Talk about sin.

In today’s sermon, I’m going to talk about sin, but right up front, by way of disclaimer: I’m not really going to talk about sex. Talk of sin often goes straight to sex, either directly or by implication. You know the old joke: “Why don’t Mennonites have sex standing up? Because it might lead to dancing.” Don’t get me wrong, we do need to talk about sex in church, partly because the church has gotten sex so wrong. That’s true whether your Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer or so-called straight. We’ve equated sex and sinfulness too much. Apart from giving birth, sex is the most physically intimate interaction that humans can have, and so sex is powerful. Power can be used wisely and unwisely. So we’ll talk about sex another day. I’m going to ask you, just today, as best you can, to set aside the sex=sin equation.

It’s useful for a pastor to say the word sex on the morning of the time change. It assures me that you’re awake. Today I want to talk about sin.

Even with my disclaimer, I know that sin isn’t a popular topic. That’s okay. We Episcopalians often avoid talking about sin, because we want our church to be welcoming. We want our church to express the deep loving welcome of God to ALL people. We don’t want folks to feel labeled as “sinners” or “unworthy” so we don’t talk about sin. I identify with this feeling. I want you all to feel deeply welcome. I want to feel welcome.

Here’s my worry: if we don’t talk about sin, then we’re not really welcoming. The literal definition of sin is simple: “missing the mark.” The word “sin” comes from archery. You literally sin when you miss the center of the target. We’re all a little off target at times. We are. If you don’t think you miss sometimes, we should talk.

As I said, I worry that if we don’t acknowledge that we all, all of us, are imperfect, that we all sin, we risk presenting ourselves inauthentically. We risk presenting a version of ourself that appears to have it all together. We might walk around trying to look like we’re in control. A group of people who want to look like they have everything in control has a hard time welcoming someone who appears to be a little off kilter. If we’re trying to maintain the appearance of balance, then we might not welcome in someone who looks like they can disrupt the facade.

Trying to look like you have it all together is nothing new. Take a look at our gospel. Our presiding bishop has a nickname for this story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness. He calls this episode: “Nick at Night.” Nicodemus wants to ask Jesus some questions. He’s wondering. He might have a bit of a “holy hunch.” He’s thinking, “there’s something to this Jesus. There’s something about the way he talks about God, talks about the the beloved community, the kingdom of God.” But Nicodemus is not ready to bring his questions out into the light. He’s not ready for his friends to comment on these questions.

Jesus is a little evasive. “You must be born from above.” I think Jesus is trying to get a response here, trying to get a rise from the religious leader. It becomes really clear at the end of their interaction. Unfortunately the church decided to leave off the last couple of verses from this episode in our reading this week. These are the last words Jesus says to Nicodemus that night:

“And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

Jesus calls Nicodemus out. He doesn’t say it specifically, but Nicodemus knows Jesus is talking about him. The Gospel moves on to other topics, other stories. These words leave us wanting more, and that’s on purpose. We’ll come back to Nicodemus. We don’t just leave him there in the dark.

Sin is a tricky topic. I tried to diffuse one of the big bombs at the beginning of my sermon. We talk about sin and sex too automatically together. But I’m really not going to give you a whole list of sins. Because even without a list, I get the sense that when I mention sin most of the congregation tunes me out a little bit.

Often the most important sermon that gets preached in a church on any Sunday morning isn’t what the person in the robes up front has to say. The sermon that counts is the sermon that you preach to yourself, as you pick up a thread or two of what I said, or better yet, as you mull over something from Scripture, or a prayer. The sermon you preach to yourself counts more.

When I talk about sin, I get the sense that a lot of folks start preaching their own sermons. I get the sense that many of us often start picking at a particularly well worn thread, something we’ve done or left undone that we return to again and again. When sin is mentioned, we return to that sense of guilt. We return to whatever story or circumstance  makes us wonder, “if people knew this about me, if this was out in the light, would I still be welcome.” When sin is mentioned, many of us go there.

That’s okay. It’s important. It’s part of the journey. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Don’t get stuck on the first step. It’s not enough to agonize in the silence of your pew. It’s not enough to struggle silently while presenting a brave face to the world. There is too much pretending in our society, too much pretending that everything is alright, too much pretending that our lives are under control, too much pretending that our leaders aren’t in over their heads. We try to keep whole parts of ourselves in the darkness, and only show the polished bits off in the light.

I’m not going to list out a bunch of sins today, but I do want to talk about one in particular: pride. It’s a sin I know well, a lot of pastors do. I get the sense pride is at the heart of Nicodemus’ interaction with Jesus.

Pride is a tricky vice. If we’re not able to say out loud that we are sinners, if we aren’t able to look at the arrows in the target and admit, “yeah that one off the the right, that one is mine. Oh, and that one back in the grass behind the target, that’s mine too.” If we’re not able to claim, “yes, I’m a sinner,” then it makes it really very hard figure out how the Gospel is good news.

There’s a word for those who can’t bear their faults: hubris. When you put yourself at the center of your universe. When you can’t admit any flaws, you’re in danger. That kind of pride has been feeding the great playwrites from Sophocles on down. History bears it out. “Pride goeth before the fall.”

In my estimation the best theological definition of sin in the human community is this: “sin is whatever diminishes the humanity of another, or my own humanity.” God intends life and life in abundance for creation. We all miss that goal at times. We all participate in activity, personal and social, that diminishes life. We all hurt one another. All of us have some patterns that are self-destructive. We all miss the point. So what do you do about sin?

Amidst all Jesus’ mysterious language there’s a moment that was probably very clear to the religious leader. Nicodemus knew his Torah. Jesus says, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” In the book of Numbers, while the people Israel are wandering through the wilderness, they encounter poisonous snakes. God tells Moses to make a brazen serpent and to raise it up on a pole. When the people are bitten, they simply look on the snake, and they will be healed. Still, some of the people refuse the help. They don’t look up.

Jesus says that likewise “The Son of Man must be lifted up.” If Nicodemus is going to understand what Jesus means for our world, if he is going to answer his questions, satisfy his hunch, he’s going to have to lift up his eyes. He’s going to have to let go of his need to appear as if he has everything under control. Nicodemus needs to let go of his pride. Unless he can let go of his sense that he’s already “got it” he will never “get” Jesus.

Now, as you read on in the Gospel of John you’ll notice that Nicodemus returns. First in chapter seven he comes to Jesus’ defense in front of the other religious authorities. Then in chapter 19, Nicodemus comes with Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple, to help with Jesus’ burial. The Gospel reminds us this was the man who “first came to Jesus by night.” In the end Nicodemus helps Joseph to wrap Jesus’ body in linen with spices. Something shifted.

I started off by saying that I don’t like talking about sin because I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re unwelcome. Jesus didn’t share my qualms. Jesus knew better. When Nicodemus appeared, Jesus welcomed him, but Jesus’ welcome also challenged Nicodemus.

“Yes Nicodemus, you are welcome” Jesus is saying, “but you don’t have to hang out in the dark.” Here, you don’t have to have all the right answers. You don’t have to present only the parts of yourself that are ready for the spotlight. All of you is welcome: aLL of you, everything you have done and left undone is welcome. When Jesus was lifted up his arms were outstretched, as St. Anselm said: “so that all the world might be able to come within his saving embrace.” Jesus arms are wide enough for ALL of your story. Do you believe that?

Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself on the journey, you don’t need to hang out in the shadows. You don’t need to let your pride keep you from sharing your wounds. You have come to a fellowship of sinners. Everyone who comes up to this table at Holy Communion is a sinner. We all miss the target, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. We all hurt our fellow creatures. From time to time, we also hurt ourselves. That’s why we need this church. It’s why we need this table. Sin is why we need Jesus. Friends, this is good news. We come here looking for healing, looking for love. We find a welcome that embraces us and challenges us. God’s welcome is challenging. It challenges us to step out of the shadows. God’s welcome challenges us to quit pretending, and to see our fellow sinners, and to say: “If this Jesus welcomed me, he can welcome you, yes even you.” My prayer this Lent is that each of us, like Nicodemus, can know Jesus’ challenging welcome a bit more fully.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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