Carla Bailey, Senior Pastor
March 15, 2009
I had this idea for a sermon a few weeks ago and on Tuesday, when we send the sermon title into the Valley News, I was still headed the way I had originally thought – a sermon titled “The S Word” – with an exploration of the word, philosophy, and political/theological construct of socialism. Socialism has become something of a slur recently and I wondered why that would be. After all, isn’t socialism a system in which the means of production and distribution are controlled by the people and operated according to equity and fairness rather than market principles? Isn’t socialism defined as a political movement advocating an end to private property and the exploitation of workers? Or, in Marxist theory, socialism is the stage after the proletarian revolution when a society is changing from capitalism to communism, marked by pay distributed according to work done rather than need. Not so bad a word, I thought, a concept that shares some tenets at least with Christianity. How is it that Socialism, said with just a touch of dismay and contempt, has turned into a dirty word? So, Socialism was going to be my S word.
But then it came to Friday and the Valley News published its religion page with our church ad with today’s sermon, “The S Word”. Above the church ads, an article of a religious subject appeared - “Sermons (and Signs) About Sex Cause Stir in Rural Alabama”. Suddenly my S word lost its appeal. Sermons and Signs About Sex – now those are some serious S words! Apparently, Daystar Church of God has figured out that sex sells, even in Cullman County, Alabama. Daystar put up billboards saying “Great Sex: God’s Way”. The intended message, of course, is that sex is only an acceptable activity when it occurs within heterosexual, monogamous marriage between one man and one woman, but the mind is a sex organ in Cullen County, so Great Sex: God’s Way has caused, well, as the article states, a stir. I bet you’re wondering now if I switched my S word from socialism to sex, aren’t you? Tempting, but no. As one of the evangelists was quoted as saying, “talking about sex ain’t gonna get nobody to heaven”. Truer words…
So, not socialism, not sex, what possible S word would interest CCDC worshippers on a cold Sunday morning in March? I turned to Van Harvey’s Handbook of Theological Terms - sacrament, salvation, sanctification, Satan, Sheol, sin, actual, sin, mortal, sin, original, sin, seven deadly, sin, venial, aha! It appeared as if my Handbook would offer the most help if I stuck to the topic of sin since there is so much variety. So, sin it is. With apologies to the Valley News, Daystar Church of God, and you, I’m going to talk about sin.
I just have two points to make on the subject: 1) very little our culture has taught us is sinful actually is, and 2) people like us, who go to church, read good books, sing hymns, obey rules, are the worst kind of sinners of all.
Let’s start with a few definitions. What makes something sinful? Is it the act itself or is it when an act is committed with no regard for its consequences, or is it the motivation behind the act, or is it, in that most vague and ultimately weak definition, anything that separates us from God? Is drinking my morning coffee sinful? Well, it depends upon the definition, doesn’t it? If I drink coffee when I’ve been advised that caffeine is bad for me, or if I drink coffee that is produced by a company that exploits workers, strips land of nutrients and ecological safety, or adds processing chemicals, or if I spend $4.50 for a cup of coffee when $4.50 would have bought a hearty meal for a hungry child, is my morning cup of joe sinful? Is it a sin of omission or commission? What if someone bumps me as I walk to my car and my coffee spills over the asphalt parking lot, and none of the coffee actually passes my lips, what has happened to all those sins? Does it help my sin-meter if the spilled coffee burned my hand? Does my reaction to the bumper make a difference?
Sin is, at one and the same time, complicated and simple, relative and absolute, consistent and wildly subjective. Let’s go back to the issue of Daystar Church of God and its sexy billboards. What is wrong with Daystar’s message? Is it that they connect sex with God? Or that they paste the word sex twenty feet high beside a road, causing who know how many accidents and spilled coffee? Or is it that they’ve used sex to entice people to come to church on a Sunday morning? Or is it that the message itself is deceitful, implying that there is good sex and bad sex and that it has nothing to do with the performance thereof. Or is that the message is not about sex at all but rather about social and cultural constructs in which sex happens- implying that sex within heterosexual marriage is God’s way and sex in any other context is sin?
Sex is not, of itself, sinful. It is a physical response to stimulus, like tasting a warm brownie, or quenching a deep thirst, or finally putting your feet up after walking in tight shoes for a few miles. But there are layers and layers around that physical response and its stimulus, especially in our incredibly sexualized American culture, so that sex takes on meaning, as it should. It’s just that meanings can be mannipulated. And that’s the arena in which sin occurs. What is sexual exploitation? When is a young person ready to accept the responsibilities and repercussions of sex? What really causes rape? How is it acceptable to see breasts in lingerie ads but not when they are feeding babies? Why do most health insurance carriers cover the costs of Viagra but not contraceptives?
Well, lest you think I switched my S word from sin to sex, let me move on to my second point and address what I believe was very close to Jesus’ own heart when he talked about sin – it has to do with duplicity, religiosity, and judgmentalism. When I think about the occasions when Jesus commented about sin, the stories that come to mind are the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned and Jesus suggested that the one without sin should be the first to throw, or the tax collector who was something of a collaborator with whom Jesus had dinner, or the demoniac who was tortured by his demons, or the leper who begged to be healed, or the menstruating woman who touched Jesus secretly, or the Samaritan who cared for the battered man on the road. The examples are many. Jesus questioned the identity of the sinner, or the narrowness of the law, or hypocrisy of the observers.
You just can’t slide beneath the radar when you’re trying to be a disciple. We all try, of course. We perform such convoluted rationalizations we make Soren Kierkegard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments look like “see Spot run”. And do you know why? Of course you do – it’s because it’s easier to explain how what we’ve done is not sinful than it is to confess our sins, ask forgiveness and make amends. It’s easier to apply a structure of rules than it is to determine each situation individually. It’s easier to hate a category of human beings than it is to hate one individual. It’s easier to draw attention to the sins of someone else than it is to recognize our own.
But a resurrection faith like the one God offers us in Jesus Christ does not come easily. Remember? there was some betrayal first. There was political jealousy and threats to power. There were laws broken, some bad people forgiven and disfiguring diseases healed. There were individuals placed above the law. There was a desecrated temple disrupted. There was a vicious government’s vicious rule appropriated for vicious purposes. There were steps taken to Calvary, nails pounded through flesh, criminals and onlookers and collaborators and deserters all forgiven. All these things happened on the way to the resurrection. We tend to want to get to Easter more quickly and without so much bother or mess. But it just doesn’t happen that easily, I’m afraid. We must first do the work of recognizing what is sinful and what isn’t and then acknowledge how often, creatively, and self-righteously we’ve chosen sin.
Well, that’s it for today’s S word. Except for this little post script – a sermon about sin wouldn’t be complete without its corrective, universal, ineradicable, inevitable and free, free, free corollary – salvation. Now that’s an S word worth talking about. Amen.