Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 8:31-36

“Everyone who sins is a slave of sin.” The lectionary for Reformation Sunday takes us out of Matthew’s end-times press to the cross, but it still gives us one of Jesus’ less-popular sayings. And I don’t have to tell you, talking about sin may be even more unpopular than talking about money. They’re both unpopular for the same reason, which is that it’s hard to imagine a pastor saying anything good or uplifting about them. Am I just going to tell us we’re all bad? Well, no, but I feel the need to talk about sin, just to get at these texts.

Texts about sin confront us today because the Reformation was about our relationship to the concept of sin. (Strictly, we read Jeremiah today because of the “new covenant” God writes on our hearts – but even that comes down to God forgiving our wrongs.) It’s not that the Reformation changed our relationship to sin as such, it just rediscovered the same Gospel that was preached by Jesus, St Patrick, St Francis, and St Ignatius. That Gospel robs sin of its power by sustaining the truth that our life is not validated by our perfection. The Gospel has always been that we’re God’s people because of God’s love. That good news frees us from proving own perfection, value, or accomplishment. Those are not our paths to God, and we no longer have to be determined by them.

But that’s an unpopular truth. It’s hard to cope with being freed when we’re not convinced we’ve been bound; as Jesus’ audience protested: “we’re not slaves.” Right? Well, yes and no. We can think and decide as we see fit. Part of the Reformation was a revolution in information, when suddenly people could interact with religion on their own terms. But our minds are at the mercy of noises from both sides – external voices telling us what we want and need and internal thoughts and questions. Our social reality is determined by power over others, material consumption, and the cash value of our time and attention (to ourselves and others). That’s in addition to the more obvious slaveries of drugs, work, or food – those are more obvious, but they’re usually secondary addictions in people’s lives.

Christianity and other modern Western religions have tended to miss this boat too. For many years, Protestant worship and theology overstated our abject sinfulness. They were all about us being bad, but God letting us off this time. Specifically, God lets us off because we said some magic formula, i.e. we confessed – but that still becomes something we have to do perfectly. Or we’ve acknowledged that we’re all trying as hard as we can, so just do your best and it’s okay. God either “gets it” or just isn’t all that concerned. I think even that loose approach suggests that there’s a perfect standard to uphold, and we miss God unless and until our soul gets it right. So how are we doing there? Does anybody here have it right?

Trying to get it right – to believe the right stuff, behave properly, etc – is the wrong approach. Not specifically because we can’t (although that’s true too), but because sin isn’t about right and wrong. It’s not that right and wrong don’t exist – there’s stuff in the world so bad that I’d inflict or suffer violence to stop it (or so I believe). But we miss the point when we only call “bad” stuff ‘sin.’ Then we tend to name others as sinners and justify ourselves, or vice versa. Sin is not behavior, as such. It’s an attitude, a fear, a situation, an untruth – anything that denies the reality of our deep relationship with God. So Isaac Watts confesses our sin in the hymn we used as the Prayer of the Church (#126) – “Our love [is] so faint, so cold.” We tend to forget we are God’s people.

But we are God’s people. Basically and fundamentally, that’s what we are. That’s the truth that sets us free, the covenant written on our hearts. It’s already there, waiting to be learned, read, and lived again. It’s an ancient reality, woven into the fabric of creation: we are God’s children, created in God’s image and free to live in God’s love. We wander off, enslave ourselves to other powers, and forget our names. But God comes after us, again and again, writes her own name on us, and claims us as beloved children, made for relationship with God and others.

That truth doesn’t go away, no matter how deeply we bury it. God’s love doesn’t abandon us, no matter how far we feel from it. We are God’s people, even when we can’t know that about ourselves. We don’t belong to the powers of worthlessness, shortage, despair, or self-criticism; we belong to God who loves us and loves all his people. We belong so dearly that God pursues us anywhere, even into the depths of our hearts, reminding us who we are.

Here are two invitations to remember that truth, to hold it in front of us, to carry it with us. First, there are Second Chance Crosses, made of deadhead logs from Lake Vermilion. The wood eventually comes back up and gets a second chance at usefulness. We always have a second chance too, because God is always there to tell us our name again. And second, I invite you to come forward and hear your name directly. I’ll draw it as a cross on your forehead or your hand, but where I really want to draw it is on your heart. And before that, there’s this invitation for you all to choose God’s name as we recite together the Apostles’ Creed.

Amen.

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