The pastors of many Christian churches rely on the Revised Common Lectionary to provide them with the biblical texts from which to preach each week.
The lectionary offers a three-year cycle that tries to cover much of what is in the Christian Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. It misses some things and has other drawbacks, but one of the good ideas behind it is preventing pastors from preaching on nothing but their favorite texts over and over.
By contrast, in recent years the pastors of my Presbyterian congregation have chosen not to use the lectionary but, rather, to create a series of sermons on particular themes over several weeks. The most recently completed series offered three sermons on the question of what sin is and how we are to understand it in our time and place. Our transitional pastor, Jared Witt, did the first two sermons and then asked me to do the final one. Here are links to No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3.
Ideas about what constitutes sin have changed over the years, though at base those ideas seem always to have included the notion that anything we do that violates the standards God wants us to maintain can be called a sin. Similarly, anything we fail to do that violates God's standards for what we should do can be called a sin. Call them sins of both commission and omission.
Those rudimentary definitions, however, seem to focus most intently on the actions or inactions of individuals. What about our collective actions and inactions that result in profound harm to other people? What about the economic, racial, social and other systems we create that dehumanize people or prevent them from flourishing? Aren't those also sins and shouldn't we call them that?
Because humans are political animals, we create laws through our political systems to prevent people from behaving in ways that do obvious -- and sometimes permanent -- damage to others. Thus, murder, rape and theft are crimes. But sometimes our laws don't address the collective or societal actions (racism, unfair tax laws and more) that can be just as damaging, if not more so.
If, for instance, we Americans generally say we believe in the concept of each adult American having an equal vote to elect our representatives, how do we justify a system in which Vermont (population 645,570 in 2021) has exactly as many U.S. senators as California (population 39.24 million in 2021)? Should we consider it a sin to allow the vote of one Vermonter to be equal to the vote of 61 Californians?
Doesn't that demean and even dehumanize California voters?
My point is that ideas about sin should not be limited to individual actions. When we adopt that limited approach, it's easy for religious traditions to use sin as a tool of fear about one's eternal destiny. But when we also take into consideration societal actions and systems that oppress people in various ways, we should be driven to seek broader answers to fix what's broken and oppressive.
Some people try to avoid committing sins for fear of spending eternity in some kind of relentlessly burning hell. But our societal sins -- whether political, economic or something else -- can create a kind of hell on Earth right now. I'm thinking we should take that at least as seriously as we take individual sins.
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WHEN A RABBI WAS ALMOST SPEECHLESS
Rosh Hashanah began at sundown Friday, ushering in the Hebrew new year of 5784. Each year rabbis are obliged to prepare sermons for these high holy days, but for Rosh Hashanah in 1963, right after four Ku Klux Klansmen had dynamited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a rabbi there had no sermon ready and had to wing it. This RNS column by Mark Silk describes what happened, and it's worth a read.