Not For Sale
Text: Psalm 103: 8-13
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for his children.
One of the duties of a pastor of a United Methodist Church is to be the spiritual leader of the congregation. This responsibility is one that I take very seriously; however, it can be misunderstood and often misconstrued. Being your spiritual leader by no means implies that I can tell you what to believe or how to think. Those decisions are up to you. Each of us must work out our own spirituality and relationship with the Divine in our own way. That is the only way it becomes meaningful and personal for us, it is the only way we make it our own. If we simply follow someone else’s formula, it is not our own and lacks the power of creation that accompanies a healthy spirituality.
Being your spiritual leader also does not mean that I simply reinforce all the things you already believe and have already been taught. If I take something you already believe to be true and offer yet another convincing argument as to its validity, what value is that? Where is the opportunity for growth? Where is the opportunity for new insight?
I believe that a leader must lead – be out front and he or she must be one of the first to consider an idea or challenge an assumption. I believe spirituality is not a destination, but rather a journey. If we are on a journey, then new territory is mandatory – if we do not cover new ground on our journey, then, in fact, we are going in circles. Far too many pastors lead in circles because they fear the new ground and they fear new ideas. I’m hoping to cover some new ground today. But let me be clear; these are my thoughts and my observations – they don’t have to be yours. I offer them as an opportunity for you to entertain new ideas and possibly create a new perspective. It is not necessary that we all believe the same thing or approach our spirituality in the same way.
That being said, I wanted us to take a closer look at this thing we call sin and what that means to us and how we are to apply this term to our lives. I believe there are many misconceptions around the idea of sin – perhaps you have been told or taught some things that you assume to be true, and I am here today to perhaps challenge some of those assumptions.
The first assumption I want us to take a closer look is about the forgiveness of sins. Let me begin with what I consider to be a valid definition of sin. Many relate sin to behavior; in our past, there have been some pretty silly things that have been considered ‘sinful’ and they are all based in behavior. Dancing was once considered sinful, a woman with her ankles showing was once considered sinful, going to the movies has been considered sinful, (I guess it still may be by some) and the list goes on. In ancient Judaism, the list was quite lengthy and Jesus spent much of his time teaching that following the list will never get you to where you want to be. Sin is not behavior. Let me say that again; sin is not behavior. Sin is a condition. You might need to mull that one over for a little while, and I will get back to this idea, so don’t panic.
This is a very important concept for us to comprehend. Sin is a condition. Think of it as a fever – your body has a fever and is fighting off an infection of some kind. The fact that you have a fever is your condition; it is not your behavior. Now there could be some things that you do that could lead to a fever – and that is behavior. In like manner, there are things which we do that can lead us into a condition of sin, or at least we think we are in that condition, and it is those things which everyone seems to get so worked up about. But give some thought to the idea that there isn’t any behavior which is sin; there is only behavior that may lead to the condition of sin.
This concept, then, begs the question; what is the condition of sin? My answer to that question is very simple – at least on the surface – and that is the condition of sin is separation from God. When we are separated from God, we are in the condition of sin. Now I need to clarify something – I don’t believe we can be separated from God – it is impossible. So the separation that exists when we are in the condition of sin exists only in our minds. We think we are separated from God, we may feel separated from God; we may assume God wants nothing to do with us, but all those things exist only in our minds. So here is the real challenge – if we cannot be separated from God, and sin is the condition of being separated from God, then sin does not actually exist. Bad behavior certainly exists, but sin does not.
While you mull that one over for a time in your minds, let me give you another something to think about. There is a lot of teaching out there, even in mainstream Christianity, which teaches the work of Jesus was to pay our debt of sin. This is called the atonement theory. Note I used the word theory. In order for us to truly believe in the atonement theory, we must first believe that God’s love is for sale. We must believe that God’s love is conditional. It is not. God’s love is neither conditional nor is it for sale – at any price.
As you are probably aware, Heidi and I just returned home from a trip to Alaska, which was great. I had the chance to shoot some great pictures, which I hope to have the chance to share over the next few weeks, and for the most part, we had really great weather, which for Alaska, I’m told, isn’t always the case. Our transportation to Alaska for this trip was by cruise ship-if you have ever cruised, you might be able to personally relate to what I’m talking about, but on a cruise ship, there is a lot that is for sale.
There are gift shops full of trinkets and T-shirts, watches and jewelry, jackets and caps and scarves and all sorts of things for sale. Then there are the pictures. They have photographers everywhere shooting pictures or at least wanting to shoot pictures, and then they print them all and put them out on a giant bulletin board and offer them for sale.
On a cruise ship, they also offer what they call shore excursions that are also for sale. Even if it is something simple, like driving around town and visiting gift shops, they are able to package it together and sell it for a price. There are many things that are always for sale in an environment like this and frankly, that is one of the things I like the least about cruising. It seems like someone is always interested in another way to get your money. In some ways, at least for me, it diminishes the entire experience.
Now I don’t know if you have ever thought about the idea of God’s love being for sale, but that is what atonement means and there is more than one hymn in our hymnal that states Jesus has paid a price or paid our debt or in some other language has essentially purchased our favor in God’s eyes. When this idea is put into this context, does that sound right to you?
I want you to notice a couple of things about the scripture I read this morning from the 103rd Psalm. The first thing to notice is that it is in the Old Testament – this Psalm pre-dates Jesus and pre-dates the execution of Jesus on the cross. The second thing to notice is that it tells us that God removes our transgressions from us as far as the East is from the West. God’s love was unconditional prior to Jesus, and God’s love is still unconditional after Jesus and God’s love never has been nor will it ever be for sale.
You will recall that I said separation from God is impossible. I believe it is. But that doesn’t mean we can’t move away from God, it doesn’t mean we can’t build walls that block us from God, it doesn’t mean we can’t feel isolated and apart from God. We can and we do all of those things, and worship and personal meditation and prayer are the opportunities we have to move closer to God, to tear the walls down we have constructed and to feel connected once again to the Divine.
And that, of course, is food for thought.