As we journey deeper during these 40 days of Lent, let me note two senses of the word “sin”: Sin as failure to keep one’s word; and sin as refusal to accept responsibility for one’s words and acts. Sin is living as though the other person is supposed to honor her/his commitments but excusing ourselves for not keeping ours. God made a contract with Adam and Eve. They broke it. God made a covenant with the nation of Israel. They turned to other gods and neglected the demands of justice to which they had pledged themselves. Jesus Christ offered the new covenant sealed with his blood, a community of Spirit-endowed brothers and sisters whose life would manifest the lordship of God. We have all committed ourselves to live by our Lord’s example of self-sacrifice and service. We have given our word repeatedly in the worship and sacraments of this church and by voluntarily accepting membership in this community. But do we keep our word?
Sin is deluding ourselves into believing that it is all right not to honor our commitments. Sin is each of us accepting his or her own feeble excuses – “everybody else does it; it really doesn’t make any difference; I’m only a person; rules are made to be broken; there are always exceptions; the other person will understand that I was too busy,” so on and so forth. Sin is dodging responsibility. “Why did you disobey my instruction?” God asked Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam’s response, a classic shifting the blame, was: “The woman you gave me – she told me to.”
Jesus had a special contempt for those he called hypocrites – those who professed a standard of conduct, condemned others who fell short of the mark, but excused themselves from the wholehearted observance of the rules of the game. He made clear that attending religious service, giving money to charity, even preaching and working miracles in his name could not substitute for doing what God wants. And what does God want? The words are simple: justice, mercy, humility, love, and service. Every moment of every day is a demand, an invitation, an opportunity. We may respond with the wholeness of our being, accept responsibility, commit ourselves; or we can drift from one immediate satisfaction to the next, forever justifying the unjustifiable, excusing the inexcusable.
There have been times in my life when I thought the Bible should have said, “The wages of sin is a huge slice of coconut cake” or “the ways of sin is a Domino’s pizza.” Instead it says, “The wages of sin is death.” Paul tells us that in the sixth chapter of Romans. Death is being cut off from the love of others as the result of our selfishness. Death is ending up with no character at all because the excuses we offer become more real to our family and friends than the deeds which express who we are. Death is a society without direction in which everyone is for himself or herself. Death is life without a sense that what I do counts, that I stand for something, that my acts, deeds, and work are of value. Death is not knowing the difference between human beings and the projections or images I have of them, and always responding to my own projections rather than to real people. Death is always having to be right and ending up right and alone forever.
Paul Tillich wondered whether we had lost a feeling for the meaning of sin. He asked, “Do we realize that sin does not mean an immoral act, that ‘sin’ should never be used in the plural, and that not our sins, but rather our sin is the great, all-pervading problem of our life? To be in a state of sin is to be in the state of separation.” To be in a state of sin is to be separated from nature, from one’s fellow human beings, from one’s own true nature, and from God.
What is the payoff for keeping one’s w
ord, for accepting responsibility, for admitting my shortcomings, for responding to others with love and concern? The payoff is that by living as though there is a just and loving God, we experience a just and loving God. By living as though our individual lives have significance and meaning, they have significance and meaning.
By acting and speaking as though our church is a community of those who bear one another’s burdens, our church becomes a community of those who bear one another’s burdens. The church becomes a place where we stop denying the reality of sin, a place where we accept the fact that we are accountable and responsible, a place where we experience the love and forgiveness of God, a place where we love and forgive one another, a place for confession and transformation. As we travel the road to a deep faith this Lenten season, may reconciliation, growth, and renewal be our signposts.