Romans 6. 12-23
It’s not the confessing that changes lives; it’s the loving!
Way back in the good old days – about three or four months ago, now – we’d begin each Sunday morning together, pretty much the way we did, this morning. Chad would play a song or two to set the mood. I’d make a few comments. About the service. About the week. And then, in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, we’d confess our sin (singular, not plural). Confess that we were bound by it, captive to it, and that we couldn’t free ourselves. Thought, word, and deed, we said. Things we shouldn’t. Things we should. Theologically speaking, that is the foundation, the center, of the faith!
As Luther explains, we believe – by our own reason, our own understanding; by our own strength – that we cannot believe in Jesus! That we can’t, even, come to him! Captive! Bound! No matter how much! No matter how many! No matter how well! We just can’t do it!
And that’s what we’ve been saying, for centuries. Been saying for generations. But over the last couple of decades, I’ve come to realize something. That’s not what we really, truly believe! At least, not here in America. Land of the free. Home of the brave. Truth is, we have a pretty shallow, a pretty superficial understanding of sin. Most of the stuff we consider sin, actually, falls more into the category of the socially unacceptable! Indiscretions. Carelessness. Gaffes. Most of what we consider sin rarely goes beyond the level of simple embarrassment. In popular religion, sin’s an illness. A weakness. And like everything else, can be remedied by a good, strong dose of willpower! Try harder! Do better! Just do it! In this part of the world – especially in this part of the country – we believe we CAN become the people god wants us to be! If we want it bad enough! It’s the old pull-yourselves-up-by-your-own-bootstraps theory of atonement …
If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me! Mind over matter! Become the change!
Sin, for most, is on the same level as running in the hallways at school or chewing gum in class! It’s what you say when you hit your thumb with a hammer! It’s the kind of jokes you tell when no one’s listening. It’s a danger, a threat, to the status quo, to be sure. But hardly captivity or bondage! However, here in this place, among this people, we believe sin’s more than that. Sin, for us, is subtle. It’s insidious. There’s a reason sin appears in the Garden as a snake. Sneaking. Slithering. It’s not just a mistake. A misstep. Sin’s a power, a force. It’s a push and a pull. And in the end, we’re captive. Bound.
And to complicate it, more. Sin’s, also, not just an individual effort. An I, me, my. It’s a we, us, our! It’s a team sport! Something we do together! If you noticed, we didn’t say, “I confess that I am captive to sin and cannot free MYself.” That’s certainly true! But when we confess, we say, ‘WE’! “WE confess that WE are captive and WE cannot free OURselves!” Sin is something we share! We’re together in the confessing! But together in the sinning, as well! As a congregation. As a denomination! As a country, a community! It’s something we have in common! Something do together! We all fall short! We all miss the mark! Thinking! Speakiing! Doing! More often than not, without giving it a second thought! Not even realizing we’re doing it!
Sin’s something we’re born with! Something we’re born into! Something we inherit from everyone before us! And we just can’t wave a wand and make it all go away! It’s like the racism we’re hearing so much about. Our first reaction is to disagree. To deny. But it’s deeper, higher, thicker, wider, than that. Racism isn’t, simply, my sin. It’s our sin. Not alien. Not foreign. Something outside of us. It’s a part of us. It’s who we are, it’s what, we are … together! It has a context. It has a history. As much a part of us as our heartbeat, our breath. Bewitching. Beguiling. And we can’t just wake up one morning and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong! I’ll be different!” Sin is more stubborn, more persistent, than that!
Truth is, we’re so sinful that we don’t realize – that we can’t realize – how sinful we really are! It’s not that we’re bad people. It’s not that we’re evil people. It’s that we’re, simply, people! That’s why in the confession at the beginning of the service, we don’t go into detail. Admitting we’re captive and cannot free ourselves is enough. And the root of all sin? It’s isn’t the love of money. It’s the love of nothing. The love on no one. We haven’t loved god. We haven’t loved our neighbors. And contrary to popular opinion, we haven’t loved ourselves. That’s why loving others as we love ourselves doesn’t work. We ARE loving them like that way! Exactly like we “love” ourselves! Of course, we’d like to think we love. We’d like to believe we love. But we don’t. And no matter how many billboards we see, no matter how many bumper stickers we read, that encourage us to love god and others, sin always gets in the way. Always. Forever. And so, we don’t love. Not in thought. Not in word. Not in deed. Doing things we shouldn’t. Not doing things we should. And we can’t change that. We can’t stop doing it. We can’t stop being us! And so, we do what we’re doing now. We sit. And we watch. And we wait. For someone to come and set us free!
Part two of confession and forgiveness … The pastor hears our litany. The pastor hears our lament. And instead of telling us that we’re not forgiven until … that there’s no forgiveness unless … She tells us, There’s only love! There’s only love! ”In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake – for his sake – God forgives us all!” No asking us if we’re sorry. No asking us if we mean it. No asking us if we promise never to do it, again. There’s only the love! Only the love that created us! Only the love that set us free! The love that makes us salvages us and makes us new! Sunday after Sunday! Season upon season! Only the love – the giving, the sacrificing, the suffering – that brought us here, this morning! Only the love that enlightens us! That inspires us! That moves us! And sin … sin is only the beginning!
We don’t confess to guilty. We don’t confess to feel small! We confess to celebrate god’s amazing, god’s astounding, grace! God’s amazing, astounding charity! God’s amazing, astounding love! God loves us! Let that sink in! More than we love ourselves! God loves us more than we love each other! God loves us even more than god loves god own self! Think about that! It’s a direct proportion. The weaker the sin, the weaker the love. The more powerful the sin, the more powerful the love! The gospel isn’t sketched in shades of gray. It can’t be sketched in grays. But it’s proclaimed in blacks and whites! In nothings or alls!
So, my friends, truth is, we aren’t angels. And we aren’t saints – at least, not in the popular sense. And we never will be. After all, we’re people. Just people. No better, no worse, than billions of others. Just. Like. Us. Vulnerable. Not invincible. We fall short. Miss the mark. In short, we err. And when we reach down to grab hold of our bootstraps, we discover, one more time, that we aren’t wearing boots. But god loves us, anyway! God loves us with all god’s heart! With all god’s head! With all god’s being! And that … that makes all the difference! Even at times, even in places, like this … Especially at times, in places, just like this!