Preached on June 5, 2016
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Listen to the sermon here.
That is how I began my very first sermon at my ministerial internship at First Parish in Brookline, Unitarian Universalist. That’s a really liberal church in a rather wealthy culturally Jewish town, and I’m quite sure they have never heard a sermon that starts with those two words, or at least not in the last 100 years.
So do you know what the congregation did when I said that? They laughed audibly and loudly. Some nervously, some uproariously. “She can’t be serious,” they thought. Or, “I hope she’s not serious,” they thought. “At least she’s only an intern.”
I said those words to be provocative, certainly. In truth, I was hoping for a laugh. I was, after all, mocking a certain prototype of a hellfire and damnation preacher. But later I thought, “how arrogant” that I so frequently mock, and laugh at, or gloss over the concept of sin. Or that particular way of being Christian.
How quick we are to dismiss, without examining the plank in our own eye.
As the letter from 1st John said this morning: if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. The truth is not in us.
If there is one thing I want to get out of going to church and practicing Christianity, it is this constant reminder:
I AM NOT BETTER. I am not better than anyone else, or my ancestors. I’m not better than any other preacher, or any other parent, or any other driver on the road. (Except for that guy who rear-ended me and gave me the finger on the rotary in Concord last month. I’m better than that guy. Just kidding)
And church, we are not better. We are not more enlightened than the church next door, or than our ancestors, or than people who don’t go to church on Sundays. We are not more virtuous because we are Christians. You are not better than me, and I am not better than you.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. The truth is not in us.
I have now hosted two pub theologies at Barber’s Crossing about sin. If you haven’t come to pub theology yet, you should. It’s super fun. I advertised this one as “come and sin while we talk about sin!” It was Lent, so the topic was a thematic choice on my part.
I found something peculiar: that many of the people of all ages who attended these two events wanted to tell me that they were offended by the topic I chose. Some of them came just to tell me so. “The concept of sin is only for Catholics. It’s not a Protestant word,” some said. “When I think about ‘sin’ I think about doing whatever I want as long as I confess to a priest so I associate sin with hypocrisy.” “I don’t relate to that word at all.” “That’s a church word…it’s not a word I would ever use in my every day life.” “That word has been used to tell me I’m bad or that other people are bad, so I resent it.” “That word has caused more hurt in the world than any other.” “My table didn’t talk about sin at all, because we don’t like it.”
I was fascinated by this—this rejection of sin in our church. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up UU, so I am quite familiar with people who reject sin wholesale. When I went before a Unitarian Universalist credentialing board to become ordained as a minister, I made reference to my being a sinner. One of the people on that board who would decide my fate was so “offended” by my theology of sin that she almost didn’t let me become a minister. She said, and I quote, that my “belief that I was a sinner would diminish my ministerial authority.”
In fact, that’s why I ended up serving here at this UU-ish UCC Christian church out in the wilds of Central Massachusetts. I wanted to be in a place where people “got” me, even if there isn’t a grocery store or a Nordstrom. This is why I was a little shocked to see that such a wide swath of my professed unabashedly Christian congregation rejected the idea of sin outright as well.
So I thought we should talk about it.
Sin means, in it’s most useful definition, separation from God. The concept or problem of sin is present in every world religion and secular system of ethics in every culture. It is not relegated to Catholics and Evangelicals. It’s not even relegated only to Christianity, but it is of central importance to the Christian tradition. The “problem” Christianity tries to solve is sin, with the salvation of Jesus Christ. Whether or not we think sin should be so central to the Gospel, we cannot fully engage this tradition we share if we aren’t willing to talk about it, at the very least. We need to do so in a way that is healing, and reclaiming.
I know that the Christian church has used the concept of sin to shame, to deny full communion to the GLBTQ community, to justify slavery, to oppress women, to demonize healthy human sexuality, to create second class citizens, to hurt, to shut out, to exclude, to kill. I know that. I don’t like that, either.
But there is another purpose to the concept of sin besides social control and alienation. Sin connects us to one another in shared humanity. It reminds us of our imperfection. Declaring that I am a sinner is simple humility. It is my way of saying, “I am not God. I am only human and doing the best that I can.” Sin is my freedom from being perfect. It is how I remember not to judge others, because I have my own business to attend to. More importantly, it is my reminder that God loves me even at my most unlovable, and God loves everyone else just as much. Even the dude who rear-ended me at the Concord rotary and gave me the finger.
Have you all been watching the news about the Cincinnati Zoo? It is the story that is being talked about around the water cooler at workplaces and the internet comment sections of America right now. My 10-year-old even had an organized debate about it in her classroom at the Houghton School. [They are teaching fourth graders to learn how to debate with people they don’t agree with and remain civil. I love that. We need that, don’t we? Our fourth graders need to be taught they are not better, too.]
Anyway, for those of you who have been living under a rock, what happened is that a four- year-old boy somehow ended up in the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinatti Zoo. He got away from his parents, and ended up in the custody of an endangered and beloved animal—the zoo’s gorilla, Harambe, who carried the toddler through the water moat in his enclosure rather violently, terrifying the gathered crowd. The zookeepers had to make the heart-breaking decision to shoot Harambe dead in order to save the four-year-old boy from this 400 pound primate. Animal rights activists blew up the internet with #justiceforHarambe, and protested outside the zoo. Parents and animal lovers started debating about whether human children’s lives are more important than gorilla’s lives.
The public started playing everybody’s favorite: the Blame game.
Everybody started looking for someone to blame—the zoo for not securing their gorilla exhibit, the zookeepers for shooting an animal they were charged with protecting, the human species for putting animals in captivity for their education and entertainment to begin with, the four-year-old for not respecting rules, kids these days.
Multiple sermons could be preached on the ethical dimensions of this story. But what shocked me the most was the immediate and vicious attacks on the parents of the four-year-old child, especially by other parents. My kid came home from school saying that her entire class blamed the four-year-old’s parents’ for what happened to Harambe.
Apparently, the mom took out a phone to take a picture, and her four-year-old disappeared and ended up in the gorilla habitat. This one act brought out a stunning lack of humility and grace from others. I read countless facebook comments from parents saying that they “have never” let their children out of their sight, and their kid would “never” end up in a similar fate. Internet comment sections were full of people saying that the parents who lost their child at the zoo should be imprisoned and sterilized, their kids taken away.
One satirical headline announced:
“Rescue Mission Launched As Thousands of Internet Commenters are Stranded on Moral High Ground”
Those of us who are not stranded on moral high ground know this truth:
Most of us are just trying to get through the day, very aware of the fact that we are lucky our kids weren't eaten by a gorilla yet. There but for the grace of God go all of us.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. The truth is not in us.
The truth is this instead: we are inextricably connected to one another and to creation, and we are just as capable of getting it wrong as we are of getting it right. I am you and you are me and we are one. Our capacity for sin reminds us of this fact, just as our capacity for love does.
My colleague Rev. Diane Dowgiert writes:
I am the adventurous child that feels safe enough in the world to climb over a fence and into the world of a caged gorilla at the zoo.
I am the gorilla that reacts with instincts that are at once tender and frightened.
I am the zookeeper that must respond quickly, with their best judgment, to the unfolding drama, in a way that serves the highest good.
I am the sharp shooter that pulls the trigger and releases the bullet that ends the gorilla’s life.
I am the parent of the adventurous child that clutches their racing heart and holds their churning stomach.
I am the bystander in the crowd that screams in fright and dismay, unable to look away.
I am the adventurous child that looks into the eyes of the gorilla and then feels their self being lifted, tossed, and dragged – their flesh being scraped and torn.
I am the gorilla that feels the flashing pain of a piercing bullet and feels the life force drain out of their body.
I am the parent of the child that watches, helplessly.
I am the zookeeper that must live with the consequences of their decision, being forever more questioned, and even reviled for their gut-wrenching choice.
I am the child whose life is now marked by a terror no one else will ever understand.
I am the parent whose life is now marked by a terror and a guilt no one else will ever understand, a parent whose life is now marked by public scorn.
I am the bystander that now must make sense of what I have witnessed.
I am the member of the public at large that now must wrestle with moral and ethical issues I had not considered before, issues of valuing one life over another, issues of freedom and individual agency, issues of responsibility for and protection of those entrusted to our care.
I am the person whose heart is broken open by a tragedy beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
I am the person that rushes to judgment and finds some comfort in assigning blame.
I am the person that must live in this world where there are no easy answers, where people just like me are called to respond to circumstances that I have only visited in my worst nightmares.
I am the person that finds within myself a capacity for compassion and an embrace for ambiguity that stretches me into the fullness of what it means to be human.
Beloved, this is why we come to church. Not to claim moral high ground, but to be stretched into the fullness of what it means to be human. We come here so that we might learn to stop playing the blame game. We come to church in an attempt to manage ambiguity, not to find easy answers. Acknowledging our capacity for sinfulness is a defiant proclamation that we are not better than anyone else. We are only human, doing the best that we can.
We are not better. Creating earth as it is in heaven depends on our humility as much as our love.
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.