Sin Stories | Life Stories

What do you think happens in baptism?
I mean really, objectively? What HAPPENS?
Does anything REALLY happen at all?
Or is it just a nice symbol? A nice gesture?

Sometimes I wish we had a big, full-immersion baptismal font.
I think some of the vital symbolism gets lost in our little birdbath.
Because, you know – baptism is really a drowning. A drowning.

It’s not a washing, not a cleansing, not a purification.
It’s not really any of the things we want it to be.
Rather: it’s a death.
A death.

And if you’re anything like me, that doesn’t sound too palatable.
Nor does it really seem to be TRUE.
We don’t actually seem to die to sin in baptism,
as Paul says we do.
In fact, the baptized seem to sin just as profligately
as the rest of the human race.

And yet, the Apostle Paul tells us,
in his Letter to the Romans,
that in baptism, we objectively die to sin
That we are objectively freed from the reign of sin and death.
And that this freedom is the truest truth about us as baptized people.

So, I wonder: how free do you feel?
Do you wake up and go to sleep
with a sense of being a free person?
And really: what is freedom anyway?
Do you think you would even know real freedom if you saw it?

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Now, I’m guessing that I probably need to backtrack for a minute.
Because sin isn’t a super common topic for preaching
in Episcopal churches.
Which means that many of us may have a lot of baggage about sin
that comes with us from other churches and religious traditions.
Indeed: some of us grew up in churches
that called our very identities sinful.
Some of us even came to see ourselves
as inherently and irrevocably disordered or damaged
because of this kind of teaching about sin.
And this kind of abusive religious formation,
this kind of false and untruthful religious formation –
can make any conversation about sin something that’s
scary, alienating, painful, and pretty darn unwelcome.
Because sin-talk has often been used as a weapon
to cause more hurt, more pain, and more alienation,
rather than to reduce all hurt, pain, and alienation.

And yet, I think we in progressive Christian churches
DO need to talk about sin.
Because even though God made us in God’s own image
and called us very good,
we don’t always treat one another or ourselves
as God’s image-bearers.
We so easily get separated from the deepest truth of who we are –
that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons–
and we allow fictions masquerading as truth

to define us
and our potential
and our future.

So please rest assured, as I proceed,
that my primary understanding of sin
is probably a little different than the one you grew up with.
Along with theologian Paul Tillich,
I understand sin as separation.
Sin _IS_ separation.
Sin is that which separates us
from intimacy with God, one another, and ourselves.
Sin is anything and everything that pulls us out of communion,
out of community,
out of relationship..

And there are a million things
that pull us away from connection.
A million and one things constantly luring us away from connection.

As I see it,
the whole project of Jesus
aims to restore connection
and to reject any and all forces of separation.

We are meant to be able to affirm,
along with the Apostle Paul:

“…that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
(Romans 8:38-39)

And yet,
we so often feel separate…separated.
We rarely walk through our days with this kind of confidence,
with this kind of assurance.
Indeed, fear often feels like the most powerful force in the universe.
And our fears often seem so very, very real.
Yet many of our fears are the fruit of untrue stories…
untrue stories that we tell about ourselves and about others.
So we have to find a way, somehow,
to begin to un-tell these separating stories.

–––––––––––––––––
Here’s one of my stories.

I came out when I was 16.
Back when I came out,
I didn’t yet know a single other gay person.
The internet was still young,
and there weren’t yet many stories about gay people in the media.
My public library didn’t have a gay and lesbian section.
There was very little that I could learn
about this identity that I was discovering.
So I came out into a vacuum, hoping and praying for the best.
Because just about the only thing I knew
was that a young man named Matthew Shepard
had recently been beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming.
He was the only gay person I knew much about.
And he was dead.

You might not be able to imagine how lonely it is
to be the only gay person you know, the only person of your kind.
In a world where no one yet had much nice to say about gay people.
A world where transgressing gender norms was dangerous
and sometimes fatal.
It was terribly, terribly lonely.
For years I didn’t know anyone like me.
I came out young because the truth always mattered deeply to me.
But coming out young meant that I spent some pretty important years
experiencing rejection and living in isolation and fear.

Isolation is the sin that was perpetrated upon me.
Silent, soul-crushing isolation.
Because I was different.
Possibly contagious.
And somehow, inexplicably, quite dangerous.
“Why couldn’t you just have waited a few more years,”
I remember some adults asking me?
Protecting me was too hard, so they displaced their guilt upon me,
a fragile, frightened young man.
Sin upon sin upon sin.

And then, inevitably it seems in retrospect, I began to sin against myself.
Not by “acting upon my desires,”
as was the great fear of my parents and pastors,
but by learning to protect myself
by rejecting others before they could reject me.
By imposing isolation upon myself as a safety measure.
Isolation both from the threat of homophobia
as well as isolation from the possibility of affirmation, pride, and love.
It’s a double edged sword,
this method of self-protection.
Isolation is a blunt instrument.
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Now some of you might want to tell me
that this is all far too personal for a sermon.
But I really don’t think it is.
Because to get free from sin,
we have to look it directly in the eye
and then we have to confess it…
…really, truly confess it.

My sin –
my greatest sin, I think –
is that I have been in a long-term, committed relationship
with isolation and separation.
Over time, my environment taught me to see myself
as deeply and even fundamentally separate.
And on my bad days, I can still easily allow myself to believe
that this separation is real and true and maybe even inevitable.

But it isn’t.
It simply Is Not True.
Yet the untruth is nevertheless incredibly powerful.
I can’t always seem to untell this painful story
about myself
and about the world being a scary, unwelcoming place.
So I need some other remedy for the sin that binds me.

And I think our passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans has something
really helpful to say to me
and to all of us for whom sin feels powerful
and sometimes even inescapable.

And that word of hope is this:
you are already dead to sin.
Already dead.
Even when sin abounds,
there is a far deeper truth at the very center of everything:
you are alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Alive.
Alive and well.
More alive than you can imagine.

Because sin is simply not the realest thing in our world.
There is something more real than our fear and pain
and every other terror that afflicts us.
Of course, sin isn’t going to disappear just because it’s less-than-real.
Sin is still gonna hang around and pester us on a fairly regular basis.
But rather than try endlessly to dismantle it,
piece by piece,
perhaps we can simply give it a funeral…
maybe we can simply declare it dead, once and for all.
Because in the bright light of Resurrection,
sin’s power is all but extinguished.
Because none of our sin,
nor any of our stories,
are as real or as true or as powerful
as the love of God in Christ Jesus:
God who came among us in flesh,
to share our story,
and to show us that death is never the end of the story.

So any story we give more credibility
than the story of God’s love
is, simply put, an idol.

Because in baptism,
God definitively claims us, and names us,
and raises us to walk in newness of life,
even when everything around us points to death and destruction.
Sin and death do not, cannot, and will not have the last word
because this is God’s world.
We have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection:
into the mysterious pattern of renewal and restoration
that is God’s very DNA.
And all things are being made new…even you.

Now, this is very Good News.
Because so much of our trouble –
both our personal trouble
and the trouble of the world –
arises from our sense that fear and sin and death
are the realest things.
From our sense that the only way to manage
in this world is to make sure we get enough for ourselves
and to let everyone else wind up as collateral damage if need be.
If we can’t be good, at least we can be comfortable!

So much of what’s going on in our world right now
signals an implicit belief that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket
and that nothing much can be done.
Many of us seem to be in the process of giving in or giving up.

And maybe, just maybe, part of the problem is that
we’re spending too much time
trying to dismantle fear, sin, and death.
Too much time trying to talk ourselves out of fear, sin, and death,
with no credible, trustworthy alternative
on which to latch our minds and hearts.
But we are baptized people!
We do have a credible alternative!
But we forget. So often, we forget.

So perhaps we need to start telling the story
of God’s radical love in Jesus
just a bit more loudly
and a bit more boldly.

And perhaps if we tell this story often enough,
we’ll begin to really believe it.
It will become our story.
Our primary story.
Fear, sin, and death will have to learn to take a back seat.

And then, perhaps…this story might even begin to re-write our lives…
to re-script how we perceive the world.

Stories have that power, you know.

And we have a good one.
So let’s tell it again and again,
and let’s begin by telling ourselves.

Amen.

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