February 19, 2017 // Narr 27 // Epiph 7 // First Congregational UCC, Ashland, OR //
Rev. Christina Grace Kukuk // “Saving Sin” // “My Sin” a poem by M. L. Liebler; Luke 7:36-50
Catherine had a pattern. Usually, when she called me to schedule an appointment, she was drunk. Those calls came during the day. Realizing she’d likely drunk dialed, I’d talk to her for awhile, trying to discern whether she was a danger to herself or her three little boys. We would schedule the appointment she requested, and then the night before or early the morning of, when she could be sure I wouldn’t be at my desk, she’d leave a message on the office voicemail to cancel. In those messages, she usually sounded sober. This went on for a few years, as we tried to be her church through a couple hospitalizations for drug and alcohol addiction and other kinds of self-harm – all while her partner worked a low-wage job to care for those small boys. When we finally did meet and talk frankly during one of those stretches of sobriety after a hospitalization, Catherine asked to be re-baptized. Her sins were many. She’d catalogued them on paper she brought to our meeting: Steps 4, 5 and 8 on her path to recovery. She desperately wanted a new life. (Pause)
Most of us wouldn’t have called Catherine a sinner. We would use different language, usually either the language of law or the language of medicine. Some of Catherine’s extended family and friends did use that language. One called children’s services to initiate an investigation into neglect or endangerment of children. Together with a DUI or some misuse of illegal or prescription drugs, these would have been considered illegal, making Catherine’s diagnosis criminal. More of us, though, would gravitate toward the language of medicine, recognizing the deep trauma in this woman’s past, framing the havoc in her life within the wisdom of psychology and addiction, recognizing in Catherine a patient in need of healing, much more than a criminal in need of punishment. When Catherine approached me, even I much preferred those terms. I kept trying to shift the language. I’d already learned too well first by childhood experience and later in ministry, what short shrift traditional Christian theology gives those on “the other side of sin… the sinned-against,” for whom traditional categories of sin often devolve into victim-blaming. I would not have called Catherine a sinner. It didn’t really matter. She came, tears falling, wanting to be forgiven. (Pause)
She came, this woman in the city, she came with tears falling to the House of Simon. In our story from Luke this morning, she came having learned that Jesus was eating in the Pharisee’s house, she came and brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. And after telling a little parable for Simon’s benefit, Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven…” (Pause)
I’ve preached this story in Luke before, carefully picking my way around that word sinner because it is a theological landmine. Maybe you have heard that the word sin means mostly and primarily missing the mark, that it always relates to relationships and the multitude ways we can wreck our relationships with God, people and planet. Maybe you’ve noticed that the forgiveness in this story in no way depends on some sacrificial debt payment by “God’s own son” – the crucifixion hasn’t even happened yet, so that doesn’t really factor in here. Maybe you’ve heard there was no such thing as “original sin” for another 300 years after Jesus, that none of the writers here in our Bible thought of human beings as permanently damaged goods. Maybe you even know that penance, before it got corrupted by economic exploitation, consisted simply of small concrete acts that those who’d wronged others could take to repair relationships, that the rhythm of confession, assurance, and penance wisely acknowledged that actions speak louder than words when it comes to repairing the damage we do to one another. Maybe you and I can know all of that and still not be able to redeem the word “sin” or “sinner” in this story for so many good reasons. We get into so much trouble when we begin to use those words. As one of my professors wrote in her book The Other Side of Sin, “In the naming of sin, great evils can be done” … and have been. (Pause)
But I come to this story, this week, as a person who has come of age in this world. I have come of age in this world, where at 22, in front of a large screen in the conference room of a non-profit museum where I worked, watching the Twin Towers burn and then fall. I have come of age in this world, where I watched my cousin go off to serve repeated tours of duty in Afghanistan. I come to this story while trying to teach my children not to lie or steal or hit… while watching some of the most powerful office-holders in our country repeat lies on television and in print. And I wonder how we can help one another take responsibility for the harm we do in this world. I watch, as a parent in the schools, while we are all trying to help children grow and parse the difference between being inconsiderate or being mean or bullying, how we’re trying to help children separate the wrongs we can do to each other from our own personhood. [Being thoughtless or inconsiderate from being mean to see how powerful it feels or because you’ve seen someone else doing it or bullying through a repeated pattern of meanness that makes someone feel unsafe or unwelcome or in danger.] I watch as we’re trying to parse this out. And I wonder, in a time of deep denial about the effects of our words and actions on others, if one of Jesus’ greatest gifts is the practice the gift of confession and repentance and forgiveness. I wonder if part of what Jesus offers us as he sets off on this journey of suffering is the power to practice stopping the cycle of hurting people hurting people. I wonder if we are called in this time to take responsibility for our wrong-doing – not because we’re wrong as a human race, but because we are human. I wonder if we are being called to take responsibility for our wrongdoing because naming the harm we do empowers us to turn away from it toward love. Can we save sin?
Barbara Brown Taylor wrestles with this. The reality of the harm humans perpetuate is all around us. We encounter it everywhere. What’s hard is putting it into words.
When I say ‘sin,’ there is no telling what you see: the stolen candy bar, the rumpled sheets of a bed you shared with someone else’s lover, a large pipe spilling orange sludge into a once-blue river, a clutch of homeless people sitting around a fire built from trash in a vacant lot between two corporate skyscrapers. The picture will be different for every one of you, but the experience to hunt for is that one that makes part of you die.
Deep down in human existence, there is an experience of being cut off from life….
For ages, this experience has been called sin – deadly alienation from the source of all life.
By some definitions, this is a willful thing, intentionally turning away from Love. But in others, it’s an unavoidable experience of life on this planet, harm we cause out of anxiety or fear. Either way, sin is a way of naming “the experience of being cut off from air, light, sustenance, community, hope, meaning, life,” Brown Taylor writes. “It’s a whole lot less concerned with specific behaviors than the aftermath of those behaviors.” Sin has been a way we have been able to speak of wrong-doing and separate wrong-doing from being ourselves wrong. Can sin be redeemed? (Pause)
If we go back to the story of the woman in Luke, and we strip away some of the baggage we’ve inherited, maybe there is a way to save sin. There’s no reason to assume the woman’s sin is sexual. Maybe she is known as a “sinner” because she foreclosed on a tract of rental houses and turned a bunch of families out of their homes. Maybe she is a “sinner” because she has exploited a group of immigrant laborers and doesn’t pay a living wage to those who help care for her family, her house. It doesn’t say what her specific sin is, it only tells us that she comes to dump a bottle of very expensive perfume out of some deep, deep gratitude. What we can tell from the story only is that something has happened that is not okay. She doesn’t come to do this strange act because she feels okay, so Jesus could tell her, “You’re okay.” Okay people don’t weep all over other dinner guest’s feet and then use their hair as a towel. Explain this scene away all you want, even by Ancient Near Eastern standards, this is a rather weird episode. Jesus does not recoil. Jesus recognizes she has brought something precious, and he offers something precious in return. “Simon, do you see this woman here?” And then he separates whatever acts, whatever deeds, have given her this reputation – he separates those from her identity, from her personhood. “Do you see this woman? Her sins, which were many, are forgiven.” And then he tells the woman to go in peace.
In the UCC, we don’t re-baptize as a rule, so when Catherine came asking for a ritual to give her a new start, I tried to talk her out of it. I said, in our tradition, these promises never need re-done – you can’t do anything bad enough for God to stop loving you – but they do sometimes need remembered. A few months after Catherine asked to be rebaptized, we gathered in a small circle around the baptismal font on a Sunday afternoon. Catherine stood there, her partner by her side, together with three friends from her recovery group. She confessed the words and actions that had separated her from God and others, the things she’d said and done that broke those relationships or cause harm. She prayed for forgiveness. But you know what? We didn’t let her do all that alone. We all prayed for our own forgiveness, too. Then, I poured water into the font and traced, with water and oil, a cross on Catherine’s forehead, saying “You are and always will be: a beloved child of God.” As far as I was concerned, her sins, which were many, had been forgiven. But she wanted, she needed to hear it said out loud. (Pause)
I don’t know if we can redeem that word sin. But I hope we can be a community that helps that way. I wonder if we can be a community in which we can name the harm that we’ve done to others so that we can stop the cycle of wounded people wounding people, offer forgiveness and ways back to restoration. I hope we can. I think Jesus believes that we can.
May it be so in our life together. Amen.
“Sin cannot be explained, and the biblical authors do not try to explain it,” writes Donald Gowan, one of the scholars who taught me. “They report hundreds of sins, they condemn sin, and they have much to say about God’s ways of dealing with sin. But it remains one of the greatest absurdities of human experience.”
 The name and some of the details of this story have been changed to protect privacy.
 Susan Nelson and Andrew Sung Park, The Other Side of Sin: Woundedness from the Perspective of the Sinned-Against.
 Nelson and Sung Park, The Other Side of Sin, p. 6.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation (Cowley Publications: Boston, 2000), 62-63.
 Donald E. Gowan, “Sin, Sinner, Iniquity, Rebel(lion), Transgress(ion), Guilt(y), Wicked(ness), Wrong(doing), Trespass, Fault, Offense,” The Theological Wordbook of the Bible, Donald E. Gowan, ed.