(Text: Ephesians 1: 1-14)
I’m going to talk about three things today, which I have a hard time untangling from one another. Sin, forgiveness and repentance. So if you thought July was a break from thinking hard, I’m sorry.
The other day as we prepared for our prayer vigil to honor the victims in Charleston, Barb asked me if I believed in original sin. She was asking me because I said in an email or some other place that racism was America’s original sin. Interestingly, Barack Obama said the exact same sentence in his stirring eulogy for Clementa Pinckney in South Carolina later in the week. Obama is always copying me.
Anyway, Barb said, “I didn’t think you would use the term ‘original sin’, Robin,” It didn’t sound to Barb like something I would say.
I’m glad she thinks so. I spend a lot of time reminding you all that you are loved by God, and not a lot of time reminding all of us that we are sinners. And that’s quite on purpose. There are churches in the world where you can be reminded of how sinful we all are all the time. This is a church that I hope exists to remind you of your inherent worthiness. Your love-ability. Your preciousness in the eyes of God. No matter who you are, who you love, what you look like, what you have done, or who you’ve wronged. It says in one of our most beloved scriptures that nothing in heaven and nothing on earth can separate you from the love of God in Christ. And I remind you of that often.
And so when I used the term “original sin”, it didn’t sound right coming from my lips. So I do want to talk to you a little bit about what I mean by that term, since Barb asked.
I think I’ve told you before that my mom raised me in a UU church precisely because she didn’t want me to learn about the concept of original sin. She did not want me to grow up believing that I was a sinner. She wanted me to believe instead that I had inherent worth, which is what the UU church teaches.
Some of us who have had babies are probably on the same wavelength as my mama—we have seen our babies raised up in the air, blinking at the harshness of the light to greet us for the fist time in a hospital room just seconds old, or in an adoption center a little older than that, and thought “this baby is the picture of perfection and innocence.” The idea that this beautiful baby who can’t talk and can only stare and is so helpless that she can only get her needs met through crying before she begins to grow a soul in relationship to her caretakers—the idea that this precious baby is a sinner--is abhorrent to some of us. Me included, truthfully.
And that’s precisely why I believe so strongly in the concept of original sin.
All babies are born into a world in which war and hatred and murder and apathy and meanness and cruelty and the destruction of the earth have been going on since the world was created. All babies are born into this fallen world—into a world that was broken upon their arrival. It’s not fair, and it’s not their fault, which is exactly the nature of original sin. We didn’t ask to be born into a world that is as brutal as it is beautiful, but it is our collective truth nonetheless.
We didn’t create sin, and yet we still are tasked with destroying it with small acts of great love.
We were created in a world with original sin, AND we were created in a world with original blessing.
“3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” St. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, “who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth”
Paul’s letter reminds us that we are gathered up in God for the fullness of time, along with all things in heaven, and all things on earth. Gathered up in God with all people and things. I love that.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians says that the good fortune of our being born and gathered up in God means that despite sin, we are automatically gifted with forgiveness of our trespasses. And the Lord’s Prayer, which we pray every week, asks God to forgive our trespasses how? “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” So we are to forgive others in response to being forgiven.
I know a lot of you watched the families of the Charleston 9 forgive the racist killer of their dead family members, Dylann Roof, and were in awe of that. I also know a lot of people who resented the fact that those family members were so quick to forgive. Anger and a lack of forgiveness is a reasonable response to an act of hatred this vile. “Black America,” some of my friends and colleagues said, “is too quick to forgive white racists.” My friends and colleagues understandably think that this forgiveness was an example of cheap grace, a sign of weakness and bowing once again to white supremacy.
There’s a reason that forgiveness is at the heart of the very theology of the black church.
Forgiveness is hard, and it is a heck of a lot more than weak and pandering. For some, forgiveness is nothing less than an act of resistance. It was for Jesus. Especially on the cross. “Forgive them father for they know not what they do,” meant "No way am I letting your evil become my evil. Put me on a cross, hate me, spit at me, laugh at me, and I will still forgive you. You don’t define me, God does. Your evil does not have the power to overcome God’s love.”
“There is power in the name of Jesus,” our AME church brothers and sisters often sing, “to break every chain.” Even the chains of martyrdom and death.
The Charleston Nine’s family members’ face to face forgiveness of Dylann Roof reminded me of the theology in Howard Thurman's seminal work Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman said that Jesus “recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny.”
Howard Thurman also says: "Hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater. While it lasts, burning in white heat, its effect seems positive and dynamic. But at last it turns to ash, for it guarantees a final isolation from one's fellows. It blinds the individual to all values of worth, even as they apply to himself and to his fellows. Hatred bears deadly and bitter fruit. It is blind and non-discriminating. True, it begins by exercising specific discrimination. This it does by centering upon the persons responsible for the situations which create the reaction of resentment, bitterness and hatred. But once hatred is released, it cannot be confined to the offenders alone. It is difficult for hatred to be informed as to objects when it gets underway."
Forgiveness is an act of resistance to hate. And any act of resentment, bitterness and hatred of another cuts off our relationship to God, so forgiveness ultimately benefits the forgiver far more than the forgivee. And this is why forgiveness by victims is ultimately an act of defiance, and a turning back toward God. It is the declaration: "I refuse to hate because you hate. I refuse to blind myself to human worth because you do. I am a child of God, and as such, I defy hatred like its my job. Even hatred of my enemies.”
When we feel powerless, especially in the face of hatred and scorn, forgiveness heals. Forgiveness takes our power back for the sake of our own inner lives. We are gathered up in a God who forgives trespasses so that we might forgive when others trespass against us. This forgiveness returns our souls to us like a gift, which is why “give” is in that word.
So, here’s where we are so far if you are beginning to lose me:
1. We are born into a sinful world, and because we are interconnected, we share sins like a flu epidemic.
2. We are born into a beautiful world, and gathered up into God’s family, in which forgiveness is handed out like candy on Christmas regardless of if it is deserved.
3. We respond to that grace by forgiving others. This forgiveness is powerful medicine for the person who forgives.
Finally, we respond to forgiveness—God’s and each other’s--with repentance of sin.
When I think of repentance, I think of the guy who is still in the Boston subway station 15 years after I moved there with a big sign that says, “repent sinners, for the kingdom of God is near.” And it has red and orange flames all over, and this guy looks a little wack a doo in the eyes, and he yells sometimes, and has literature that he tries to pass out. And he’s been doing this for years and I feel bad for the guy. I imagine it’s not easy being the lone preacher man in a subway telling people to repent. But let’s talk about what repentance actually means for those of us who are not very likely to listen to our poor friend in the T who has been trying so hard for so many years outside Kenmore square during Red Sox games to change our minds, much less standing on the street corner with signs ourselves.
Repentance in Greek, Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us, means something closer to “thinking differently afterwards,” or to re-think. So repentance is responding to God by being in a constant state of thinking again. Of examining our previously held beliefs, challenging them and being transformed in the process. When we watched the Charleston 9’s family members forgive Dylann Roof on TV, we watched as they also urged him to repent of his sin. Please—it is not too late—they urged. Repent. Be transformed in relationship to God and to us by re-thinking your hatred, by re-thinking your motivations, by re-thinking that act.
And I know I felt an urge to repent in response to their forgiveness.
We all should, because we all need to be in a constant state of re-think.
We all need to re-think because not one of us has all of the right answers. Not one of us is perfect. Think again. Not one of us has the whole truth of God at our fingertips or in our heart. Think again. We learn the truth of God only in relationship to each other, and only when we are being soft enough to let go of our own egos and our own preconceived notions and allow ourselves to be transformed in response to each other. And if our definition of “each other” includes only people who look like us and think like us and believe like us, than we are missing a lot of opportunities to re-think.
Nadia Bolz-Weber says that:
“Maybe repentance is giving up on the idea that we can redeem ourselves. Maybe true repentance involves surrender more than it involves self-improvement. Kind of like how the practice of kneeling in church has military origins namely that it was a posture of surrender…as in…you can't fight if you're kneeling….repentance is what happens to us when the Good News, the truth of who we are and who God is, enters our lives and scatters the darkness of competing ideas.” (Read Nadia's sermon here: https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/1825649-sermon-on-repentance)
You can’t fight when you’re kneeling. We are gathered up in God, so it is our job to scatter the darkness of competing ideas by surrendering the fight. Surrender to not knowing, to listening to those we don’t normally listen to, and commit to think differently afterwards. Let us find the Good News, the truth of who we are and who God is, by getting to know people who are not like us. By listening well to the stories and ideas of others rather than getting more firmly entrenched in our own. By forgiving others’ trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. By repenting of our collective sin, even if we weren’t the first people on this good earth to cause it.
Repent for the kingdom of God is near. Jesus reminds us that the kingdom of God is so near that it is firmly lodged in our own hearts. Which means the kingdom of God is as near as the person sitting next to you, and the person at the grocery store who holds up the line with her purchases on her EBT card, and the child in your class with special needs, and the person on the subway with the “repent sinners” sign, and the person on death row, and the person who you can’t forgive, and the person you haven’t met yet. All of these folks are gathered up in God with us, and create opportunities for us to think again, and be changed in the process.
Scripture: Mark 6: 1-13
It’s Fourth of July weekend and we’ve been talking about flags a lot in the past couple of weeks, haven’t we? The US flags waving everywhere around town--the Boston pops playing the William Tell orchestra as the red white and blue waves majestically over the esplanade.
We’ve been seeing the bright colors of the rainbow flag, too--as it goes up everywhere from Niagara Falls to the White House-- celebrating the Supreme Court’s landmark Marriage Equality decision last week.
And the confederate flag waving outside the statehouse in South Carolina and on Dylann Roof’s license plate before he was arrested for the murders of 9 black parishioners as they faithfully studied the bible at Mother Emanuel.
A flag that symbolizes unity amid diversity, a flag that symbolizes equality for all of God’s children, and a flag that for some symbolizes hate, and racism. All waving the same week over these United States.
It’s amazing how a piece of brightly colored cloth waving in the wind or burning on a lawn can symbolize so much—pride, equality, and even violence, hatred.
I have a colleague in Georgia whose congregants had their rainbow pride flag ripped down off of their house this week and burned on their car while their four children slept in their beds. It was the same night of a “rebel flag rally” in their town.
This week I was in Maine, and I even saw a large confederate flag on a building there, which couldn’t possibly have much to do with proud Southern heritage in the Northernmost state in the union. And I have been thinking about the confederate flags I would see waving around New Hampshire when I was growing up, particularly when we fought to celebrate Martin Luther King Day as the last state in the union to adopt that national holiday.
And I’m thinking about the importance of symbols as I think about flags. I’m thinking about the importance of the church taking a faithful stand on racism and homophobia and what that means symbolically. I’m thinking about the symbolic ways in which the Christian church has historically worked to stop racism and yes, even homophobia. And I’m thinking about the symbolic ways in which the Christian church has perpetuated and spread racism and homophobia.
And worse, I have been thinking about the times the Christian church failed to say anything at all about racism and homophobia, for fear these were “divisive” topics.
Jesus didn’t worry about being divisive. He worried about the coming kingdom of God, in which the last would be first; the hungry fed, the prisoner released, the naked clothed. The kingdom in which the meek would inherit the earth. He said all of that. What Jesus didn’t say is that only the “nice” people would get to heaven in the end. And thank God, because the older I get, the less time I have for “nice.”
In the white Protestant New England churches, we are really good at “nice.” We are really good at being polite, and making sure no one feels hurt, and no toes are stepped on. We get pretty uncomfortable with the idea of conflict, or saying something that people might not agree with, or saying something strong or moralistic, or taking a stand on anything at all for fear we might offend. We fear people will leave us, which triggers our abandonment issues. Or we worry it will mean that we have to confront our own prejudices if we start talking too much about the ways in which we are separated from each other. So we are nice for the sake of getting along.
My daughter Cecilia is going to sing a song from Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods” a little later in the service—a song in which Little Red Riding Hood sings about her encounter with the wolf. And in this song, Little Red reflects on what she learns about her interactions with the wolf. She sings, at one point, “take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers, and though scary is exciting, nice is different than good.”
Jesus didn’t teach us to be nice, he taught us to be good. Kind, yes. But not nice.
A nice person is careful not to offend, and takes great pains to avoid negative feelings, stuffing them down. A nice person forgoes one’s own comfort and truth for the sake of another’s comfort. A nice person can be easily taken advantage of, easily stepped on. A nice person may be a wolf in a kindly grandmother’s clothing. And a nice person avoids saying things that might be unpopular, even if they are the right things to say.
A kind person acts with compassion, speaks truth with bravery, loves justice, gives of oneself generously without losing oneself in the process. That’s what Jesus modeled for us.
We need to strive, as followers of Jesus, to be brave. And yes, kind. But not nice.
Because bravery requires transcending “nice” and saying something true and real.
This morning, we hear a story about Jesus who goes back to the village he was born in—to his hometown. And he began to preach and teach. It isn’t easy to go back to your hometown where everyone knew you from when you are in diapers and try to be a credible leader. It’s better to just keep your mouth shut and smile as you shake your parents’ friends’ hands. I know some of you know what I’m talking about. I know that there are some elders in this congregation who had you as a wriggly student in their Sunday school classes…isn’t that right? I bet it took awhile for you to have credibility as an adult leader in your hometown—even here at this church.
I have been asked to preach in my hometown church in Concord, NH, which is a great honor, but truthfully the idea sounds a little counter-productive. This is the group of people who saw me “behave more like a devil than an angel” in the Christmas pageant I was in in second grade. The people who saw me through my awkward phase from 11 to 17—braces, acne and bad perms. The people who busted me sneaking out of Sunday school to go to the store for soda and candy with my best church friend, Wendy. I certainly can’t claim the same kind of spiritual leadership with them that I could with other communities. It’s kind of like preaching to my mom, (which is what I’m doing this morning.) Perhaps they’d be proud of me, but it would be difficult to take me too seriously as an adult.
Well, despite this same challenge, Jesus tried to preach and teach in his hometown anyway. His concern was not what people thought of him, but being brave enough to say what was the right and good thing. So he comes back to his hometown--with the people who babysat for him, and taught him to read, and watched him fight with his mom when he was a teenager--and he tries to tell them all of the prophecies that he has about the coming of the kingdom, and they are all like, wait-- isn’t this the carpenters son? Don’t we know his sisters and his dad? Remember when he had the braces with the rubber bands and that unfortunate haircut in high school? And they are like, “whatever, Jesus.”
Jesus says what he needs to say to them anyway, even though he can “do no deed of power” there, in his hometown. And then he moves on to preach and teach elsewhere, where he can do some good…where he’ll be listened to. And he tells his disciples to go out and do likewise. If folks can’t or won’t hear your message, he says, you should just leave, shake the dust off your feet, and move on. He says that’s your job as disciples--to keep trying to spread an unpopular message, to humbly accept the hospitality of others, to leave if they are hostile to you. It is your job, he says, to be self-differentiated enough to know and be who you are, say what you need to say, and if it is not accepted, to shake the dust off of your shoes and move on. “The haters gonna hate.” As Taylor Swift sings, “Shake it off.”
But we New England Protestants who don’t like conflict and messy proclamations are too apt to be nice. We try so hard never to give the haters something to hate.
We need to remind ourselves over and over again that it is none of our business what people think of us. It is our business to make this earth a little bit more like the kingdom of heaven Jesus dreamed for the world, where the last go first and the least of these are lifted up.
And this is not a time for nice—this is a time for good.
This month we have seen people shot down during Bible Study at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, a church that has long been a target for racial terrorism. Since then, seven black churches have burned down all over the south. We will take an offering to re-build those churches today. We will look for more opportunities to show up and help re-build and protect our brothers and sisters at black churches, even as we ask who is burning them.
We watched the watershed decision of the Supreme Court backing marriage equality this week, as well, and we have seen religion being trotted out in the public sphere again and again, people of faith weighing in, taking stands on one “side” or the other, as if there are any “sides” in the kingdom of God---and we have also seen churches remaining deafeningly silent.
It is time for Christians to speak, because our silence is dangerous. It is time for us to claim moral authority. To say what is true, and then to face the consequences. If people don’t like it, shake it off. The haters gonna hate.
This is not a time to be nice. This is a time to be good.
This is our nation’s birthday—our beloved America founded on moral clarity and righteousness—a country’s whose dream is both freedom, and unity. America was founded by prophets who were, like Jesus, unpopular in their hometown. Prophets who were religiously persecuted, and sought to flee tyranny. Prophets who shook the sand off of their feet when their message wasn’t heard, and moved on. The dream for this great land they prophesied was that all men and women will be created equal, and have the right to happiness, liberty and the pursuit of justice. When I looked up at our American flag yesterday, I asked myself, “O say does that star spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
And I thought, God, let that be true. As Langston Hughes implores us, “Let America be America again.”
Have you been watching the debates about the Confederate flag on the state house in South Carolina following the Charleston killings at Mother Emanuel?
Activist Bree Newsome was not willing to wait for the state's legislature to weigh in on the issue, and took matters into her own hands. In a now widely viewed video, Newsome is seen scaling a pole on the state's capitol grounds Saturday morning and removing the flag in a powerful act of resistance.
"You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence," she called from the top of the flagpole. "I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!"
Newsome, whose father formerly served as the dean of the School of Divinity at Howard University, went on to recite a passage from the Bible.
"'The Lord is my light and my salvation -- whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life -- of whom shall I be afraid?'" she quoted from Psalm 27.
I want to live in a world of Bree Newsomes.
This month, on our nation’s birthday we have seen progress in becoming an even more perfect union. Confederate flags coming down, the rainbow flag of marriage equality being raised, and the stars and stripes whipping in the wind right beside. Flags raised over the home of the steadily MORE free, and the certainly MORE brave. As Theodore Parker said, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
It is time for the Christian Church to help bend this moral arc of the universe toward justice for all God’s people. If we are each and all a part of God’s family, caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, no one is free until everyone is free. The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid? It’s time for us to stop being nice, and start being good.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.