A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut on April 15, 2012.

Last Sunday I said some things about the new life God gives us in Christ and the failure of American churches  to exemplify that life. Then I went home to read the New York Times and found the feature article in the Sunday Review headed “Divided by God.”  It was a fascinating article and said a lot of the same things  I had said in my sermon. The article talked about the disappearance of a “Christian center” and said the result has been “division, demonization,  and polarization.”

That night I wrote a short letter to the Times.  I didn’t send it, but what I said was, “It doesn’t have to be that way”  I said that there are lots of churches like St.  Paul’s Bantam  that continue to stand  as near the middle as possible, keeping the traditional catholic ministry and sacraments  and trying to make a difference in the community.

But I think the Times is right:  there’s far too much division in American churches. And that means we all have a job to do  to find the things that unite us. I think there is a center. I think our job is to try to find ways  to draw people back  from the extremes that only divide us.  Now, last week I illustrated that  in terms of the resurrection. This week again, the readings are as good a place to start as any. The readings last week and today point to a central issue. Last week it was life.  This week it’s sin.

Let me talk about sin.  The epistle reading said: “ If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.”  In the Gospel, Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  So we need to talk about sin.  Sin is a big part of life. You probably have some experience with it.  We all do.  But the gospel is not only about sin, it’s also about forgiveness.

I think the extremists miss the point.  I think at one extreme they ignore sin entirely and at the other extreme  they spend too much time on it but don’t really understand it.  On the one hand, there’s a kind of Christianity out there  that hardly ever mentions sin. They don’t want to upset people. They talk about being positive and happy and emphasize feeling good.  But that’s not Christianity.  Christianity is about the love of God, yes, but it recognizes the many ways we reject that love and shut God out of our lives. There’s a lot of Christianity that skips over all that and gives you comfortable chairs and entertaining music and says, “Feel good.” But Christian faith is about facing sin  and being restored to life, forgiven, renewed, nourished, fed. It’s about being changed  and changing the world.  And it starts with forgiveness for sin.

The other extreme knows that  and puts sin at the center  as if it were all that mattered. Some preachers make it sound  as if sin is all we care about.  They ask you to admit you are a sinner, repent, confess.  And not just some.  I think all the traditional churches  have been guilty of an overemphasis on sin, pounding it in over and over  and never moving on to the joy of forgiveness and the peace that comes afterwards. There’s a lot of it especially in the Evangelical tradition.  The old New England Puritan, Jonathan Edwards, is famous still for his sermon titled,  “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Sin is still overdone in a lot of evangelical churches  and the worst part of it is that it often gets identified with sex. The Roman Church also has done that.  It’s one of the reasons why priests can’t marry and women can’t be ordained. Sin and sex get wrapped up together  and that misses the point too. It makes for a narrow kind of Christianity  that’s good at condemning but not very good at encouraging,  forgiving, renewing, strengthening, giving thanks for God’s goodness.

But sin is not just about sex or swearing or stealing  or lying – that’s the easy part. The churches that center on sin tend to center on personal failures and, of course, there’s plenty to talk about. There’s a lot to be said for private confession.  Our new Prayer Book has a form to use for private confession  and it probably ought to be used more than it is. But private confession also is often focused on private sins, personal sins,  Individual failures, and totally ignores  what may be the worst sins we’re involved in.

Sin is separation from God  and, yes, we separate ourselves from God when we cheat and lie and steal  and take God’s name in vain, but that’s mostly a private matter  and only affects ourselves. I think that maybe the worst sins  are the ones we seldom talk about in church: sins that have a social dimension:  war and unemployment and a justice system that fails to correct and an educational system that fails to educate and a health care system and economic system  that leave too many people outside. I can go down the list of the Ten Commandments  and check off making a graven image and committing adultery and murder  and feel pretty good about myself but where do wars come from  and why aren’t our schools better and why are there so many unemployed? Is no one responsible?  Does it all just happen to happen and nothing can be done about it? Does anyone think it’s God’s will?

I would think it was pretty obvious  that war and unemployment and so on result from human decisions,  but often a set of human decisions so interlinked that it’s hard to say who did it. And the truth is that no one person did it. No, lots of people did it. We all failed to be wise enough or caring enough  to make wise choices and the result is that people suffer.  Sin has a social dimension Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick because how can you know God’s love when you’re sick and hungry  and can’t find a decent place to live? How can we come here and talk about God’s love  and not be concerned for those who are hungry and homeless and unemployed? But who’s responsible? Well, there might have been a time  when individuals could say “It’s not my fault.” But not in a democracy,  not when we choose the people who pass the laws  that either make a difference for those in need  or allow such evils to go unchecked and grow.

We may not make much use of private confession  in the Episcopal Church but hardly a week goes by that we don’t join in a General Confession  that says “we” not “I.” “We confess that we have sinned. . .”  We have failed, among other things,  to care enough for our neighbors. But the churches that talk most about sin,  as I said, are often the churches  that talk least about corporate sin. And if sin is whatever separates us from God  then there are social sins, corporate sins,  sins we act out together. And I think our society also  has created a whole new category of sin, stuff that doesn’t seem sinful  in any traditional way but separates us from God  as surely as murder and adultery. What about the organizations  that schedule events on Sunday morning? They scheduled a debate, for example,  at 11 am this morning among the Connecticut senate candidates.  You can go watch it or stay for communion.  Your choice: civic responsibility or relationship with God.  They can’t schedule it for prime time viewing, of course, because we have to watch “Dancing with the Stars” or something else more important.  And then we wonder why Congress is so incompetent!  And what about Little League; is Little League sinful?  Well, yes, if it keeps us from worship,  if it schedules its games on Sunday morning.  If it separates us from God, what else would you call it?  Somewhere someone, someones, are making decisions that keep people from God. That’s the definition of sin.

There was a day when our society  kept the Sabbath day holy. That made it a whole lot easier to be Christian.  But if society no longer takes faith for granted,  then we have a choice between going along with it, pretending it doesn’t matter, or finding ways to do what we need to do  to hold on to and build up and deepen our relationship with God. That begins, I think, with recognizing the social dimension of sin, that is more insidious just because it starts with others  and never asks us to make a conscious decision to disobey God,  just to go along and get along and pretend it doesn’t matter.

But it does matter.  Even the New York Times recognizes it.  And the churches need to recognize it as well.  The churches that carry on about abortion  are missing the point, taking the easy out. It’s much too easy to condemn someone else.  We can feel very righteous about condemning others. But the sins that beset our society  are broader and deeper and affect millions more than will ever want an abortion. They begin with us  and all the people who never let their faith inconvenience them. When was the last time I had to make any hard decisions because of my faith? When was the last time you did?  When was the last time you tried to think through the connection  between all the problems of our society and our faith?  If we say that we have no sin,  St John tells us, we deceive ourselves.

I think the New York Times was on to something.  The center isn’t there. Too many churches just ignore sin  and tell us God wants us to be happy. Well, yes, God surely does;  but we can’t happy – God can’t be happy – when so many of our neighbors are not happy. We are asked to love our neighbors as ourselves and we have too many neighbors  who aren’t experiencing love, and there’s too little being done  to create a social system  that doesn’t just feed the hungry but enables more people to find work that enables them to feed themselves.

Christianity is not about ignoring the real world,  or withdrawing from it or rising above it. Christianity is about getting into the world and loving it all as Jesus did  and working to feed and heal and help. There’s too much American Christianity  that doesn’t understand that, that focuses on feeling good  while ignoring the world’s problems.  The NY Times said, “We are all heretics.”  Well, not all, but many. It was often dissenters and rebels  who came here and it only got worse with time..  Americans invented Christian Science and Unitarianism and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism and many other sects that are certainly not traditional mainstream Christianity.

The Times last Sunday said, “we’re a nation of heretics in which most people still associate themselves  with Christianity but revise its doctrines as  they see fit.” That’s exactly what I was saying last week.  And that’s why this week’s readings are so important. “We deceive ourselves,” St John tells us,  “if we say that we have no sin.” We deceive ourselves, if we fail to see the real and deep problems we face and just go along when decisions are made  that draw us away from God. We deceive ourselves  if we opt for a “feel good faith” or imagine that sin is about somebody else  or just about private matters.  Sin is corrupting and destroying our society  and most churches and Christians are looking the other way.

The Gospel calls us to recognize our sin and repent and seek remedies and that will be hard work.  But the Gospel also tells us that God’s will is forgiveness. God’s will is to love us.  God’s will is to call us together  to recognize our failures  and find forgiveness and to love God and love our neighbor and carry the new life we are given  out to a world that needs to know that love and that forgiveness.  If we know that, if we understand that,  maybe we can begin to come together and begin to solve some of our country’s problems and our own as well.  If we face the truth about ourselves, and know the truth about God’s love and forgiveness,  then, with God’s help, we can begin to make a difference.

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