The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The First Sunday in Lent
March 10, 2019
“[The devil said to Jesus,] If you…will worship me, [the kingdoms of the world] will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" Luke 4:7-8
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week Angela Shelley, the children’s formation coordinator, and I were talking about the Sunday School lesson and the children’s preparations for Lent--their conversation about what Lent is--and what sin is. In particular, we talked about how a couple of the children hadn’t yet learned the word “sin,” and how Ms Angela explained what that means to them.
She told the children that “sin is any attitude or behavior that separates us from God or from one another.” That made pretty good sense to me. Sin is what separates us--what blocks us from loving God--or keeps us from recognizing God’s love for us. Sin is whatever keeps us from loving one another--or receiving love from one another. Separation. That’s it. Anything at all that separates us from God.
Angela said that, since she grew up as a Southern Baptist, she felt like she’d heard enough about sin that maybe she could teach Episcopalians about it! And we both laughed; that’s an old trope I hear sometimes--that Episcopalians don’t talk about sin. That we’re Catholic light. All of the ritual, none of the guilt. And it’s fun to laugh and feel comfortable that as Episcopalians we’re never going to be the hellfire and brimstone folks on the street corner shouting and waving signs at folks telling them they’re going to hell.
The joke has a grain of truth in it, though, because we know the damage that so much religiosity has caused and can cause to people. How some have used the idea of sin and evil to attack others, to tear them down. And so I understand our reticence to talk about sin. And I want to be careful with it. But I also believe it’s important to know what we’re talking about--to be able to counter the perceived narrative of moralism--of listing actions that make us bad people--as well as the counternarrative of moral therapeutic deism--that, as long as we’re good people, that’s enough, and God--and sin, or separation from God--doesn’t need to enter the picture. So what do we mean when we talk about sin?
Just the morning after talking with Angela I ran across an opinion piece from the New York Times website--an older piece from January--written by an author called Julia Sheeres, titled “Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin.” The title caught my attention.
Sheeres relates that a few years ago she and her daughter were at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco, perusing menus of Victorian foods and contemplating what to order, when a group of Victorian temperance marchers--actors--came by with placards reading “Gin is sin!” Her 9 year old daughter looked up at her and asked, perplexed, “Mama, what is sin?”
Sheeres has had a complicated relationship with religion and the Church. She was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household, sent away to reform school, and generally given a world view where anything fun, even watching television, was, well, sinful. Sheeres writes, “God was a megaphone bleating in my head ‘You’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad!” Maybe you know that narrative.
But when she realized her daughter didn’t know what the word “sin” meant, she worried: was she raising a child with no moral compass?
Reflecting on her child’s life to date, Sheeres realized that she was in fact raising her daughters with a moral world view. “We started taking our kids to marches when the younger one, Davia, was an infant perched on our shoulders and 3-year-old Tessa danced between the lines of protesters as if it were a block party. We’ve marched for racial justice and for women’s rights. Our church is the street, our congregation our fellow crusaders…
“It’s sinking in. My daughters make me proud by taking their own actions to confront injustice where they see it — by insisting we keep a box of protein bars in the car to hand out to homeless people at stoplights, by participating in school walkouts against gun violence, by intervening when they see kids bullied on the playground, by always questioning the world around them.”
In that moment, as Sheeres pondered her child’s moral landscape, she says she looked down into her “upturned face and felt a rush of love and happiness. I had raised her without sin. Here was a kid who’d recently joked that the Christmas standard ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” should be changed to “I’m Dreaming of a Diverse Christmas.’ She did have a moral code — one she followed not from obligation, but from her own desire to make the world a better place. A group of carolers strolled by, and she turned to watch them with a delighted smile, her question already forgotten. I leaned down and put my arms around her, watching the world from her perspective. An explanation of sin could wait.”
I thought several things as I read this piece. The first was that Sheeres is a loving mother who cares very much for the wellbeing of her children and family--and who cares very much for the world around them--loving neighbor as herself, as our Lord tells us to do. I also recognized that she’d thrown off, quite rightly, the toxic mess of theological heresy that had infected and afflicted her understanding of God as a child--and that I have no way of knowing what God is up to in her life as an adult.
But what concerned me was the notion that it was possible to raise a child without knowing what sin is. That it is possible to raise a child “without sin,” as she writes.
I wondered how she will deal with moments when her children actually end up doing something morally wrong. What if one, in a moment of pressure, cheats on a test? What if she steals something? What if she lies? Maybe none of those things will ever happen--but I doubt it. “No one is good but God alone,” our Lord says (Mark 10:18b). If something goes wrong, if somehow, just for a moment, one of her daughters is unable to live up to the moral code of goodness established in childhood, how will she understand that she is still loved? That her worth and value as a person are not based on her actions--but on whose she is--on the One in whose image she is made? How can one know love without knowing the Source of all Love, the Ground of all Being? It all hangs together--until it doesn’t.
I also wondered how, as an adult, one of her daughters might encounter sin that’s directed towards her--or sin that harms her in some way. If sin is not merely about people doing “bad things”--if sin is anything that separates us from God or from loving one another--then sin, perpetrated by someone else, can have an impact on us. We might call that sort of sin “evil”--or, personified, “the devil.”
Earlier this week in a diocesan leadership meeting a big group of us were discussing the Rev’d Kelly Brown Douglas’s book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Orbis, 2015). Douglas, an Episcopal priest, is the Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Seminary and theologian in residence at the Cathedral Church of Saints Peter and Paul in the Diocese of Washington, DC. She makes a compelling theological and historical argument that the narrative of white excellence, translated into a narrative of American exceptionalism, has been mapped onto the Protestant Christian foundational myth of our national identity, resulting in a civic religion that celebrates whiteness and vilifies blackness. It’s a compelling argument, and I commend her book to you.
In her book Douglas describes a landscape in which the sin of racism has grown far beyond the personal and individual into the corporate and cultural. In a cultural narrative based on the value of whiteness, how can black bodies and bodies of color be valued? As a colleague of color put it, “This is just the soup we swim in.”
Ethical and philosophical arguments about equality can perhaps help us move beyond a culture of racism--a sin that is both done by some of us and done to others of us--I’d argue done to all of us--but the only way I know to find hope in the face of the great evils that surround us is the hope of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The only way I know to counter the seemingly insurmountable onslaught of evil that racism, antisemitism, graft, greed, lust, hatred, violence, addiction, and murder seem to throw across our way in the streets of our cities every day--the only hope I find for dismantling the power of the enemy and the only hope I know for victims to make meaning even in the face of despair--is the revealed love of God in Jesus Christ, the sinless victim who, even in the face of death, forgave those who tortured and killed him; who, even in death, brought souls up from the dead into new life; who, rising from the tomb, ascended to fill all Creation, reconciling and making all things new, bringing all things into relationship with that first source of Love, God God’s own self.
The resurrection shows us that even the greatest evils have no power over the love of God--and, by extension, cannot ultimately conquer us, who are joined by the Holy Spirit to Christ in his death and resurrection.
But sin is still there, a part of the soup that we swim in.
After Jesus has faced his temptations, the devil departs “from him until an opportune time.” Evil just won’t let up. But we can learn that, in the face of the great goodness of God, even the lies of the devil can be exposed and brought to nought. For the victory has already been won in Christ’s love, his life, his death, and his resurrection.
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him,” Jesus quotes from the law. We talk about sin not as a blame game--not to tally up our wickedness and rejoice that God still loves us, though that’s certainly true. We examine our sinfulness--individual and corporate--and we name the sin that’s visited upon us--the sufferings that we endure--not as a cosmic score card but as a way of understanding the way the world is--and the hope that we have in God’s promises, in God’s love.
We examine our sin in Lent--and always--to see what it is that’s separating us from God--and from one another--so that we may, through God’s grace, live differently. So that we may worship God with our whole lives--not just here, in this place, in a service of prayer and sacrament, but outside these walls. We come in to glimpse a foretaste of the great goodness of God---so that we may take that love out into the world that doesn’t yet know it.
I invite you this Lent together to broaden our theological imagination--to enlarge our sense of what God is and what God is doing in the world. To dare to hope and to dream even bigger than we’ve ever done before. To really believe, once again or maybe for the first time, that God is saving the world. And to examine, honestly, how we are keeping ourselves from believing and living out that truth, that dream, in the world. How others are keeping us from it. And to rebuke the sin, repent, and return to that theological imagination that is God’s great love.
Friends, we are raised with sin. It’s just a part of our life story. But we can name it, repent, and be forgiven--changed--in that knowledge, drawn ever more closely into the sacred heart of God.
I pray for us all a holy Lent.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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 Julia Sheeres, “Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin.” The New York Times, 25 January 2019, online at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/25/well/family/raising-children-without-the-concept-of-sin.html (last accessed 3/9/2019).
 Emphasis is Sheeres’.
 And if you have any doubts about the existence of an American civic religion, I remind you that the President of the United States, on his trip to survey tornado damage in Alabama last week, apparently autographed some bibles while he was there. See “Trump Surveys Tornado Damage in Alabama, and Signs Some Bibles Too.” Alan Blinder and Elizabeth Dias, The New York Times, March 8, 2019, online at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/08/us/trump-alabama.html (accessed 3/9/2019).