Sin Boldly

First Presbyterian - Lafayette, Louisiana
June 26, 2011 - Ordinary (13A)
Genesis 22:1-14
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

I was out running some errands with a congregation member about a week ago, and we ran into one of those traffic jams that are caused by a very few people trying to go the same way to get to different places. In her frustration, she said something along the lines of, “Come on, now. Somebody do something - even if it isn’t right!”

I wonder if anyone else has ever felt that way. Sometimes our fears can paralyze us. Sometimes our fears can motivate us - but I’m not sure that reacting to fear is always the best course. Trials can be so prevalent in this life that it is hard not to find ourselves reacting from a fight or flight position in multiple areas of our lives.

Peter Steinke is a Lutheran Pastor and author who often talks about the church in terms of its health. He refers to the human tendency to react out of fear as making decisions from the most base portion of our brain, that same portion that we share with reptiles and other creatures we believe incapable of rational thought. He believes that when we are stressed we are much more likely to react than to respond intentionally.

I’ve often wondered how this connects to our passage in Genesis. The words of the story tell us that God spoke to Abraham, telling him to go sacrifice his son - his only son, the child of his old age, the only possible heir to fulfill the promise God has made to him about becoming the father of nations. Yeah, he told him to sacrifice that son. So what does Abraham do? He rises early in the morning to sacrifice his son.

Now, to be clear, at this time there was no set religious right and practice of sacrifice that was exclusively Jewish. Sacrificing your first born was not an uncommon request of a Deity. So, what looks extreme to us is not particularly extreme culturally to Abraham. Still, there is no way that this experience was an easy one for Abraham. We have no way to know what he thought or felt, how difficult it was to bind his son, or if there was a point that Isaac (whose name means laughter) realized he was going to die at his father’s hands.

What we know is that Abraham, through his long lifetime of experiencing God’s grace, was willing to let go of all that he held dear because he believed that God’s will was bigger than his own. Perhaps even more importantly, we also know that this is the beginning of God’s efforts to be revealed as a God who is unique, different, and holy.

(Unfortunately I could not figure out how to import Hebre fonts for this part)
[YHVH] is the Hebrew word that began to describe this indescribable God. It is an unpronounceable word. Some have inserted vowel sounds to say Yahweh. Others simply read the word as [Adonai], which means “The Lord.” Here, in this story, we can be assured that , , The Lord is the God that will not accept human sacrifices. That may sound odd to our modern sensibilities, yet every day we face the expectations of others who crave our allegiance and expect us to give over our lives in exchange for blessing. Yet all God truly wants is our faithful response to the gifts already given. YHVH, Adonai, The Lord is the God who provides, and YHVH, Adonai, The Lord is the God who distributes grace and mercy to those who are faithful and to those who suffer needlessly.

Grace means to be spared the punishment you deserve. Mercy means unmerited favor. Think about it - because of God’s action on our behalf and our ability to be open to it, we do not get what we deserve because we are too busy receiving what we don’t deserve.

That last part is not as simple as it seems, though. Being busy receiving does not mean that we are sitting back and doing nothing. It means that we spend a lot of time doing things that we believe are active responses to God’s love for us. It means that we probably should even be open to letting go of the things - even the people - that are closest to us, all the while keeping our eyes open for the ram in the thicket.

Sometimes in our zeal to be faithful we will be wrong. There will be things that you thought God gave you to enjoy that you must give away. There will be relationships that you are called to nurture toward separation. Every parent knows this, and every parent has some moments when they would prefer it to come sooner than later!

In the end there will be times in all of our lives that we fall short of the mark. There will be times that we sin individually. There will be times that we sin corporately. Paul talks about such things in his letter to the Romans. The reading we shared today is like the center of a stack of buttered pancakes. It’s the part that makes the others parts good, and part of it is the fact that it begins with the word, therefore.

Obviously there is more to the story. Even in the beginning of this passage we are pointed to the choice before the choice. How can we let sin drive the bus when we are not bound to it? Paul is again telling this mixed audience of Jews and proselytes that following the letter of the law as if the words of the law were God makes them slaves to a practice, not recipients of grace.

In verse 15 Paul cuts deeper into the idea he set up in verse 1. He began his argument by asking, “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound.” Then he follows it up with, “Should we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? No, of course not!” So says Paul, and we smile knowingly because of 2 Millennia of experience and knowledge of sin and grace.

Or at least we think we know about it. Usually we talk about sin in terms of sinful actions. I doubt Paul would disagree that some actions are particularly sinful, but why? The sinfulness that Paul is claiming that we are released from is the orientation that leads to those actions - an attitude of self centeredness instead of God centeredness.

Although there is clearly a sense of individual choice and activity, I think it is significant that Paul uses mostly plural pronouns. We are in this together. We have to consider the choice before the choice as a community. We have to consider where our motivation comes from as individuals.

Sometimes that gets us in a jam. Sometimes in our lives, in our politics, even in our church it feels like someone needs to do something - even if it is the wrong thing; at least it will get us moving. Sometimes we long to do as Martin Luther once wrote. Sometimes we want to “Sin Boldly.”

That was part of a letter he wrote to a colleague in 1521, discussing a wide range of topics. Luther wrote, “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”

Perhaps you could boil his argument down to, “Somebody do something! You probably will be wrong. Just remember to put more faith in God’s ability to love you than in your ability to love God.” The choice before the choice is not yours or mine. The choice before the choice belongs to Christ Jesus alone.

And this Jesus sends us out like the first disciples. This Jesus comes to us in forms we do not always recognize. This Jesus teaches us what it means to offer hospitality. Often times we think of Jesus being present when we help someone or do something good. We think of hospitality when it comes to providing a church program or event. How often do we think of hospitality as the way in which we might meet Jesus in the face of a person in need? How likely is it that we might believe that we can receive from such a person?

That’s a hard question that is laced with moral superiority and pressure. The reality is that it is much messier than that. When I am asked to, or feel moved to, help someone, I have come to see that there are times I still feel taken advantage of. Yet there are also times when I find sweet communion in sharing the stories of pain and suffering and God’s presence in the midst of it that cannot be found any other way. So, sometimes I feel that I am the disciple, reaching out with the very hands of Christ.

Sometimes I am the “little one” receiving refreshment for my soul because I’ve been called to be hospitable. Usually, if I’m doing things right, these two experiences intermingle and one begins where the other ends.

So, here we are with this “both/and” type of faith. It is both individual and corporate. We are called to be hospitable and to receive hospitality. Some say that this is the way forward for the church. Some say that we need to return to hospitality as a fundamental aspect of our fellowship. I don’t mean simply being nice or even being invitational. I mean hospitality as an evangelistic orientation. I mean becoming a community that does not tell people that they are welcome so much as we demonstrate a desire to share the faith we have received and by which we are saved.

That statement does come with a warning label though. It may mean giving some things up. It may mean letting go of defenses. It may even mean being wrong about a thing or two in order to be right about the things that truly matter. But don’t worry - YHVH, Adonai, The Lord is the God that will not accept human sacrifices. YHVH, Adonai,The Lord is the God who provides, YHVH, Adonai, The Lord is the God who distributes grace and mercy to those who are faithful and to those who suffer needlessly, and YHVH, Adonai, The Lord is the God who chose you before you ever had a choice.

May God guide us all as we seek to live the choice that has been made on our behalf. Amen.
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