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Based on the Lectionary readings for the First Sunday in Lent:
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Luke 4: 1-13

2004 February 29
Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Anxiety over Sin

There is a lot of religion in the news lately. The Boston Globe, the Newton Tab, as well as many other publications have front pages stories on a regular basis about the Roman Catholic Church, synagogue parking, discussions of marriage, and Mel Gibson's imagination. Last week one story on the front page of the Globe quoted a dialogue in front of the State House where one man told another to "Go to hell." Another story explained how one group told another group that they were "sinners," and I thought to myself, isn't this amazing how we're engaging issues of theology right out on the sidewalk? The Speaker of the House, the Roman bishops, and Hollywood have inspired some conversation in front of all of us, and I for one want to join the debate. I mean, those are our topics, and we should engage them, I think.

Perhaps this press is fortuitous, because this is the first Sunday of Lent, and one scripture today provides us an account of temptation and the devil. Lent is the time for personal and communal reflection on the shadow dimensions of life, and historically it is a time to ask questions about our own condition. So, as many of you know, I am beginning a five-week look at that thing called sin to see what it means to us in our own day and time. I will look at some ancient constructs and some modern experiences and ask how they inform and even nurture our faith and mission and community life. Today I offer an introduction to sin: not to be a user's manual but perhaps an explorer's guide that even maps some ways forward. I do this to encourage our own spiritual inventory and housecleaning, as we head toward Easter and beyond.

Now, Friday morning I was with a group of women from the parish, and one of them said to me, "Oh, please: I don't know that I want to hear about sin. I heard it so much for so many years, and I don't like the word, especially on the lips of children." Which is not a bad place to start. We don't like sin. We don't like to talk about sin. We don't want to be in bondage to sin. It seems an odd construct when we talk about some folks, such as children.

So what do I mean when I name this thing, and why is it meaningful to us? Back to top Well let me jump right in with a variety of definitions.

Sin, like pornography, is something with broad and complex definitions yet a lot of us would say, we know it when we see it. A lot of us have a sense that there is something broken, something that is not as "it ought to be" about our own lives, our culture, our world. A lot of us feel something missing and even something wrong in its place. Newsweek called the TV show with Donald Trump a "guilty pleasure" on its cover. That doesn't mean it's a sin, but it means that we touch this issue all the time.

Dante said that sin has to do with love. It is perverted love, insufficient love, or excessive love of earthly goods. Augustine said that sin is turning away from the universal whole to the individual part. In the New Testament there are three Greek words translated as sin: hamartia, adikia, and anomia. One means to miss the mark or the target. Another means injustice or unrighteousness and has lots to do with a divine design for goodness. The third word means lawlessness, a system without structure, protection, or hope.

Like Augustine, twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich says whenever we treat something relative as absolute, whenever we treat an opinion as final truth, we are in the neighborhood of sin. Prof. Ted Peters says at the heart or essence of all sin is the failure to trust God. Sin is our unwillingness to acknowledge our creatureliness and dependence upon the grace of God. And then Reinhold Niebuhr has a shorter definition. He says sin is pure self-regard. Or even shorter yet, try these two: 'evil' is 'live' spelled backwards, and, from Karl Menninger, the word sin has "I" at its heart.

What my friend Friday morning was asking me not to talk about was silly little "sins," like not eating your vegetables or using a cuss word not found in the Bible. What the deeper examination of sin addresses is a universal and personal condition that stretches from individual discomfort to international behavior such as genocide, theft of resources, and racism. Sin is the broad and pervasive tendency to act in life destroying rather than life giving ways, and though many of us wouldn't choose it, in some ways all of us are party to it. Sin is a big, faithless, self-promoting, other-denying, history-avoiding, future-fearing, connection-negating, Back to top loveless, disappointing, dying mess.

The idea of sin is not unique to Christianity but exists across religions and cultures. Still, our earlier Church named seven deadly sins. They are pride, envy, anger, covetousness, sadness, gluttony, and lust. Dante put pride as the number one sin, and we all vaguely know that story about Satan's essential problem being vanity or pride and an unwillingness to respect either humankind or God. Adam and Eve enter into this mix, too, with their tasting of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and their desire to taste the tree of life. That is often called pride, too, and certainly it is not an unfamiliar distortion in our modern world. It is the self-exaltation that pursues our own desires rather than God's way. But there are at least two important things to say about Adam and Eve and pride before we swallow that tidbit. One is about heredity, and the other is about self-esteem.

First -- in no particular order, mentioning Adam and Eve brings up the idea of original sin. Fully distilled, if they sinned, then we have sin in our makeup. Let me share several complex ideas in their most reduced form. This sin is not in the Bible as such. That is, what we often call original sin, better called hereditary sin, is not there, says scholar Emil Brunner, among others. This idea that all humanity genetically inherits some sinful nature is not throughout the Bible. Drop the idea. Ted Peters says, instead, say that sin was here before we arrived. That's what really matters to the Bible and even the ancient doctrine. But there is not something stained about us: God repeatedly calls creation good. Yet the break with God and the temptation to distort love are all around and across time.

Second, pride may be the central sin on some lists, but we should be careful how we define that word. Pride for a strong militarized nation like Rome or the United States at a moment of attack can be entirely different than pride for a black woman who has never finished high school yet longs to be a poet. Pride for the chairman of a multi-national testifying before Congress and for an abuse survivor in group therapy can be entirely different as well. The God who calls us to remember where we came from, as in the account from Deuteronomy, also calls us to love ourselves. Pride is a component of emotional health. One of the central distortions of faith is found in pride. One of the essential ingredients in the ability to worship and love is also found in pride. Still, we must not distort the word in our quest for faith and life.

I hope that you are with me so far. This is all very unfamiliar territory, especially in Protestant pulpits. It is a strange and even volatile topic because many of us need to re-discover abandoned words, and others of us need to re-define familiar ones. But I am drawn to this whole topic not to label us but to liberate us. And I know that I am really just offering an introduction here, Back to top but there is plenty of time to talk and listen just ahead. So let me introduce another fresh approach.

This guy Ted Peters, who wrote a wonderful book, argues that pride is not the essential sin in our world. He says anxiety is at the base of sin. I don't want all the therapists and clergy to jump on me at once, but Peters describes anxiety as almost a gateway drug to six more sins, and his perspective is powerful and meaningful at least in our culture.

This perspective says that anxiety is not sinful but it readies us for sin. "At the root of anxiety is fear of loss, especially losing ourselves to death," he writes. So we fight anxiety by erecting the illusion of immortality. Which requires that we lie to ourselves and even steal the strengths of others. So anxiety is at the heart of our study. Have you noticed that the Bible says "do not be anxious" 365 times, one for each day of the year? Maybe this is why.

What does anxiety mean to you? What do you do when you feel anxious or unsettled? I bought a Volvo to feel safer on the road. Deadbolts are a good idea. Fire insurance is obvious but flood insurance could be the result of a good sales job. I have two graduate degrees and have almost completed a third. I don't exercise regularly, but I have purchased exercise equipment. I worry about my pension. I take sleeping pills about ten days each year when I just can't get to sleep. I hope you think that all of that is reasonably smart. It is also all about my anxieties. Anxiety has to do with our fear of losing our space and losing our future. Think about it: the National Socialist Party, Hitler's party, rose to power after WW I when Germany had to give up land, pay a war debt, and deal with a material blockade. Hitler promised land and a thousand years of glory. He promised Lebensraum, living space. He touched people's anxieties. Then led them to evil places.

Peters says that the gateway of anxiety leads to six sins. First, unfaith, where we say, God can't do what we need. When we think that, we move to pride or the idea that, well, we can do what we need. Then comes concupiscence, which says our needs are more important than theirs, breeding desire, lust, envy, greed, and coveting. These depend on the assumption that that "stuff" can settle our anxieties. We get possessed with possessions. Concupiscence leads on to self-justification or the sense that our own consumption has nothing wrong with it, and then we are willing to be cruel, and we go abroad and take resources such as oil or minerals or political systems that annoy us, and this leads to the final sin of blasphemy which is the misuse of divine symbols to pursue our own cause. For example saying the Bible justifies slavery, or repression of exiles, or justifies taking power over anyone who is different from us. Love of enemies is replaced by revenge against enemies. We start to value evil ways as though they were good ways. Back to top At least that's what Ted Peters says.

Now we've come to the point where perhaps all of this theoretical talk can mean something to our lives and loves during Lent. Now we've got some language to discard some of the silliness associated with sin and address its core power, which is to convert us from the people of God to the people of death. Once upon a time we might have said people of the devil, but that's another sermon.

Do you see the power of anxiety or the power of pride at work in your world? Do you see how sometimes they are nothing more than anxiety or pride, but sometimes they are facets of a progression that leads to unfaith, greed, cruelty, and even blasphemy?

I don't want to point any fingers or make any judgments, but don't we see the power of anxiety and pride all around us? Why is Mel Gibson willing to put out a movie that so strays from the gospel accounts and values and messages? I'm not saying he is a sinner. I am saying he has an ego. Ego, that word so essential to emotional health which also leads to strange places. Why did the nation that invaded Iraq really do so? What did we think that made attack sensible to a majority? Why didn't that same thought occur during the genocide of Rwanda: do you remember that? What was different there? Why didn't we go there? I can't tell you where the clothing that I am wearing today was constructed. Somewhere in my wardrobe are articles very possibly made by the moral and structural equivalent of slave labor. Why can't I get out of that system? Why am I willing to participate in that system? Why was Kathie Lee Gifford? Is there something more powerful or prevalent than all of us?

Do you know anyone who keeps a bad job for fear that they could get nothing else? Do you know anyone who stays in a bad relationship for fear that no one else will love them? Do you knowBack to top anyone who should no longer be driving who keeps their license for fear of isolation?

I'm not saying these aren't real fears and anxieties. They are. I'm saying that what is at their heart is powerful, and what is at their solution is not just up to us. It is my own faith that only God, a higher power, the spirit of love, is able to repair this issue, and as unwelcome as that seems to the modern ear, it is honestly good news. It breaks the chain of sin. It offers liberation from bondage.

I am constantly drawn back to the temptation stories of Jesus for their extraordinary messages. In Luke, today, the devil finds Jesus hungry. If hunger doesn't inspire anxiety I don't know what does. The Devil finds Jesus in the desert, where Moses and the Hebrews once were. And he puts three challenges to the son of Mary. The devil says, I want you to be practical, to be relevant, and to be spectacular. The devil even quotes scripture. And Jesus responds to the opportunity to feed the world, to control the world, and to inspire the world with three references to God: I need God, I revere God, and I trust God. I won't settle my stomach, control my environment, or subvert the symbols of divinity to the devil's purposes, even if they look good in the short term or for part of the world.

Jesus had outstanding and extraordinary strength. I don't have as much. I have a hard time resisting. But there is one thing that I can do, even if imperfectly. And it is, according to Augustine and Peters and others, the "Mapquest" to navigate sin. I can love. I can try to keep my love from being perverted, insufficient, or wrongly directed. In love I can forgive, and that, too, removes part of the sting of sin. Love is the striving for the reunion of the separated. It is the seeking and valuing of the whole even on behalf of a part. It is the quest for divinity, not to replace God but to be in harmony with God. It is for neighbor, self, and enemy, as well as God.

Our early Church had seven virtues to go with the seven sins. You'll have to come to adult education to hear about them. But they are all based on love. They are all based on a faith, like Jesus', that says God is sufficient. They are all based on an awareness and respect for the realities of evil and on a call during Lent to turn around. Back to top That is to take the word evil, reverse it, and with the help of God to live. Amen.

Two resources central to this sermon are Ted Peters, Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994, and Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin?; New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973.

Copyright 2004 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

http://www.nhcc.net/sermons/Sermon20040229.htm

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