Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on March 5, 2006
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Sermon preached by
The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
March 5, 2006
There's a silly story of a good Episcopalian who went to her priest one day and said that she must make a confession: she continuously committed the sin of vanity. When the priest asked her to explain she said, "Every morning I get up, look in the mirror and thank God I am so beautiful." The priest looked at her and said, "Madam, that is not a sin. That is a mistake."
\Today is the first Sunday of Lent, a day on which - every year - we hear about Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. Mark's version, which we heard this morning, doesn't go into detail about the temptations, but we know they were serious business. Jesus was being tempted by the devil himself and he wasn't being tempted simply to make a mistake; he was being tempted to sin. Just this past Wednesday, in the Ash Wednesday Litany of Penitence, we acknowledge numerous and manifold sins - everything from our pride and hypocrisy to our exploitation of others to our negligence in prayer and worship. We don't refer to those as mistakes, but as sins. So, in the end, what is sin really; what does it come down to, what is this thing that tempts us?
While a mistake has to do with a wrong decision or wrong choice, our catechism defines sin as seeking our own will instead of the will of God, leading to a distorted relationship with God, with one another and with creation. Sin separates us from God and from each other. It causes us to be less than God knows we can be. The word sin itself comes from a Greek archery term meaning "to miss the mark." Sin is that which causes us to miss the mark of who God intended us to be.
There is, however, another definition of sin stated by the sixth century
church historian, Evagrius. When I first read it I thought it took sin
too lightly but the more I consider the statement, the more it interested
me. Evagrius said that "sin is the forgetfulness of God's goodness."
(Cited by Michael Mayne in Pray, Love, Remember, p. 3) I wonder if,
in fact, that sin of the forgetfulness of God's goodness doesn't underlie
every other sin because a forgetfulness of God's goodness leads to a
distortion of our relationship with God and with one another.
On the surface, none of those temptations are necessarily bad things. Turning stones into bread could allow the hungry world to be fed. Performing some great feat like throwing oneself off the temple without injury might bring people to faith. Having authority over all kingdoms would allow one to control people so they'd behave as they should. The world could be a better place.
But at root, those temptations are temptations to mistrust the goodness of God. They mistrust that God will somehow see that people have what they most need in the midst of their wildernesses; they mistrust that God will bring people to faith by a converted heart, not by sleight of hand; they mistrust that God's kingdom will come through love not coercion and earthly power. The sin which tempted Jesus was a forgetfulness of the goodness of God.
The sins which tempt us also, at root, have to do with the forgetfulness
of God's goodness. When we forget God's goodness in creating humankind
in his image, we sin. We may act in ways that show a lack of respect
for ourselves or others. We may destroy our own lives through addiction;
we may harm others through something as seemingly small as thoughtless-ness
or something as great as acts of unspeakable cruelty and violence. We
can act in those ways only when we lose sight of our own value as a
child of God, when we see another as insignificant, when we forget God
has imprinted his image on us all. In short, we sin, we act in destructive
ways when we forget the goodness of God in God creating us.
The other day I read about a little boy who summed up his fear of going to school. He said, "My name is Donald, and I don't know anything. I have new underwear, a loose tooth, and I didn't sleep last night because I'm worried. What if a bell rings and a man yells, 'Where do you belong?' and I don't know? What if the trays in the cafeteria are too tall for me to reach? What if my loose tooth comes out when we have our heads down and are supposed to be quiet? Am I supposed to bleed quietly? What if I splash water on my nametag and my name disappears and no one knows who I am?'" (The Rev. Dr. Janice Hearne in a sermon entitled A Vision Before You)
We are that child, with the same questions, the same fears, the same doubts. Most of the time, we feel like we don't know anything. Where do we belong? What if we reach for something and fail, falling flat on our face? What if we're hurting - do we hurt alone? What if no one - including we ourselves - knows who we are?
But, for us, those questions grow out of forgetting God's goodness. For in Christ, God has shown us his goodness - and so we, in fact, know quite a bit. We know that we belong to him, loved so dearly that he gave his life for us. We know that if we fall down, he will pick us up, dust us off and send us on our way. We know that because God came among us in Christ we will never hurt alone because he knows what it is to hurt - and he's right beside us. And we know that God knows our name, he knows who we are - his beloved child - and he will never forget us or let us go.
In these ways and so many others, God has shown us his goodness. This Lent - and always - may we remember it.
The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Buffalo, New York
Reprinted with permission