Sin. Christians are fascinated by it. It gives us plenty to measure because there seems to be plenty of it. Sin is interesting. It gives us plenty to talk about. At heart, many of us prefer sin to virtue. It’s more exciting. I’ve had many a student in religion classes complain that “good is boring.” Many adults would openly, or at least quietly, agree. Then to add insult to injury, it’s the sinners in the gospel who have all the good things happen to them. God seems to like those pesky sinners better than the dull “good people.” It’s very confusing!
So let’s talk about sin for a minute. What is it? How do we use it? Why is it important? What does it do? What should we do about it?
Sin is the stuff that messes with our hearts. It messes with our hearts and therefore it messes with our relationships—be those relationships be with God, people, or the creation. Sin is essentially that which separates us or alienates us from God and our fellow human beings and the world in which we are imbedded. It is, if you like, the original disconnect.
Sin is all those things that cause us to hurt ourselves or God or other people or the earth. The problem is that it’s very subtle. Taking out a gun and shooting someone is clearly bad, clearly a sin. We don’t have a problem with that, but the self- righteousness of the person doing good to a pregnant teenager is less easy to see. When a subtle sense of superiority is substituted for compassion and mercy, the good deed becomes tainted with human see. Given that it is very hard to do anything with the purest of motives you begin to see the size of the issue. The fact is, the most difficult sin to identify is in fact our own—if we even stop to ask the question.
This limitation, of course, doesn’t stop us at all. We have no problem identifying other people’s sins. Evalu-ating our neighbor is, for many, a more binding com-mandment than loving them. We can become a kind of religious score card to see who’s winning in the virtue game—except that just by keeping score we sin.
Then you have the other end of the spectrum where we become fascinated by our own sin. We wallow in it, we hold on firmly to the darkness and misery of guilty feelings. We know exactly how seriously we have offended against God, our neighbor, and the world and we are just worthless. We retreat to the nearest black hole—and stay there.
What is wrong with these pictures of sin? At least two things. First, we have made the sin all important. It becomes the focus of energy and interest. Life cannot flourish under these conditions. It is like trying to fertilize plants with weedkiller. Second, and even more serious, is that it puts human beings at the center of everything. Draw a circle and what do you have? Sin right in the middle. Who sins? We do. Who is most interested in sin? We are. Who uses sin to score against others? We do. Who goes on and on about sin (as long as it is not our own and sometimes when it is)? We do.
What should be at the center of the circle? GOD.
Now, think how that changes the picture. What can we say about the center? Love gets to be there—love, mercy, forgiveness, life. All at the center. That is not to deny that God judges us, but the judgment is born of great love, not of great censure. In the passage from Hosea this morning, we glimpse exactly that. God is judging Israel not from anger but from the anguish of God’s love for his faithless, sinful, people. The grief of a love that weeps, “Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.” The grief of a love that resolves to withdraw from the people until they decide to return to their Lord in love. To re-connect, not disconnect. God’s love is at the center. The love that evokes the response of love. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God and not burnt offerings.”
In the picture in which God is at the center, everything else moves over. All other things are secondary to love. Living by the rules is less important than living in loving relationship to God. Being the person who knows all the answers is not so important. For seeing everything as black and white is a human response to the world based on fear. God has given us commandments not to create a rigid society but to provide boundaries of mutual respect and decency. To create an environment in which love becomes possible and sin does not disrupt to the point of destroying the walls.
We have a church not so we can beat up on people who don’t follow the traditions, customs, and practices of St. James’s but so that we can search for and find the love that called us into this place.
It was exactly this problem that led to the rise of Methodism in the nineteenth century. Loving the rules more than loving the people is the reason why many of our fellow Christians are not here with us but in Methodist churches throughout this country. When respectable women in the Anglican church began to invite the lower classes, the poor, the riff raff into their homes in the nineteenth century, the institutional church was horrified. Furthermore, when this very same riff raff were treated with respect and their opinions sought, the church was scandalized. It was, they said, upsetting the natural order of things. So God judged the Anglican Church. Methodism flourished because the Methodists had discovered something about real love. With this in mind we can begin to approach this morning’s outrageous gospel.
Let us not be confused. This is not the gospel against the IRS. Tax gatherers in the time of Jesus were working for the enemy. They collected taxes for Rome, the oppressor of Israel, a somewhat similar role in the eyes of the Jews to that of the people who collaborated with the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s. Roman tax gatherers not only collected taxes for the enemy, they made their own living by collecting more than was due to line their own pockets. We are talking about major corruption.
Now before we fly off into “justifiable” criticism of this man Matthew, let us keep the God of love at the center of the picture and our own fear of not being loved out of sight.
Imagine being Matthew. Here you are, earning your living, and you live in a state where you are not loved by anyone as far as you can tell. We don’t know what was in his mind and heart. It could have been anything from being deeply depressed about the state of his life to pretending that everything was just fine and dandy. But the fact is that he was a Jew, despised by his own and by the Romans. At some level he would have experienced himself as worthless—a hopeless case.
And so we might imagine him sitting at his booth on a day like any other day dealing in money—the sign and symbol of his empty power—stuck in his sin. Living in a world in which he had put sin at the center. Living, therefore, in a world in which there could be no hope. For without God at the center, there is none to save us.
Suddenly he is eyeball to eyeball with God. “Follow me,” says Jesus. Love wants him. Love embraces him—a love so outrageous it dismisses his sin. Love so powerful and so tender it has the capacity to obliterate his sin ands give him life. He finds himself both loved and forgiven simultaneously. No wonder he got up and followed him. Finally he knows what it is to be loved—so loved that Jesus sits with him at dinner, shares his food with the riff raff of life. Sinners flocking to his table for there they could find a place, a welcome they did not know in the world. No wonder those good-living, church- going, virtuous Pharisees were angry. What had these people done to deserve such love? Why did God love those sinners more?
Here they were, doing their best to be good—to be noticed and to be loved—and Jesus calls riff raff to follow him. So busy were the Pharisees with their fear of not being loved, so sin-centered in their view of the world, that they could not see that they were not excluded. Jesus invites them to the table too—but they cannot hear.
And so the party goes on. Will we be there? Are we willing to know ourselves as one with the riff raff? To believe and know that when God is at the center we are very small, very sinful, but very loved. If so, we can take heart from the words “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick … for I come not to call not the righteous, but sinners.”
Alleluia. We’re the riff raff after all. We are the sinners being called to the table of glory in the kingdom. Rejoice that you know you sin. It is a sign of God’s grace in our lives. And smile—because we know we are loved, forgiven, and can be healed.