Raleigh Mennonite Church
When I was in high school, an enthusiastic speaker invited my youth group to smash all of our non-Christian music CDs. In retrospect, the thought of this was so odd and outrageous that I went back to check in with a friend from my high school to see if I was making this memory up. Apparently I wasn’t.
If ever there is a time when I feel doubtful of God’s existence I remember that somehow I managed to stick with Jesus despite being told that it was God’s will for me to live the rest of my life without listening to the Beatles or Radiohead.
I can’t remember the exact reason why were told to engage in this musical destruction, but I’m sure it had something to do with God’s judgment of sin.
Judaism, and then Christianity after it, begin the story of our life with God as something we cannot fix. Sin is in the picture, almost from the beginning, distorting our world. Sin is a power, a force at work, and the most malevolent form it takes is death. In Romans, we almost always see these words together: sin and death. We know the realness of sin because we all die. That’s the empirical proof for Paul, the writer of Romans.
Over time sin has distorted even our perceptions of sin. Perhaps you’ve been subjected to this way of thinking, as I did in senior high youth group. The language of sin might make you a little itchy because some of us were taught to associate sin with low self-esteem, feeling bad about ourselves, or making others feel bad about themselves. Or we’ve been taught that it’s something like immorality.
Sometimes sin gets used in ugly ways against others. A few of you were at the demonstration held in Moore Square last week. Two hundred and fifty people from all faith backgrounds came to stand up to an anti-Islam protest. A friend told me about the protest and how the main speaker of the all white, all male anti-Islam group featured a preacher with a huge red Bible and scratchy microphone.
It was hard to hear what the preacher was saying, but I’m guessing the word “sin” was a primary part of his message. Sin gets attached to a particular action, or people, or religion, or music. And if we could just pull ourselves together, look away or act right, stay away from bad things, bad people, bad religion then we’d be in the clear with God.
We have a name for this in Christianity, this idea that we can get ourselves right with God. It’s called works righteousness, and it’s been condemned as a heresy every time it has reared its head in the history of the church. There are two very strange things we say about Christianity that we say with some consistency. The first is that you cannot fix yourself and the second is that you don’t have to.
I find this endlessly frustrating because I want nothing more than to be less terrible than I am in the same way that I am committed to sewing up the same pair of cheap pants that are forever tearing in a new place. But the truth is I live in a state of unexpected, unearned grace. As our text from Romans explains, while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me.
This is the odd thing about sin. We always talk about sin in the past tense. “Christ died for me.” It already happened. It is finished. There’s no way to talk about sin in the present, no way to give a theory about sin because sin has lost its power in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We talk about sin as yesterday’s reality, like a dethroned king still ordering us about from the island to which he has been exiled. With no power, no influence, no land, and no subjects, for some reason we continue to obey.
In one of his sermons Karl Barth uses an image from a poem by Gustav Schwab to explain sin. A horseman is riding through the night, anxious to reach the town that lies on the edge of the great Lake Constance. His plan is to spend the night in the town and the next day to cross the lake by ferry. He rides and rides, faster and faster, hoping to reach the town before it gets too cold.
Eventually it grows dark. He rides faster still, the cold seeping in. The lights of the town get nearer and nearer. Finally, he arrives, tired and relieved. He asks a woman how much further to the lake. Another day? A couple hours?
That’s he finds out. The woman tells him that he is passed the lake, on the far side of the shore and ferry. He’s overshot, went right past the town where he expected to spend the night.
Then it dawns on the rider that he crossed the frozen lake by mistake. And he is overcome by the fear of what could have happened to him. Riding over that thin ice in the dark, at any moment he could have fallen through into the black water. Somehow he has made it safe to the other side, and he never knew as he rode what mortal danger he was in all that time.
Barth says this is the situation we find ourselves in. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” We have crossed to the other side of the lake. The power of sin and death threatened to overwhelm this world, but they have lost their power. There is nothing left now but this new life, new people, the new creation of God’s love. We have made it safely to the other side.
In the aftermath of God’s love, here in the redeemed place in which we all live out our live, sin becomes absurd. So sin “is just the condition of being seriously wrong about reality and living against the grain. The committed sinner is the equivalent of the person who is convinced that you can make trains run on black coffee and is determined to go on trying, however much the evidence stacks up in favor of the more usual options. Sin is therefore bound to be, in the long run, deeply frustrating and, objectively speaking, very boring indeed.”
Of course, obeying a defunct king doesn’t make his armed followers any less dangerous. We live with this strange space of sin as a nothingness, but always lurking around the corner, defeated but still luring us into some terrible mischief.
As it is, we’re all in the same boat. No one has it all together, and we’re all the recipients of this tremendous grace. This did not seem like entirely good news to the people in Rome reading Paul’s letters. Many of them, though Gentiles, had worked hard to live near to the God of the Jews. They’d given up a lot to be God-fearers, to be keepers of the Law. Getting called “weak” and “sinner,” as Paul does in Romans 5, didn’t match up with their self-perception.
Perhaps Paul’s letter helped them see that the Law was always intentioned to reveal the grace fulfilled in Jesus, the Law preparing a way for grace to abound, to give God’s people a tangible sign of their belovedness.
Dorothy Day begins her autobiography, A Long Loneliness writing, “When one writes the story of his life and the work he has been engaged in, it is a confession in a way.” She says, “when I wrote the story of my conversion ten years ago I left out all of my sins but told of all the things that had brought me to God, all the beautiful things, all the remembrances of God that had haunted me, pursued me over the years…”
The Gospel is about an encounter with life, this kind of encounter, of being pushed forward into greater life by the haunting remembrance of God who announces again and again that sin is past, that new life is springing up. You don’t have to do anything else. There are no more commandments, no more “you must.” All you will find here is a “you may,” an invitation to new life.
Sin is pernicious because it warps this most central part of the Christian life – it warps our image of God. Sin turns God into a judge, standing in judgment over us, waiting to pounce on our wrong decisions. If you have rejected that God then you are exactly where God wants you to be. That image of God distorts what is at the heart of the Gospel, what echoes up from the Romans passage we heard today. “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.” God does not care about your sins. They may matter a great deal to us, but they mean nothing to God.
This is why we live under this great fallacy that we can be forgiven for our sins if we confess. “Never be deluded into thinking that if you have contrition for your sins, if you are sorry for your sins, God will come and forgive you—that he will be touched by your appeal, change his mind about you and forgive you. Not a bit of it. God never changes his mind about you. He is simply in love with you. What he does again and again is change your mind about him. That is why you are sorry. That is what your forgiveness is. You are not forgiven because you confess your sin…You do not come to confession to have your sins forgiven. You come to celebrate that your sins are forgiven.”
This week has been a catastrophe of structural sin. I cannot think of what to say, except for this. There are a lot of difficult things to believe in Christianity, but I submit for your consideration that this is the hardest of all, the one that requires the most faith – you are loved, without reservation, without anything to recommend you. You are loved and there is nothing that could ever undo that love, nothing you have to accomplish to add to that love, nothing more a miracle than you, just as you are.
You are loved. That is all. That is the end of every story, the final word.
You are loved.
 Rowan Williams.
 Herbert McCabe