Sunday, December 8, 2019

Year A Advent 2 2019 Forsake Our Sin

Year A Advent 2, 8 December 2019
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Forsake Our Sins”

Collect: Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Today I am going to talk about a rare topic, like politics and religion at a dinner table, too often in the Episcopal Church we avoid the subject of Sin. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”

This week I went to the Ashland Clergy Lunch, a monthly gathering of fellow ministers here in town. It is for support, encouragement, warnings or updates of things happening in our community (both big and small), and camaraderie. I was surprised by the turn of the conversation, and actually deeply moved. We spoke about sin, and its ripple effect through the town and its outskirts. Personal sins, and the ripple effect through those connected directly or indirectly, or collective sins and the mismanagement and avoidance of them.

Some of you may be Star Wars geeks like me. And I have to admit, I am eating up the new series The Mandalorian more than I can say. A few weeks ago the episode, to my huge surprise, was called “The Sin.” Disney, Inc. and Star Wars seems to be more ready to talk about Sin than we are.

We avoid the topic of Sin because we do not want to discourage people, or to turn them off. We do not want to be confrontative. Or worst of all, we do not want to deal with it. But in my role as your priest, part of my job is to confront people in this parish who are “notoriously evil,” “scandalous,” or “hateful”  sinners and that if they continue in them, then I am to refuse them Communion. After church, please after church, look it up on page 409, like the Formula, of your Book of Common Prayer.

[Disciplinary Rubrics:
If the priest knows that a person who is living a notoriously evil life intends to come to Communion, the priest shall speak to that person privately, and tell him that he may not come to the Holy Table until he has given clear proof of repentance and amendment of life.
The priest shall follow the same procedure with those who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation, not allowing such persons to receive Communion until they have made restitution for the wrong they have done, or have at least promised to do so.
When the priest sees that there is hatred between members of the congregation, he shall speak privately to each of them, telling them that they may not receive Communion until they have forgiven each other.
And if the person or persons on one side truly forgive the others and desire and promise to make up for their faults, but those on the other side refuse to forgive, the priest shall allow those who are penitent to come to Communion, but not those who are stubborn.
In all such cases, the priest is required to notify the bishop, within fourteen days at the most, giving the reasons for refusing Communion.] (Book of Common Prayer, p. 409)

Sin can be seen a lot of ways. From my earliest days, sin was approached as a personal thing. Something to be ashamed of, something to be avoided. But that should be the actual Sin, but things do not get better if we do not talk about them. 

If it was discussed, it was generic. Sin was described as the term from archery, which is actually “sin,” which is the distance from where my arrow hits to the bullseye, what I was aiming for in the first place. So “missing the mark” was another way to look at it. 

My pastor growing up had another way he liked to describe it, and he said sin is spelt “little ess-big EYE-little enn.” 
When we put ourselves bigger than we should, when we put ourselves first, that is what he liked to call sIn. Sin, he said, is with a Capital I.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving in our Adult Confirmation class someone paid me a compliment of how open and accepting I am, and immediately, before I could think about it it rolled off my tongue, “Because I am a sinner saved by Grace.” Now I do attempt to be open and accepting. I try very hard not to judge, and particularly not to condemn, especially people we might collectively consider sinners. People who break their promises to God, or break what we see as promises to God. In fact, when we read the Gospels and Jesus is presented with sinners he welcomes, encourages, and loves them. Who is it he is frustrated with? Whose tables does he overturn? The people who had forgotten their sins, and God’s forgiveness of them. Who did Jesus get frustrated with? The people who had forgotten what it was like to be in need of Grace. John confronts them today, calling them “Brood of Vipers!”

Monday’s daily lectionary reading hit me so hard. It reminded me of who I used to be in my younger days: judgmental, holier-than-thou, ungracious, and smug. I knew the right words to say, but I had never felt the need of Grace having worked my whole life to not do anything wrong. I was pretty self-righteous. I heard a lot of that in these verses from St. Peter in II Peter: 
“ must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.” (vv. 5b-9)
Why are supposed Christians so ungracious at times? They have forgotten their cleansing. Or sadly, they never had one. I shared those verses with one of my fellow pastors who was dealing with some who were so secure in their righteousness that confronting them with their sin was a threat, a threat to their self-perception, a threat to their fragile (and false) facade that they had built of who they were and their faith. They were forgetful of the cleansing of the past sins. When I am judgmental, holier-than-thou, ungracious, and/or smug I have my cleansing, too.

I find amusing that we avoid the Sin conversation. It is like going to a hospital and avoiding the word Sick. When we do not discuss the Sin in our lives, and how to grow in Christ and be saved from the cycle of sin upon sin upon sin, then we are at best a social club or feel-good society. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are all sinners who are saved by Grace. My righteousness comes from Christ, not anything I have done, could do, or conceive of on my own. As we turn to Christ, as we make Christ our own and not something we have received from our parents, or teachers, or pastors, this is often the first step. I messed up. I have sinned. And then we are invited to a second, and a third, and so on...

I can be gracious because of that. I cannot judge, because anything you could do I could do as well or worse. John cries out, “Get ready! The day is coming!” And while doing just that, it came. The Day had arrived.

John was baptizing people in recognition of that they were sinners and they were claiming a turn-around, a repentance of their sins. A preparation of heart and soul. As John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

John’s Baptism was a cleansing in preparation, Jesus’ is a New Birth. John gave a bath and a hope, Jesus gives rewriting of our DNA. John was getting us ready for a date, Jesus’ was the marriage.

Friends, Jesus came not for us to be good. Jesus did not come for us to get our bar code so when it is scanned we can get into heaven. Jesus came to transform the world, one life, one nation or people, one world at a time. 

If you ever wondered how DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT the coming of Jesus was, let us go back to the prophecies from Isaiah:
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
     and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
     the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
     and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
     their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
     and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
     on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
     as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
     the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
The world is supposed to turn upside down. Radical change. Wholesale change. The Sin is to be cleansed, transformed, and eradicated. The Wolf and the Lamb together, safe, secure, transformed.

One of my favorite books talks about the weakness of the Church, and too much of our work is looking at Gospels of Sin Management. Not eradication. Not forgiveness. But Sin Management. How do we live with it.

A friend of mine has cancer. He has had cancer for over a decade. He cannot get rid of it. He would love to get rid of it. He would love for it to disappear and never come back. But it is chronic. He takes medicine to hold it at bay. He goes in for semi-annual check-ups to see if things are being held at bay. Before Jesus came, that was humanity’s state. 

Lady Macbeth when she speaks shrieks, ‘Out, damned spot!” she seems worried about her hands, but she knows, as do all of us that the stain is not on her hands. The stain of her Sin is on her soul.

This Second Sunday of Advent, let us pause. Let us wait. There is little more important than this. Lift up to God those things done, and those things left undone that separates you from who God would have you be. In a few moments when we have the Prayer of Confession, we will give some extra time today for us to ponder, and pray.

Prepare the Way of the Lord. Make straight God’s paths. And the most important path to straighten is the one to your heart and soul. Amen

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Blessings, Rock