11 March 2007

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent - "Dangerous Confessions"

There’s an old joke about two campers out in the woods who startle a bear and wind up on the run with the bear in hot pursuit. One camper screams to the other one, “Do you think you really think you can run faster than a bear?” The other camper screams back, “No! – I just have to run faster than you!”

There is an element of this mentality in the questions Jesus was asked in Luke 13. “Jesus, wouldn’t you say that the awful way those Galileans died was proof of their great sinfulness?” You can almost hear the scales balancing in the heads of the people asking the questions: “We don’t need to stop sinning altogether; we just need to be holier than our neighbors to avoid punishment!”

The thing is, you can’t out-holify your neighbor any more than you can outrun a bear. A bear’s stomach will get full eventually, but our appetite for self-righteousness can be all-consuming. Let us pray: Merciful God, your patience is enduring and your love is steadfast. But we know that you desire repentance. We know that we have not met your intention for our lives, and we know we cannot meet that intention without your Spirit within us. We endlessly compare ourselves with our neighbors rather than filling our lives with your word and your promises. Raise in us the desire to turn away from that which kills us in our sins, and turn us toward your life-giving mercy and your promises of redemption and peace. All this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Out of curiosity, I did some searching on a major news website as I was writing this sermon. If you search for “Anna Nicole Smith,” you’ll find 120 hits. Search for “Britney Spears” and you’ll get 303 hits. Search for I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former Vice Presidential Chief of Staff who was convicted of perjury this week, and you’ll get 45 hits. Nothing sells like a scandal, and business has been good over the past month.

In this life we are surrounded by danger. Stock markets crash. Planes run over their runways and burst into flames. Politicians raise millions for an election 18 months in the future, while the homeless freeze and starve on our streets and thousands of American children live without adequate medical insurance. Soldiers get sent overseas to fight a war no one wants to fight anymore, and when they are wounded they come home to hospitals filled with mold and vermin and never-ending bueracracy. But in the midst of all of this, we can take heart: at least we’re not as bad as Anna Nicole or Britney or Scooter. We aren’t as ignorant as President Bush or as corrupt as the Clintons. We aren’t as rude as the Donald or as outspoken as Rosie. So long as we’re staying ahead of the game, we’ll be all right. Don’t drink, don’t smoke and always wear your seatbelt: you’ll be fine.

Are we afraid? If so, it’s for good reason. We can tell ourselves that we’re okay by modern standards; like Garrison Keillor says “it could be worse.” But we also know, deep within us, two unassailable facts that cause us great fear:

1) Life is unpredictable and does not always follow cause and effect the way we think it should.

2) We are just as bound to sin as our neighbor because the standard is God’s law, not our neighbor’s sin.

Our fear of these two facts lead us right back to the false assumption that keeping ahead of the scandals can keep us ahead of the game itself. Because we are afraid, we surround ourselves with the right kind of people: folks who have it all together, who know that if you do right, you’ll be right. And so we go on protecting ourselves by ostracizing the wrong sorts of people and the unlucky and the sinners until we’ve created our own little kingdom where goodness thrives because we eliminate anyone or anything that shows the slightest bit of bad luck, trouble or sin. And we make our peace with this by telling ourselves that it was our neighbors’ sins that put them out of the group. We confess that our neighbors are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves – but that’s not our problem.

When Jesus encountered this mentality in the gospel of Luke, he didn’t hesitate to blow it right out of the water, because it was poisoning the minds and hearts of his followers. When confronted with the dangerous confessions of a neighbor’s sin, Jesus reminded his listeners that they would indeed “get what’s coming to them,” but the only thing that was coming was death. Jesus told his listeners that there was no safety in hiding behind the terrible misfortunes of others; confessing a neighbor’s sin to mask one’s own sin was, and is, a terribly dangerous thing to do. Jesus wanted nothing to do with it.

Rev. Tony Campolo, who is the author of our Lenten video series “Curing Affluenza,” said that he was so grateful for a seminary education because it could explain away all the harsh sayings of Jesus. Well, I’m sorry to say that some of my seminary educators didn’t allow that to happen. One of the oldest questions a theologian has to face is the question of the “benevolent savage.” Imagine a native tribal family somewhere in the depths of darkest Africa. They’ve lived in a small village all their lives and they care for each other in the best way they are able to do. Father and mother honor and cherish their children, and the children dutifully care for their parents and grandparents when they are no longer able to care for themselves. In all their deeds they follow the law: they do not steal, they do not slander their neighbors, they remain true to their spouses, they do not kill, and so on. But they have never heard of Jesus. No one has ever come to them with the good news of Christ. And so the question is: what happens to these wonderful people when they die? No one ever gave them the gospel: is that their fault?

This is just another version of the dangerous confession of a neighbor’s sin, and it’s one of the oldest. When it came up in my Lutheran confessions class with Gerhard Forde and Jim Nestingen, they shot back with this confrontational answer: “Who are you thinking of, and what are you waiting for?” Contrary to popular opinion and outward appearances, faith is not an abstract, intellectual exercise. Genuine faith is a deeply personal experience that rises out of a mingling of human interaction and divine intervention. The benevolent savage of our story doesn’t exist: what does exist is a neighbor who needs the gospel – period.

Jesus didn’t come to offer hypothetical faith. God did not become incarnate in order to confirm our prejudice regarding our neighbors and our self-justification. The Holy Spirit will not reveal the reasons behind our neighbor’s misfortune. So it’s time to stop the dangerous practice of confessing our neighbor’s sin. Jesus couldn’t have been more clear: what happens to others happens to others, but your sins will find you out. It’s time for repentance, for a turning-away from our sins, and one of the sins from which we must turn away is confessing our neighbor’s sin.

Our reading from Isaiah this morning describes the consequences of confessing our neighbor’s sin:

“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

The dangerous confession of the sins of others is the spiritual equivalent of cotton candy laced with asbestos: sweet to the taste, but completely unfulfilling, and poisonous to boot. There is no way to climb to heaven on the shoulders of the sinners around you – Jesus won’t have it that way. The cross was the end of humanity’s attempt to justify itself. We killed the innocent Son of God because we could not stand the thought of God being merciful to sinners. The cross with which we are marked at baptism marks us with the death of Jesus as well as his resurrection, so that we will be saved in his name alone.

You almost have to pity those people who listened to Jesus teach that day on the road to Jerusalem. They wanted Jesus to say, “Nah, you guys are doing just fine – nothing like that is going to happen to you.” They came to Jesus afraid of the world around them, and they hoped proving that sinners get their just desserts would also prove that they would be protected by their own high virtue. But that’s not the way it works. Jesus wouldn’t let the false hope of self-justification overshadow the true hope of God’s mercy and steadfast love, even if it meant that the people who followed him had to be afraid before they could be saved. Barbara Brown Taylor, a religion professor from Piedmont College and an Episcopal priest, put it this way:

“While Jesus does not honor their illusion that they can protect themselves in this way, he does seem to honor the vulnerability that their fright has opened up in them. It is not a bad thing for them to feel the full fragility of their lives. It is not a bad thing for them to count their breaths in the dark -- not if it makes them turn toward the light.”[1]

God won’t leave us without hope, either. The hope God offers is not in avoiding the dangers around us or hiding behind our neighbor's sins; God offers hope in companionship through life’s journey and in the company of saints in the life to come. The hypothetical neighbor whose sins we love to confess will become our brother or sister in Christ who is, like us, struggling along the narrow way of discipleship, following after Jesus, sharing the burden of the cross with us when we cannot bear it alone. So we find ourselves seeking God instead of our neighbor’s sin, and as we return to God, we find our sins forgiven and our lives renewed. God be praised. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if a google search for Anna Nicole now brings up your blog? :)
    Nice sermon.