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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
Lent 1

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.

For instance, it strikes me that the sins with which Jesus was tempted in the wilderness were things which urged him to forget God's goodness. Although, as I mentioned, Mark's Gospel doesn't describe the sins with which Christ was tempted, those temptations set forth in Matthew's and Luke's Gospel still sound in our ears. Satan tempted Jesus with turning stones into bread so he would have what he needed in the wildnerness; throwing himself down from the temple so that God's keeping him safe would prove Jesus' divinity; giving him the kingdoms of the world so he could control the world.

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.

When we forget God's goodness in his love for us being pure gift, we sin. We begin trying to prove to ourselves and others how valuable we are, often stepping on people along the way. Episcopal priest Allan Parrant has pointed out how, a number of years ago, there was a best-selling self-help manual entitled Success!, a book on how to make it in the business world. In the first chapter, the writer established norms for economics generally: "It's OK to be greedy. It's OK to look out for #1. It's OK to be Machiavellian if you can get away with it. It's OK to recognize that honesty is not always the best policy" because "morality has very little to do with success." ("The Distorted and the Natural" in Best Sermons, Vol. 4, pp. 149-150) This book was on our nation's best seller list for months - because we forget. We forget that, in God's goodness, we don't have to earn, we don't have to prove, our value doesn't lie in what we own or how much power we have. That being the case, we don't have to walk all over others to move ourselves ahead and prove our importance. But we forget.
When we forget God's goodness in forgiving our sins, we then sin by refusing to forgive others. Instead, as the 1928 prayer book stated, "We begin to trust in our own righteousness rather than in God's manifold and great mercies." Instead of understanding ourselves to be forgiven sinners we see ourselves as the righteous vs. the unrighteous, thus paving the way for lack of forgiveness, anger and retribution. We sin when we forget the goodness of God - when we are unsure of God's love for us and our value in his eyes.

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.

 

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2006 The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Buffalo, New York
Reprinted with permission