Richard Maxwell

Proper 19 C
15 September 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Given our readings for this morning, I’ve been thinking about sin this week., and I want to share a couple of stories with you that have come to mind . . . stories that tell us a little bit about some of the complicated ways we think about sin.

Like a lot of us, I get a fair amount of email every day, but every once in a while an avalanche of messages arrives from one or the other of a couple of groups I belong to.  One of these is an Episcopal group . . . a group with an AGENDA . . . and occasionally something stirs the group up and elicits a LOT of email.  Recently one of the regular correspondents proposed a resolution for our next diocesan convention.  The text included the statement that we’re all sinners.  Well!  This provoked a Mount Everest size avalanche of email.

I didn’t have the patience to read all the messages, so I can’t rehash all the ins and outs of the argument (aren’t you lucky?).  But it appears that the group finally reached the conclusion that while, of course it’s true that we’re all sinners, the group would prefer not to confess to this publicly and thereby expose this weakness to those would disagree with the group’s agenda.  I laughed out loud when I realized that this was the conclusion being reached.  As if by not mentioning the fact that we’re all sinners we could somehow keep it a secret.

The other story comes from my time at Holy Cross Monastery.  Every day, after mass, the community gathers for a meeting . . . which I used to refer to as our “Holy Business Meeting.”  The monks come together in a special room called the Chapter Room.  At Holy Cross this is a very grand, two story room in the middle of the monastic enclosure, which is closed to anyone outside the community.  The only furniture in the room is a circle of very old, carved wooden seats – a little like mini-thrones – that had once been monastic choir stalls.

Each morning we would gather and pray, hear readings from the Rule of Life of St. Benedict and the Rule of Holy Cross, and conduct our business.  “Business” ranging from important things like planning future retreats and getting work assignments . . . to more mundane things like objections to the lunch menu, conflicts over the sign-up sheet for the cars, and complaints about monks walking too heavily in the hallways (this particular complaint was always aimed at me by the monk who had the room next to mine . . . he wanted me to learn to tip-toe).

Each meeting also included an opportunity for confession . . . a time when any brother who felt the need could stand and confess a fault to the community, perhaps be questioned about this failing, and then receive forgiveness from the community.  These were occasionally very moving moments that did, in fact, increase our love for one another.  However, we went through a brief period when I was a novice during which these confessions became irksome almost beyond bearing.  You see, there were a couple of novices who entered into a period of competitive confession.

Don’t get me wrong . . . these two were not trying to out-do each other in bad behavior . . . quite the contrary.  It seemed to me that they were in a competitive race to see who could appear to be the most holy.  At each chapter meeting we would have laid before us some finely parsed and deeply nuanced fault that we would be asked to forgive.  And at each meeting the faults confessed by these two became more subtle . . . or absurd.  I reached my limit of endurance the morning we had to listen to a detailed confession of the sin of breaking a glass – a cheap water glass like you’d find in a school cafeteria, which we bought by the case and used by the hundred – but the breaking of which this novice somehow correlated with the shattering of community.  Thank heavens the novice master finally spoke to them and this stopped.

So what am I getting at with these two stories?  Well, there are a number of things we could talk about, but I think, in the end, these two different stories may actually lead us to the same conclusion.  The first story is obviously about our reluctance to identify ourselves as sinners . . . oh, in our heart of hearts we know we’re not perfect . . . but we’re not BAD people.  We don’t really have to talk about SIN, do we?  And we certainly don’t want to point out our flaws to those with whom we are in conflict . . . we couldn’t possibly reveal our weaknesses to our enemies . . . could we?

At first glance, the second story may seem to point in the opposite direction . . . away from an avoidance of our sinfulness to an over-identification with our failings and flaws.  And, of course, there are some of us who focus so closely on what’s wrong that they can’t see what’s right.  But that’s not what was really going on with those two novices in the monastery I described . . . it seems to me that in focusing on their minor failings they were, as I mentioned earlier, in a competition of sorts.  It was a competition to see who was the most spiritually advanced and therefore the holiest.  This competition seemed to me to be to be a far greater fault than anything they actually confessed . . . and that’s why I found the whole thing so insufferable.

And so the point I’m led to, in both stories, is the fact that we don’t really want to face our own sinfulness . . . not really, not deeply.  Whether we’re trying to hide our weaknesses from others or ourselves (and so appear better than we are), or we’re allowing our fears to inhibit us (and so perhaps appear worse than we are), or we’re caught in some subtle combination of these two ways of behaving . . . in the end, we’re all trying to avoid the truth of our fundamental sinfulness.  We are, in fact, all sinners.

Writing this, I had to stop for a few minutes and take a little walk to think about my own sinfulness.  One sin in particular became clear to me as I was preparing this sermon . . . have you already noticed it? . . . it’s arrogance.  As I described the group that I belong to and, even more, as I described those two novices at Holy Cross Monastery, I became more and more uncomfortable.  Because, you see, I was separating myself from them . . . pointing out and describing their flaws, I was feeling insightful and superior . . . as if I’m not just as flawed, just as creative a sinner as they are.  What arrogance, eh?

It’s so easy to analyze and judge others.  It’s so hard to look at ourselves honestly.

Thank heavens Jesus came into the world to save sinners . . . us!

Over and over again we’re told in the Gospels that Jesus is criticized for socializing and eating with sinners.  And over and over again Jesus explains that if you’re healthy you don’t need a doctor; that if you’re where you need to be you don’t need to be found.  Over and over again, Jesus says that he’s come for the sick and the lost.  Jesus says he’s come for the sinners.  And if we’re honest, if we’re able to look deeply and truly into our hearts, we’ll realize that that means each and every one of us . . . everywhere . . . throughout the world.  How wonderful it would be if, instead of pointing out the faults of others, we could each confess our own sins and look with compassion on the sinners around us.

We need not hide.  We need not fear.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  What joy there is in heaven, how the angels of God exult over a single sinner who repents.  Let all the sinners say, “Amen!”

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