Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"What's Playing Down at the Presbyterian?"

The king in the comic strip Wizard of Id once passed a church sign with the sermon title, “The Wages of Sin.” Consternated, hoping for an alternative, he bewildered his faithful knight by asking, “I wonder what’s playing down at the Presbyterian?”

In progressive circles, sin is not center stage.  Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, notes, “Pastors can be so reluctant to use the word ‘sin’ that in church we end up confessing nothing except our highly developed capacity for denial. One week, for example, the confession began, ‘Our communication with Jesus tends to be too infrequent to experience the transformation in our lives You want us to have,’ which,” she writes, “seems less a prayer than a memo from one professional to another.”

A seminary classmate resisted corporate prayers of confession because they often confessed abuses of power, when she felt her sin as a woman was her inability to claim her power, to assert herself. Celtic Christian scholar J. Philip Newell objects to beginning worship with prayers of confession, rightly asking, “How would it be if I began every encounter with my wife telling her what a piece of garbage I am?”

Progressive Christian theologian Marcus Borg thinks that the priestly story of “sin, guilt, sacrifice, and forgiveness” in Sunday worship can lead to a passive spirituality. In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, he writes, “Rather than seeing [religious] life as a process of spiritual transformation, it stresses believing that God has already done what needs to be done.” He explains: 
This story is very hard to believe. The notion that God’s only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that God could not forgive us without that having happened, and that we are saved by believing this story, is simply incredible. Taken metaphorically, this story can be very powerful. But taken literally, it is a profound obstacle to accepting the Christian message. To many people, it simply makes no sense, and I think we need to be straightforward about that. 
(Btw, Hildegard of Bingen believed the Incarnation was planned from the beginning, not as the result of human sin.)

Borg believes that the stories of the Exodus and the Babylonian exile speak more to the oppression and alienation people experience and/or witness in this world. Though receiving the Law at Mt. Sinai is a part of the Exodus story, the concept of spiritual journey better captures our spiritual imaginations.

And indeed, the first Christians considered themselves “people of the way.” “Disciple” means follower, and the disciples were Jesus followers, as many Christians choose to be designated today.  

To me this is preferable to accepting an identity as “sinners,” which is why I embrace the Celtic Christian understanding that sin is not an inborn characteristic, and its effects can be expunged by encounters with either Creation or Christ.

Confession thus becomes a way of acknowledging we are better than sin as beloved children of God. The New Testament word for sin ’amartia derives from ’amartano, which means “to miss the mark,” confirming a more positive understanding of our nature.

President Calvin Coolidge was a progressive Republican who voted for women’s suffrage. He was also a taciturn Congregationalist, which means he didn’t have much to say, known as “Silent Cal,” unconsciously practicing Benedictine “restraint of speech” (taciturnitas). You probably have heard the possibly apocryphal story of him returning from church one Sunday, his wife asking what the preacher’s sermon was about. “Sin,” he declared. “Well, what did he say about it?” she prodded. “He was agin’ it,” he replied.

We too can oppose sin. Sin doesn’t have to come “naturally.”

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