First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
October 14, 2018
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Genesis 3:1-13 (NRSV)
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 8They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
9But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
Mark 8:34-37 (NRSV)
34Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Today we’re going to talk about sin.
You see, I was challenged earlier this summer to preach on what the UCC believes about sin. And, the challenge continues, I couldn’t do it in the summer when no one was around. So, here we are, on the 14th of October and the topic of the sermon is sin.
Is anybody nervous yet?
Let’s have some fun…
Rewind time a minute or two and dip back into the memory and what were you thinking or feeling when I started talking about sin?
Now, let’s do the elevator speech exercise… imagine you are on an elevator and you strike up a conversation with someone and they ask you what your church teaches about sin. What do you say… other than, “sorry, this is my floor. Gotta get off now”?
<get responses – if any>
These days, if you want to find out what an organization believes you go to the wisdom of the day and Google it. And when you Google “United Church of Christ” and “sin” you get our statement of faith. Here’s what it says about sin:
“God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.”
“In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to yourself.”
We tend to be okay declaring a few things as sin: racism, sexual violence, and human trafficking. There’s no clear “doctrine” from the UCC about sin.
Which is part of the real problem… Doctrine. We are a non-doctrinal church. There’s not a group of people tucked away in an upper room somewhere debating over what devout UCCer’s should and shouldn’t believe about things like sin and salvation, the virgin birth or what happens at communion. We have no “test” to determine who’s in and who’s not or what you have to say you believe in order to get “in.” We like to say that we put more emphasis on testimonies of faith than on tests of faith. So to even be looking for a UCC “doctrine” on sin is somewhat futile. But that doesn’t mean we don’t talk about sin. We just don’t talk about it very much. Or, more likely we don’t talk about it by using the actual word. “Injustice” rolls off our tongues easier than the word “sin.”
So, just what does the UCC say or teach about sin?
In a nutshell, it’s what happens when we put ourselves, our physical, emotional, ecological selves in the center of things and act as if we have the power and wisdom to out do God. It gets tied back to the great Genesis story that has been labeled the story of original sin or the story of the fall of humanity. It’s the primal story about humanity being so sure of themselves that we can be like God and thinking so much so that we actually give it a try. In the end, what happens is it shifts things out of whack and then there’s you-know-what to pay…. Consequences. We discover we have the power to take life and so we do. We discover we have the power to determine what is good and evil and so we do and that evolves into determining who is good and who is evil along with what behavior and customs are good and evil. We discover we have the power to exert power over others and so we do. We discover we have the power to judge parts of creation and so we do. We discover we have the power to shift the blame of our own actions onto others and so we do. We discover that we have the power to put ourselves into the center of just about every aspect of life and we do which means we separate ourselves from God and one another. We push God out of the center and separate ourselves from God. We push others and their well-being out of the center and separate ourselves from the community. We push even our own best selves out of the center.
And when God is not in the center, life is not experienced in its fullest. When we live with ourselves in the center, when we live in this state of sin and separation, God is not present in life-giving, life-sustaining ways for everyone and the consequences? Well as the writer of Romans put it, “The wages (or consequences) of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) simply because in order for there to be life, full, abundant and extravagant, not just for ourselves but for everyone, God’s pretty much got to be in the center of things.
In very simplistic terms, as Paul Tillich puts it, “all sin is separation.” Basically sin is anything that separates us from God, or other people or our own best selves.
And so the remedy for sin is to keep moving ourselves out of the center of things and let God move into that space. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Just for fun, let’s play a little game. I’ll ask a few questions and you get to answer them in your head. No need to raise hands because I don’t want to make you all nervous. Just sit with the question in your mind and give it some consideration.
Think about your first thoughts when you woke up this morning. What were they? Bathroom? Coffee? Aches and pains? What’s the weather like? God is the center of everything? Chances are, with your first waking breath, you had already put yourself in the center of things and, if you made room for God in all of that it was probably after the trip to the bathroom, the quick glance outside to see if there was any more snow and you got your first cup of coffee (or tea) and nestled into a cozy chair somewhere. So, see, we have a tendency to automatically start things off with ourselves. And that’s okay. It’s really not evil and I really wouldn’t consider us to be a bunch of sinful people simply because the bladders that are part of who we are as creations of God need to be emptied.
But play that little game with some of the bigger situations in life.
Sin, or separation from God, seeps in more dramatically when we start to move through our day and journey through our lives and when we start facing some of those important decisions, as well as some that might not seem so important but can have a broad impact.
- How we live into our relationships with one another (think about things like abuse, consent, equality, oppression);
- How we earn a living (think about things like fair wages, equal pay, businesses that provide for the common good);
- The lifestyle we choose to live and how that is made possible through our labor and the labor of others (think about slavery, fair trade, sweat shops, environmentally conscious);
- How we exist in the midst of creation (think about environmental practices, waste, pollution, climate change);
- How we express our religious convictions (think is it all about me and Jesus and getting to heaven or is it about serving God to create a just world in this life?)
- And how we tend to our own well being – are we really honoring the gift of having been created in God’s image in ways that really express gratitude?
Now, let’s face it, looking back over this list, my guess is there’s not a one of us in this room that hasn’t put themselves in the center of things in regard to any or all of them. It’s part of being human. It’s the survival part of life that to a certain extent, we automatically put ourselves in the center. My horse is going to shy away from anything he thinks is a threat because he’s just hard-wired for survival and the idea of protecting me instead just isn’t part of his thought process.
But there’s something more to us than our animal instincts. We have the capacity to go through life differently, with a lot more opportunity to look at the bigger picture. We have the ability to make conscious choices that have personal as well as far reaching impact. And part of that ability to make a choice is to choose to keep God in the center. To stay in relationship with God. To honor the God image in others as well.
And so we get to the other side of the sin coin: salvation.
If sin is basically separation from God and others, what is it that restores that relationship when things have gone really, really bad? A way to enter back into relationship, to put God back into the center of things, to move us out of that center, admit our shortcomings, the harm that we have done and allow God to be God and we are not.
It’s what Jesus is getting at when he announces that if any want to follow him, they are to deny themselves…. Move out of dead center so that God can move in. That’s basically what is at the core of the ongoing story of the Christian faith…. The confession that humanity has a tendency to put ourselves in the center, move God to the periphery and things just don’t go well. Jesus shows us a new way to move ourselves aside, let God back in and restore the ways of life where there was once ways of death.
So, as we move into this day, into this next day of life, into this part of creation, let us do so, recognizing the sin of separation that we bring upon ourselves when we keep putting ourselves in the center and move God elsewhere.