exactly what people have been doing—affecting their lives by bringing the kingdom of God with them. As many white supremacists as there were in Charlottesville this weekend, there were many more people there to stand up to them, including hundreds of Christians, lay and clergy, from all across the country. They gathered there to dispel hatred and fear, to stand up to oppression. They prayed. They sang. They marched. They worshiped. They healed–literally, physically helped the injured get well. They stood between different groups of protesters to shield them from harm. They spoke.

They put the good news of Jesus Christ into action. They lived out what it looked like to be the kingdom of heaven here on earth. When we pray, “your kingdom come on earth as in heaven”, this is what we pray for. This is what we mean. Like a song by the Rend Collective goes:

“Build your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set your church on fire

Build your kingdom here.”

And you know what? The people of Charlottesville, Virginia–they heard. They saw. They heard the voice of God in the voices of hundreds of Christians as they sang and prayed. They saw God’s work in the hands of counter-protesters as they dragged the wounded out of the way, huddled with the afraid in the church, locked arms together to form barriers to protect those targeted by bigotry and hate.

They brought salvation with them this weekend. They proved that the ones in fear were not alone. They became angels, messengers of God, bringing word from all across the country that they were not alone. That thousands of voices—our voices—were with them. That our prayers were there. Our support was there. They brought comfort and peace to the heart of the storm.

Today, we too raise our voices in the name of peace. We too recall the salvation our Lord brought to the oppressed and the captive. We too stand in the way of sin and evil. We too acknowledge that we have a long way to go, and that the road before us is long, hard, uncomfortable. We too stand with our siblings in Christ as we proclaim to those in fear, all those in fear: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Featured Image: “Congregate Charlottesville Contronts Unite the Right 20” by Stephen Melkisethian is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. It depicts some of the counter-protesters, including clergy, who stood against the hate groups that were holding a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.