A friend was driving me around. “Don’t you agree?” he was saying. “People are fundamentally crazy.”
I hadn’t thought of it that way. But after a bit I said, “Well, they’re sinners. And sin just never makes sense.”
It’s hard to think about sin. It’s about “missing the mark,” about having “erred and strayed from [God’s] ways.” It happens in “thought, word, and deed,” in “things done and left undone.” It is fundamentally a rebellion against our maker.
But sin’s optics are deceitful. It promises a path of life that, by rebelling from God, can achieve independence. But God is not something in the universe that we can run away from. You can run away from Dallas. You can run away from your job. You can run away from your Aunt Agatha (as Bertie Wooster says, the aunt who chews broken glass). But God is not a place and not a thing, and he doesn’t chew glass.
“Where can I go then from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence?” So asks the Psalmist (139:6)—rhetorically, because there is no place where God is not. God is the cause of all places; as their cause, as the reason they exist, God is everywhere.
What erring and straying and rebelling against God ultimately means is that we have turned God into an idol from whom we then turn away. Sin is thus, always, an implicit idolatry.
It is also, as we say, “it’s own punishment.” Why? Because to attempt to turn away from God is at the same time an attempt to turn away from our humanity. To sin is to become less of a person, to become less human.
Socrates had this insight as well. The person most harmed in a murder, he said, was the one who committed the deed. His interlocutors were incredulous: Surely it’s better to kill someone than to be killed? But no, said Socrates; it is worse to do wrong than to suffer it.
In the end, sin never makes sense. If there is a crime, we look for a motive. But a motive is an explanation in terms of a good. He killed her in order to steal her jewels. Jewels are beautiful and valuable; they are good in themselves, and it is good to want things that are good. But a higher good is the life of a person. Why did the sinner choose the lesser good over the higher good?
Sins of thought and word and deed, things done and left undone, all of them are choices for a lesser good when we should have been seeking a higher good. Why do we sin? It doesn’t make sense.
I think my friend is right: we’re all crazy. But see Romans 7:25. Thanks be to God who delivers us from the wretched craziness of sin!
Out & About. This Sunday, February 25, I am to speak on the deadly sin of gluttony at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, 5100 Ross Ave., Dallas. (Will I make any sense?) That class is at 9:30. I will also be preaching at the Eucharists at 8 and 10:30.
From Thursday, March 1, through Sunday, March 4, I am giving the Muhlenberg Lenten Reflections at Calvary-St. George’s in New York City. The talks are at different times, in different locations; a schedule with registration form is here:https://www.calvarystgeorges.org/muhlenberg
We perhaps don’t think enough about the names of our churches, and how the name connects to the ongoing life of the congregation. If that’s right, then let’s change it. We should think more about it.
An instance: There is a smallish parish in the Hudson Valley called the Church of the Resurrection. When I became its rector, they already had a great Easter Vigil celebration. It was in the middle of the night, starting about 11 p.m. on the Saturday and finishing after 1 a.m. They did everything: there was a purple curtain hung in front of the sanctuary, there were candles, there were lots of flowers (you could smell them but not see them). Baptisms were held for the vigil. Every “stop” they could pull out was pulled out. They even followed it with a pancake breakfast.
It seemed to me fitting that a church named for the Resurrection would have the most complete and well-attended Easter Vigil in the county. My job, as I saw it, was first of all not to harm it, and over time even to build it up a bit more. As people wended their way home in the wee hours of Easter morning, they knew—we all knew—that Jesus was indeed risen from the dead. Music and joy and color and smell all lingered with us.
(We had a very simple service on Easter morning. No church can do everything.)
Now that I’m interim dean of a cathedral dedicated to Saint Matthew, I’m thinking about the connection with this patron saint. In the Gospel that bears his name, very shortly after Jesus calls Matthew, Jesus says: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy.’” Jesus says it to his critics—he is eating with sinners, and Matthew, a sometime tax collector, knows what it means to be a sinner. Mercy is big in Matthew’s Gospel. And indeed he seems to have learned mercy.
How do we learn mercy?
Matthew draws our attention to its importance. He uniquely has Jesus saying, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” He shows us Joseph deciding not to break off from Mary when she is pregnant—surely an act of mercy. He tells us that parable where a man was forgiven a large debt, but then immediately didn’t forgive a much smaller debt owed to him. He has received mercy but failed to learn anything, and he ended up in a bad place. And it is Matthew who tells us about the great separation at the end of time between the sheep and the goats. The point of difference is quite clear. “I was hungry and you fed me”—or “I was hungry and you fed me not.” Mercy is the criterion of final judgment, it seems.
I think Saint Matthew, having so acutely experienced mercy himself, wanted to see mercy everywhere in the world. And it wouldn’t surprise me to find that kind of spirit in a church dedicated to him.
What about you? What is your church’s name? What sort of connection can you see between your church’s name and its life?
Out & About. This Saturday, Feb. 17, I am to lead a Quiet Morning at the Church of St. Michael and St. George, 6345 Wydown Blvd., St. Louis. The morning begins at 8:30 a.m.; the theme is “Friendship: What We Miss and What God Offers.” I am also to preach there at the Sunday morning services: 8, 9:15, and 11:15 a.m.
Wednesday, Feb. 21, I will be speaking on Losing Susan at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. This talk will be on suffering and caregiving, with attention to the many God-questions that arise in situations of chronic illness and loss. St. Matthew’s is at 5100 Ross Ave., Dallas. The talk begins at 7 p.m.; anyone interested may come earlier at 6:30 for a light supper, or even at 6 p.m. for Stations of the Cross.