“Sin” – The Rev. Eva Cameron

(Opening Words, #633 in our Hymnal)

This past week, we entered the holy month of Ramadan, for those who follow Islam. It is hard for many of us to understand why anyone would want to fast for a month, and just exactly why someone would do this (except they’ve been told to do so, and told to do so by someone who carries a big spiritual stick in their hands). But I think it is more complicated than that. I think from my conversations with Muslim people I know, that Ramadan can be a very meaningful time—a special time, set aside from the rest of the year. There is a Hadith (a teaching from the oral tradition) that tells us that the Prophet said: “Whoever fasts during Ramadan with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven. Whoever prays during the nights in Ramadan with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven. And he who passes Lailat al-Qadr in prayer with faith and seeking his reward from Allah will have his past sins forgiven.”

From this we learn, that in this holy month, people are seeking reconciliation. They are remembering their sins, and seeking forgiveness.

At the same time, at least this year, Jews have a series of holy days and festivals, which seem to come one right after the other. First there is Rosh Hashanah, the ceremonial New Year. Then comes Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement, followed by Sukkot, the holiday we celebrated on Friday (which is a fun harvest festival of reconnection with nature.) And then after all that, since the Torah scroll has reached its end, there is need to re-roll it back to the beginning in the temple or synagogue —this is another fun holiday called Simchat Torah. The whole time is a time of starting over fresh with the New Year, a fresh clean house, a fresh perspective and fresh relationships.

Well, we are in the middle of all that right now—and of all of that month of Jewish holidays, the one I think is most significant is Yom Kippur. This is the time of reflection on the past year, an accounting of sins, and making amends as best you can. So I thought today I would focus my thoughts on SIN.

Now I picked Sin because I think that it’s a hard topic for UUs to talk about. Many of us have a poor relationship with concept of sin, and are gun shy when the word gets uttered. “What’s coming next,” we think, “hellfire and brimstone?” “Eternal damnation?” “The devil lurking in every corner?” I say this jestfully, yet I know that these concepts have inflicted some serious pain on some people’s souls.

But it is hard to talk about Atonement, about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation, without talking about sin. I want to make three points today about sin:

1) Hell and sin are not synonymous. Just because you/we don’t believe in eternal damnation doesn’t mean we have to throw away the concept of sin.

2) Sin is a useful concept, because it helps us remember that we are living as entities embedded in the interdependent web of all existence.

3) When we ignore the fact that we are capable of sinning, of taking actions that are detrimental to something greater than ourselves, then we lose to ability to come to atonement, at-one-ment.

First of all, let’s just get it out on the table. How many of you here, due to your upbringing, think of hell as soon as I say the world ‘sin’? We are not stupid, not a person here. We know factually that hell and sin are not synonymous. But living in the society we live in, living often in the face of a religion that used hell as a VERY BIG STICK to enforce norms of behavior, have served to glue these two concepts together—like Siamese twins, when one enters the room, the other is just forced to be there.

Our foremothers and forefathers on the Universalist side threw out the concept of hell long ago. And I’d bet, to the person, there isn’t anyone here that finds eternal damnation a workable theological concept. And with that rejection of hell, we often just stop talking about sin. For, isn’t sin something that by definition is something you do that gets you into hell?

Well, maybe that’s the way your Sunday School teachers may have presented it—but no, it’s not really. A Bible scholar once told me that if you looked at the word for ‘sin’ in the New Testament that it was actually a Greek archery term, a term that means ‘missing the mark.’ Imagine holding a bow and arrow in your hands, you take aim, and the arrow falls short—you miss your mark, your aim.

We all do this from time to time. And it is part of being human. It becomes a religious term, because it speaks to the sacred connection between one human being and another, a human and the Universe, between us and anything else.

We have aims about how we want to treat others, but we sometimes fall short. This is sin. Just because you/we don’t believe in eternal damnation doesn’t mean we have to throw away the concept of sin.

2) And that brings us to Point #2. Sin is a useful concept, because it helps us remember that we are living as entities embedded in the interdependent web of all existence.

Let’s take a look at the classical sins of Christianity. From a satirical website called 7 Deadly Sins comes these descriptions of these most famous of sins.

First there is Pride.
What it is: Pride is excessive belief in one’s own abilities that interfere with the individual’s recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is also known as Vanity. Why you do it: Well-meaning elementary school teachers told you to “believe in yourself.”

Envy
What it is: Envy is the desire for others’ traits, status, abilities, or situation. Why you do it: Because other people are so much luckier, smarter, more attractive, and better than you.

Gluttony
What it is: Gluttony is an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires. Why you do it: Because you were weaned improperly as an infant.

Lust
What it is: Lust is an inordinate craving for the pleasures of the body. Why you do it: Oh, please.

Anger
What it is: Anger is manifested in the individual who spurns love and opts instead for fury. It is also known as Wrath. Why you do it: You’re wired for it. Also, the people around you are pretty damn irritating.

Greed
What it is: Greed is the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual. It is also called Avarice or Covetousness.
Why you do it: You live in possibly the most pampered, consumerist society since the Roman Empire.

Sloth
What it is: Sloth is the avoidance of physical or spiritual work.
Why you do it: You’re shiftless, lazy, and good fer nuthin’.

Although these are tongue-in-cheek, I think you can see that these are things that affect our relationship with the divine. So where did these 7 Deadly Sins come from?

According to Sacred Origins of Profound Things, by Charles Panati, Greek monastic theologian Evagrius of Pontus first drew up a list of eight offenses and wicked human passions. They were, in order of increasing seriousness: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, aecidia, vainglory, and pride. Evagrius saw the escalating severity as representing increasing fixation with the self, with pride as the most egregious of the sins. Aecidia (from the Greek meaning “not to care”) denoted “spiritual sloth.”

In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great reduced the list to seven items, folding vainglory into pride, aecidia into sadness, and adding envy. His ranking of the Sins’ seriousness was based on the degree from which they offended against love. It was, from most serious to least: pride, envy, anger, sadness, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Later theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, would contradict the notion that the seriousness of the sins could be ranked in this way. The term “covetousness” has historically been used interchangeably with “avarice” in accounts of the Deadly Sins. In the 17th century, the Church replaced the vague sin of “sadness” with sloth.

So, why were they called ‘Deadly’? The church made a division between sins that were venial and could be forgiven without the need for the sacrament of Confession, and those which were capital and merited damnation. Capital or Deadly Sins were so called because they could have a fatal effect on an individual’s spiritual health. Take note here—doing these things can kill your spiritual health, is the theory. See, you still don’t have to believe in hell to explore the concept of the Deadly Sins.

What I find particularly interesting is that the original list was created with a focus on the fixation on self, and then later it was shifted to an offense against love. I find both of these concepts, a fixation of self and an offense against love to be ones that I can gain meaning from.

In searching for information about sin this week, I was surprised to see an echo from last week’s service. Apparently, Gandhi (who’s birth we celebrated last week), created a list of his Seven Deadly sins. He considered these traits to be the most spiritually perilous to humanity.
∑ Wealth without Work;
∑ Pleasure without Conscience;
∑ Science without Humanity;
∑ Knowledge without Character;
∑ Politics without Principle;
∑ Commerce without Morality;
∑ Worship without Sacrifice.

Seeking to be spiritually healthy, and avoiding these sins, encouraging others to avoid these sins, he was able to make great change in the world.

Another person who was highly motivated by a strong concept of sin was Martin Luther King Jr. Howard Thurman, (from With Head and Heart) noted this in his remarks on the occasion of ML King’s death. He said, “Always he spoke from within the context of his religious experience, giving voice to an ethical insight which sprang out of his profound brooding over the meaning of his Judeo-Christian heritage. And this indeed is his great contribution to our times. He was able to put at the center of his own personal religious experience a searching ethical awareness. Thus, organized religion as we know it in our society, found itself with its back against the wall. To condemn him, to reject him, was to reject the ethical insight of the faith it proclaimed. And this was new. Racial prejudice, segregation, discrimination were not regarded by him as merely un-American, undemocratic, but as mortal sin against God.”

I urge you to think about this. As a religious person, as someone who cares enough about the world and others to come to here, as you search your own religious understandings, what ethics come to be demanded? What are mortal sins against God, or the inter-dependant web that embraces us all?

I was reading on a website about the seven deadly sins, a page that was devoted to people’s entries about what might be considered for nominees for a new deadly sin. Although sometimes tongue and cheek, I think this line of thought does help us to see what people think about our modern society. The entries include:

Despair, Deception, Watching TV, Whininess, Exploitation, Shamelessness, Speed, Falsehood, Pusillanimity (cowardice), Tolerance, Addiction, Self-centeredness, Limiting the capacity and possibilities of the human mind, Seeking always familiarity, Humanity, Harassment, Guilt, Hypocrisy, Racism, Manipulation, Jealousy/paranoia, Euphoria, Self-righteousness, Road rage, Intolerance, Willful Stupidity, Power, Fear, Pigotry, with the commentary:

“The choosing of friends and lovers based on secret analyses of their stock portfolios, penis and/or breast size, and their vulnerability to psychological manipulation. The white-trash version of Pigotry features cross-referencing of checking accounts, number and quality of intact permanent teeth, and addiction to simple flattery.” And there is the entry of Over-population, which reads: “Sometimes I have a vision of Jesus as the Christ returning to the planet. He sees humankind standing shoulder to shoulder across the land yelling ‘Hosanna’! He inquires to the Archangel on his left, “Where are my animals, my fields of grain, my forests?” “Gone,” replies the archangel, “They were fruitful and multiplied!” “Don’t these people know when enough is enough?” asks the Christ. “It was the only commandment they ever paid any attention to.”

3) When we ignore the fact that we are capable of sinning, of taking actions that are detrimental to something greater than ourselves, then we lose to ability to come to atonement, at-one-ment. As I said, I don’t think you need to believe in hell for sin to be a meaningful concept. I don’t even think you need to believe in God for sin to be a useful concept. I believe that all of us know that there is a network of mutuality that is kind and giving that allows us to live on this planet. We cannot exist as isolated beings in total individualism. And my nominee for the New Deadly Sin is the idea of the progress of the individual to the exclusion of all around you—other people, society, other animals, plants, the ecosystem—all have taken a backseat to the ‘me-centered’ culture.

And from this was born the SUV for around-town driving. From this sin, the “lunch pail” gave way to individually packaged processed foods all sealed in more plastic—termed a ‘lunchable.’ From this has stemmed the practice of using abortion as a form a birth control, which has done vast detriment to those of us who would like to see abortion be a viable, possible, legal option for mistakes and rapes. And many, many threads of so-called normal life that are very damaging to life, and our spiritual health. I would call this paying attention to God. But if you don’t like this language, call it paying attention to something, someone outside of yourself.

Buddhism begins with the question, “Why is there suffering?” and answers that question with the idea that suffering is a part of what it means to be human. It is natural to get trapped into many things that cause suffering. The real question is, can you learn new ways that cause you to re-act differently to the way things happen?

The Hindu sacred book, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, helps us understand this. It says, “Those who realize the Self [and this Self is capitalized, and means the universal self that is at the core of all that is] enter into the peace that brings complete self-control and perfect patience. They see themselves in everyone and everyone in themselves. Evil cannot overcome them because they overcome all evil. Sin cannot consume them because they consume all sin. Free from evil, free from sin and doubt, they live in the kingdom of Brahman. Your majesty, this kingdom is yours!”

Knowledge of this Capital-letter Self is difficult, because it is so hard to see yourself in everyone, truly. Now I know you’ve heard of the Golden Rule, but have you heard of the Platinum Rule? Well, someone told me about this a couple years ago, and I really liked it. Instead of “Do unto others as you would have then do unto you,” or “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” the Platinum Rule asks that you treat others as they would like to be treated. Think about it, if someone is giving you a hotdog to eat, you’d rather they’d put on it what you’d like to have on it, rather than just putting catsup, onion, and pickles on it because that is what they like.

This Platinum Rule is a good rule for living in a global society. It asks us to recognize that our norms and preferences may not be everyone’s norms and preferences. It asks of us a stretching of the soul, to imagine that even if you are doing everything the way you think it ‘ought to be done’ you may still be offending someone.

Atonement, coming together as one, as a diverse community here in the US, as a global society, as a people at harmony with this planet, is hard. It asks us to wrestle with this bear of the Platinum Rule. It’s not easy, when you are busy rushing about, trying to get things done, to think about others (even to think about them as to how you would like to be treated). And it’s even more challenging to think about how they’d like to be treated. We can and should try. But we also have no chance of succeeding 100% of the time. As the man on the street corner of Chicago used to shout at me: “We are all sinners.” We all do miss the mark sometimes. Our hopes and dreams and vision of how to live at peace with each other and the planet don’t always live up to reality.

And what the world’s religions tell us is that this is natural. But what is also natural is to find ways to wipe the slate clean, to start fresh, to reach out in spite of the brokenness and imperfections of life for what is good and lasting and true. On this occasion of Yom Kipper, and of Ramadan, of it being the incredible gift of another day in your life, take the time to do what you can to say, “I’m sorry” and to say, “I forgive you.”

I want to close today with this story that is told by John Catenacci:

“‘Grandpa, please come,’” I said, knowing he wouldn’t. In the pale light that filtered through the dusty kitchen window, he sat stiffly in his padded vinyl chair, his thick arms resting on the Formica table, staring past me at the wall. He was a gruff, crusty, old-country Italian, with a long memory for past hurts both real and imagined. When he was feeling testy, he responded with a grunt. He gave me one now that meant no.

“‘Come on, Gramps,’” pleaded my six-year-old sister, Carrie. ‘I want you to come.’ Twenty-one years younger than me, she had been a startlingly late addition to our family. ‘I’m going to make your favorite cookies just for you. Mommy said she would show me.’ ‘It’s for Thanksgiving, for God’s sake,’ I said. ‘You haven’t joined us for dinner for four years now. Don’t you think it’s about time we let the past be?’

“He glanced at me, his blue eyes flashing the same fierce intensity that had intimidated the entire family all these years. Except me. Somehow, I knew him. Perhaps I shared more of his loneliness than I cared to admit, and the same inability to let emotions show. Whatever the reason, I knew what was inside him.

“‘The sins of the fathers will be visited on their sons,’ it was written, and so they were. How much suffering occurs because of the unfortunate ‘gift’ each male receives before he is old enough to decide if he wants it, this misguided idea of manhood. We end up hard on the outside, helpless on the inside, and the few feet that separated me from my grandfather might just as well have been measured in light years.

“Carrie chattered on, still trying to convince him. She had no idea how hopeless it was. I got up and walked to the window overlooking his backyard. In the winter light, the disheveled garden was a delicate gray, overgrown with tangled weeds, and vines gone wild. Grandpa used to work miracles there—a substitute, perhaps, for his inability to orchestrate his own nature. But after Grandma died, he let the garden go, retreating even further into himself.

“Turning away from the window, I studied him in the deepening gloom. From his prominent chin to his thick, rough hands, everything about him reflected the relentless discipline his life had been: work since age 13, the humiliation of unemployment during the Depression, decades of hard manual labor in the Trenton Stone Quarry. Not an easy life. I kissed him on the cheek. ‘We have to go now, Grandpa. I’ll pick you up if you decide to come.’

“He sat stone-still, staring straight ahead, sucking on his old pipe.
A few days later, Carrie asked me for Grandpa’s address. ‘What for?’ I asked. She was neatly folding a sheet of paper to fit into a blue envelope. ‘I want to send him a gift. I made it myself.’

“I told her the address, pausing after each line so she could get it all down. She wrote slowly, concentrating on making each letter and number neat and round. When she finished, she put her pencil down and said firmly, ‘I want to mail it myself. Will you take me to the mailbox?’ ‘We’ll do it later, okay?’ ‘I need to do it now. Please?’

“So we did.

“On Thanksgiving I awoke late to the delicious smell of pasta sauce. Mom was preparing her special dinner of ravioli, turkey, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce, a wonderful amalgam of Italian and American traditions. ‘We need only four places, Carrie,’ she was saying as I entered the kitchen. Carrie shook her head. ‘No, Mommy, we need five. Gramps is going to come.’ ‘Oh, honey,’ Mom said. ‘He’s coming,’ my sister said flatly. ‘I know he is.’ ‘Carrie, give us a break. He isn’t coming and you know it,’
I said. I didn’t want to see her day spoiled by crushing disappointment.
‘John, let her be.’ Mom looked at Carrie. ‘Set an extra place then.’

“Dad came in from the living room. He stood in the doorway, hands in his pockets, looking at Carrie as she set the table. Finally we sat down to dinner. For a moment we were all silent. Then, glancing at Carrie, Mom said, “I guess we had better say grace now. Carrie?” My sister looked toward the door. Then she set her chin, bowed her head and mumbled, ‘Please bless us, O Lord, and the food we are about to eat. And bless Grandpa—and help him to hurry. Thank you, God.’ Shooting glances at each other, we sat in silence, no one willing to seal Grandpa’s absence and disappoint Carrie by eating. The clock ticked in the hallway. Suddenly there was a muffled knocking at the door. Carrie leapt to her feet and ran down the hallway. She tore open the door. ‘Gramps!’

“He stood straight in his black, shiny suit, the only one he owned, pressing a black fedora against his chest with one hand and dangling a brown paper bag with the other. ‘I bring squash,’ he said, holding up the bag. Several months later, Grandpa died quietly in his sleep. Cleaning out his dresser, I found a blue envelope, a folded piece of paper inside. It was a child’s drawing of our kitchen table with five chairs around it. One of the chairs was empty; the others occupied by faded stick figures labeled Mommy, Daddy, Johnny, and Carrie. Hearts were drawn on the four of us, each cracked jaggedly down the middle.”

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