Some of you have probably seen the film Hidden Figures. It was released in the early part of last year. The film takes us into the story of African American women working for NASA in the middle part of the last century. As movies often do, Hidden Figures simplifies the history a little. But it does so in order to tell the story of three really smart women: Katherine Johnson, a ‘computer’ before that term referred to a machine; Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan, a department supervisor.
These women excelled in one of the most sophisticated fields of work in the world. They did so while facing the challenge of segregation. At one point in her career Katherine Johnson, the computer, had to eat, work and use the bathroom in facilities designated for black folks. Yet, the film tells us, she was the one who John Glenn trusted to double check the work of the new machine computers before he was launched into orbit. In the early days of her career Mary Jackson was probably the only black woman in the country employed as an aeronautical engineer.
These women needed to be smart. They also needed grit and persistence. They needed to be heroic. However, what I want to ask us to think about here is not the virtues of remarkable people like these. What I want us to think about is this question: Why did these women need to be especially courageous? Why would smart women like Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan need to be so heroic? Why is it that they would have otherwise been kept from work for which they were so well fitted?
I recognize that this is not a particularly uplifting topic. I recognize too that there are many ways to respond to a question like this. We could look to social explanations or psychological explanations. History would tell us a lot too. Here, though, we want to consider this question in light of our scriptural readings (John 3:14-21 and Eph. 2:1-10). What do the scriptures have to say about the fact that we human creatures so often end up at cross-purposes with each other? Why is it that good things, things like science, exploration and work, so often show us the worst side of human beings?
This question pushes us toward the two passages assigned to us by the lectionary. Both our gospel reading (from John 3) and our New Testament reading (from Ephesians 2) include this sparkling little word: “saved.” Let’s explore that word.
Here is verse 17 from John: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved though him.” Here is the verse from Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Maybe we could change our question just a bit, from why did the women of Hidden Figures face so many obstacles, to something like this: What is it that we (individually and collectively) need to be saved from? After all if someone sent you an e-mail saying “You’re pretty lucky. I saved you yesterday.” You would probably have a few questions: Who the heck are you? What was I saved from? And when are you going to ask me for money?
So, let’s think about it. What is it that we need to be save from?
In a recent essay a New Testament professor from the University of Toronto, her name is Ann Jervis, implicitly placed this same question in the context of the #metoo movement. What is it that scripture says about the being human that could account for the necessity of such a movement?
Jervis says that the #metoo movement is a “muted triumph.” What she means is this. In this movement we are obviously witnessing great acts of courage as women speak out. And it is deeply important that abusive and violent men are held accountable. That is the triumph part. Yet each one of the stories we hear is a story of harm and a story of pain. They remind us that people have and continue to suffer all around us. So what is it, Jervis asks, that we can say about being human that might capture this fact. Why are so many women in so many contexts—in media, government, academia, and even the church—subject to this sort of assault and harassment?
What is it that scripture says we need to be saved from?
We should recognize that there was a time in the theological conversations in Europe and North America when many leading voices were reluctant to speak directly about what it is we are saved from. This was about a century or a century and a half ago. At that time many thinkers suggested that what the scriptures have to say about this topic was outdated. They thought it spoke to an ancient preoccupation with guilt, not to the human condition across time. And so many Christian preaches and teachers talked about the faith only in terms of what it says about our highest goals, our most virtuous desires, our private musings on transcendence. They said that what the faith was about was little more than the fact that God loved everyone and everyone was a part of the same family, the “fatherhood of God and brotherhood of mankind” in the gendered language of the time.
Then came the World Wars. And with them a return to some of the key knots that hold the web of the faith together. The fact that sophisticated modern people to unleash such horror on each other made theologians look again at classic teachings, like the idea that we need to be saved from something.
Here is how our scriptural passages today name that from which we are saved. In the Ephesians passage we read about being “dead,” being caught in “trespasses and sin,” about “following the ruler of the power of the air,” about being “children of wrath,” and about being tied to the “desires of the flesh.” The desires of the flesh are not simply bodily desires, they are the desires of our shadow side or our lower nature. In the John passage we read about “perishing,” about facing “condemnation,” about deeds that are “evil” and hidden in secrecy.
Now, please stick with me. We all know that this sort of language has been used by people in the church in harmful ways. These words have been used by some of us as a form of power and self-assertion. These words have been used to do psychological harm. We must be careful.
Even so, there is the power of death at work around us. There are the secret things.
The New Testament scholar I referred to earlier, Ann Jervis, sums all the words that describe what we are saved from into one word. She capitalizes it. The word is “Sin.” Jervis is a scholar of the writings of Paul. She capitalizes the word “Sin” because in the world of the Bible Sin isn’t just a label for destructive things we might do, it is also a description of a force.
In Romans 3, in I Corinthians 15, in Galatians 3 we read about the “power of sin.” In some other passages the “power of death” is used similarly. That phrase from Ephesians, “rulers of the powers of the air” has a similar meaning. They all indicate the fact that there are forces that impinge on our lives beyond rationale choices. There is a current to the social world. It pulls us and pushes us.
Ann Jervis summarizes what scripture says about Sin by saying that “Sin targets everything good about God’s creation.” She describes Sin’s project as “the destruction of God’s good gifts in order to divide people from each other and from themselves.” We could say that in the biblical imagination the end game of sin is division. Sin’s goal is rupture between individuals, between people and their Creator, between people and the natural world, and even rupture within ourselves.
When we are harassed at work, we are feeling the effects of Sin. When our desire for profit or a good time comes at the expense of healthy ecosystems, we are feeling the effects of Sin. When we feel as though knowing and being known by God is too much to ask for, we are feeling the effects of Sin.
When the character of some of our relationships needs to be hidden, we should be wary. When we feel our desires are so important that others must suffer, we should be wary. When any of us get the sense that we are not made in God’s image—we should be wary. We are being pulled along by the power of Sin.
Some of you from my generation might remember the indie rock band Pedro the Lion. Not long ago the front-man for this group was interviewed on NPR. He talked about his efforts to re-launch the band. He also talked about becoming a father and the erosion of his faith.
The centre of the challenge for him was the opening chapters of Genesis. It sounded like he felt he needed to choose between a sort of literalistic reading of these chapters and giving up on them altogether. At the same time as he we thinking all this through his daughter was born. Looking at this new little girl he simply could no longer take the universality of sin seriously. How could this little girl already be subject to Sin’s power?
I don’t really want to argue with this guy. I appreciate his openness. But if he had asked me (as many rock stars do) I would have said that at the core of what the scriptures say about being human is the simple conviction that the power of Sin is impossible to avoid. This is why we teach. This is why our organizations require good governance and clear accountability. This is why we must listen to the stories of victims and the marginalized. We know that people do each other harm.
We know that all of us are not only victims of Sin’s power, but we are its agents as well. We try to hide this fact. We signal our virtue with bumper stickers and party affiliations. We ‘like’ things online. We bicker with someone in a forum so others can see we are on the ‘right’ side. We engage in slacktivism. We join the NDP; we oppose the NDP. We offer “thoughts and prayers” or shame “thoughts and prayers.” And all this not so much because the substance matters, but because we want to signal our virtue. We want to show that Sin’s got those other idiots but not us. Of course we’d never use that word—Sin.
Nevertheless, hopeful as we might be, we know that talent is often ridden down by prejudice; the trusted frequently prove duplicitous; what is good is regularly broken; what is joyful made painful; what is freely-chosen can become enslaving; what is beautiful is made ugly. Life is overrun by death. It happens again and again. It’s reflected in the mirror, even the mirrors of the rich and the educated.
This is an old story. And, I think, a true story. I invite you to debate this on the way home this afternoon. Ask someone else what they think. How might reclaiming the language of Sin help us and our neighbours flourish? How might it impact our spiritual practice? What are the risks in using such a potent word?
Alas—I can’t end just yet. I can’t end because sin, death, trespass, and evil are not the most powerful words in these biblical passages. The most powerful words are these: “for God so loved”—John 3. “For by grace you have been saved”—that’s Ephesians 2. Both point to the same thing: The crux of the story we Christians tell is that the power of Sin, though it is very real, has been broken. We can bring the harmful stuff into the light. We can name it for what it is. We need not submit to it.
The very power that breaks relationships and distorts the good—that current is itself doomed. We have seen how it withers and shrinks when brought into the light. As we read in Ephesians, being saved from the power of Sin means we are liberated to do the good things for which we were created. That is noble and sweet.
This is a Sunday in the season of Lent. Each of these Sundays is supposed to be a mini-Easter. We can walk in Easter’s light today. We can let our weary bones be warmed by the light that shifts the deep currents of our world. The divine light. The light that is not overcome by the darkness.