A few weeks ago, I met with one of our college students who, upon reflection of his time at Westminster, said, “We don’t really talk about sin.” I fumbled and said, “No, no – we do! We confess our sins before we hear Scripture to cleanse our hearts to receive God’s word.” He diligently said, “Because we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “Right! Right!,” I said. Right, right. If this child of the church who grew up here, who sat in worship every Sunday, who went on trips and to Sunday School wondered how we – the church – felt about sin then maybe – just maybe – he was on to something.
Our conversation has stuck to me in the days since. How do we feel about sin? I’m certain we could come up with a list – albeit, a rather self-righteous list – of how we don’t feel about sin: You will likely never come to church on a Sunday morning and hear Betty, Chris, and I preaching fire and brimstone, trying to rescue your souls from eternal damnation. Nor will you be asked to kneel during confession or admit your personal grievances to the pastors in private conversation. You will come to church and hear the whole congregation confess together, in one voice with a silent space that follows for private confession before God. You will hear an assurance of pardon, reminding you that Christ alone is in a position to condemn and it is he who offers salvation.
Is there a happy medium? A place in the middle where we can talk about sin and the aching it places on our hearts without letting it shackle us and take over our lives? Perhaps the theology of sin is so woven into the fiber of who we are as Presbyterians – into our liturgy and way of worship, our songs and our theology – that we rarely take the time to note the details, to comment on the threads that are sewn into our daily living. How do we to start to examine how sin is not just a list off faults we obediently list of together in a confessional but rather is the denial of God’s love for us?
We begin at the beginning. As our Lenten series continues, as does our narrative from Genesis. Last week, Chris preached the still-comforting and still-surprising story of God creating the world. And now this week, we hear the story that comes after this love fest – the fall. These two stories are yoked – we cannot begin to understand sin if we separate it from the story of creation. Yes – we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God – but – this is not the end of the story. It isn’t even the main thesis of the story, of our story.
Theologian Shirley Guthrie reminds us, “The basic truth is not that we are sinners but that we are human beings created in God’s image. Sin distorts, twists, corrupts, and contradicts this truth, but it does not change us into something other than what God created us to be.”1 And what God created us to be was in relationship – in relationship with the Triune God and with one another. Sin is what happens when we harm, break, deny this most sacred, primordial, since-the-beginning truth – God created us and deeply desires to be in relationship with us. That is the Good News. Us living in denial of this Good News is sin.
God brought forth the first Good News in this way – breathing life into dust to create a human. God said, “It is not good for humankind to be alone.” So, God made for Adam creatures great and small but none were quite the partner with whom the first human would flourish. Out of love, God created another human being so that the two could be in relationship. Eve came forth, at last – bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh, Adam says. A partner to be in life together. Two relationships – God with humankind and humankind with one another – begins the story of our existence. From these two relationships, all of life is called forth to flourish and be in the world.
In our Lenten book read, Norman Wirzba writes to this foundational gift from God, “People need to be in relationship, because it is only through life-nurturing relationships that people can fully become themselves.”2 God created us and hopes for us to have life and have it abundantly. It is through relationships that we have this life – relationships with God, with ourselves, and with one another. And these relationships span the spectrum – from marriage, to friendship, to family, to coworkers, to neighbors, to the community at large. Each relationship comes from a need to be known. Wirzba continues, “Creatures need each other, live from each other, through each other, and to each other…To ‘be’ is to ‘be together.’…There is no real life apart from life together.”3
But life together is hard work, isn’t it? My three year-old, Hank, recently announced, “I love my friends, but I don’t like peoples.” We responded, “We all feel the same way, Hankie, we all do.” Unbeknownst to my budding theologian, he proclaimed the truth about our sinfulness in relationships – all people are peoples to us until we take the time to know them, until they can move from a nameless category to the sacred category of known and beloved.
To get to that point, though, to get to that life togetherness, is to wade through everything that gets in the way – which is to say – to break through the bars of sin that create prisons around our ability to be with one another. The same is true for parent to child, sister to brother, husband to wife, classmate to classmate, neighbor to neighbor – all relationships carry with them the weight of sin, of things that must be set aside if the relationship is to grow and flourish. It doesn’t matter if you are the healthiest, loveliest, most compassionate person – stuff gets in the way when people get together.
It takes many forms, this sin that hinders our relationships: it can be a set of unfair expectations or an assumption that one will see things how you see it. It can be a pain that was born long before that comes to the fore without your beckoning and pours itself out on the other. It can be jealousy or envy or greed. It can be an ignorance or laziness for not wanting to take the time to mine for the goodness that’s buried deep inside someone. It can be an obvious sin – a slighting or a rolled eye or a declined call because you just can’t today. It can be a slow sin – the calls stop coming, the responses become staccato. And while all sin is sin, it must be said that some sins, namely the violence and oppression done again and again against another are quite difficult to reconcile this side of heaven. Sins of all kind deny the truth of who we are and who we are called to be – created in God’s image to be in relationship.
Perhaps the most slow-burning sin of them all is how our expectations pile on those we love, suppressing their unique createdness. We love conditionally, constantly telling ourselves if she does this, I will then do this for her. Or if he was a decent man, he’d react this way. Or if she was a good child, she’d make better grades. These expectations come spoken and silently. These expectations come without effort and sometimes from a place so insecure and broken within us that we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson offers an antidote to the ways we sin against others in relationship, especially in the ways we place conditions on others. I’ve included the whole quote on your insert but here are my favorite lines: “Treat your friend like a spectacle. Stand aside; give those merits room; let them mount and expand.”4 It is one thing to note the gift God has given you in the people around you but it is another to be wholly patient and observant for what is to come. When I officiate weddings, this is what I try to remind couples but the same lesson could be applied to all relationships. To be with another as friend, as family, as beloved, is to stand close enough to see the beauty before you and but far enough away for that person to flourish without your expectations, your own baggage, your own anxieties infringing on them. This faithful work takes time on top of time. It means committing to what is right now and what will come without knowing what that future will be. It means listening to the other and walking with them as they grow and change. It means honoring this beautiful mystery given to you as a gift, handling it with care and respect.
I heard a story once of a boy who was always in trouble at school – he was too loud, too rough, too hyper. He didn’t do well in lessons, on tests, in assessments. His mom tried to help. Teacher meetings. Principal meetings. Calls, calls, calls. Spelling tests were especially hard. She helped him make flashcards and wrote the words in the dirt with him and practiced and practiced. Every Friday came and went, another test failed. One Friday, this boy came downstairs, ready for another miserable, defeating day at school. His mom looked at her child and with all seriousness and love said, “We’re ditching school and going to the zoo.” Every Friday henceforth, instead of failing a test not made in a way so he could succeed, the boy and his mom went to the zoo. She called it his “Get Good at Something Day.” They’d think about what he was good at, where his talents were, how he learned, what he was passionate about.5 She made the choice to stop seeing him how the world saw him, to cease the endless expectations and instead see him as a gift, given to her to respect and honor and hold with the tender, unconditional love of God. She made the choice to be in relationship with another. There is no greater charge than that, is there?
I suspect there is at least one person in your life who needs to be seen with such unconditional love, to be held and honored. I pray you have the courage to put sin aside in all forms and see that person how God sees them – as wonderfully made and called into relationship. May you be patient, may you be open, may you love, love, love as God loves you. Amen.
1. Guthrie, Shirley. Christian Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 213.
2. Wirzba, Norman. Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity. San Francisco: Harper One, 2017, 111.
3. Wirzba, 112.
4. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Friendship.” N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.
5. Mooney, Jonathan. “The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed.” N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.