Galatians 2:15-21

Luke 7:36-8:3

“Hi, my name is Nathan, and I’m a sinner.”

Is that a bad way to start a sermon? Is it a bad way to start worship? But isn’t that what we did today? It’s not always how we start worship, but today our opening prayer was a confessional hymn.

I doubt anyone will be upset if that’s not there next week. I suspect that we’d all just ignore sin if we could (and some of us are more able to ignore our sin than others). No one, in this congregation at least, seems to be much of a fan of what one author described this way: we gather for worship, sing a wonderful hymn of praise, and immediately stop everything to say, “We’re sorry.” Informed by this writer and in response to how I interpreted the congregation, I changed that opening prayer about a year ago from a “Prayer of Confession” to a “Prayer of the Church” that focuses on our gathering, rather than our sin. Maybe it’s just because we don’t usually sing that prayer, but I haven’t heard a negative thing about it. If anything, people have expressed relief that we’ve taken some of the emphasis off of sin. It seems like all the church has focused on for 2,000 years is sin, and it’s kind of nice to hear another kind of news.

On the other hand, we can easily overcompensate and seem to disallow any bad news. One of the great preachers of our age, Barbara Brown Taylor, wrote that she had to leave pastoral ministry on account of what she called “sunburn.” She’s referring to the incessant, pathological positivity that church people often cultivate. This is the cheerfulness equivalent of “Minnesota nice” that characterizes most communities where people see each other regularly and talk about each other more. It’s why, if you ask me how things are going, I’ll always tell you they’re “going well” or even “great,” whether or not that’s the case. For those of us introspective enough to recognize the darkness of life, constant cheerful sunniness is too much.

Our need to keep things light is part of why we don’t think we like confession. It’s more comfortable, if only in the short run, to pretend that the darkness isn’t there. Ignoring that little truth means that we don’t have to trust each other with our dirty laundry. We might count on God not to judge us too harshly, but when it comes to other people, most of us know better.

I will say, while I’m being honest, that the church has historically done a terrible job of handling the word of truth when it comes to sin. You all know some of the categories of behavior, lists of prohibited actions, that the church has tried to pass off as teachings about sin. And while some of those actions are rightly prohibited (killing is killing, after all), Sin itself is really something deeper than what we do. As theologians like Paul Tillich and Jim Tamte have reminded us, Sin is the name for our broken relationship with God. Since the time of the Pharisees, really since Moses and before, the church has let the focus fall from Sin to “sins,” and we’ve preached against behaviors that we see as damaging to our relationship with God. Often, we’ve just preached against whatever we happen to find distasteful.

Some voices, thankfully, have always called the church’s attention back to Sin as a condition. Prophets since Moses and Jeremiah, and Jesus in particular, have told us the truth again about Sin. The problem, they point out, is not fundamentally about what we do, it’s about how we are with ourselves and others. The broken relationship with God exists before the behaviors that manifest and deepen the brokenness. Sin in this sense is almost (but not quite!) as basic a part of us as is the fact that we’re created in God’s perfect image.

So the church has especially mishandled the truth when a man in a black robe (or some other fancy getup) tells the congregation, “You’re all sinners (as if I’m not), but God will let it slide (just this once, so watch yourself).” I’m always finding reasons to be more aware of the power of my position as that man in this congregation, and that power is exactly why I can’t talk as if you’re the sinners here. That is, I can’t talk about your sin without facing up to the truth about my own heart. The truth is, my heart rejects God just as much as yours does. I rejected God this morning when I woke up and grumbled about how much sleep I’ve gotten in the past week, as if my own strength were what God needs to get me through the day.

Jesus scolds Simon the Pharisee for mishandling the truth by naming someone else’s sin without first naming his own. Jesus doesn’t just care about this because Simon’s sin is a fact, although it is. He cares about it because the truth of our relationship with other people is that we’re no more godly than they are. That goes double for today’s Pharisees, by which I mean church people. I’d say that it’s impossible for us to tell the truth about sin in the third person, and it’s violent to talk about sin in the second person. I can only ever really talk about sin in the first person: it’s about all of us.

So if the church talks about sin, and unfortunately I think we have to, we have to do it in the first person. We’re not a bunch of already-saints set apart from a sinful world. Instead, we’re sinners being made into saints, and we’re called to bring the world along with us on this journey. I really meant that association with Alcoholics Anonymous when I opened the sermon. I’m not as familiar with AA as some, but I know the principle that we can never be free from the illness, only recovering from it. Similarly, I don’t have any illusions about being able to free myself from sin, but I know the first step in healing the disease is to acknowledge that it’s there.

I think if John Calvin had been around in the 1930s, he would have looked at AA and said that they’re doing with alcohol what the church should do with sin. He envisioned a church full of sinners who trust in God to free them from sin, who travel together on the road to living without sin, and who reach out to others who also need to be freed from sin. He knew that our authority to talk about sin comes from our confessed, intimate knowledge of what sin is, as much as it comes from our contrasting knowledge of the grace of God. We know the road to recovery because we know the problem.

Intimate knowledge of sin is Jesus’ authority to speak, too. It’s not that he was under sin’s power as such, of course – we say that he was tempted but remained sinless. Instead, he gave himself to sin by taking on flesh and suffering the rejection and murder that is sin’s response to God. He knew human violence by being its victim, and yet he never lost compassion for those who attacked him. The person who has lived sin on that level is more than welcome to call sin what it is.

I said we have to talk about sin because we have to tell the truth. We can’t deny the truth that there is oil leaking in the Gulf of Mexico, that Israel attacked ships carrying humanitarian supplies in international waters, that the people of Kyrgyzstan and Iran faced yet more violence in the last week. That’s the truth, and there’s more where it came from. You may notice that these three situations have three things in common. First, the problem goes deeper in time and mistrust than we can see at the surface; who really started the Israel-Palestine conflict? Second, none of us is free from being part of the problem; as my friend Dave said, “it’s my oil addiction too.” And third, much of what’s going on comes down to a game of political chicken, and the only way to end the game is for someone to lose face.

I think we can call all three of these situations sin, which is to say that they manifest our stubborn human refusal to put ourselves in God’s hands. Sin has those three attributes that these problems share: it’s deeper than what we see, we’re all in it together, and the only way out is to be willing to lose the game.

But here’s the good news: the game is already lost! God lost the game – forfeited it, in fact. If sin loses and righteousness wins, then of course God takes it hands down and we’re all sunk. But God, the creditor in Jesus’ parable who holds all that bad debt, has just given up Her winning hand and gone all in on our side of the table! Whatever power God had over us, whatever guilt we expected God to point out, God chose not to play that card.

The part of our Presbyterian symbol that is highlighted today is the dove. The dove is the sign of peace that marked Jesus when the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism. That dove, this dove, is a sign that God offers us peace. Doesn’t just offer it, God begs for peace. God in Jesus is willing to go even to death so our relationship can continue in truth and light.

That’s what I value about that little ritual of confession and assurance during the beginning of the service. It’s a chance to acknowledge the darker and more shameful parts of myself, and then to be assured that God loves even those parts of me. It’s a chance to let my truth in all its brokenness be embraced by a greater truth. The greater truth is that however deeply we may be in rebellion against God, we are God’s people more deeply than that. The greatest truth is that no matter who or what we are, no matter how we may be, God reaches and reaches out to us. The truth is that I too can be beloved of God, simply because God is love.