Sin is a sticky wicket. On one hand, we can hardly deny its existence. We might disagree on what constitutes sin, but on a fundamental level we who follow the Abrahamic God must confess the reality of sin. Genesis reports that sin begins with knowledge of good and evil. Have you ever really thought about that before? I imagine you have, I mean this more as an invitation than an inquisition: think about the fact that our foundational myth maintains that in knowing the difference between good and evil we encounter sin. It is not a simple choice of good or evil; it is not a cut-and-dried division of evil bad, and good, well, good. Good intentions can still lead to evil acts. Evil can have attenuating good. The reason forgiveness is so messy is because sin is slippery.
Sin is in the nuances. Sin is missing the mark, in terms of etymology. Both the Hebrew and the Greek words have the same meaning. A term that comes from archery. To miss the mark. How, though, do we measure this miss? Inches can translate to miles, depending on your metric. A centimeter on the highway is not the same a centimeter on a map. Sin is in the nuances.
We began our talk by weighing hands, and we have not yet considered the other one. Sin-talk can leave scars. Sin-talk too often is spoken in abusive language. Sin-talk plants seeds of self-hatred that blossom into shame. Augustine blathered on in sin-talk. He looked at an infant suckling at a breast and saw a bag of skin filled with sin. John Calvin felt Augustine was too forgiving, and summarized the essence of humanity with two unforgettable words: total depravity. Jonathan Edwards agreed when he described humanity as being held by a gossamer thread over the pits of hell in his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Perhaps you, like me, know people who use the word “escape” to describe their relationship with the Church. An escape from abuse. An escape from homes in which sin was screamed about but words of grace were barely whispered. When sin becomes an obsession, when the purpose of sin-talk is to spin purchase-less tires in the mud so that they will splatter it over all in its path, when SIN is rendered in capital letters but love is shunned like a four-letter word, we miss the mark. We sin in our sin-talk when it is not a dialogue with love.
Sin is not uniquely an Abrahamic concept; the Hindu notion of karma and the Buddhist concept of dukkha are similar. Both sin and karma are seen as impacting life in this world and the next; both sin and dukkha, which translates best to unsatisfactoriness, hold that humans cause harm because we act with certainty when we should act with trepidation. We mistake the part for the whole. We privilege the ego, the self, the individual. Most religions, on some level, provide practitioners methods to recognize the pain they have effected; to discern the causes of this pain; to offer restitution and seek forgiveness from those harmed; and to commit to methods that will prevent a repeating of the same behaviors, thoughts, words, or deeds. Sin-talk that is aimed at transformation and progress is good talk. But far too often, rare is the good talk of sin.
Jesus knew how to talk about sin. He wasn’t shy about bringing it up, but always for a purpose. Yes, sometimes he was harsh; for those drunk on religious certainty, Jesus promised a hangover. For those being haughty in their heads—“If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner”—for them, Jesus might pull out the somewhat passive-aggressive, but always effective story-told-to-one-person-but-clearly-aimed-at-others technique. Simon, I have something to say to you. Jesus brought up sin, but always with the objective of unsticking those who were mired in the mud; no spinning tires, no indiscriminate splattering here. Jesus may have spoken of sin loudly from time to time, but he always bellowed the good news of grace and forgiveness. Who is this who even forgives sins?
In my upcoming book on the Gospel of Mark, I make the argument that early Christian storytellers used unnamed women as paradigms of proper discipleship. We see it in the Syrophoenician woman who tells Jesus about the dogs who get scraps from the table; in the hemorrhaging woman who is healed because she dare break the taboo of touching a man not her husband while she was in her menses; and in the woman with the alabaster jar. We return to the triple tradition—remember that? the material shared by Mark, Matthew, and Luke—but once again Luke’s emphases and additions are telling. Only Luke has this story that Jesus relates about the relationship between forgiveness and gratitude. It’s a wonderful story; it makes sense to both ear and heart. Great debts require great forgiveness. Great forgiveness results in great joy. There is little subtlety to Jesus’ approach; we know both about and to whom Jesus is speaking.
But scripture is about more than the events in the story world. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and about the woman, but he’s also speaking to us about us. About our sin. If you’re like me, you’re thinking of that worst sin. Details aren’t important. We should be careful not to brag on our sin. Still, chances are you have it; most of us do: that thing we did. Or said. Or didn’t do or didn’t say. That way we missed the mark by so much the arrow plunged right into someone’s heart. Jesus beckons us to receive the forgiveness that relieves burdens, that lessens yokes, that changes lives. The forgiveness that cancels debts. “Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says to the woman. “Because you believed, you are saved from your sins. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” He says to her.
He says to us.
The Pharisees are shocked by Jesus’ audacity, but I don’t think that is what Luke is wanting us to be shocked by; I don’t think this passage is ultimately about the Pharisees being judgmental or Jesus being ostentatious. I think it is about how knowing that you are forgiven impacts the way you live.
By all rights, this unnamed woman puts a target on her back the minute she takes it upon herself to touch a man who is not her husband. Add to that the reputation Jesus has as being one who is dedicated to God, and he might as well be a walking X for her. Forbidden. Her very existence is deemed a threat to God by the established authorities; she is the embodied bridge too far. They believe that God cannot reach her. Even if they were to confess Jesus the Messiah, never would it be assumed that Jesus’ holiness could overpower her sin. We can rest assured that all the Pharisees believe that Jesus leaves the building unclean. The fact that she has a reputation for being especially sinful makes this a potent cocktail. Stonings start in such ways. But straight to Jesus’ feet she goes, weeping tears of gratitude and using her hair when no towel is proffered. Of course, it is important that the person to whom she tends is Jesus, but in some ways it really doesn’t matter. She has no verbal guarantee that Jesus will respond positively; she has no assurance that she will not be targeted when he leaves; what she has is an internal knowledge—what the Greeks call gnosis—that she is more than sin. She is more than the ways she has missed the mark. She knows that she is a child of God; with this knowledge, she gives herself permission to love life. To express her gratitude. She does this before Jesus ever utters a word about forgiveness. What he proclaims is not a magic spell; he does not speak something into existence; he merely diagnosis a pre-existing condition. She is forgiven.
Let us not mistake forgiveness for permission. Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer called it; that notion that forgiveness exists so that we can continue to create suffering as a result of our selfishness, to look away again and again because of our fear, to proclaim God’s forgiveness with our lips but to close our hearts to what it entails. Forgiveness is a pay-it-forward transaction. We don’t have permission to hurt others just because forgiveness is available. It is a reality that pushes our frame of reference outwards. When we understand that nothing we can do puts us inextricably outside of God’s love, we stop seeking ways to prove God wrong. We still sin, but not in the same ways. We still hurt others, but not without recognizing the harm; not without seeking reconciliation. We see being forgiven as the pre-existing condition, not sin. And this unnamed woman who tends to Christ’s body—the role that we in the Church are to play until God returns, that of tending to the Body of Christ—this woman shows us what living life knowing that you are forgiven looks like. And for that, let the people of the Church say Amen.
When I was a young teenager, I voiced my own version of #notallwhites. My mentors and peers of color, most often lovingly but sometimes exasperatedly, directed me toward understanding it is #notaboutyou. Endlessly asking others to assuage my goodness or affirm my nonthreatening whiteness sidetracked discussions. Since I was shown this, I haven’t been able to unsee it. Every now and again, I slip and offer up a more sophisticated version, but the impetus is the same: please affirm to me that I am not racist.
I’m racist. I actively fight against it, but I’m racist because I continue to benefit from systems that are built on a foundation of racist oppression.
In my late teens and early twenties I flirted with what is now called Meninism. I have a horrible memory that haunts me that I might one day write about, but I am still so mortified it is overwhelming. Let’s just say that in college I hijacked a presentation on sexual violence made by fellow female students and demanded that an asterisk be applied to everything they said. #notallmen
Really, this memory plagues me. It causes me to physically shudder and groan. Five years after it happened I was married to a feminist scholar, and while the marriage didn’t last, her impact on me did. #yesallmen is pretty much spot on, at least for me.
I converted to Christianity about 15 years ago and I have often said that I feel part of the ministry laid before me is #notallChristians. I used to think this would arise from saying the right things, making it clear that I decry the sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and other prejudices that too often are present in the Body of Christ. In the past two years I’ve realized that much, much more important than what I say is what I do. I no longer ask people to trust me, I try to show them. To earn their trust. To live my life as though I am a walking safety pin.
I delivered a sermon yesterday that has proved to be controversial, and appears to have caused one person to leave the church. The charges: I was univitational. Divisive.
I did not sleep much last night. I wrote an email in which I attempted to thread the needle between lamenting that my words caused distress while maintaining that I do not accept that anything I said was outside of the Word. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that over 700 incidents of hateful harassment and violence have occurred since the election of November 8th. I’ve already blocked white dudes on my Facebook page who continued to argue for “isolated incidents,” or more often: “Emails! Benghazi! Foundation!” I don’t think I have even written Secretary Clinton’s name in a blog or a Facebook post since the election, but even if I have it is in passing or secondary to the larger point. I reject the notion that speaking about acts of violence and racism is in itself an act of violence and racism. My decrying these acts has now become more controversial and problematic than the acts themselves. And I do not want to be part of a Church that acts like our duty is to assuage the feelings of those who want to claim that this past election was like all the others we’ve had since 1864.
But the impetus to be liked is still in me. Part of me wants to apologize and smooth things over so that I am not regarded as controversial. After a rough patch with the Session of the congregation I serve, we had a powerful, transformative meeting on Thursday and I am not eager for more conflict. It would be easier for me to give a mea culpa and to start crafting sermons that are feel-good, milquetoast offerings that sand down the rough edges of God’s word and emphasizes that while we are different in the world we are all the same in the Body of Christ.
Frankly, if I ever do that I hope one of y’all will grab the clerical collar from my neck and tell me to go back to bartending. We don’t need another white male pastor who affirms the status quo. Despite its best efforts, even the European-American Church couldn’t turn Jesus into such a person, so I’m determined not to let it happen to me, either.
Jesus did not come to earth to make us in the dominant culture feel better about ourselves; Jesus came to earth to show us how to lovingly, yet boldly live our lives as ongoing protests against that which suffocates, oppresses, marginalizes, inhibits, and deceives. Jesus taught us that #Samaritanlivesmatter. Jesus taught us to #loveyourenemies, and part of that love is speaking truth to power, even with a shaking voice.
I won’t pretend that this is easy, but my struggles are not what is important here. While I want the Church to always be a welcoming place, if you are looking for a worship experience that confirms your prejudices and doesn’t hold up the Gospel like a mirror, I’m not the right pastor. I try very hard to not castigate people–a point I make repeatedly, despite my detractors never hearing it–but I rail against existential and spiritual realities that devastate people’s lives because that has been God’s call on God’s people for 6,000 years.
I pray that the person who feels alienated by my sermon accepts my offer to speak in person. I certainly plan to listen, and even if I disagree to make sure that I understand the objections and concerns. This does not mean I will acquiesce. And if I am labeled as divisive, I will embrace that; if speaking out against violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the myriad other hatreds that are occurring across the country makes me more divisive than the actual acts themselves, so be it. I’ll channel my inner Sally Field and proclaim my unlikability.
I was eight, maybe nine when my mother introduced me to Gospel at Colonus. That might seem odd, but remember that I was born in the ’70s. I grew up watching The Electric Company. I knew about Morgan Freeman before Lean on Me. And that voice just captivated me, as it does to so many of us. Mom pulled out a vinyl record and sat me in front of our hi-fi, a spot where I would come to discover Synchronicity I, Born in the USA, and News of the World. But that is another story.
Gospel at Colonus became an obsession.
Faithful Reader will know that I grew up as an atheist, but my parents were not militant. I think at times I painted it that way to make my conversion more dramatic. Any militancy that I had in my own atheism came from me and my decisions. My parents were not hostile to the concept of God, they were simply disgusted with the realities of religion. So when I asked for a Bible, I got one. When I wanted to go to church, they would arrange it (although I didn’t go for the first time until I was 19, but again that is another story). Gospel at Colonus, which is a dramatic reading of Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles with gospel music interspersed, introduced me to the cadences of the Black Church; the use of call and response; the singsong delivery of spoken word. Morgan Freeman plays The Messenger. James Earl Jones makes an appearance as well. It is, simply put, a work of genius.
From Gospel I went to Mahalia Jackson. Again, still an atheist, but in love with gospel music. And not just Black gospel; Bluegrass gospel as well. That, Jesus Christ Superstar, an obsession with Judas, and studying the historical Jesus provided the foundation of my conversion
Last night at First Presby we hosted the African American Culture Works (AACW) Gospel Fest. Liturgical dancers from Jeraldyne’s School of Dance,members of the Central State University Gospel Ensemble, and preaching by Rev. Joshua Ward of Omega Baptist Church filled our stately sanctuary. The crowd could have been bigger, but those who were there allowed themselves to be moved and inspired. We paid homage to Miss Faith Patterson, a matriarch and inspiration to so many. She is having her homegoing this weekend, though she went to be with the Lord almost a year ago.
She was a queen.
I sometimes get side-eyes for how rooted I seem to be in the Black church. My influences are genuine; my experiences growing up, and the emphasis on race consciousness that was central to my education at Yellow Springs High School, have combined with my preference to be in worship situations in which we are demonstrative. Where we get up, we shout, we sing, we dance, we hug, we call out exclamations. Where we let the preacher know we agree by vocal acclamation. But I respect that such is not really the kind of congregation I serve. That’s cool. It is not my place to try to make something artificial. But when I get the chance to do something authentic? Wooooo doggy, you best believe I’m going to be all over that like gravy on biscuits.
On my left arm, I have tattooed three scripture references, each inside a multicolored ichthus. One of those scriptures is Galatians 3:28
“There is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free; we are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Unity in the Body of Christ does not mean that we ignore one another’s differences. In fact, being a Christian, I think, should make one more appreciative and aware of the wonderful diversity God has provided. If we want to understand who God is, we have to look into the eyes of others. We have to permit ourselves to be vulnerable, to prioritize others over ourselves when we are able, to affirm differences as part of what makes community so powerful.
The Associate Dean at United Theological Seminary, the wonderful Dr. Harold Hudson, and I were speaking a few weeks ago. I asked Dr. Hudson, “You gonna come to the Gospel Festival in Yellow Springs?” “I didn’t know you joined the AME Church,” he responded. “I didn’t,” I replied. “Are you a Baptist now?” he inquired. “Nope,” I assured him. “I’m still at the Presbyterian Church.” Wide-eyed, he asked: “Gospel? At the Presbyterian Church?!” I smiled, “that’s just how we roll at First Presby, Dr. Hudson. That’s just how we roll.”
There are times when we are able to stop being the White Church or the Black Church. Baptists or Presbyterians. And while a worship style may not be endemic to a particular denomination that does not mean that such worship cannot be had, authentically and joyfully, if God so wills it. If God so causes it to happen.
Gospel at First Presby.