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.

Where is your wilderness?

Sometimes you have to move away in order to understand how much you are formed by place. Wilderness was part of my upbringing, my formation as a human being. A native Coloradan, as a kid I camped and backpacked in the Rockies. I went to college out in California. I swam in the Pacific and spent some time falling off a surfboard or two. I even climbed a bit in the desert at Joshua Tree. Then after all my years out West, I moved to Washington, DC for seminary and stayed there to serve my first church. I have to tell you these days I am grateful to live back on this side of the “gateway to the West.”

When I lived on the East Coast I travelled a fair bit, through Virginia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas. There’s beautiful country out there, but I couldn’t escape the impression that people lived too close together. Out East you can scarcely find an unsettled valley. As I grew to know the East Coast, I realized I would never be totally at home. I would always feel a bit crowded.

Maybe you’re like me, and when you heard Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey say to Mary, his oldest daughter (who has just failed again to secure a marriage): “Go out to America, bring back a cowboy from the Middle-West who will shake us all up,” maybe you also thought, “I resemble that remark!” Maybe. One of the gifts we have out here, out in the West is Wilderness. We are still a little wild out here.

Today’s Gospel begins: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.” Notice the prepositions: “up and into.” The Spirit of God isn’t leaving Jesus “down and out,” words you might expect of someone walking away from polite society. Nope, the Spirit is leading Jesus up and in. “Into the wild” those words express reason, purpose. Sometimes you have to leave behind the busyness of life, the hurry, the crowds. Sometimes you have to go somewhere quiet. The literal translation of the word in Matthew’s Gospel is “a lonely place.”

In the wilderness that we are free from human constructions of reality. Out of the cities and societies we create and manipulate we find reality a bit more raw, untouched by human hands. I remember coming back from backpacking trips in my teens to return to the “real world,” and wondering which world was more real. We are invited out from under the fluorescent lights of the shopping mall, out to bathe in the darkness of a star-lit night.

I spent a number of summers working sleep-away camps in Colorado. One particular summer, I was assigned to the ropes course staff. Each day we were assigned a group of teenagers and sent off in the morning to the “low ropes”, a series of games and challenges designed to build the team. In the afternoon, we got to take the kids up to the high ropes, help them put on helmets and harnesses. They climbed walls, walked tightropes, and eventually leapt from a platform 60 feet in the air and almost unfailingly screamed as they sailed on a zip-line down through a mountain valley. It was a great job.

In the transition time over lunch, between the low ropes and the high ropes, we had the group sit on the pine-needle covered forest floor around a giant wooden circle. Painted on the circle were three more concentric circles. The outer ring was deep green, and it was labeled “safe zone.” The innermost ring was labeled “danger zone” and was painted bright red. Between the two, in yellowish orange, was an area we called the “challenge zone.” We explained to the teens that the hope of the whole ropes experience was to bring them into the “challenge zone.” We didn’t want you to feel like you were in danger, but we also didn’t want you to be totally comfortable. Human beings tend to grow when they are challenged. You can fall asleep when you’re safe. You freeze up when you’re petrified. You can learn about yourself when you’re nervous.

For someone living at the time of Jesus, the wilderness was a challenging place. Away from the safety and security of your tribe, in the wild you were vulnerable to robbers and predatory animals. Galilee and Judea are surrounded by desert. Water is not always easy to find. What Jesus was doing could be dangerous. But this episode is just the first of several in the Gospels where Jesus goes away by himself, to a lonely place. Jesus often heads out alone to the wilderness. Like his cousin John the Baptist out there with the locusts and wild honey, the faith of Jesus is nourished by time apart from the safety and security of his group.

Now, some of you might be wondering when I’m going to get around to talking about the devil. What I find interesting about this devil is following the names for Jesus’ adversary. An interesting progression happens in Jesus’ awareness of the character in this chapter. Matthew references the character as “The tempter” when he first appears to Jesus, famished after 40 days of fasting. After the first temptation, the name changes to “the devil,” the diabolical one. That Greek word is still a little diffuse. Where “devil” in English is more specific, diabolos in Greek can mean “adversary” less specifically. Diabolos can even mean “lawyer.” By the end of our reading Jesus yells “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus calls out Old Scratch by name. Out there in the wilderness, I wonder if it took Jesus awhile to discern with whom he is contending. But when Jesus knows the name, he can say “away with you!” When you know the name of your demons, are you able to banish them?

This episode is perplexing. Why would the Spirit of God lead Jesus out to face Satan? I know, and I bet you know dogmatic answers to that question: “It was so he could be tempted in every way as we are, yet not sin.” Congratulations, we pass catechism class. But I’m not sure passing catechism will help us follow in the way of Jesus on this one.

Jesus, just two chapters from now, tells his followers when they pray to include the line “lead us not into temptation.” Even as an adult Christian, I stumble on that line. I’ve never liked the idea that God could lead us into temptation, that we have to pray to ask God not to do so. This morning, I find myself wondering whether Jesus had this experience in mind when he gave the disciples that line of prayer. Did Jesus’ time in the desert in chapter four influence his prayer in chapter 6? Was Jesus shaken by what he saw out there in himself?

Really, as some of you know too well, we sometimes don’t choose to find ourselves in that lonely place. When we discover ourselves suddenly out there, in the desert, not of our own choosing, it is important that first we get out of danger. Make your way out of danger, but then step two is important as well. Learn from the discomfort. We often rush that second step.

I’m a novice when it comes to contemplative prayer. The particular way of praying I’ve been practicing for a few years now is called “Centering Prayer.” It’s a form of Christian meditation where you attempt to totally quiet your thoughts.The Buddhists have a wonderful way to describe the human mind as it approaches contemplation. Often when we sit for quiet, we find ourselves running through our shopping lists or picking at an old grievance with a sibling or co-worker. Our mind jumps from topic to topic. The Buddhists call this Monkey-mind. Our thoughts jump from branch to branch like a silly simian. Centering prayer teaches you to gently let go of the thoughts, to return to the quiet.

Once I was caught a bit off kilter in Centering Prayer when I was able to sit for several minutes with remarkably few thoughts. I didn’t even congratulate myself for my lack of thought, which I often do. This time I was just quiet. Then I teared up. I just started crying. I didn’t know why then, I’m still not totally sure what the tears were about.

Thomas Keating, the principle teacher of Centering Prayer, often tells folks not to be surprised if they are suddenly overcome by emotion. Many of us keep ourselves so busy that we don’t fully experience the moment. We don’t allow ourselves to fully feel the feelings of stress, loss, and general frustration in our day to day life. When we face a particular trauma, we often rush through, busily moving to the other side of the experience. Keating says he’s sometimes found it helpful to have a grief counselor at Centering Prayer retreats, because when someone is able to find that contemplative silence, old traumas can resurface.

“Lead us not into temptation” makes some sense from this perspective. What loving leader wouldn’t want to spare his or her followers the pain, if they could. But Jesus knew himself well enough to know he needed the time apart. He needed to wrangle his demons.

Brene Brown is a professor of Social Work and an Episcopalian. Her books and TED talks have become incredibly popular over the past few years. Brown talks about the courage it takes to be vulnerable, to open yourself up, to really talk with people about what you’re facing. She says that to really be embraced in a community we have to have our sufferings and our pains embraced as well. We can’t just say, “I’m doing fine.”

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

It takes courage to be vulnerable. It takes guts to say, “I’m struggling over here.” But folks, we all struggle. It takes temerity to admit imperfection.

This is the first Sunday of Lent, the beginning of a long journey with Jesus. In the end we encounter suffering and sacrifice. I wonder, could this Lent be an invitation? Could we ask: “Where is your wilderness?” Where can you go to be vulnerable? Where will you face your demons?

Will you venture into the literal wilderness? Will you sleep a night out under the stars in the quiet? Or perhaps, Will your wilderness be more metaphorical? Will you spend some time in silence? We’ll have opportunities for contemplative prayer here at the church on Mondays. We’re going to start church with some silence each week, and you’re allowed to get to church early. Really, you are.

Wherever you find wilderness, will you take the time to be vulnerable, to name your demons, to step into the more challenging aspects of your life?

If you decide to undertake a wild journey this Lent, I wish you every blessing. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Know that Jesus has gone this way before. Know that God will never leave you. In my life, I have found God more easily in the “lonely places,” than in the busyness of life. Wilderness has value. Journey safely, just not too safely.

Ash Wednesday: Remember you are Finite

In just a few moments the congregation will file up the center aisle of Holy Communion to receive ashes. We will disfigure our faces, just as Jesus encourages us NOT to do. Still, the invitation stands. I encourage you to approach and to hear the words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I invite you, in just a moment, to come forward to hear those words, but to hear in them the implicit grace, the freedom, the joy.

Joy may seem an odd word to use on Ash Wednesday. As the preacher William Sloane Coffin used to say: “Many people have just enough religion to make themselves miserable.”

Back when I was in seminary, Lent was awful. When people ask me what seminary was like, I often reply: “any time you put 200 people in a room who are convinced God is calling them to do something, well, you end up with a lot of crazies.” That statement is only partly true, but seminarians tend to be a dreadfully serious bunch. Lent brings out the worst in serious Christians.

During Lent it became almost impossible to prepare a meal for folks. Someone had given up gluten, someone else had given up sugar. Half the seminary was vegetarian year, but suddenly in Lent a huge number became vegan. Dinner parties regularly featured quinoa and kale, as the main dish. Some seminarians even took to wearing their black cassocks, the long black robes, not just to chapel but all day to class and to meals. This dressing up would have been normal at the Roman Catholic seminary across town, but for some of the more Protestant Episcopalians the black robed seminarians gave cause for much eye-rolling. When you compare fasting practices, when one-upmanship enters the game, well Lent can be problematic.

Thankfully, most Christians don’t spend three years at seminary. But for Christians, Lent can make faith busy work. We give something up, or take something on. We become serious about our faith. What if all that work isn’t what Lent is about? What if Lent is more simple?

In today’s Gospel, I wonder if Jesus isn’t trying to simplify faith. Don’t make it too much work! Don’t use too many words. Don’t disfigure your face. Don’t worry about how others perceive your faithfulness. Pray simply:

“Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.”

What if your Lenten Discipline this year was simply to pray as Jesus taught. Find 5 minutes of quiet each day, and simply say the Lord’s prayer? Could Lent be that simple?

Father J.J. O’Leary, is a Jesuit priest who used to teach at my college, the University of San Diego. JJ preached perhaps the most memorable homily in my history of Ash Wednesdays. A prolifically brief homilist, his reflections seldom lasted over five minutes, something I can’t promise you today. J.J.’s homilies were short, and they often concluded with the direction to “go into your hearts” and consider some spiritual truth he had shared.

That Ash Wednesday Fr. J.J. said simply that when we give something up for Lent, God doesn’t want us to give up things that make us happy. If we enjoy chocolate or a martini at the end of a long day we shouldn’t give them up. God wanted us to give up something that made us sad. He then said. “I invite you go into your hearts to consider what you might give up that makes you sad.”

Disciplines are not meant to be muscular expressions showing what ascetic lives we can live. Often, I think, we treat Lent as an exercise in control. We give up something, or take something on that is too difficult. We try to control an aspect of our life, an aspect of our time.

But discipline, in Christianity, is not about control. Discipline has the same root as “disciple.” Discipline is about letting go, not taking control. Discipline is about surrender. We don’t encounter God through self-control. We find God when we let go. After all, you don’t seize love, you fall in love.

I am aware that sometimes preachers get caught up in nuance. Why does it matter if my Lenten Discipline is about self-control. Isn’t self-control a good thing? Well, sure, it can be. But our society is addicted to control. Ash Wednesday is about knowing our limits.

Some time ago, I had dinner with a friend who works as a therapist. We have the kind of friendship that allows us to cut through the usual pleasantries. When we ask one another: “how are you?” we don’t expect the usual, “oh, I’m fine.” So early in the conversation my friend shared that a longtime client had completed suicide. “I’m so sorry,” I said. My friend continued saying he was dealing pretty well, but couldn’t shake that old gnawing sense: “maybe I could have said something, done something, and my client would still be alive.”

I was surprised to hear this from a friend with a background in psychology, training in therapy. In his graduate program, just like in my seminary program, you hear over an over again: “you are not in control of outcomes” especially in the arena of mental health. Still, it is hard to accept our limits.

My friend’s reaction to death is common. Oftentimes for months, even years, after someone dies, close family members will ask: “should I have gotten her to the hospital sooner?” or “could I have known his heart was failing?” Grief often manifests as guilt.

Into those questions: “could I have said something?” “should I have done something different?” comes the reality of Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust.”

We are all finite. We have limits. We won’t ever be able to say all the right things, do all the right things. No matter what we do, eventually we will die. Our time on this earth is relatively short. “To dust you shall return.”

Being finite is not a cause for alarm. In life, as the old saying goes, there are only two sure things: death and taxes. We all go down the the grave. We all have our limits. In Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, the last step is acceptance. Until we accept the loss, until we accept our limits, we cannot fully move forward.

The sense of regret, of course, is not limited to literal death. Many of my activist friends lately have been caught in questions related to guilt: “Could I have done more?” “Could we have persuaded more voters?” Some are moving from a place of dis-illusionment. But disillusion isn’t bad. It means losing your illusions. Knowing your limits means knowing that progress doesn’t often shoot straight out like an arrow. Progress swings like a pendulum. For my activist friends, we need to know that we’ll have to take on some small causes, find small places to buld consensus these days. We’ll need to build momentum first, and that can feel like loss.

If you try to muscle your way through loss; if your faith is all about regret, about “would have, should have, could have;” if you try to overwork yourself through life, you will make yourself miserable. And you’ll make everyone around you miserable as well.

Lent is a season of atonement. Slow that word down a bit: at-one-ment. Lent is about honestly confronting our limits and our failings, but not getting stuck there. When we accept the things we cannot change, when our discipline allows us to surrender, we are set free to encounter God. When we acknowledge that we are not in control, we can encounter the God who helps us to stand in love.

Lent is simple, deceptively simple. Lent is about accepting our limits. Lent is about giving up what makes us sad. Faith is about falling in love, and following Jesus. You don’t need to make a big show of fasting, or compare your practice to others. You don’t need to have the right answers. You just need to let go, to let yourself fall in Love. When we act out of love, we have a much greater chance of helping God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.

You will return to dust. We all return to dust. But when we do, we also return to God. When we accept our limits, we can sense our ever-present connection to God. We know our destination. In the end we return to the One who creates us, who redeems us, who sustains us in life. Our life has limits, yes, but when we accept our limits we can encounter the limitless life, the limitless love of God.