Rev. Canon Patricia Coller


MARCH 5, 2017

Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled, “Whatever Became of Sin?” and the book begins with these words:

“On a sunny day in September, 1972, a stern-faced, plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner in the busy Chicago Loop.  As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm and, pointing to the person nearest to him, intone loudly the single word ‘GUILTY!’

“Then without any change of expression, he would resume his stiff stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture.  Then, again, the …raising of his arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word ‘GUILTY.’

“The effect of this strange … pantomime on the passing strangers was extraordinary, almost eerie.  They would stare at him, hesitate, look away, look at each other, and then at him again; then hurriedly continue on their ways.

“One man, turning toward another … exclaimed: ‘But how did he know?’

I suspect that many of us, in that situation, would have had a similar response.  “How does he know?” or “What does he know?”  And some of us would think to ourselves, “That guy’s crazy.  I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Well, our Bible texts for today, the first Sunday in Lent, focus on sin, and grace.  In the first reading we hear again about Adam and Eve, left by God at the beginning of creation in the Garden of Eden, with the job of taking care of that little paradise.  And God had said to them, “You can eat of every plant and tree in this garden…it’s all yours…except for just this one tree in the middle.  But everything else is yours.”  And then along comes that serpent, who represents the sneaky, subtle, voice of temptation that we sometimes hear…that influences us…that said, “Really…God gave you everything except that one tree?  Why can’t you have that tree, too?  You know, you won’t really die if you eat the fruit from it.  God just doesn’t want you to know everything that God knows…doesn’t want you to be as powerful as God.  Why should you be deprived of that?”  So they gave in to the sneaky little voice of temptation.

Then in the Gospel we hear again about how Jesus…God on earth in human form, to show us who God is, and how God wants us to be…Jesus was baptized and then led into the wilderness by the Spirit, and he fasted there for 40 days and 40 nights.  He ate nothing, and he was mighty hungry at the end of that fast.  So the Devil came to him and, with the sneaky little voice of temptation, said, “Hey, you’re hungry…why don’t you use your power to turn these stones into bread…why don’t you show everyone your powers by standing on the top of the Temple and jumping off, and showing that you won’t be hurt…why don’t you make me the god of your life…worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world.”  That Devil made promises that he could not deliver and, as we know, Jesus even in his weakened state did not give into those temptations.

Finally, in the Epistle, St. Paul does his best to explain to people of the church in his day how sin came into the world, through Adam, and how people have been saved from sin through Jesus.  Paul talks about the “free gift” that humankind has been given.  And this is the important part that we need to remember…this is the core of our faith…we all sin, and we all need to recognize that…but in Jesus we have all been given the free gift of Grace…forgiveness…and that is even more important for us to recognize.

If you look up the definition of sin in a dictionary you will find something like what I found in my Webster’s New World dictionary:  “[Sin is] the breaking of religious law or a moral principle, especially through a willful act; any offense, misdemeanor, or fault.”  But if you look in our Book of Common Prayer, we find the church’s definition of sin:  “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”

Georgia Harkness says, “There is perhaps no word in our language which is used more ambiguously in spite of its apparent simplicity… Sin, then, is a relationship to God focused in self-centredness, which shows itself in unloving attitudes and acts toward our fellow men.  It is when we seek our own wills instead of God’s will and regulate our lives by such self-seeking that sin corrupts our nature.”

We are all confronted by that sneaky little voice of temptation in various ways…it’s voice that I used to hear a mother, who said, “if the stores are overcharging us for merchandise, then it’s okay for us to shoplift…”  or the voice of a woman who used to nag her diabetic husband, “Oh go on…just have a piece of cake…it won’t kill ya” … or it’s the little voice in the head of a recovering person that says, “Go ahead…take one little drink, or one little hit, you’ve got things under control now.”  Again, Georgia Harkness writes:  “No wonder sin gives us so much difficulty.  It approaches us at our places of need and takes them to illegitimate territory so that hunger slips into gluttony, the need for affection becomes lust, the desire to improve oneself becomes theft, and the longing for exhilaration becomes drunkenness or drug abuse.  Even the desire for spiritual fulfillment can lead to self-deification or to seeking to use God for quite ungodly purposes.”

We sometimes make life difficult for ourselves.  But here’s the good news…God knows us.  God knows we do not have the power on our own to live exactly the way God wants us to all the time.  And God has given us, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the “free gift” … the unconditional love and forgiveness of God.  Whenever we wander off the path, we can always come back and try again to keep our primary relationship the one between us, and God…so that everything that we do is what we believe God would have us do.  Donald Armentrout wrote:  “Jesus came to bring us abundant life, not by the world’s standards, but by his.  Abundant life does not mean having two cars in every garage or flitting around the world to see the sights.  It means truth, beauty, and goodness.”

This season of Lent gives us the opportunity to accept and open the free gift that we have been given in new ways.  The practice of listening to God during Lent is one that we will be working with in the Adult Forum for the next few weeks.  I will leave you with one thought from the book we will be using during that Forum:  “The life-giving ways of God are discovered in silence.  Even in ten minutes alone in the quiet, we can find what we need and want:  a spacious sense of hope, interior strength and resiliency, wisdom beyond information, and peace beyond understanding.  The benefits of the practice of silence are many:  tight conflicts relax, cruel self-talk quiets, endless list-making ceases, and the spacious presence of God becomes real.”  Amen.

With thanks to Synthesis, and Living Compass.

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