During the study leave that I’m just now returning from I was able to read a number of books that were informative and useful, but I want to talk about a different book. The book that stuck in my mind the most was also, by far, the weirdest thing I read. I happened to stumble across a bizarre manifesto by David Byrne, the former front man of the band The Talking Heads. This slim book, entitled The New Sins / Los Nuevos Pecados contained Byrne’s absurd musings on the topic of sin. However, in the midst of his madness there were a few lines that fascinated me. He writes, “The new sins… are usually mistaken for virtues. What are currently accepted by an older generation as virtues are revealed, upon closer examination, to be vices… One may be tempted to laugh at the suggestion that one’s most treasured virtues are indeed sins.” I was intrigued by this idea that there may be things that we think are good for us – habits, attitudes, desires, ways of being in the world – that don’t actually turn out to be good for us after all.
A few days ago I met with this year’s Worship Team for the first time and I asked them to free associate about the word sin. Though we didn’t reach any sort of consensus, many members of the group had a strong negative reaction to the word. Some members of the group rejected “sin” as a concept that had any meaning to them at all. Several commented that it felt like such a judgmental word. It evoked memories of being judged and condemned. It is a word that causes us to think of televangelists, shouting fundamentalists, and religious bullies. A person who talks about sin is someone we hope not to find ourselves seated next to on the airplane. I think of that awful, cringe-inducing line about sin – “love the sinner, hate the sin” – and how ugly a saying that is. It is a way of saying that not only am I going to judge you, but while I’m judging you I’m going to deny to your face that that’s what I’m doing. The brainstorm basically went in that direction.
I took the resistance to the concept of sin that I encountered as an indication that I was on the right track. Sometimes resistance means you’re heading in the wrong direction, but sometimes it means you’re heading in exactly the right direction.
Sin is a tricky word to define. It is tempting to use it as a synonym for things that we would consider bad or wrong or unjust or immoral or illegal, though those words do not mean exactly the same thing as sin. I floated a possible definition that sins are attitudes or behaviors that diminish and detract from human life. But I didn’t feel like I had gotten this definition exactly right either. Another member of the Worship Team suggested that we could define sin as the failure to love. I decided to look up how some other Unitarian Universalists had defined sin and was most impressed by the way in which Forrest Church defined it. In a piece published in the UU World magazine in 2004, Forrest Church urges Unitarian Universalists to take sin and evil more seriously. In that piece Church writes, “I define the word sin simply. It is anything that divides us: within ourselves; against our neighbor; from the ground of our being, the god of all creation.”
The opposite of bad is good. The opposite of wrong is right. The opposite of injustice is justice, of immoral is moral. Forrest Church writes that the opposite of sin is wholeness. He remarks that the words for whole, holy, health, and hale all share a common root. Sin is division and separation; its opposite is connectedness, wholeness.
Forrest Church is in good company when he identifies sin as separation and division. A member of the Worship Team reminded me that in Dante’s deepest circle of hell, the punishment was to dwell in an eternal state of absolute separation and isolation. “The deepest separation,” Dante writes, “is to suffer isolation from the source of all light and life and warmth.”
If Christianity is a part of your background, you may remember being taught that in the New Testament there are a number of different Greek words that are all translated as sin, but that the most commonly used word is hamartia, which is often said to literally mean “to miss the mark.” If you come from a Christian background does this sound familiar to you at all? The image often put forward is that there is a great big archery target with an extremely precise and narrow bull’s-eye in the perfect center of the target and that sin is missing the mark. In this theological system, sin is distance from the perfect divine ideal. Sin is unavoidable because of our less than perfect human nature. One of the most famous passages about sin in the New Testament occurs in Paul’s letter to the Romans and this passage causes us to imagine such a cosmic archery range. Paul writes, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Did anyone ever do archery as a child? I don’t know how much that is a common experience or not, but I remember getting lucky and hitting the target – not the bull’s-eye, the target – once or twice at the archery range at summer camp. More often the arrow would sail over the target and get lost in the tall grass. Occasionally the shot would seem to be right on the mark, but then there would be some kind of aerodynamic failure and the arrow would drive itself into the ground five feet short of the target. For everyone’s arrow will fall short (or sail wide) of the glory of the perfect bull’s-eye.
I don’t want to belabor this point too much, except to say that even if we don’t know a lick of New Testament Greek, even if we’ve never tried archery, even if we don’t particularly care for the word sin and don’t find it to be a concept that is personally meaningful to us, there still may be a part of us that sets up impossible targets, for others or for ourselves, and then proceeds to act like a cruel judge of anything that is not a perfect bull’s-eye. And further, there may be a part of us that is sure that this is the way that we are supposed to approach life.
I remember serving as the Intern Minister of a UU church in suburban Dallas, Texas. One of my projects that year was to get a young adult group started in that church. I remember that one Sunday when I was preaching, there were a pair of first time visitors, a young couple that seemed to have this energy, this charisma about them. During the service and during my sermon they were smiling and nodding their heads in agreement with what I was preaching and I was making eye contact with them. I was picking up all these great vibes from them. After the service they came up to me and were complimentary and enthusiastic and they were saying how excited they were to find a church that was so theologically liberal. Then they asked if the church had a volleyball team and I told them that I was very sorry that the church did not have a volleyball team. This young couple looked very crestfallen and said, “Oh, we like liberal theology but we also really like volleyball.” They never came back. What kind of impossible standard of perfection was that? Yeah, that Martin Luther King guy was OK, but I was hoping to join a civil rights movement with a softball league.
I’ve got another story about difficult bull’s-eyes. How many of you have volunteered at Harvesters, either as a part of this church or on your own? The first time we had a church workday at Harvesters, more than fifty children, youth, and adults from our church participated in stuffing bags for the Harvesters “backsnack” program. This program provides school aged children with a pack of food that they can take home for the weekend. The children served by this program not only receive free or reduced price breakfast and lunch at school, but they live in food insecure homes where there may not be any food in their household over the weekend. Imagine eating lunch on Friday and not knowing if you’ll have anything to eat until Monday. Harvesters provides more than 10,000 backpacks with snacks in them every week to children in our metro area. Adults, youth, and children from our church formed an assembly line and in just a couple of hours stuffed more than 1,000 bags with shelf-stable milk boxes, juice boxes, granola bars, fruit rollups, cereal, and single serving cans of mac and cheese, ravioli, and tuna. It was an amazing experience.
Once I encountered a person who had similarly volunteered with the “backsnack program” but reported having a different reaction. She worried that the food that went into the backpacks had too many preservatives, wished that fresh produce was included in the backpacks, and was concerned about possible ethnic, cultural, religious, and dietary sensitivities of the children receiving the backpacks.
Have you ever encountered a standard of perfection that is too impossibly high? It is easy to regard another’s standards of perfection as quirky, as humorous, perhaps even as fascinating and idealistic, when we ourselves are safely out of range of their demands. It is far less a laughing matter when the standard of perfection is directed at us by a partner or a parent, by a boss or a person we serve. What damage we can do to ourselves and to others when we insist on our own perfection or condemn others for not rising to our own impossible standards.
David Byrne lists ambition among his “new sins” calling it “a cousin of aggression, accumulation, and attrition… infecting the unhappy, the unfortunate, and the unlucky, and turn[ing] them into desperate strivers… Is this a value to hold worthy? Is this the kind of life that is good and true?”
Each year, around the first week of August, I dust off the three ring binder advertising this congregation created by the Shawnee Mission UU Church’s ministerial search committee in 2002 as they went through the discernment process of whom to invite to become the next minister. The search materials began, “Just as we are not a perfect church, we realize that there are no perfect ministers. But there are nearly perfect sermons and we delight in those.” Words of wisdom.
The old sin was missing the mark, falling short, sailing wide, failing to strike precisely a lofty and impossible standard. “Be ye perfect,” said Jesus. The old sin expected that we should hate our own failure to measure up. Forgetful of the commandment about who is allowed to throw the first stone, the old sins tempted us to judge others for their perceived shortcomings, noticing the speck while missing the beam.
Let us heed the warning that what is held so often to be virtue may actually be vice. In the words of Vivian Pomeroy from our prayer this morning let us remember the confession, “Forgive us that we expect perfection from those to whom we show none.” The enemy of the good, this perfection divides, separating us from ourselves, from our fellow human beings, and from the ground of our being. Fortunately, there is a better, though still imperfect, translation of Jesus’s words urging perfection. Actually, the better translation urges “Be ye complete.” Be ye whole. Amen.
Questions for Conversation and Reflection
1) What is your definition of the word sin? Do you find it to be a concept that is personally meaningful to you?
2) This sermon was inspired by David Byrne’s provocative statement that “What are currently accepted by an older generation as virtues are revealed, upon closer examination, to be vices… One may be tempted to laugh at the suggestion that one’s most treasured virtues are indeed sins.” Have you ever felt sure that what you were doing was helpful and good only to learn later that it was hurtful? Have you ever had to rethink a treasured virtue?
3) Does the shadow side of perfectionism resonate with your experience? Have you ever had a negative experience demanding perfection from yourself or from others? Have you ever felt forced to live up to someone else’s impossibly high standards?