A sermon for the
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
June 10, 2018
Millard S. Cook, Parish Administrator and Pastoral Assistant
“Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and
are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus
our Lord. Abide in peace. The Lord has put away all
your sins. Amen.”
From “The Reconciliation of a Penitent,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 451
Episcopalians do not seem to often speak about sin. I actually think that is a good thing! Having been raised in a Southern Baptist family in rural Western North Carolina, I heard a lot about sin growing up. All it did was to cause me to think that I was an evil and horrible person. It did very little to ever cause me to want to be a better person. Even worse, it caused me to be afraid of God—and filled me with a sense of terror–“I was going to Hell and there was not anything I could do about it.” It also gave me a horrible sense of guilt.
Years later, when I became Roman Catholic, I remember going to Confession for the first time—at the age of seventeen. Thankfully, I was blessed to have an amazing Confessor. After hearing my Confession, he told me, “You said at least four or five times that you felt guilty over things that you had done. I do not think that God ever wants us to feel guilty. Guilt is a trap—it is like falling into quicksand. We tell ourselves that we are bad and that is just who we are. We can’t do any better.
God wants us to feel “contrition.” Contrition says, I am a good person who has made mistakes. I have intentionally chosen to do things which are wrong. But that is not who I really am. With God’s help, I can apologize for those wrong things and now do better.” I can not tell you how relieved I felt when I left that day! It literally felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt free of years of bad self-image and self-accusation. For the first time I really felt that it was possible that God actually loved me, and that God might be willing to give me a chance after all.
The problem, I think, is the word itself. When we hear the word sin, it is almost as if our eyes glaze-over. We think, “Here it comes.” We mentally prepare ourselves for the onslaught that we know is coming. And, we start to feel defensive. Our mind works quickly to come up with a defense. Oddly enough, we seem to regress to childhood—and not in a good way.
It reminds me of those amazing conversations that I recall hearing between my sisters and their children when the boys were very small. “He started it! It was his fault. He touched me.” And then one would scream at his brother or cousin, “Stop looking at me.” Observing it from the outside, it was funny. And there are times that I have been tempted to think that this is how God sometimes views our own attempts to avoid accepting responsibility when we realize that we have done wrong things. Like a good parent, God patiently listens to us, allows us to squirm, and then lovingly confronts us with the truth—when we are finally able to hear it.
When I read the beautiful passage from Genesis, which we heard a few moments ago, that is what comes to mind. Adam and Eve knew that they had done wrong. Rather than admit it, though, they hid. Then when God found them, they blamed anyone and everyone else. But, in the end, they had to “fess up”. Sadly, this particular passage is a “cliff-hanger.” It does not tell us the “rest of the story.” If we want to know what happens next, we have to keep reading. Despite all the talk of punishment, which we remember so well, there is great compassion and kindness. God does forgive them. God does not give up on them. God clothes them and shows them mercy. To protect them from the danger of gaining immortality—and having to live forever with unending regret here on earth—God removes them from temptation— from the garden. Most interestingly, God gives them a new beginning. Now they will have to work to “make a living,” But, they will be given gifts, talents, and abilities. Now they will become co-creators with God and will be given the chance to work to “repair” creation—which has also been impacted by their choices. They are hardly the totally fallen, totally depraved reprobates that some hard-line-fundamentalists have depicted them to be.
Before going any further, it might be helpful to step back for a moment and define our terms. What is sin anyway? I have often found the definition of St. Alphonsus Liguori to be very helpful. Serious sin, he tells us, has three components: serious matter, sufficient reflection, and free consent of the will. In other words, it has to be something which will damage, hurt or break my connection with God, with another human person, or with creation. I have to have enough time to understand the consequences of my actions, and I have to freely choose to do it.
I have to admit that in my own life, there have been times when I have made this choice. My actions wounded and hurt my relationship with God, with others, and with creation. Thankfully, I later came to understand and to realize that what I had chosen to do was wrong, hurtful—and yes— even sinful. I repented, asked for forgiveness and tried to right the wrong I had done.
Very helpful too for me in that process was the Sacrament of Reconciliation. For those of you who have never experienced that Sacrament, I suggest that you give it a try. And no, it is not something which only Roman Catholics do! In our own Book of Common Prayer (beginning on page 447) is the Rite for the Reconciliation of a Penitent. You might be surprised what you find there if you read it! The beauty of the Anglican Tradition, of course, is that this is offered to you if you think it will be of use to you. No one is obligated to use it. But, like that old phrase so beautifully tells us “All may, none must, some should.”
I have been deeply touched, for instance, in the way in which a number of dioceses—including the Episcopal Diocese of New York, have celebrated Public Litanies of Lamentation, in which the whole Diocese and each individual parish have prayed for forgiveness, healing and reconciliation from the sin of Racism. I think that can be very helpful to us. It reminds us that we are part of a larger community and that we sin collectively—in thought, word and deed—when we do what is wrong—or when we fail to do what is right. As a community we truly need to ask for forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.
Suppose, though, that we were to lay aside the word sin. Suppose that rather than talking about specific actions, we talked about a “scale of integration.” On one side we would have “integrated” which would be synonymous with “connected, healthy, and whole.” On the other end of the scale we would have “disconnected,” meaning “dis-integrated, unhealthy and broken or wounded—perhaps even incomplete.” Using this continuum, we would focus less on individual or collective responsibility and accountability and more on the reality of our connection. We might ask ourselves then, “To what extent am I connected to God, to others, and to creation? Do I have people in my life whom I love and who love me? Am I part of a community? Do I actively seek to use the gifts, talents and abilities which God has entrusted to me to make a positive difference—to make the world a better place?” These same questions must also be asked of us as a parish, as a diocese and as a larger Christian body!
This is a most important concept, because our modern experience suggests that in a very mobile and increasingly complicated and urban world, most of us get lost and confused at times. Without often meaning to do so, we make small decisions which have a cumulative effect of isolating us from sources of love, support, and growth. Many feel lonely, disconnected and frustrated.
Add to this mix two important challenges—and let me be clear here, these have NOTHING to do with sin—depression and addiction. When one struggles with either depression or addiction, it becomes even more difficult—and often impossible—to be well, whole, complete, connected, and integrated. In almost every single case, the person becomes increasingly lonely and isolated.
Recently, I think we have all been saddened by the tragedy of suicide. In just the past few days, two well known persons have died from complications of the disease of depression. Clearly, they were not capable of making wise decisions and were so overwhelmed by their illness that they lost hope.
Rather than judging them, let us pray for them—and for those who loved them and now mourn their loss. But let us learn from this tragedy. Let us make an effort to reach out to others and to tell them that we love them, that they are important to us, and that we are grateful for the gift which they are to us. On the outside they may appear happy and content. But we never really know what they are feeling unless we take the risk of asking them.
A few weeks ago, I shared with a friend that I would be preaching this weekend. He told me that this weekend is an important one for A.A. because June 10th is the anniversary of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. I did not know that. I do know, though, that from everything I read—and from what I see with my own eyes—addiction is negatively impacting every aspect of our society.
In addition to alcohol and other drugs—one of the worst seems to be heroin—the opioid crisis has reached unimaginable levels. When the Governor of New Jersey made a series of commercials last fall to talk about how this was adversely impacting the state, it drove home to me the fact that this was unprecedented. We have never experienced this kind of an addiction crisis before. We all need to be concerned about those who are suffering from addiction! Trinity, for instance, opens our doors almost every day to A.A. meetings. That is indeed a step in the right direction. Twelve-Step groups offer a strategy which gives hope and strength to those who suffer from addiction. So far as I know, it is the only option with a proven track record of helping the addicted maintain sobriety and recovery.
Our gospel reading today has something quite interesting to say to this. It is fascinating to reflect on the depiction of the biological family of Jesus as presented to us in the Gospel of Mark. Clearly, they love Jesus. Clearly, his welfare and safety are very important to them. When their friends and acquaintances begin to tell them “crazy stories about him,” they drop everything and go to find him. Thinking that he might be out of his mind, they act to protect him. They want to keep him safe, and so plan to “restrain him” to keep him from harming himself or anyone else.
Contrary to what we might think, Jesus does not dismiss them or put them down! Rather he speaks clearly to make sure that they understand that he is indeed in his right mind. But, he refuses to allow them to control him or limit him. He will not allow them to dictate his actions or his words. He must truly be about “his Father’s business.” And that is something which his family may never really understand or approve—but which they will have to accept.
Our Lord goes on, though, to reach out in appreciation to those who are also family to him—even though they are not connected to him through flesh and blood. His words are clear, “Whoever does God’s will is Mother and Sister and Brother to me.” They—and we– are as deeply connected to him as is his biological family.
What, then are we to take from all this? God made us to long for connection. Our choices either help us to be connected more fully or lead us to isolation. May we always choose to be connected, then—to God, to others and to creation. May we also reach out to help others find the way to integration and to community—most especially those who suffer from depression and addiction!