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Based on the Scripture readings:
John 12:1-8
Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:4b-14

2004 March 28
Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Sin: Currently Tense

There was a story on National Public Radio a few days ago about a technological device being tested next door in Cambridge. It is something like a chip that can be planted in virtually every item that is bought and sold, and this chip allows each item to be tracked from some omniscient observer above. Some of you know more than I do about this. As it was described, if you go into the grocery store and pick up milk and eggs, you can just walk right past the checkout and your order will be tallied with the help of the chip, even the bits mistakenly placed in your pockets. Then when you get home and throw away the egg carton, some warning system can remind you with a friendly message that you are out of eggs. And these chips, the article said, will be on all clothing, housewares, appliances, and everything that you can imagine. If you want, you can buy some sort of a bag, which will cover the chips to hide their signals so that you protect your privacy as you walk around. People like me will probably cover our houses with those bags, not really wanting a satellite to inventory our acquisitions. I think that may look nice at the parsonage.

Now, the same simplicity that will help to reduce the number of folks employed at checkout counters can also be misused when placed in the wrong hands. That is, the article said that nefarious persons could get these readers and go around evaluating the possessions of others either on the street or in their homes. The scientist who was promoting this new technology said very honesty, "Well, given human nature something like that is going to happen."

"Aha," I said to myself. A visionary scientist and National Public Radio have just confirmed my suspicions about the existence of modern sin! Even at the avante garde of social design, someone has mentioned the broken nature of human behavior. Even at the cutting edge of technology, we hear about the dark side of progress and freedom.

As you know, for five weeks we have been exploring the idea of sin and the experience of evil. We have discussed rather ancient ideas like concupiscence, and we've considered topics such as anxiety, anger, and even the devil, which don't all get extraordinary air time in Protestant pulpits. I hope that we have introduced a vocabulary that has dismissed some of our minor concerns about this topic even while it has deepened our pursuit of personal, communal, Back to top and mission-conscious faith and growth.

As far back as January when I was talking about this series, I was getting advice from you about what to talk about. And I've taken a lot of that advice. Then the week before this all began someone said to me that the very notion of sin as misbehavior and petty oversight seemed unworthy of our valuable time together. In truth, this is a tough topic with many pitfalls. I hope that we have dismissed the focus on petty "sins," like not eating your vegetables, and gained an insight into the condition of sin, such as the widespread self-regard that blinds us to the needs of others immediately next to us.

What I really hoped to do when I imagined this Lenten journey was take ancient sin such as anger and dismiss the bits of it that we worry about, such as, was I moody or impolite at coffee this morning, and expose the bits of it that lead us ever farther away from God and from each other. For example, is the anxiety that leads to anger and accepts self-aggrandizing action really what stands behind our openness to war? Is the greedy hunger that allows us to use so much of the world's natural resources also behind our willingness to spend more time at work and less time with family or even with God so that we can fuel the car, the house, even the expensive education that we have come to believe is necessary? I know that this is tender territory. But we need to know, are those ancient and arguably anachronistic seven sins actually infecting our modern experience of life? If we distance or make light of that old stuff, do we construct a barrier to seeing that our new lives still fall prey to its subtle and destructive power?

I ask all these questions because I believe that the only way to get free of this mess it to name it, discuss it in houses of faith, and rely on one another but moreover on God to help us toward liberated new life.

Perhaps one way to address this is to examine Mahatma Gandhi's seven modern sins and then to consider Stephen Covey's thoughts on a few of them. I listed Gandhi's sins in your bulletin so that you wouldn't have to memorize them, but they are: 

  • wealth without work, 
  • pleasure without conscience, 
  • knowledge without character, 
  • commerce without morality, 
  • science without humanity, 
  • religion without sacrifice, and 
  • politics without principle.
I think the first thing notable about all these is that Gandhi doesn't indict wealth, pleasure, commerce, or the rest. And that's quite important. This isn't a Puritan purge. But he calls for balance, character, and depth in all of our endeavors. He calls for us to lead lives where sin can't infect and distort what we are doing as we live in society. Back to top He takes us as we are and dreams of us, perhaps, as God creates us.

It strikes me that even as I simply read this list, I get a sense of the logic and values in Gandhi's mind. Does anyone encourage commerce without morality? Is there such a thing as pleasure that leaves the conscience behind? There is natural and common wisdom to his list. But look at it through the eyes of a modern business and culture analyst, Stephen Covey. First, consider religion without sacrifice. Covey says "Without sacrifice we may become active in a church but remain inactive in its gospel …we go for the social façade of religion …(but) there is no real walking with people or going a second mile or trying to deal with our social problems that may eventually undo our economic system." In two sentences Covey calls for us to learn our gospel or good news, incorporate it, grow spiritually and engage socially, not only for our own good but for the good of our entire society and culture. Pretty bold words. But they ring true, don't they? They say that real religion costs something. They also hearken back to that old sin of pride or self-worship. Religion isn't all about us. It is all about God and God's whole creation, even the people we don't like and judge. Real religion takes sacrifice, which itself resolves the sin of pride, which itself benefits our whole system.

When Gandhi spoke of wealth without work he was evaluating the cultural and political systems of South Africa where he practiced law and India where he practiced revolution. When Covey reviews them he talks about get rich quick schemes from the 1980's, although his book was written before Enron hit the news. But here is what he says about this category. Justice and judgment are connected. The degree that folks move away from natural justice is also the degree that their own judgment is impaired, and the only way to balance that is to tell yourself lies. So, he says, he deals with all sorts of business executives who overbuild, over-borrow, over-speculate not using objective feedback but listening to their own voices and internal lies. These executives destroy their corporations and the workers and pensioners who depend upon them. So wealth without work doesn't work.

It is staggering how the item that is at the heart of the devil's identity and Ted Peters' idea of sin, the lie, the lie to self and others, is also at the heart of business failure. Covey says the solution is to pursue the fundamentals in business. Including truth. Christianity preaches fundamentals too, as long as we don't start worshipping them themselves, which is fundamentalism. Covey cites one business consultant who practices "integrity therapy." Isn't that also at the heart of our Gospel: truth that sets us free?

I am going to do something that I don't prefer, which is to give short attention to the scriptures today. I'll tell you why they are meaningful to me, however, and hope that you might read them again later. The Gospel, recounting an event concerning Judas, reminds me how even in the presence of Jesus there was a proximity of sin. We can be in church, we can lead Christian lives, we can give away all that we own, yet the power of sin is right nearby, says the scripture. The prophet Isaiah has the wonderful passage about God doing a new thing. And while it means much, among other things it means we are not stuck to our past or our problems. God can yet do something new with us. And Paul's admonition -- and he does admonish a lot doesn't he? -- is that all new things for which we hope succeed with the power of and dependence upon God. We can't just observe God's new thing and say, "I can do that." Back to top To get from here to there we need God. That's what the scriptures say to me this morning.

Now I'm looking for an elegant way to summarize five week's of thought and offer a simple, memorable conclusion. I haven't got a perfect one. But let me try a provisional one.

Whether we are people of commerce or convent, agnosticism or monasticism, sin is still a powerful presence. We can mock its ancient models, but it gets the last laugh if we don't perceive its power. From the Garden of Eden to the cutting edge of technology, we find a way for good people to make bad things happen.  One of my favorite cartoons shows the entrance to hell with all its fiery, cave-like character, and just outside the entrance there is a repair crew at work. They are working on the asphalt, and the sign next to the truck says, "Your Good Intentions at Work." It's a bad joke but a real situation. Sin affects us.

What annoys me about this is that my educated, multi-cultural, inclusive, faith promoting, accepting, respecting, open, affirmation, race relation, United Nations values don't stop sin from existing. Like Paul, as hard as I work -- and we are called to work hard, make no mistake about it -- I still can't solve the problem without God. That's either bad news or good news, depending upon your perspective. But it is part of the conclusion: sin exists; it takes God to solve it.

In a brand new book Marcus Borg encourages us to be pragmatic about all this. He says it is helpful to address our anger and pride and all that, but then we have to translate it into our own lives and world. He calls us to enumerate the particulars of our condition. Does anger cause us to be blind to others or have closed hearts? Does pride keep us in exile from God and others? Does sloth hold us in bondage to failure? Does gluttony actually leave us hungry and thirsty for meaning? Then, says Borg, we don't just need to get over our anger, sloth, or gluttony. We need God to help us open our eyes and our hearts and liberate us from bondage. We need to work ourselves to get closer to others and spend more time open to God. We need to name the specific manifestations of sin in our lives and work and pray to address them.

So, sin exists, it takes God to solve it, it takes us to specify the solution.

My prayer for all of us, for the whole world, is that as we do all of this we pursue a path where we are no longer estranged from God, where the greed that injures the environment or the anxiety and anger that allow war progressively abate. I pray that we worry less about petty sins but nurture a world where great brokenness is consumed by love. A world where we can know true wealth and pleasure, knowledge, discovery, and interaction as well as real worship in a life beyond the trap of any demonic energy or even the evaluation of any chip. My prayer is that God can do a new thing with us, and we can do a new thing with life. I think that's the Gospel. Amen.Back to top

Copyright © 2004 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

Some references are based on Stephen Covey's Principle Centered Leadership, New York: Fireside, 1992.
The Marcus Borg book is The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a life of Faith, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003.

http://www.nhcc.net/sermons/Sermon20040328.htm

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