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“All” Includes All of Us

Sunday, March 1, 2020. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Romans 3:21-26; Matthew 7:1-5
Sermon Series: Sunday Morning, Monday Morning – Part 1: Sin & Forgiveness

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Today we are beginning a Lenten Sermon Series that is entitled, “Sunday Morning, Monday Morning.” You may have noticed that this is also the title of our 2020 Lenten Devotional, which is not a coincidence. J The goal of the series is to reflect on a number of what may seem to be “churchy” words – sin, covenant, image of God, exile, Holy Spirit, and sacrifice – words that we use on “Sunday morning,” and ponder their connections with our lives during the rest of the week, beginning on “Monday morning.” Though the church’s practice has sometimes gotten twisted to seem disconnected from life in the real world, the faith of Jesus intends to have an impact on people’s lives in the world. The Christian faith is devoted to the world – after all, one of the most famous biblical texts begins, “for God so loved the world” – and so down through the years, our tradition has developed a large number of themes and concepts, not to get people out of the world, but to support, equip, and transform people for new life in the world. It is our conviction that these terms and themes will not only enrich our lives, they will deepen and enlarge our perspective, our resilience, and our hope for the future.

We’re beginning today with the word “sin.”

At this point, some of you may want to get up and head for the exits.

Sin is a starchy word. It is an old word. And it is a word that has fallen into some disuse.

There are some churches that avoid the word sin, avoid confessing sins, because they do not want to be seen as depressing. Raising the awareness of sin is seen by some as a ‘downer,’ and there is plenty in our world to be down about already, so why beat what may seem like an already-dead horse. Better to look on the bright side of life.

Other people avoid the term ‘sin’ because they have seen this word used as a weapon, a stick to clobber people with. “You’re a sinner!” is an accusation that has been too easily thrown around to shame people. So much damage has been done by yelling at people about their sins that some people think this is a word that we’re better off doing without.

The problem is that the word ‘sin’ refers to a reality that is with us and in us and around us, whether we talk about it or not. As Barbara Brown Taylor says in her exquisite book, Speaking of Sin (which would make for a brilliant small group study), “Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them.”[1]

When the Bible speaks about sin, it does so in 2 different ways. First, there are the sins that we commit, the wrongs that we do. This is what many of us think of when we think about sin, the things we do wrong. But there is a second way the Bible talks about sin which is as a power that grabs us, that gets us in its grip, more like an addiction that makes us, in the words of Romans 7, do the evil that we do not want to do, and strangely unable to do the good that we want to do.

What is helpful about the first understanding – the sins that we commit, the things we do wrong – is that it conveys that you and I are morally responsible people, accountable for what we do and for what we do not do. Moral accountability is a cornerstone of biblical faith.

What is helpful about the second understanding – the power of sin that has us in its grip – is that it understands that, while our willpower and ability to make changes in our own lives is real and significant, it is not total. You and I are in the grip of social forces and addictions and powers that are bigger than our individual willpower, and against which we need help. We are, at this very deep level – as the 12-step recovery movement reminds us – powerless against these powers of sin, and we need help from another, higher power to recover from them and walk away from them.

When we find ourselves doing things that are not good for us or for the world, it is worth asking, “In what ways am I responsible for what I’m doing?” And, it is worth asking, “How am I getting carried away by some power or force that is larger than me, and that does not have my best interests at heart?”

Romans 3 teaches us that “there is no distinction between us, for all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We’re all in this boat. This is where we get the saying that the ground at the foot of the cross is completely level. When we stand before Jesus, none of us have the high ground over anyone else, when it comes to sin. We are all sinners. “All” means “all of us.” The percentage of sinners in this room is 100%.

Jesus addresses this very thing in the portion of the Sermon on the Mount we read from Matthew 7, where he says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged….Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”

Now, this is the point where some of us might want to say, “But Lord, you don’t know my neighbor. This particular neighbor has much more than a speck in his eye.” To that, what I’m fairly sure the Lord would say is, “Scott, I actually do know your neighbor. And I also know you. Let’s you and me worry about the log in your eye.”

The Lenten practice of becoming aware of our sins, of naming our sins, of identifying them, and of asking God to help us work at recovering from them is a practice that leads to humility. After all, it’s harder to be harshly judgmental of others when you are conscious and aware of your own sinfulness and the ways that you have fallen short of what God wants for you.

But we should notice that Jesus does get back around to that speck in our neighbor’s eye. Jesus’ command to attend to the log in your own eye is not about being so consumed with your own soul that you leave the sin of the world completely unattended. “You hypocrite,” Jesus says, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Attending to our own sinfulness, and the ways that we are in sin’s grip, is a way of what some spiritual traditions call “cleaning the lens.” We clean the mud off of our own glasses so that we can see clearly to help others with their own. If we don’t pay attention to our own lens – if we don’t become conscious and aware of our own sinful patterns – then we’re just going to be banging around blindly in the lives of others, possibly creating even more problems.

So, in the next week, I want to invite you to spend some time reflecting on what is one sin of which you are aware in your life, something from which you would like to recover and change? (I say it this way, because there may be some sins in our lives from which we do not really want to recover, we just want them to be forgiven. Those are a whole other category to talk about.) Why do you think it would be important for you to change this? What are one or two things that you could do that would help you to recover? And who is one person that you could talk to, to ask to help you recover, who could help hold you accountable for this recovery?

What is one sin in your life from which you would like to recover? Why do you think it would be important for you to recover from this or change this? What are one or two things you could do that would help you to recover? And who is one person that you could ask to help you recover?

Against all the naysayers, there is actually quite a lot of hope in the word ‘sin.’ Our faith teaches us that God’s grace is far stronger than the power of sin, and God’s grace forgives us for our sins, and God’s grace strengthens us to live in new ways apart from our sin. To God be all the glory. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2000) 4.