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"That Uncomfortable Word" First Sunday in Lent - February 18, 2024

Updated: Feb 26

How about that Great Litany we just prayed together? Isn’t that something? 

If you’re new here or visiting St. Andrew’s for the first time, that’s an old, old, prayer compiled in 1544 drawn from liturgies even older than that. If you’re not new here – one of the reasons we like to pray this the first Sunday of every Lent is for those of you who skipped Ash Wednesday services…we just want to make sure you know it’s Lent. That Litany…it’s chalk full of language – in some ways foreign and odd to us, words and phrases that are old yet have aged rather well…like a nice vintage wine, other words and phrases (I don’t about you) but they haven’t aged so well…like the box of left-overs you for got about in the back of the refrigerator. And then…there are the words that don’t fit into either of those categories…it’s just that they make us………..uncomfortable.  

I don’t about you, but I find Lent to be a season of uncomfortable words. 

They started rolling around this past Wednesday…words like death, mortality, dust, confession, fasting, self-examination…

These are not comfortable words! Why must we say them? Doesn’t the Church have enough problems drawing people without all these arcane, uncomfortable words? Why must we keep speaking them? Especially this word…a word that has so much baggage, such unkind, such unfeeling associations for many of us, that it’s just so uncomfortable to hear this word, but here on this first Sunday of Lent we come face to face with it…and that word is…sin. Sin. 

I spent many years hiding from that word. Oh, it’s not that I disagreed with it so much as I just found it difficult to talk about and difficult to hear others talk about it. 

Then, there I was, my first year in Episcopal seminary…and we were all entering the season of Lent together as a community… and I was surrounded by all these people, professors and students alike, who were just so excited to talk about it, and read about it, and examine sin under various metaphorical microscopes and literal confessions…Everyone was just so excited, so relieved even, to be in this season of Lent. And it boggled my brain, why is everyone so excited to talk about sin…And I thought, “Well, maybe it’s because the majority of them didn’t grow up Baptist.” At that point, I’d spent most of my life talking and hearing about sin.

But that wasn’t it – that was just me wrestling with my own story and tradition I grew up with.

What I came to see…and it took some time…that word sin…it’s really an important word; and over time my understanding of that word had grown impoverished, flat, vapid…and I began a trip I’m still very much on moving from a person who plugged his ears to that word, to a person who is daily learning to see the necessity, the essence, and dare I say…even the beauty of that word and what it can mean in and for our lives.

I mean…right off the bat…Jesus inaugurates his public ministry talking about sin…we tend to think it was softer, more gentled than that – but it wasn’t. There he is, leaping off the page in the gospel of Mark. “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom is near…” So what do you do with this new kingdom being ushered in? What’s the mark of its arrival? There’s no blast of triumphant trumpets, no flags of victory being waved, no parade down main street full of floats and fanfare… The old world is on its way out, the new world is coming up, it’s the great hope, the time has come so….everyone….repent of your sin. 

“Now wait...wait…it doesn’t say the word sin there.” You might be thinking, “It just says repent.” 

And I think many of us might be savvy enough to talk about the word “repent” and how in the Greek it’s metanoia and it means a changing of mind, a changing of direction…and we leave “sin” completely out of it because that’s a very upwardly mobile, middle class, twenty-first century American thing to do. But these aren’t 21st century Americans, they’re not even Greek (most of them), these are people raised and saturated in the Hebrew scriptures in the language of the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Wisdom Literature of Israel – so to speak of repenting - it was a given that to change our direction, to change our hearts and minds, we have to repent of sin.

But, let’s just say it…that’s still so uncomfortable to hear.  

And I can’t help but wonder if it’s because of how the Church tends to respond to sin. Maybe how the Church, in all its various traditions and expressions, has subscribed to one of two responses. I’m thankful here for the work of Barbara Brown Taylor in her book Speaking of Sin whose reflections and words on this very thing I find helpful.

In response to sin, the Church has tended to offer sympathy or punishment. On one side, sin is just this purely systemic, amorphous, ambiguous thing that mysteriously and unknowingly creeps into our lives through no responsibility of our own. And so the response is only sympathetic, a no-fault approach that can only offer palliative care to people who are desperate for change. Or… on the other side, the Church becomes this courtroom kind of experience, characterized by rebuke and condemnation and the dishing out of punishment. 

But…neither of those responses gets to the heart of the matter. Because giving and receiving sympathy or giving and receiving punishment, both, take from us and others the possibility of real transformation, which is what the Church is to be about. 

“The Church exists,” Taylor writes, “so that people have a place where they may repent of their fear, their hardness of heart, their isolation and loss of vision, and where – having repented – they may be restored to fullness of life.” 

In the church I grew up in, we held every quarter or so, what was called an “Open Service.” It was a time where if you were led, never compelled to, only if you were led, to publicly confess a sin. Only your own – not somebody else’s. 

Now in case some of you are getting squirmy or looking for the exit, I promise you, we’re not doing that here.

But, I was around 16 years old, waiting for the service to end I’m sure, and this woman stood up – she was in her mid-thirties or so, sitting next to her husband. She stood up and said, “None of you know this, but for years we’ve been trying to get pregnant - and we just can’t. We’ve consulted several doctors…and there’s just nothing anybody can do. And through all those years, every time one of you gets pregnant, I’ve put on a smile and said my congratulations. But,” she said through tears, “all I feel now is anger and bitterness and honestly, I just resent you – and I’m so tired of feeling this way.”  And after the service concluded, I remember seeing there – in the corner of the sanctuary – this woman surrounded by people embracing her, expressions of encouragement and affirmation and support…no rebuke, no punishment...just love – only love.  

Now, are you telling yourself, “Well that’s not a sin…that’s only natural for her to feel that way…she didn’t have to do that….C’mon on now. There was nothing there to repent.” 

Let me ask, why do we do that…why do we feel the impulse to dimmish such a moment? Think about the bravery and the humility and the faith it took to stand up and do such a thing. She wanted a way out of the pain, she wanted a way into a new life. Why do we always look for ways to rescue people from their repentance? What’s that about? 

I think we forget sometimes…that when we try to rescue people from their repentance, we’re robbing them of the very courage it takes to be rescued. 

It takes courage to repent, to be transformed, to find a new life…

“The time is now, the kingdom is near…” Jesus said, “out with the old, make way for the new…repent and proclaim the good news.” And part of that good news is on the other side of repentance isn’t watered-down sympathy or overblown punishment…but life…life. 

Which is why, even on this first Sunday of Lent, in the midst of sin and repentance - we can remember the life of Jessica Scott…and we can gratefully embrace her family who wanted to be here today to honor her – in this church she loved so much and who loved her. Jessica, who as our burial liturgy calls her, “a sheep of (God’s) fold, a lamb of the flock, and…

…a sinner of God’s redeeming.” 







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