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What a sad and sordid tale that was.
The word Gospel means good news, but it can feel strange to hear “The Gospel of the Lord” after a tale like that one. Where’s the good news here? The story we just heard is full of manipulation and violence. There’s a hint of prurient interest in the description of this group of men watching and pleased by this young girl’s dance. There’s exploitation of a child as her own mother uses her daughter’s innocent request as an opportunity to get back at her enemy. There’s the pathetic weakness of King Herod, trapped by his pride into going along with a beheading he didn’t really want but wasn’t willing to say no to.
It seems like a good Sunday for a sermon about sin.
Now that’s not something Episcopalian preachers are known for preaching about all that much. And in many ways that’s a good thing. So much of the time in contemporary society, Christian faith is portrayed as a kind of puritanical, finger-wagging religion that’s preoccupied with chiding people for their sins. Usually that word, “sins,” is code for something to do with sex, or maybe drinking or swearing. That kind of bean-counting, sin-punishing religion really doesn’t have much to do with the good news of Jesus, and so it’s good that many of us have moved away from talking too much about sin and have balanced that with more talk about God’s love and grace. Thank God for that.
But we might want to reclaim that word, “sin,” and give it back a definition that’s more biblical and more really Christian. If that word “sin” really carries too much baggage for you, that’s OK; you might try substituting the word “evil” instead. But whether you call it sin or evil or wrong, I think any of us can admit that there is a lot about the universe we were born into that is not the way God wants it to be. From wars and genocides on the large scale to everyday bullying and minor interpersonal cruelties on the small scale, all of us suffer the effects of life in a world where sin is a reality. And all of us, to some extent, participate in it too. Each of us has made choices at some point that didn’t come from our best selves, that were hurtful to others or to God’s creation. To some extent we have free will and are responsible for those choices; and yet to some extent we were set up to make those choices because we came into a world already marked by these patterns of behavior. Violence begets more violence. Abusers often begin by having been abused.
There’s a real truth to the story of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve choose to disobey God, but only after being set up with an opportunity by the snake who represents the cosmic force of evil we sometimes personify as Satan. This thing is bigger than we are. We were born into a world with a tragic crack in it that was here before we were. Admitting that we are sinners isn’t about berating ourselves because we should have done better but didn’t. It’s about acknowledging the reality that God’s world is not fully as God would have it, and you and I are part of that; we’re stuck in it. Sin isn’t about being naughty; it’s about being trapped. Or, if you will, imprisoned.
Think about the Gospel story again. Twice we hear the word “prison.” And John the Baptizer is certainly in prison in a literal sense. But in another sense, he’s the freest person in the whole story. Herod’s wife and daughter are constrained by being women in a place and time where men hold all the power. The soldiers are constrained by their orders to carry out Herod’s dirty work for him. And King Herod himself is constrained by his own pride, grandiosity, and embarrassment. There’s a deep, sad kind of stuckness about this group of people. And it ends up costing a good person’s life, out of a situation in which a lot of people share some culpability and no one single person is fully to blame.
It’s not too different from a toxic workplace; or a dysfunctional political climate; or a sick society. The destruction of our environment, the plight of Syrian refugees, the suffering of homeless people on the streets of Santa Rosa; all these things are things that you and I as individuals didn’t make happen, and yet all of us are embedded to some extent in webs of economic and political relationships that have had these results.
There’s a line in a confession from one of the Episcopal Church’s authorized supplemental liturgical resources, Enriching Our Worship, that I think expresses this idea well. I’ve included it in our liturgy today—we’ll use it in place of the regular prayer book confession later on. In it we pray, “We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” Sin or evil is so much bigger than just the misbehaviors and failings you and I might do from day to day. And paradoxically, acknowledging that can be liberating. Because it shifts the emphasis in our spiritual life from beating our breasts about how we as individuals have done various vices, to recognizing in a very realistic and matter-of-fact way that we are both victims and participants in the wrongs done to God’s creation, and that what we need isn’t to be let off the hook but rather to be healed and forgiven and set free.
Jesus of Nazareth came into the world as the most fully human person who has ever lived. He was completely free, because he lived a life that was completely in tune with God. He came to show us and transmit to us a new way of life, one grounded not in fear or anxiety or greed but in utter, profound love. And because he lived that life, and was that life, the powers of evil in our world responded to him the same way they responded to John, and the same way they respond to prophets in general. They put him on trial and hung him up to die, and it looked like they were victorious yet again.
But God raised Jesus from the dead to new life. And in that raising God gives us the promise of new life too. Lord knows we’re still in a world subject to all kinds of tragedy and sorrow, and even if we follow Jesus we’re still liable to contribute to that tragedy and sorrow in our own ways as well. But we also have permanent access to the source of new life, to restoration and forgiveness and healing. And we have a promise from God that no matter how long it takes, no matter how dark things may feel, that loving way of Jesus will eventually prevail, until it permeates the whole world, and evil is conquered forever.