Readings: Isa. 55, 1-9: Ps 63, 1-9: 1 Cor 10, 1-13: Luke 13, 1-9
Hymns: Be thou my vision; God is forgiveness; Who would true valour see; Alleluia sing to Jesus
Today I want to talk about the why and the how of sin and its consequences. A suitable topic for Lent, you might say, and it certainly chimes in with the readings. Yet the point of Lent is not to drown in guilt and despair, but rather reflect in order to rejoice and live. This is reiterated in our hymns, two of which speak of following God with God’s help and our recognition of vulnerability, one presents God who freely forgives sins we confess, and the last is an Alleluia of joy.
But back to sin. The generality and inevitability of that oft-repeated statement since Augustine that ‘the nature of humankind is sinful’ easily avoids the specificity of actual sins, especially against the marginalised or less powerful. Thus violence against women and refugees, exploitation of non-citizens here and those producing goods under unsafe conditions elsewhere become mildly regretted ‘examples of our sinful nature’ not scandals which Christians should address. The way Augustine or the non-Pauline Epistle to Timothy pick out Eve as the sinner in Eden rather Adam and Eve as joint-enterprise sinners models our skilful wriggling out of sin: it was him/her/them, not me; he/she made me do it! I came across a perfect example of that, by the way, when a pastor in Lahore – who could equally have been in Ladenburg – blamed Google et al for showing violent pornography, rather than the viewer bearing responsibility for choosing to watch such evil. The ‘it’s in our nature, so it’s not our fault,’ or the fault lies with someone else, has a long history.
Does disaster happen as punishment for sin? That’s a common view and potent means of social control: but it is neither logical nor wise, for disaster hits saint and unrepentant sinner alike. The Caribbean island of Montserrat has had volcanic explosions for the last twenty years, now covering one third of the island. Most local people had been taught that sin will be punished in due measure, and initially saw the lava as precisely that. But it went on, and on: and while no one on Montserrat was perfect, people began to say ‘Hey, Antigua has casinos, public drinking and prostitution, drug running, high crime – and nothing has happened to them. So why is God just zapping us?’ And that, not the volcano, shook their faith. Jesus made very clear that the Galileans whom Pilate slaughtered when they were in Jerusalem to sacrifice in the temple were not picked out as big-time sinners, and nor was the collapse of the Siloam tower engineered by God to squash bad people. Both events happen …and, as Jesus made clear, death will happen to all. If we cannot say that natural disaster happens because of sin, what about a traffic accident? Not merely physical death, but the death of the soul through passing the buck, finding a scapegoat, refusal to acknowledge our sin and –equally—unwillingness to accept the forgiveness of God and live.
Corinthians gets down to some of the nitty-gritty of sin, starting with the example of ancestors who accepted God and lived, and those who died in the wilderness of sin. While this is describing past events, I want to clarify a point here about so-called ‘ancestral sin.’ The sins of the fathers are said to descend to the 3rd and 4th generation, but this is not a threat but a description of the long-term effects of wrongdoing especially, I would say, involving abuse within the family. Ezekiel makes clear that a parent is not responsible for the sins voluntarily done by the son, or nor is a son responsible for his parents’ sin. Currently, and this seems another effort to evade responsibility, there is a view that our own sins or troubles are a result of unrequited wickedness of our ancestors –I’ve come across a grandchild’s schizophrenia being blamed on her grandmother’s use of divination beads before she had become Christian-an act which, in a sort of Mormon-like post hoc baptism, can apparently be cleansed by a prayer. In that case, the mother accusing her late grandmother was getting back at a woman she disliked, and at her own husband. Where in that is the power of God to forgive, the love of Christ, the strength of the Spirit?
Paul’s main theme is against idolatry. In his context, that meant going to prostitutes who also served as such in the temple or worshipping an inanimate object such as the golden bull, or making rules into God. In our context idolatry may mean not worshipping money or elevating those who have money and conversely despising those who have little; it may mean making a fetish out of doctrine, against which Luther and other reformers spoke, or idolising a person or category of persons. Paul speaks against misusing or abusing people for our own gain, our own pleasure, and against revelling in difficulties as tests of personal strength. Telling someone else to rejoice in tough times as a sign God chooses to test them is not only unhelpful: it is biblically wrong, as is the view of some that a woman married to a violent abusive man should know that is the person God chose for her so she must stay in the marriage. All such views of testing not only give a grim view of God but also of faith. Seeing a positive side to our own suffering, especially in hindsight, is a different matter.
But however we view sin and disaster, temptation and failure, there is a second chance –as Luke says clearly – to come to the waters of life, buying the wine and milk without money but through grace, a second chance to delight in the rich food offered by God, our soul ‘satisfied as with marrow and fatnesss and our lips praising God.’ It is this for which we focus on life and lives, sin and forgiveness, redemption and joy, during Lent: not to have long sanctimonious faces, but daily to increase in the joy of the Lord.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping