Rehabilitating "Sin": E-pistle 07.21.11

Rehabilitating "Sin": E-pistle 07.21.11

“Sin has become less popular over the last half century,” — such an opening sentence for this E-pistle would be clearly ambiguous, probably untrue, and nearly impossible to verify. Certainly sin holds more sway in some periods of history and in particular seasons of our lives, but finding an exact measure to determine if it’s up or down is tricky. Sin also has a certain constancy, a hold on human existence. We don’t like to admit it, but sin is a consistently human indulgence.

What clearly has become less popular is “talking about sin” …in our culture as a whole and in the mainline church.

In the late 19th and 20th century, liberal theology swallowed a good dose of faith in human progress. In such a hopeful mood, by mid-century, many mainline churches dropped corporate confession from worship altogether. The belief was if humans worked cooperatively together… and hard enough, especially tackling systemic or social sins… humanity could finally overcome many of the evils that have plagued history.

Liberal social and political agendas were inspired and served by this theology, and much was accomplished– ushering our world a little closer to the Kingdom of Heaven.

However, somewhere in the 70’s or 80’s, a recognition of the persistence of evil (a consciousness that came of a particularly bloody century?) sucked the wind out of the sails of this liberal theological arc. Sin found its place back in the professional theologians‘ lexicons and systems.

But, notably, it never regained parlance in the pews. By the time church professionals began rehabilitating “sin,” two different, though perhaps related, cultural trends left the word feeling foreign or archaic to regular folks.
The words and thoughts of laypeople are often affected more by the world around them than by the teachings of the church.

The rise of therapeutic understandings in popular culture had begun to replace moral rights and wrongs with psychological explanations, deconstructing misdeeds to motivations coming from dysfunction, the environment or emotional issues. Speaking in this way became a more socially acceptable, even charitable way of discussing someone else’s or our own sins. And in many cases, therapeutic explanations are actually more insightful than the black and white legalisms of yore.

At the same time, the number of people participating in church dropped dramatically. That translated to the general population being much less conversant in the language of Christianity. So much so, that even church folk often find themselves, both inside and outside the church, shying away from a whole list of traditional words. Not surprisingly, “sin” often tops that list (lest we come off sounding like a fanatics or Pharisees).

This Sunday, we’re focusing on the Romans 8 passage that’s been our Affirmation of Faith for the past two weeks. It promises, “nothing can separate us from the love of God…”

Really? Is that your experience?

People talk to me all the time about being afraid and alone. I know what disconnected feels like!

Maybe the affirmation of Romans 8 has to be understood from God’s side of the relationship: the bedrock of the Gospel is that God doesn’t let the worst within us dissuade Divine love. But from our side: we let there be… we actively construct all kinds of roadblocks and walls between us and God, between us and our neighbors, between us and who we were created to be.

Beloved, I’m arguing for rehabilitating “sin” in our vocabularies. Without such a word, there’s a pressing problem in human life that becomes hard to acknowledge, much less grapple with.

Sin is what we do to push others away, to keep them at bay, trying to make ourselves the center of our own universes.

Sin is growing the gaps between ourselves and others. Sin is disconnecting from God (or whatever we call the greater whole we belong to). Sin is widening the cracks or gaping holes within ourselves. Ultimately, sin is how you lose yourself without finding yourself.

Maybe “sin” as such– like “amen,” “damn” or “grace” — is a word that must stay firmly planted in church to maintain its true or fullest meaning. And perhaps speaking with non-churchy types and the general public, we need to assure people we are not talking about modern re-enactments of the Scarlet Letter!

But let me be direct with you who are the church:

Can you name your own sins? …What do you do or say (or fail to do or say) that separates, disconnects, isolates you?

Frederick Beuchner gives three really great, practical examples:

Religion and unreligion can both be sinful if either creates more distance between you and people who don’t share your beliefs.

Sex is sinful when, instead of drawing you closer to a human being in all his or her humanness, it leaves you feeling lonelier and more needy, despite whatever physical closeness you’ve accomplished.

The sin of the Pharisee is three-fold and a temptation for all religious people:
~ Not just my holier-than-thou attitude (pushing other people away);
~ It’s also the secret fear that my holiness is deficient (pushing part of myself away); and
~ my not-so-subconscious feeling that anybody who expects me to be all that holy must be some sort of cosmic SOB (pushing God away).

Confessing and making amendment for our sins is life-changing.
It’s acknowledging how each of us gets cut off.
It’s asking God’s help tearing down our walls and getting past our roadblocks.
It’s about healing our individual and corporate brokenness… that we and our world might begin to mend.

See you in church,


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