|4:45pm||Sunday Organ Recital - Jillian Gardner|
Sermon preached at Mattins on the First Sunday after Trinity (18 June 2017) by the Reverend Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain
The Chaplain reflects on the confession of sins and says: 'If we have the courage to look ourselves in the eye and the honesty and humility to acknowledge our shortcomings, recognising where we might be able to work on avoiding falling into Sin, perhaps we might find that, through God’s grace and mercy and love, we are being made perfect bit by bit.'
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
One of several penitential sentences given for the introduction to Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer which we use each week at the beginning of this service of Choral Mattins.
I wonder what you feel when you hear those words.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
Perhaps like me, you thank goodness there’s a but! BUT if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Phew!
The language and concept of Sin are both deeply problematic. They challenge the sovereignty of God (who is seemingly unable to contain the unruly passions of humankind) and/or compromise the freedom of humanity (who if by nature are sinful must then have limited liability).
I won’t go into the ‘ology’ of it all or we would be here for a very very long time but I want to explore our use of the concept of sin in relation to ourselves and others as a way of engaging with our perceptions of ourselves and of others.
In both the Old Testament and the New you will find various ways in which Sin is described. Rebellion, wickedness, iniquity, guilt, evil, godless, unrighteousness, transgression, lawless to name but some. The way these terms are used are in contrast to implied ideals; to be holy, righteous, law abiding, upright etc. Sin seems in many ways to be a human characteristic, part of our makeup; it describes a flaw if you like in the human character which, though formed in the image of God and declared to be good, has become corrupted.
The accounts of creation and the fall underpin this notion of Sin. And though these accounts themselves create more problems than they solve, they remain a compelling explanation of the presence of Sin or human evil; their power perhaps lying in our own experience of the seemingly endemic frailty of our nature. But this backdrop of creation and fall are fatalistic and pessimistic.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. If we were in any doubt we don’t have to look far for confirmation of this negative perspective.
Psalm 51.5 - Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me
Romans 5.19 - For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous
Sinful humanity in need of redemption. If you’ve heard me preach before you will have a notion that this explanation of the relationship between guilt, debt and redemption is not one that I find tremendously helpful.
So what are our options, there are always options. And the option here is another term used in the scriptures for Sin - amartia which is used on a number of occasions in each of the four Gospels and in Romans and 1 Corinthians.
The concept of amartia was well developed by the philosopher Aristotle long before the New Testament was written, as emblematic of the character of the tragic hero. Rather than being a moral imperfection as the popular notion of Sin might suggest, amartia (a term used in archery) describes a ‘falling short of the mark’ through an error of judgement. Now we can surely be forgiven for falling short of the mark, we are after all only human, and this notion of having taken aim but not quite hitting the target I find a much more optimistic perspective on our fragile humanity.
Because most of us surely wake up every morning wanting the best for ourselves and our neighbours and friends, not the worst. We are not, I would argue, corrupt by nature, but we ‘fall into sin’ as the Collect for Grace which we have just heard, puts it. We trip up, trip ourselves up and trip others up, sometimes but rarely deliberately, often simply thoughtlessly. We are not perfect, we miss the mark. And this is for me the attraction of this understanding of the concept of Sin, it isn’t fatalistic, we are not essentially flawed or corrupted, we are human and we have to strive to hit the mark. Practice makes perfect.
You see the concept of Original Sin leaves little room for improvement, only Grace. And while there is a lot to be said for Grace, I believe there also to be room for personal improvement. Otherwise why would Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel have encourage the disciples saying: ‘Be perfect therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
Think for a moment about something that are you good at….and how long did it take for you to become good at it? Our Organists, Choristers and Vicars Choral put hours and hours of practice in every week to be world-class. How many hours a week do you and I put into being world-class disciples of Christ? Honestly.
Can we perhaps spare a few more minutes each day to focus on where and why we have fallen short of the mark so that next time we might be nearer hitting it?
If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves.
You can hear that in two ways I think, most unhelpfully, for me at least, you might hear it as a bit of a slap in the face, especially first thing in the morning and after such an uplifting hymn of praise as we had this morning. A gremlin on your shoulder telling you that you are essentially, by nature, marred by Sin, soiled by it.
Perhaps if that is the way you hear it, you might try to imagine a different scenario, imagine someone with a generous smile on their face telling you ‘I know who you really are, and I know the struggles you have, and I know your potential’.
If we have the courage to look ourselves in the eye and the honesty and humility to acknowledge our shortcomings, recognising where we might be able to work on avoiding falling into Sin, perhaps we might find that, through God’s grace and mercy and love, we are being made perfect bit by bit.