missing the mark.

21 Feb

a sermon delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
on February 14, 2016


I’m not a fan of Valentine’s Day, so I’m going in a totally different direction this morning, inspired by this month’s ministry theme of “Good and Evil.” But perhaps the ideas are more connected than I originally thought. I leave that decision to you.

One of my most vivid memories is of excruciating guilt. I was around 9 years old, and had gotten into a fight with my best friend, Keisha. In my anger, I had intentionally vandalized the door of her home. When her parents returned home and saw the damage, they called my mother. I was, not surprisingly, afraid of the repercussions, afraid of the punishment I would endure, should my mother find out the truth. And so I lied. I said that it wasn’t me.

Wise as mothers often are, mine saw right through my lying. Knowing me to be quite pious for a child, she pulled out the family Bible and asked me to swear before God that I had not been the vandal. I collapsed in tears of guilt and shame. I knew I had sinned by committing the acts of vandalism. And I knew I had sinned by lying about it to my mother. I simply could not bear the guilt, the fear of how my soul would be damaged, if I tried to lie to God about it, too.

Growing up, my understanding of sin was pretty straightforward. It was a sin to disobey my parents, and it was a sin to break any of the 10 commandments (chief of which, as a child, was making sure to obey my parents).

As I grew older, the list of what was a sin grew longer. It was a sin if I cursed, a sin if I had sex before marriage, it was a sin if I was jealous of something my friends had, and on, and on. I was taught that each time I sinned, God was disappointed in me and I further separated myself from God. Since I wasn’t Catholic, and didn’t have the sacrament of confession to regularly wipe the slate clean, I instead found myself recommitting to God and Christ at regular alter calls, each time promising to be better. Hoping that my sins would not be so heavy that they would damn me to hell.

Not surprisingly, I gave up when I was in college. I could no longer believe in such a vengeful, mean-spirited God breathing down my neck, ready to abandon me to the fiery pits of hell for eternity for my transgressions. Transgressions which mostly felt like just being human. I realized that the concept of sin that I had grown up with used peoples’ fear of hell to control their behavior. I had not yet heard of the loving God that Universalists propose, who we heard about in our Moment for All Ages, from whom sin might temporarily separate us but with whose presence we will eventually be reunited. As is often the case with those of us who grow up in such rigid traditions, I threw out the baby with the bathwater.

When I entered seminary, I had to learn how to translate a whole lot of religious language that I had stopped using a decade before. I had to look through my own religious baggage and figure out which concepts still were useful to me at and which were not. I became excellent at translating. I can give you my Unitarian Universalist understanding of salvation, hell, prayer, God, redemption, atonement, evil, and so much more.

But at first glance, the concept of sin wasn’t something that I could easily translate. My former experiences got in the way. I found the concept both too small, in that it did not cover enough of the important stuff that I considered wrong, and too large in that it covered too much of the stuff that just felt like being human. As my colleague and mentor the Rev. Sharon Dittmar writes in her paper on this topic for the Ohio River Study Group group, traditional Protestant and Catholic “ideas about sin are literal (follow the Ten Commandments) and [they] notoriously skirt deeply concerning issues like domestic violence, child abuse and hate crimes.” This limited common theology has stuck around for years, because, as she says, “people like their truths easy” – easy enough to be explained with a checklist.

I am not alone in having difficult baggage around the concept of sin. Speaking with a number of my UU colleagues, some who were raised UU pointed out that that they were raised without a belief in sin, and that this did not match their experience of the themselves or of the world. They struggled with the disconnect between the world in harmony they were learning about in their religious education classes and the world in conflict that they experienced. My colleague, the Rev. Christian Schmidt, shares that “Telling people that they are sinful when they aren’t, what fundamentalists sometimes do, is harmful. But telling people they are sinless when they aren’t, the liberal heresy, is also harmful.”

missedbullseyeThe struggle with the concept of sin is not confined to Unitarian Universalists. Not even close! In fact, the translators of the original Hebrew and Christian scriptures must have had a tough time themselves! When we look at the original texts, there is not just one word being translated as sin, but several! In the Hebrew scriptures, 6 different nouns and 3 verbs are all translated as “sin,” as well as several different Greek nouns, verbs and adjectives. The original wordings range from going against God, to doing something which makes us feel guilty. They may mean to go astray, or to do something deserving of punishment. One of the most common Greek words, from which I took the title of this service, simply means “to miss the mark”, which is an archery term that means not hitting the bullseye of the target. You still hit the target, but just not the center.

For hundreds of years, progressive theologians have been redefining the concept of sin. After the Civil War, both Unitarian and Universalist theologians understood sin to be a violation of moral law. Rather than a checklist, it could be understood as anything that violated the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto do”. Building on this, at the beginning of the 20th century Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbsuch wrote that classical theology had neglected the social aspect of sin. He understood that while human beings sin against God, at the same time, we sin against fellow human beings because we are all connected to one another. His definition was that sin is essentially selfishness.

Reinhold Niebuhr, in the mid 20th century, stated that sin is “the consequence of man’s [sic] inclination to usurp the prerogatives of God, to think more highly of himself than he ought to.”

My Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues had a wonderful conversation about this recently. Our understandings of sin, if we choose to the use the term, generally follow more recent theological thinking. Like that of process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. She goes back to the Greek understanding of missing the mark. We also follow Liberation theologians who suggest that sin is found in injustice, in our inhumanity to one another and equates loving your neighbor with loving God. Many contemporary theologians also understand sin not as an action, but as a state of being – that sin is the state of living separate from God, from the divine.

Yet for all the debating over what sin is, and is not, the concept is still not something we talk about very much as Unitarian Universalists. Hollis Huston, writing also for the Ohio River Group, shares that we are “not now [at this moment] talking about sin. We’re talking about injustice, inequality, oppression, exclusion…When we speak of sin it is generally to ban the word.”

But this is to our own detriment. Dittmar explains: “so we have thrown out the baby (sin) with the bathwater (moral rigidity and illogical checklists) in an attempt to free ourselves. In doing so we have lost language to explore, bear, and act upon collective responsibility.” She goes on to explain that “People do wrong every day and the systems of evil revolve around us. And we need a way to say this and reflect this and make personal changes about this when possible so that we are not buried under the weight of collective wrongdoing, and, if we keep it secret, lies.”

Utilizing the concept of sin is a way to engage collective responsibility, to claim the prophetic voice. It is powerful to say that it is a sin for a police officer to beat an unarmed black man to death. It is powerful to say that it is a sin for legislators to vote for legislation that makes the lives of the poor and oppressed more difficult. And it is powerful to say that it is a sin to engage in something as seemingly benign as talking poorly behind someone’s back. To call these tragedies, or horrors, or crimes or just bad decisions is all true, but to call them sins does two things: first, it adds a theological dimension that calls to mind an ideal that is larger than the individual, an ideal to which the individual is responsible – whether that ideal is God or the divine, or the interdependent web.

Second, as strange as it may seem for some of us, the language of sin offers hope for change. Think about it: A tragedy occurs, and there is nothing that can be done about it. It is done. A horror implies some perversion that can not be made right. A crime is something that must be punished but makes no allusion to making things right for the victim. Likewise, even a bad decision does not include those who may have been harmed by the actions. To call these actions sins, however, means to enter into an ancient process, whereby a person may sin against another, but then may realize the pain they have caused, and thus have the opportunity to repent, to be sorry for their actions, and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Dittmar points out that “Saying that I am a sinner reclaims my role as someone with the ability to make change.” To call these and other actions a sin is to give hope that the sinner may yet still redeem themselves and right relations may be restored. And, as Huston points out: “Awkward is it to take a prophetic stance without language of judgment.”

In addition to calling ourselves to a higher standard, and entering a process that enables change, I see another advantage to restoring the concept of sin to our common vocabulary. That is, by eliminating the concept of sin from our theological language and constructs, we have reinforced the idea of human perfectibility and thus turned humility into a character flaw.

Let me explain. For generations, we liberal religionists have pursued the modern idea of humankind’s “onward and upward” progression. Though it is often left out, what is insinuated in this concept is the perfectibility of humanity – that we will continue onward and upward until we reach perfection.

When we apply this lens to our own individual lives, it means that we should be pursuing perfection. This then makes any flaw an outward indication of our lack of progress. It means we are obviously not good enough, not perfect enough. And so showing our imperfections becomes something to be ashamed of, something that is embarrassing. Something to avoid. Which then shoves all our failings, our struggles, our falling short, into the shadows as deep, dark, secrets. Something we want to deny not only to others, but to ourselves. Our imperfections becomes humiliating. Owning how we miss the mark, how we fall short, how we sin – against each other, against our best selves, against the divine – requires humility, it requires being humble.

It is impossible to call others to justice when we do not acknowledge ourselves how we ourselves contribute to injustice. Now, this may seem like quite a leap from the concept of sin, but think about it. If we understand sin as missing the mark, where do we miss the mark more than in our interactions with one another? We transgress. We microaggress, we contribute to systems of privilege and injustice and oppression whether we want to or not. But we can’t call out the speck in another’s eye unless we can acknowledge the log in our own. It is not surprising that our UU collective conversation around sin decreased as we continued to embrace the modern ideal of perfectability.

Though sin is not something we talk about very much in our tradition these days, it is fascinating to me that both authenticity and vulnerability are key words in our movement right now – because both of these start in being humble, in knowing and owning our not only our limitations but our humanity. Both of these require acknowledging how we have missed the mark. How we fall short. How we break each others’ hearts again, and again, and again. The increasing conversation and desirability of authenticity and vulnerability indicates a shift in our worldview, away from modern perfectibility and towards a more nuanced understanding of human nature. Schmidt says “we should regularly acknowledge that we are neither perfect nor awful, as is our world.”

And so I wonder if we might reclaim the language, the concept of sin. We can continue to talk around it, talk about our imperfections, talk about failures, talk about missing the mark and how we fall short. We can use all sorts of euphemisms, but the thing about euphemisms is that we often use them to soften the blow, to make something more palatable. And is this really what we want when we are coming clean? I can’t help but think about when I am cleaning grease off my hands – the nice smelling soft-soap won’t do it. I need the gritty borax.

Saying that I have sinned, that I have transgressed, that I have fallen short, does not mean that I am unworthy. It does not mean I am wicked. It does not mean I am going to hell. It simply is a way of acknowledging my humanity and setting the stage for reconciliation – with myself, with others, with the divine. In this way, the antidote to sin is not perfection, but grace. Grace that comes from those we have harmed. Grace that comes from ourselves. Grace, in the form of forgiveness and reconciliation. For as difficult as the concept of sin may be for some of us, what is so wonderful about it is that when we miss the mark, we can try again. We can be redeemed, we can begin again in wondrous love. And this is a form of grace in itself – that when we sink down, when the depths of our humanity are revealed, there is still hope. When we are lost in sin, in selfishness, obsessed with our own lives without a care for others, we can experience grace.

We all miss the mark occasionally. Heck, sometimes we miss the target completely. This is part of what it means to be human. If we want to be a prophetic people, perhaps it is time to consider becoming more comfortable with the concept of sin. Not because it makes us afraid for our immortal souls, but because it calls to mind the understanding that we are both saint and sinner, and it creates the opportunity to try again, to seek reconciliation, and to work for change. May it be so. Blessed be.

2 Responses to “missing the mark.”

  1. Christian December 17, 2016 at 1:18 pm #

    I had forgotten I said that, but it sounds pretty good, huh? 🙂

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