Proper 17 Year A Sermon, “What Happened To Sin?”

Sunday, August 28. 2005

Mr. Jim Connolly, Seminarian

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

Jer.15:15-21; Ps. 26; Rom. 12:1-8; Matt. 16:21-27

I have a cousin named Chip Harris. Chip is a good man. Chip’s life and my life have some parallels. Our mothers were sisters who graduated from high school together. Chip and I are the same age, we are both Eagle Scouts, we graduated from high school the same year, we each received our baccalaureate degrees from our respective state universities and we both, in our fifties, find ourselves back in school pursuing graduate degrees. I’m going for my Master of Divinity at Boston University School of Theology and Chip just received his doctorate in education. Chip has spent his professional career in vocational education. When he told me that he was writing his thesis on standardization of curriculum for vocational education, I commented to him that it was good that he was writing on a topic in his field. He said that his professor told him that everyone who writes a thesis should write about something they already know a great deal about. I’ve decided to do mine on sin.

Sin is what I’d like to meditate on this morning. If you don’t sin, or are not inclined to sin, or don’t expect to sin in the foreseeable future, you can probably leave now, because this meditation won’t be of help or interest to you…okay, now I know what I’m working with. So, we’re all in this together. Let’s talk about it.

As far as we can tell, sin is the private dominion of human beings. We are the only animals that know the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. The so called lower animals don’t make judgments the way that we do. We speak of them in terms of instincts. I have a little story to illustrate this. It is a Christmas story. I was at a combination cookie decorating and tree trimming party at my brother Joe’s and his wife Ginny’s beautiful home on Pine River Pond. There was eggnog, good cheer, lots of people; family, friends, kids and dogs. The family is big on dogs and there were a number of dogs at the party. Everyone was having a lovely time. It was lovely. There was good cheer, eggnog. Bing Crosby was in the background, “I’m dreaming’…” It was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, or Currier and Ives, or Hallmark Cards. It was bucolic. Until Romeo, whose one of the dogs, was walking by the Christmas tree and lifted his hind leg and did what dogs do when they lift a leg. Well, this did not go over well, particularly with Ginny. As Romeo was making a fast and ignominious exit in front of loud and colorful words from Ginny, the other dogs went over to the spot at the tree and do what dogs do. Well, the ‘Norman Rockwell’ painting turned quickly into an animated cartoon. There were dogs being chased out of every door; they were diving under couches. It was the most memorable tree trimming party I’ve ever attended. Later, when things settled down, all the dogs were outside, and we were processing, my brother Joe said, ‘Hey, Romeo is a dog, he saw a tree, what do you expect him to do?’ Which is my point. You have to admit, a tree inside of a house is a trick question for a dog (particularly Romeo). Romeo didn’t think that it was right or wrong. Dogs do what dogs do. Mosquitoes do what mosquitoes do, lions do what lions do, but we don’t. We think about it. We do what we don’t want to do. We do what we don’t like to do. We have regrets about what we have done. We have anxiety about what we will do in the future. We have anxiety about what will be done to us in the future. We think about it. We know the difference between good and evil, right and wrong.

The world that we live in gives us plenty of signals about how to properly live this life. We have laws, rules, regulations, policies, procedures, mores, morals, ethics, and commandments that give us road maps to guide our decision process. Some of these rules we accept and some we don’t. For example, how’s everybody doing on the speed limit laws? Not only do we have the environment pressing in our decision process, but we have below our conscious minds, vast energetic currents of passions and yearnings that play upon our decision making process. Like deep ocean currents rushing by each other, creating turbulence below and above, we live in a tension between world and self. Within that pressurized moment we exercise our freedom of choice with anxious notions of the consequences. We choose our course through this complicated world and sometimes we choose sin.

For the most part, we try to do the right things. We follow the rules. We will sit at a red light until it turns green without another car or human in sight and never think twice about it. We do a pretty good job of staying away from the big board. You know, the big board, the ten commandments. I doubt if any of us has a rap sheet with murder on it, for example. By doing a pretty good job regarding the big board, we convinced ourselves that we are good people, in so doing; we have given sin a bad name. We call things like eating chocolate or potato chips “sinful.” Lack of will power and self discipline is not sin. Do we really think that eating chocolate is the worst thing we do? I want to work on one sin this morning.

Betrayal. Judas betrayed Jesus in the passion story and we think we would have never have done that. But, we betray other people whenever we speak badly of them or discredit them when they are not present. This happens in the workplace, in families, among friends, and in the church. Betrayal takes many forms. Maybe the most popular form of betrayal is gossip. I studied the Book of Genesis (it’s in the Bible) with Elie Wiesel at BU last fall. If you don’t recognize that name, Elie Wiesel is a Holocaust survivor who wrote powerfully on the topic. He won the Nobel Peace Prize and was presented the America Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan. Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of The United Nations calls Ellie Wiesel his personal ambassador of morality in the world, and I had the honor of being his student last fall. In class, Elie Wiesel said, “Gossip is the worst sin. It is a poison dart that you shoot at someone and they never know where it came from.” Usually, there will be an element of truth in gossip. Usually, there is also an element of falsehood in gossip. Usually, someone is discredited in gossip. If you spread gossip, you might have something right, but you are spreading falsehoods that are making someone else look bad. This is betrayal of the lowest order. God forgive me, I have done this.

In the Gospel of Matthew that Fr. Peter just read, Jesus asks us an important question, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul.” Truly, what do we lose if we gossip about each other? When we do this sort of thing enough, we stop even noticing it. It is like my computer. When I start to type in a few letters, the computer fills in the rest of the word because I’ve done it so much. Gossip is such habit in our world that we forget what a sin it is. Gossip is a sin against our neighbor and it says more about the person who spreads it than it does about the person being spoken about.

Think of sin as separation. When you sin, you separate yourself from other people, God, and even yourself. When we gossip or say hurtful things about other people, we are not only spreading poison but we are also isolating ourselves from our world and our God. Well, there is a path out of the estrangement that our sinfulness visits upon us. The path has been set by the example of the life of Jesus Christ. He endured betrayal and forgave. The first thing is to be a person who forgives other people’s betrayal and gossip that is directed toward you. That breaks the cycle. Tough to do, but that is our call. Remember the prayer that Jesus taught us in the Bible? We call it the Lord’s Prayer. There’s a line in it, in this church you use trespassers and trespass, but there is common usage that states “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Whenever we follow Christ by acting with love, forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion; betrayal and gossip are no longer possible. This is what repentance is about. Today, now, each one of us in our own small way and this small way has a chance to be Christlike. If we turn our backs on the sin of betrayal and resolve to break the cycle of gossip, we can walk in the footsteps.

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