I have no doubt that this is a terrible way to start, but I’ll be direct: we need to think about sin and confession. This is the theme that runs through our assigned scripture readings. It shows up in Isaiah 1, in Psalm 32 and in Luke 19. If I was confident that none of us have ever done anything to harm someone else, or that our way of life didn’t benefit from harm done to others, or if none of us had ever tried to take God’s job as your own—if I was confident of that, I would turn to a new topic. But I’m doubtful, so my suggestion is that we listen once again to Isaiah. The book of Isaiah is a wonderfully lyrical and imagery-rich part of scripture. The first chapter is just so. Here are some of the lines from our reading. Starting with verse 11: “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” Now verse 13: “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. . . .” Verse 15: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” Verse 16: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” And finally, verse 18: “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow, though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
These are powerful words. Here’s how I’d summarize them in more pedestrian language: not even our best-intended, most pious offerings get it right; unless we seek justice our worship is a waste of time; even so, no cause is lost with God, God’s mercy will set things right. Isaiah wants to unsettle everyone within earshot.
As you might expect, this text has prompted me to think a lot about sin over this past week. Not specific ‘sins’, just sin as a general part of our lives. An image has accompanied many of these thoughts and I can’t get it out of my head. I remember an evening from my younger days, I might have been a teenager, and my friends and I were looking for a bit of fun. Someone had a huge bag of fireworks, smoke bombs and bottle rockets and roman candles. In the US regulations related to fireworks vary from state to state, so people that are really into them sometimes travel across state lines to buy their favorite. Then they hoard them until just the right moment.
Bored kids and a bag full of such fireworks are a potent combination. We found an empty field and started shooting these things off. This was fine for a time. But we realized that what would be even more fun would be shooting them at each other. So in orderly fashion we divided up and began shooting them back and forth.
I know you parents want me to say that something terrible happened. You want me to say that someone lost an eye or at least burnt their hair. Sadly for you, nothing like that happened. Now, let me be clear, our pyrotechnic experiments were not a good idea—but what I must confess is that it was beautiful. That’s the image I can’t get out of the head: shadowy figures lit up by showers of sparks, streaks of bright red light against the black silhouettes of towering locust trees. We laughed and whooped and ran in the night. It was a bad idea and dangerous, but all the same it was magnificent.
Shooting fireworks at your friends isn’t sin, it is life. You are born with gifts and responsibilities even desires—it’s your bag of fireworks—and you can’t not light them. You have to do something with what you’ve been given.
Scripture can get pretty specific about sins, yet at a general level sin is just failing to love God with all of ourselves or failing to love our neighbour as ourselves. Sin is a loss in that wonderful balance of love that is both vertical and horizontal, love that orients us to the infinite God, to our neighbours and to ourselves. At our best our fireworks—the stuff we do—create flashes of beauty and illumination. We take turns with our friends, we whoop and celebrate each other’s triumphs and we wait in hope for what’s next.
There was a time when I think many in the church were tempted to think of the Christian idea of sin as outdated. Maybe we associated it with raving hell-fire-and-brimstone-preachers or maybe we thought of it as an idea celibate Christian priests invented to make sure nobody else had any fun either. I think those days are behind us.
Twenty-years ago or so some Mennonites held a theology consultation. The grizzled older fellows (they were mostly fellows) wanted to talk about how churches should get beyond being closed off to the outside world. The younger theologians in attendance were baffled. As the story goes, one of them turned to an elder statesmen and said, “Look, engaging the wider world might have been the challenge of your generation, but we grew up listening to the Sex Pistols. We’re coming from different places.”
It is probably true that revivalists in the mid-twentieth century had too much to say about the evils of sex or alcohol or, I don’t know, TV, the radio the length of a skirt. That list of odd obsessions could go on. Yet a generous Christian orthodoxy is a durable thing. It is attune to the human condition, if not to the needs of a particular age. Maybe there were a few decades when we needed to take a break from our obsession with talking about sin. However, in wider terms we need language for the weight we carry and for our sense that lines do get crossed.
The truth is, sometimes we take those roman candles and we shoot them at each other with intent to wound. Who among us isn’t tempted by greed? Who among us isn’t tempted to quarrel or critique just for the sake of feeling superior? Who among us isn’t tempted to use religious practice to hide the fact that we couldn’t care less about the poor?
Our Isaiah reading began with a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. You might be wondering about that. Ezekiel 16:49 says the sin of Sodom was that the city had an “excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” These things catch up with us. The poet of Psalm 32 writes that his strength dried up and his body felt as though it was wasting away. That is until, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.” Why would we not follow the poet’s example? Why not make confession a regular part of our spiritual lives?
Not long ago, our congregation heard from a visiting university president. One of the anecdotes she shared related to how overwhelmed many students are with a sense of anxiety and guilt. It’s as though they’re carrying a weight. Some of them even have a hard time completing their studies. Maybe they feel like the poet of Psalm 32, with their strength dried up. The sense of guilt that these sensitive young people carry has a specific source, according to this university president. It comes from knowing how Canada’s non-Indigenous communities have wronged the First Nations. We wronged them and profited from it.
Now, it’s true that these students were not alive when all this began. That means we could argue that they have no stake in the situation and that they should just let it go. We could argue that, but our hearts know better. They know that sin isn’t just an individual thing, it is a cultural and systemic thing. The system has been rigged—in favour of some. Maybe the student has realized that her privilege has come at the expense of some else’s basic dignity. Maybe we’ve shown up and found more sparklers in our bag than others have. The problem is that this inequality may well have come from dishonest means and it may mean that others don’t have the basics.
“Seek justice,” God says through Isaiah, “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
It’s significant that Isaiah says to seek justice. Justice doesn’t seem to be something we can get right once and for all. Justice as human creatures know it is not a thing of the past or of the future. It is a thing we seek in the present. We seek it again and again. And in this seeking we confess that we have previously fallen short: we have profited from injustice.
Indulge me for a moment, if you would, as I quote a political philosopher named William Connolly. Here’s what he says: “It is extremely probable that all of us today are unattuned to some modes of suffering and exclusion that will have become ethically important tomorrow as a political movement carries them across the threshold of cultural attentiveness and institutional redefinition (68).” I know that one sentence is full of the usual academic stammering. It lacks the lyricism of Isaiah. Nevertheless, it is unsettling in a similar way. What Connolly is getting at is this: the next generation will look back on our most settled righteousness and see violence, they will find our goals hard to fathom, they will see how we’ve walked all over other people and they will see we failed to love others as ourselves. Zacchaeus did his best to atone for his fraud but his descendants would surely point out that collecting taxes for Caesar only enabled the terrible Roman war machine, even if he defrauded no one.
We can’t write a program for achieving justice because we don’t know all the variables. But here’s what we can do: we can seek it. We can remain open to the promptings of the Spirit, we can chew daily of the biblical text, we can assume—yes assume—that we will need to confess our shortcomings.
“’I confessed my transgression to the LORD,’” writes the psalmist. “And you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
In our time, more than a decade into this century, we need the language of sin and reconciliation. Scripture speaks of sin as a weight, a stain and a debt. Try as we might to ignore those things, they don’t go away. Maybe we don’t sense it in relationship to our Indigenous neighbours as do those students. Maybe we sense it in our personal lives, in our propensity to anger or envy. Or maybe we sense it with in relationship to our ecological situation. We’ve lite fuses, fired flairs and damaged things we didn’t know existed. We sense we’ve crossed a line, as individuals, as a culture. We’re anxious and regretful.
“Seek justice,” scripture tells us. We can confess our transgressions and God—the one to whom the whole earth and all its creatures belong—will forgive us. That’s knowing how to get right never getting it right. That’s living in the reign of God. That’s justice and mercy.
I still can’t shake the image of those fireworks in the night. Maybe it’s because in such a scene the danger and adventure of life are packed indistinguishably together. Maybe it’s because such a scene is just so pregnant with disaster and beauty. Or maybe it’s because of the rush of instantaneous decisions against the unfolding biographies of those boys.
The truth is, each of our lives is a braided fuse, a flash, a streak of fire and magnesium-tinged light. We draw breath, flame touches black powder and there’s no turning back. Sin is the word we use for things going wrong, whether through our deliberation or our passivity. Confession is the word we use for honesty in anticipation of God’s mercy. Grace is the word we use for the spiritual air such flames burn.