This is the season of Lent, and so it’s time again to talk about sin. Now before you collect your things and begin to make your way to the door, let me just say: I know you have been spoken to on this subject before. And I know you may feel that over a lifetime you’ve heard enough on this subject. But I’m sorry to report that sin hasn’t gone away, and so regrettably, here we are to talk about it again.

I have to admit that it isn’t easy to convince you that despite all the personal achievement, comfort, and general good will gathered here this morning, that you are fallen, sinful, and in need of salvation. After all, at least you’re here at church. Think of all those lazy souls lounging at home reading their Sunday newspapers. What about them? Nevertheless, we have some things we need to discuss.

It is striking how much the whole notion of sin has dropped out of the language of our culture. For centuries, up even until a few decades ago, sin was at the center of most religious talk as well as much of the language of society. Now you almost never encounter the word, except maybe on a dessert menu attached to the word chocolate. A few years ago a provocative editorial in the Wall Street Journal began by asking, “When was the last time you had a good conversation about sin?” It went on to recount the moral crises appearing daily on our televisions, corruption at every level of government, the problems of children born out of wedlock, and a culture addicted to just about anything you can name. And then it said this:

Sin isn’t something that many people, including most churches, have spent much time talking or worrying about through the years of the [cultural and sexual] revolutions. But we will say this for sin; it at least offered a frame of reference for personal behavior. When the frame was dismantled, guilt wasn’t the only thing that fell away; we also lost the guidewire of personal responsibility… Ministers gave way (voluntarily) to clinics and counselors. Instead of giving your kid [a firm lecture about morality] you now [talk about safe sex].

I remember some years ago meeting with a group of parishioners and discussing the words of confession we pray on Ash Wednesday:

We confess … the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives…
… our blindness to human need and suffering…
… our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us…
… our waste and pollution of your creation…

After we read through the confession and began talking about it, one person in the room blurted out, “I don’t get it. All this seems to be doing is trying to make us feel guilty. Can’t you see that we’re ordinary, decent people, working for a living, raising kids, going to a movie now and then. What’s so bad about that? Besides, I don’t really think I’m prejudiced. And tell me, when was the last time I polluted the creation? Don’t you think the church is getting a little carried away?” That led to a lively discussion about what we mean by sin, but I don’t think the man changed his mind.

There are reasons we preachers tread lightly when it comes to talking about sin. We know how many of you have been harmed in the past by a harsh use of this notion of sin. In fact theologian Roberta Bondi has described in a memoir the connection she sees between her own long-term depression and the church’s teaching about sin

The Christianity of my childhood offered me no way out of my unhappiness. Rather, with its emphasis on sin, on the thorough badness of people, and Jesus’ death for it, it gave me an explanation for why I ought to be depressed. Sin was what religion was about. If you had asked me in the fourth grade, ‘Why was Jesus born?’ I would have been glad to answer, “It was because of sin… .” If you had pushed me a little further to ask, ‘And what does it mean to repent?’ I would have said, ‘To feel really, really bad about what a sinful person you are.’

But today the church is asking us to acknowledge there is something wrong with our human condition, something rooted in every one of our hearts that is also bigger than all of us put together. It’s something that can be hard for us to see because it affects the way we look at everything. It makes its way into our most personal thoughts where it undermines our capacity to love and be generous. And it also infects the decisions of our most powerful governments and institutions.

This something wrong needs to be acknowledged and confessed. The church and its preachers have looked for softer, kinder words to talk about it, and so we call the problem brokenness, or sickness, or our tragic condition, all words that take the responsibility off of us. We call it everything but what the church says it is—sin. And sin can’t be cured, or fixed, or educated away; it runs too deep for that. It calls for a healing we ourselves can’t provide: it needs to be redeemed, reconciled, forgiven. It demands, to use the church’s old phrase, amendment of life.

This sin has a corporate as well as a personal dimension. We do need to look at the sin in our personal lives, but we also need to grasp how we participate in structures of sin in our world. No, that parishioner of mine didn’t personally set out to pollute the earth or damage his grandchildren’s future, but the car he drives that heats up the atmosphere, the food he eats that use fertilizers that pollute lakes and streams, and the massive deficits his grandchildren will face because he is part of a society that refuses to pay its bills all are doing grave damage. And the expanding gaps between the rich and poor in this country and around the world point to a worldwide economic system that is not mirroring the justice and compassion of the God who created the human race.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once declared that sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine. Just look around at our world. Without the concept of sin how do we account for greedy bankers who decimate an economy and throw millions out of work and their homes, how do we make sense of torture and genocide, of a Gaddaffi in Libya killing his people, or the actions of the Tucson killer? Much less dramatically, how do we account for the daily instances of dishonesty and backbiting in our lives, and the continuing alienation in our own families, among our friends? Something bigger than all of us well-meaning people is at work inside us and around us. And have you noticed that it can often be those closest to us, some even in our own home, who point out our moments of selfishness or challenge our pure motivations?

But how did we get here? The Old Testament lesson tells the mythological story of our origins. The deepest roots of the human saga begin in an original goodness, with a generous and loving creator giving those first human beings Adam and Eve lives of peace and harmony as well as responsibility. They are charged with caring for the garden. But the serpent comes on the scene and does one small, brilliant thing. It plants the seed of distrust of God in Adam and Eve. “Did God really say not to eat that fruit?” Go ahead, take a bite, the serpent is saying, God is just trying to keep you in your place because he’s afraid you might want to be like God. So Eve takes a bite, and then Adam, and then when they are caught they both start blaming each other. The whole world of trust in God and each other starts to unravel and before you know it suspicion, jealousy, and hatred are spreading, and within a few chapters in the Book of Genesis evil will overwhelm their sons.

The root cause of our sin is our fear, anxiety, our unease about our place in the world, our inability to trust. And so we go to work to seize and protect our place in the world and to secure ourselves by building careers, getting the things we want, promoting our own agendas, worrying about ourselves. The “I” becomes the center of the universe. It’s my life, my property, my nation, my religion, my race. It’s all about me. Sin in its essence is not a crime to be punished, but a wound of fear and vulnerability that needs to be healed, and the destructive things we do to heal it for ourselves. It’s not a technical foul but a degenerative disease that undermines who we were made to be.

Writer Kathleen Norris wrote an essay years ago called, “Sinner, Wretch, and Reprobate,” to try to reclaim the word “wretch” for talking about ourselves—an unusual undertaking. You know, the word wretch is in “Amazing Grace,” and some hymnals have apparently gotten rid of the word. Now it’s “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved someone like me.” Wretch, she says, originally meant someone who was lost or banished, was in exile and longing for home. She thinks we need the word:

Maybe there is someone who only thinks of good things in the middle of the night, who never lies awake regretting the selfish, nigh unforgivable, things that he or she has done. Maybe the unconscious of some people does tell them they are OK all the time. But, I wonder. I suspect that anyone who has not experienced wretchedness, exile, wandering, loss, misery, whether inwardly or in outward circumstance, has a superficial grasp of what it means to be human. [Thanks to John Buchanan of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago for sending me back to this essay.]

Today in our gospel Jesus goes into the wilderness for us—to face the same temptation that Adam and Eve did, to protect himself, to secure his own life, to push God away and make himself the center of the universe. Turn stones into bread, Satan says, cast yourself from the top of the temple, bow down and worship me and you can rule all the world. The seductions of evil haven’t changed much: cling to material things, we would say, put security above everything else, use power as your ticket to happiness.

To all these Jesus, says, No! In one stunning life of faithfulness to God, Jesus breaks the chain of sin and evil by clinging to his faith in God as he quotes scripture to Satan. The church to this day is called to follow him in the way of truth and faithfulness. And we, with his help, can say No to temptation. We too can quote scripture, cling to our tradition, and pray for the Spirit to help us fend off the seductive attraction of sin.

And when we get caught in the snares of sin—of thinking about our own interests above everything else, we can repent. Jesus in the wilderness gives us the resources to be honest. We can name what we are clinging to, what games we are playing, who we are hurting, who we are ignoring. And if we can be honest, say, for an hour here on Sunday, maybe we can be honest for the forty days of Lent. Maybe we can learn to be creatures again, to change some broken pieces of our lives, to see that we belong to each other and to God.

Back in the early, turbulent, war and depression-filled years of the 20th century, a London magazine asked an array of journalists and thinkers to respond to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” Quite a number of lengthy articles came back, but among them was the response from the curmudgeonly writer G.K. Chesterton. “What’s wrong with the world?” he wrote. “I am,” he wrote. I am.

You and I are part of the sin of the world. But Christ our Lord has shown us that we can say no, we can repent and turn, we can live God-filled lives. And in a few weeks we’ll watch him hang on a cross, to show us just how far God is willing to go to set us free and bring us home.