A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on September 11, 2022
1 Timothy 1:12-17 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
Luke 15:1-10 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
There’s a whole lot of backstory to these readings about tax collectors and sinners, especially sinners… The first thing is that for far too many times, all this talk about sin is used like a stick to beat us with. And the definitions of sin kinda end up being limited to specific acts, like it’s a sin to steal, or whatever. It’s all the more powerful because, looked at from a very narrow angle, it’s all true. Stealing is bad, and bad things are sins (or sins are bad things), but that’s just the narrowest, and I think, most dangerous way to think about or talk about or do something about sin. But, at its worst, and strongest in our memories, are those memories of going to Confession or having a parent lay down the law, or going to the principal’s office – being told off for whatever.
That backstory makes it a lot harder to hear what this is really about. You see, sin is, at its root, nothing more or less than being separated from God. Sure, you might see the results in some mean act or another, but sin sin is more about the why than the what.
Years ago, when I was the pastor in Putnam, up in the northeast, the Quiet Corner, of Connecticut, we learned that some of the folks who used our food pantry also visited other pantries up and down I 395, getting groceries at each place, and then selling those groceries from the front room of their apartment in the town’s low-income housing. This led to a really thought-provoking conversation because some of us wanted to bar those who were “cheating” from our food pantry while others didn’t. Yes, for sure the folks who were selling “our” food were cheating, but why was their model working? Wouldn’t the folks at the housing authority have preferred to go to the grocery store?
Well, maybe. But when we looked more closely at the problem, we realized the housing had been built in a beautiful part of town for sure, but a part that was a half hour walk from the Price Chopper… a half an hour walk down a steep hill, which meant a little more than half an hour up that hill, with groceries. Maybe not so do-able with a toddler? Certainly not doable if you were of an age to have walking problems. And there was no public transportation in town. We decided that our frequent flyer at the food pantries was really offering a public service, and extending our ministry to a place we had no way to reach…
Who sinned in this case? The folks who were taking that food and re-selling it? Or the planners who never thought about how dirt poor people would get to necessary services? Or someone else?
You see, vision is an essential element in understanding what sin really is… so, let’s spend some time thinking about vision, what warps it, and how we can learn to see more clearly. This is no blame game; it’s an opportunity to sharpen our eyes.
You’d think it should be easy to know right from wrong, but it turns out that clear moral vision is more rare than perfect physical eyesight. It is as if our moral senses can be affected in much the same way our eyesight can be… by things that keep us from seeing clearly, by experiences which cloud our vision, by accidents that “scar” us and make it harder to see rightly.
Cataracts happen when something clouds the lens of our eyes. For us, thinking about our moral vision, that’d be something like aspects of our privilege, our experiences. If you’ve had a cataract, you know how sneaky they are… it takes a while for them to affect your vision and even longer for you to realize how bad things have gotten. That’s the way it is with our own experiences, and how they can limit us.
Tim Cotton writes of a recent visit to his downeast Maine camp: …while my guests were here, they borrowed a kayak and a canoe to cruise around. When they returned the craft, I assumed that the canoe would have been overturned on the beach because that’s how you leave a canoe on a beach in an area where you get significant rain that sometimes comes out of nowhere. Not because of concerns about water getting in the boat but because it’s easier to flip it back over than to flip it over twice. Once to empty it, and once to right it for a paddle up-lake. There is also less chance for a canoe to float away if left on the shore hull-side up. But the guests were Texans. . . and I recalled that it rarely rains in Texas, and right side up would be appropriate in most all situations in that fine state. . . . We always think that our way is the best, which is just not the case. Each of us navigates life with values instilled in us by the people, places, and experiences we come from. We carry that forever.
I think it’s natural for each of us to assume, absent any other input, that our experiences are everyone’s experiences. And that’s the foundational false assumption that leads us toward a “cataract” about our privilege, our special knowledge, a blindness to the ways our experiences and resources have influenced our ways of success or failure.
Moral “cataracts” form like scar tissue where we’ve found ourselves
As human beings, our vision, our understanding, even of our own lives, is limited by so many facts, as if they were glaucoma or cataracts or macular degeneration. Christ calls us to do for our souls what an ophthalmologist can do for our eyes… and, in giving us a vision of what our world is supposed to look like, helps us get beyond those constricting experiences of our own lives.
The first step towards good spiritual vision is recognizing that we’re not seeing clearly. You might think that of course we know when we aren’t seeing right, but that’s not so. I remember getting my first pair of glasses when I was in sixth grade. While I knew I was having trouble reading the blackboard, I never realized that my vision was the reason all my lines were slanted… when I put the glasses on, with the correction for fuzzy vision AND astigmatism, I was astounded. In fact the entire world then looked slanted to me, while my eyes and brain adjusted to the new input.
Something of the same – no, that can’t be right feeling – can happen when we first realize the extent to which our life experiences have blinded us to the experiences of others. We think, ‘no, I got through college with little or no debt; I worked hard, had two jobs, so you can do it too’….. our experience of survival can make it harder for us to realize how the costs of education have risen… Or we think, “I have no privilege, I got no special help” without understanding, for instance, that not everyone expects their children to get an education, that some, in fact, don’t want their children to get that excellent education. Someone likely enrolled at Wesleyan this fall despite pressure from family and friends to stay home and go to the local community college – all to keep them from being lured away from home and family and community.
Our Bible, our stories of Jesus, our history of welcoming the other, of standing up for the rights of the oppressed, of asking the difficult questions and then making the hard decisions, all are something like lenses through which we are able to see life as it was meant to be.
What God asks of us, when it comes to sin, is to open our eyes to the discontinuities between God’s vision for this world and the realities in which we live.
We participate in that sin when we wilfully close our eyes to the pain of our world; we participate it when we act without considering the effects of our choices, or when we act knowing that what we do will hurt people and we’re going to do it anyway.
We renounce our participation in the world’s sin when we take the time to open our eyes to the world, when we reach beyond the blocks of our individual experiences to reform our lives, and rebuild our expectations, to move beyond our limitations into that vision which God holds before us. And when we turn to do that, then it is as if we, too, have been found and carried on the shepherd’s shoulder, returned to our true home. Not condemned. Loved. Loved and welcomed home.
© 2022, Virginia H. Child