A sermon preached at St Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut, August 1, 2010, by Christopher L. Webber

Let’s talk about sin. You probably know the old story about Calvin Coolidge,  President 85 years ago,  who was asked one Sunday what the sermon had been about.  “Sin,” said Coolidge, a man of few words. And what did the preacher say about it,  he was asked.  “He was against it,” said Coolidge.

Today I’m going to preach about sin, and I’m against it.  Calvin Coolidge can go home now, but I think there’s more to be said. Maybe it’s useful from time to time to talk about sin  and ask ourselves what we really mean y that word. I think maybe things were simpler in Coolidge’s day – or seemed to be.  Back then it sometimes seemed that sin was all the church ever talked about  and all Christians were supposed to worry about.  Maybe we’ve gone too far the other way.

You can probably come here for weeks and never hear about sin and maybe that’s because there are Christians who think that sin is all God cares about  and Episcopalians know better.  We know God has a much bigger agenda  and we also know or need to know that sin is more than sex, and more than lying and stealing. I think that one of the reasons we talk about sin less these days is because for centuries the church had such a narrow view of sin that the word itself became too narrow.

One of the things the church has come to realize in the last century or so is that some of the worst disobedience to God’s will isn’t that easy to spot, is often strangely impersonal –  not a matter of direct personal action – but indirect and a lot more subtle. For example,  if I reach into your pocket  and take any money that’s in it, that’s stealing and we all know it.  When someone like Bernie Madoff finagles the accounts so that thousands of people wind up without their jobs or their savings, that’s also not too hard to diagnose, but when major banks put their money into subprime mortgages and wind up needing to be bailed out with tax payers’ money while the bankers still get their million dollar bonuses  why can’t we recognize that as theft and put the bankers in jail? More complex still, when Connecticut representatives in Congress knock themselves out to get the Defense Department to award helicopter and submarine contracts to local industry using tax payer money to create jobs here to build helicopters and submarines the army and navy may not even need: what is that?  Or when WalMart creates a new store, putting local stores out of business and creating new jobs  so poorly paid that those who work for them have to rely on food stamps  which are paid for by my taxes –  who is stealing what from whom?  Sin is such a simple word, but the reality is far more complex than most of us usually realize. It’s not enough to say, “I’m against it.”  It’s not even enough to identify culprits. We need also to find remedies and to remedy sin we need people who are deeply committed to loving God and loving their neighbor and who are willing to explore this complicated world of ours and try to see how best we can serve others and especially those in need.

Now, that’s all a background for what I really want to talk about today which is just plain, old-fashioned sin, the kind St. Paul is talking about in the second reading and that Jesus is talking about in the gospel and that Calvin Coolidge’s preacher was talking about: sins with the old fashioned names in the second reading like fornication and passion and greed. Paul is exhorting Christians to live like new people. “You have been baptized,” he points out,  and therefore you are a part of the Body of Christ and you represent Christ in this world  and therefore you can’t live like other people. You have to be different. You have to put to death, kill, wipe out, the things you see in yourself that are inconsistent with your faith. And we do.  We have to change.

The Gospel, you see, is about change:  it’s about reversing the world’s values.  It’s about being different and making a difference. And where does Paul begin? Well, naturally, with sex.  But here’s a funny thing:he begins with a list of five words:  fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, and if you look at it twice, it suddenly looks very strange.  Fornication is pretty clear, but what is impurity as distinct from fornication  and what is evil desire  as distinct from either fornication or greed?  And then notice that Paul follows up with another list of five completely different words: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language, which, again, isn’t a logical list.  What’s the difference between anger and wrath, for example?  And when would you use abusive language without anger? We stopped with verse eleven this morning,  which is a shame, because verse twelve would have given us  another list of five, but good words: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness,  and patience.  Three lists of five, and the experts tell us it’s no accident that each list has five words.  They can tell you that ancient Persian documents have lists of five sins and it seems to have been a standard method of teaching to make lists of five.  Well, obviously, you can tick them off on the fingers of one hand.  If you found lists of six, you might imagine a society of six-fingered people. So it’s not that fornication and impurity are radically different ideas  but just a way of stressing certain kinds of behavior and providing a handy way to remember.

Now, I don’t have time this morning for all the sins on the fingers of both hands so I want to simplify the whole thing  by suggesting that this list of ten can be boiled down to three to make it possible to deal with it at least briefly. In the days when they really talked about sin, they used to preach for an hour.  I get maybe fifteen minutes at the outside.  So I want to boil Paul’s list of ten down to three categories:  sexual sins and language sins and economic sins  and let me skip over economic sins pretty quickly because I’ve already talked about stealing. Just notice one more thing: Paul says greed is idolatry.  Greed creates a false god.  Greed says there’s something material that I have to have:  another serving of cholesterol,  another technological gadget, another lottery ticket  so I can dream about being a billionaire.  Jesus said in the gospel today: “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  A contemporary version says:  “Owning a lot of things doesn’t make your life safe.”  Greed creates substitutes for God and there are none.

So let’s talk about sex: “fornication” is the word in today’s reading.  Here’s the Shorter Oxford Dictionary definition.  “Voluntary sexual intercourse between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman.  In Scripture, extended to include adultery.”  (in other words, men and women married to someone else) Why should we not do that? Just because God says so?  Well, that’s a good enough reason, but also because it destroys society.  We need stable relationships to live together. We need to be able to rely on each other. Children need that, of course, but so do adults.  We need to be faithful. God is faithful. God is a dependable God.  God makes promises and keeps them. God has created a reliable universe  in which water boils at 212 degrees and freezes at 32  and light travels at 186,000 miles a second and E=MC squared. If you drop a book it will fall, not float upwards.  God created a universe as dependable as God is. We are called to be like God:  to be faithful, reliable, dependable.  That, by the way, is why divorce is so bad and why same sex relationships aren’t necessarily bad.  Does it make sense to you that some Hollywood star  can get married six times before breakfast  and still claim all the benefits of the law while a same sex couple can live together  faithfully for fifty years and get none of them? The Bible denounces unstable, unfaithful relationships for good reason.  God is not like that.  Sexual sins are sins because they fail to reflect a faithful God.

Two down, one to go. That leaves what I called “language sins:” anger and wrath and evil speaking.  Lump them in with passion and evil desires.  It’s about losing control, or maybe, more accurately, it’s about letting the devil control you rather than God.  Passion, in this reading, is not the appropriate love two people may have for each other or the commitment you have to playing the violin or your desire for another ice cream sundae;  it’s disordered affections,  emotions out of control.  It’s what lies behind fornication and wrath and evil speaking  and all the rest.  It’s the expression of someone whose life has no secure foundation:  it’s the difference between a rock and a wave,  between a cloudless day and a storm. And, again, the point is that we need lives  built on God’s unchanging love.

Let me add just one more word about evil speaking. I could preach on that  from now until New Year’s; maybe especially from now until Election Day.  Yes, it’s all the slander and libel  and twisting of words that’s a standard part of election campaigns;  the half-truths, the character assassination. Don’t blame the politicians without also blaming everyone who falls for it. It’s our fault.  We encourage them. But we also do it ourselves.  Do we repeat rumors without checking? Do we say things about each other  that are unkind or unfair? So why should we be surprised if our leaders are just like us?

And one word especially about blasphemy. The third commandment is still  “Thou shalt not take the name  of the Lord thy God in vain.” You know, I don’t think we even hear it any more, don’t even notice, when people say “O my God” and they aren’t praying.  But that’s blasphemy. It treats God irreverently.  It suggests to others that we have no sense of awe and reverence  in God’s presence.  But I hear church members do it, I hear clergy do it,  and worst of all, I hear children do it.  How can a child grow up to reverence God when they have learned from grownups not to?

God is made known to us through the Word: the sacred Scripture is God’s word written.  Jesus is God’s word in human flesh. Words matter.  A society that has no respect for words, that uses language carelessly, will lose the ability to think and understand.  It’s language that separates us from animals – or not. It’s language that unites us with God – or not. So language sins are serious business.  Fornication, greed, evil speaking: this is sin. And, yes, I’m against it. I hope you are too.

Sin comes in many forms but it’s still out there and it needs to be recognized, diagnosed, dealt with.  It’s pervasive. It infiltrates. It destroys. If you aren’t careful,  if you don’t ask God’s help, It can destroy you.  We need to know that.   We Episcopalians may not talk about sin a lot but we do say a confession of sin every Sunday.  We do ask and receive God’s forgiveness and we come to the altar as we need to do to be given new strength for the battle.

1 Comment

Lisa LansingAugust 27th, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Just catching up with this sermon for which thanks! I have wondered, sometimes aloud and sometimes in the presence of clergy, about what happened to sin. It certainly has changed since the good old days. I’m glad to have a modern explanation which makes great sense. Thank you.

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