Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The liberation of sin

My sermon for this week was based on Luke 7:36-8:3.

Like many of you I am sure, I went through a period where I didn't just drift away from the church, I rowed HARD in the opposite direction.  This started when I was a pre-teen, and there were a number of factors that contributed to this, but prominent among them being a resentment I developed to being called a "sinner".

Although I cannot remember being called a sinner to my face by anyone in particular, the gist I got from the Bible, from sermons and from Sunday School was that I was supposed to feel pretty wretched and guilty about who and what I was, and that somehow belief in God made everything ok.

I remember thinking, "You know what, screw that, I'm only 10, I haven't even had time to DO anything yet!"  And I remember thinking that my friends had done far worse things than I had ever done at that point.  OK, I may have lied to my parents a little here and there, but I knew kids who stole money off their parents dressers and filched their beer every once in a while.

So I consoled myself by looking to people who had committed worse sins than I had, thereby, some weird how, absolving myself from my own sins.

Pretty childish, huh?

I realized some time ago that this is actually a behaviour I have carried into adulthood.  The other day, my wife and I had a "discussion" because I didn't do the dishes.  I responded by accusing her of not changing the empty roll of toilet paper.  Her response stopped me dead in my tracks.  She said, "And we can talk about me after, but right now we are talking about you".

Drat.  She's smart.

I sometimes think that many of us have brought that attitude forward from childhood, particularly when it comes to the concept of sin.  Sin is not something we like to talk about in Anglican circles.  It is too Catholic or it belongs to the evangelical/pentecostal set.  It belongs to the pathologically guilt-ridden, and has no place in our "I'm ok, you're ok" generation.

I would argue that the concept of sin does belong to all of us, and that, strangely, it is a liberating concept, and I hope to clarify that here.

The Gospel passage for this week is all about sin.  It is about degrees and severity of sin, and it is about our ability or inability to acknowledge and therefore for liberated from sin.

The story focuses around a sinful woman who is reputed to have been a prostitute.  She is often named as Mary Magdalene, but recent scholarship debates that association, and this gospel passage does not name her as a prostitute or as Mary Magdalene, merely that she was "a sinner".

We can only imagine that her sins must have been great, however, because she throws herself at Jesus' feet, washed them with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints his feet with fragrant ointment.

Jesus' host, Simon the Pharisee, is skeptical of this display and derisive towards the woman.  He thinks to himself that Jesus cannot be a prophet because if he was, he would never allow this woman to touch her.  We need to understand that prostitution or any kind of sin made you ritually impure, and an observant Jew in Jesus' time was not supposed to be in contact with anyone who was obviously ritually impure.  This was partially because it was simply not in good taste to associate with sinners, but may also be because ritual impurity was considered to be almost contagious in that if you touched something or someone impure, you yourself because impure.

But Jesus turns the tables on him by telling him the parable of a moneylender who was owed money by two men.  One owed him 500 denarii, the other 50.  The moneylender forgives both debts.  "Now which of them will love him more?", Jesus asks.

"The one for whom the greater debt was canceled", answers the Pharisee.  Jesus affirms that this is the correct answer, and goes on to explain why.

This is where we need to know a little bit about ancient Jewish hospitality laws.  When someone comes to your house, what is the first thing you do?  Offer them a drink, of course.  If you forget, your guest might gossip about you at the next dinner party or around the water cooler, but that is the worst that will happen.

Hospitality was actually part of Jewish law, and failing to follow it was a sin.  After a long journey on foot in sandals in a hot, dusty climate, the first thing a host was supposed to offer his guest was water to wash his feet and a cloth to dry them.  He was also supposed to greet his guest with a kiss of peace.  In a time before deodorant, a host was also supposed to offer fragrant oil or ointment for a guest to refresh himself with.

Simon did none of these things, and Jesus points that out.  The woman, on the other hand, has done all of these things.

The point is that Simon broke the law and therefore sinned, but rather than acknowledge his own sin, he preferred to point a finger at the woman's sin, perhaps because in his mind it was more severe and glaring.

We have all heard the saying, "Clean your own side of the street".  I think this applies here.

Look, everybody does bad stuff, but if our goal is to become better and happier human beings, zeroing in on the sins of others is not the path you want to follow.  We need to look to our own sin in order to free of it, not because it makes God angry or makes him not love us, not because we are beholden to God for forgiveness, but because our own sins weigh on our consciences.  When I do something bad, I FEEL bad.  God is not even required for that.

This is why I say sin is liberating.  Not the actual act of sinning, mind you (although most of us have had our fun breaking a few rules), but the concept itself.  Because once you acknowledge it and identify the situations or the character defects (ie sins) that are preventing you from enjoying life, you can take the appropriate steps to resolve the situation or get rid of the defects.  Being free from sin is, in my opinion, less about being right with God, and more about being right with ourselves.

This is a point I think Jesus makes in this passage.  "Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.   But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little".

I had to reread that passage several times, because there was something that didn't make sense to me.  Read it again.  Doesn't it sound like Jesus got it backwards?  Doesn't it sound like it should read, "She has shown great love, hence her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.  But to him who loves little, little is forgiven"?  Doesn't make more sense to say, "The more we love, the more our sins are forgiven" as opposed to "The more our sins are forgiven, the more we love"?

It sounds almost as though Jesus is saying that those who have sinned greatly and repented of those sins are capable of loving more deeply, more profoundly than those who have not sinned and repented.  And I think in many cases this is true.

Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting we all go out and sin like mad just so we can feel more love, that's not the way it works.  I can also not be sure exactly what Jesus Christ meant when he made that statement, but I certainly can attest to the liberating feeling of coming out from under the immense weight of great sin.  In my own life and in my pastoral interaction, I have seen lives changed by the admission of problems with adultery, drugs, gambling, violence, hatred and resentment.  I have seen lives changed by a commitment to stop doing those things that profane and disrespect our very spirit, our very being.

In my experience, the deeper someone has been into the chasm of sin, the greater their love for themselves, others, life and God becomes.  This is not to say that those of us who have sinned "just a little" cannot feel this love, but if nothing else, Jesus is striking a chord of hope in this passage: no matter how far down you have gone, you can still grasp for the light.  You can still be whole and happy, joyous and free again.

But the first step, as they say, is admitting you have a problem.

I personally don't buy the concept of Original Sin, not even for a minute, but let's face it, every single one of us has done something wrong in our own lives.  We have lied, stolen, cheated, hurt others, maybe even brought violence or death upon another being.  None of us is without scar, and every single one of us has scarred another, either emotionally of physically, through our action or lack thereof.

In other words, all of are with sin.

But this is not meant to be and indictment.  Whereas there are some religious folk who will acknowledge that they are sinners and just sit around moping about it, flagellating themselves figuratively (or literally, if you are into that), the whole point is that the acknowledgment of sin is supposed to be a call to action.  A call to be free.  A call to go forth and sin no more and enjoy life free from the burden of the things that destroy and enslave us.

May we all do that today.

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