Humanity, Unplugged

The Rickenbacker 12-String

The Third Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today, let’s talk about sin.

Yes, of course, almost all sermons are in some sense about sin, and sin is certainly mentioned a great deal in the hymns and readings of the Church. But let’s take a moment today to address sin head-on, to define it, to look at what it’s really made of, and, because we are Christians, what God has to say about it.

The diligent observer of political history will correctly note that morality cannot be successfully legislated—that is, passing laws doesn’t make people moral; laws can only restrain and punish people. Yet sin and morality are constantly in political news. Sin is also a dominant theme in our entertainment.

Whether the issue is abortion, same-sex attraction, euthanasia, assisted suicide, drug abuse, or even how one finances political campaigns, sin is constantly at the forefront of our public life. But almost no one uses the word sin any more when discussing these things, except perhaps those cruel and obnoxious people from the so-called “Westboro Baptist Church” who like to picket military funerals. Sin has become an unpopular word. Even mentioning something as sin is likely to get you labeled as a hateful bigot.

But what is sin? Sin is anything that distances us from God. The Greek word for sin used in the New Testament, hamartia, literally means “missing the mark.” Thus, whenever we fire the arrows of our life and do not hit the mark that has been set up by God, we are sinning.

We often think of sin in terms of crimes against a divine law, and so when we sin, we make God angry with us. But God isn’t subject to such sinful passions Himself. You can’t make Him mad. Even language about God’s “wrath” that is to be found in Scripture cannot be understood to depict a God Who flies off the handle. Talk about God’s “wrath” is simply an attempt to understand what we experience when we sin.

I think the best way for us to understand sin is as a malfunction. God created the universe and mankind to function in a particular way, perfect and balanced and beautiful. He had a design, and He made us according to that design. But our ability to function well was dependent on staying plugged in to the Giver of Life Himself. And Adam and Eve unplugged us.

As someone who used to be employed in the live music business, I sometimes like to think of mankind like an electric guitar. If you unplug it from the wall, you can of course still play it, but it’s very muted. Mankind without the energy of God can function a little bit, because of God’s design, but we will never be able to make music the way we’re intended while we remain unplugged.

The problem with the world today is that, for so long, we’ve been hearing an unplugged electric guitar and assuming that that is what the music is all about. Little do we know that we were not only meant to be plugged in, but that there are a variety of amps and effects pedals that we can plug in, as well. But we’re malfunctioning, so most of that escapes our ears.

When God tells us not to sin, it is not because He has made up a bunch of arbitrary laws that He’s looking for an excuse to zap us over if we disobey them. Rather, he’s telling us that if we want to “rock out” on the electric guitar that He designed us to be, only certain things will get you there. There are plenty of techniques and options once you plug in, but if you don’t plug in, you won’t make the music. If you unstring the guitar, you’ll make even less. If you bang the guitar against the power amps, that’s not music, either. (Note that most of the bands who do that wait until the end of the concert!)

Morality is really simply what it takes for mankind to make the music he was meant to make. It’s not about judging or condemning anyone. It’s about what works.

There are a lot of kinds of sins, just like there are a lot of ways to make an electric guitar malfunction. Some sins, I am tempted to commit. Others, I am not tempted to commit. But it’s all still sin. It all still unplugs me from God’s divine energy. Sin isn’t bad for me because I’m not following the “rules.” Sin is bad for me because it disconnects me from God.

So when God looked at the world and saw that we were a bunch of sinners, did He storm from Heaven and smite us all with bolts of lightning? Did He shout out in anger and level our cities? Did He picket funerals and tell us that He hates us for our sins? Today’s epistle reading from Romans tells us what He did: “But God shows his own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

When God looked at a world full of rotten, broken, messed up sinners—including me—His response was to come here and die for us. As it also says in that passage from Romans, “For while we were still weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly.” God looks at our sin not as creating a bunch of guilty people, but rather in creating weakness. Sin leaves us weak, malfunctioning, unable to do and be what He made us to do and be.

As we look at our world, which more and more is redefining sin as “freedom” and “civil rights,” we have to remember what sin really is and how God approaches it. Abortion is sin because it kills a child. Yes, people who commit abortion are often suffering in other ways, too, but they’re still killing a child. The same is true of euthanasia or assisted suicide—an innocent life is being destroyed. Homosexual acts are sin, just like any other sexual act outside of marriage as God designed it, because they are not God’s design for us. Yes, people with that temptation have been made to suffer for it, but that is because of the cruelty of some sinners toward other sinners, not because God is cruel.

It really does not matter whether we were born with the temptations we face. Being “born this way” (to quote the pop philosopher Lady Gaga) does not mean that it’s natural or good. Lady Gaga is right when she says that “God makes no mistakes,” but what we’re living in is not the world as God designed it or human nature as God designed it, but as man has distorted it. What we inherit from Adam and Eve is not human nature as God designed it. We inherit a malfunctioning human nature, unplugged from the divine energy.

It really does not matter whether we have suffered, either. Sin is still sin. Nothing justifies it, and sinning doesn’t make our suffering better. Indeed, sinning because we have suffered is really the same dynamic that causes blood feuds between families and nations. That is what revenge is—an attempt to release the suffering through sin. But sin never releases suffering, despite whatever momentary emotional reward we may experience. Sin always disconnects us more from God.

It doesn’t matter how we personally feel about it. What matters is the objective reality about how God designed us to function. We may not understand all of His teachings about what works best, and sometimes the results of following or not following them may not be apparent until we reach the next life (though they often show themselves here, too), but the true character of sin is that it is malfunction. It will always be malfunction, even if the world redefines it to be something else or we personally feel like it should be something else.

But God’s love for us is so powerful and strong that He doesn’t want us to stay in our malfunction. He wants to heal us, to plug us in to the life-giving energy that only He provides. That means that we have to respond to the free gift of healing and wholeness He offers by getting rid of our sins that distance us from Him, whether they are sins of commission like some of the things we have named, or whether they are sins of omission like neglecting worship in favor of entertainment or other worldly pursuits. Either way, they’re pulling us away from God, whether through quick jumps in committing evil acts or through gradual decay in not making Him the center and focus of our whole lives.

The only cure for sin is to pay attention to and take hold of the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42), to commit ourselves and each other and our whole life to Christ our God.

To Him therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


  1. When you have posts like this in which a Christian blogger insists that the degrading practice of human trafficking and slavery is not anti-Christian or sinful, per se, based on the widespread acceptance throughout Scripture, Christianity’s history and by the apostles, you do realize that modern-minded folks aren’t really going to give much weight to the assertion of the sinfulness of two men or two women committing to each other, yes?

    Sure, it might be more Biblically consistent, but if that’s the hierarchy of moral values upheld by the body of Christ today, most people in our post-Enlightenment culture are going to just say to heck with it and discard it all as being antiquated and hopelessly out of touch. I’ve read a sufficient number of blogs to know that this particular poster’s views aren’t all that uncommon. It’s not uttered loudly or often, but many fundamentalists still view American slavery as simply a “less than ideal” practice, but certainly nothing worth condemning our forefathers over. This is unfathomable to the modern mind where cruelty and tyranny are the greatest of evils.

    What to do? Well, it does seem to me that the Church has yielded to the culture before when it decided that sometimes the “right” thing isn’t always the “obvious” thing: are the annulments the RCC grants to its divorced parishioners really in keeping with the notion that “marriage is permanent”? The standards it has for granting them seem pretty lax, if you ask me (and I know people on the inside who can attest to that fact). Does this mean I’m suggesting the RCC should perform gay marriages? Hardly. I do think it needs to re-evaluate how ferociously it fights against gay couples from obtaining any civil benefits whatsoever. It just makes the RCC look, as I’ve said … a bit out of touch.

    1. Where does one even begin with this? Slavers, fundamentalists, and Roman Catholics are all somehow brought into a homophobic conspiracy here that I’m having a hard time connecting with the contents of the posted sermon. In any event, although one can find the occasional person on the Internet who notes the Gospel’s lack of attention to mounting social revolutions, I do not see slavery as being upheld by any Christian group of note. Even amidst all the moving targets you put forth, I’m having a hard time finding a slaver in the bunch.

      In any event, I do not think the “modern-minded” are likely to see much of anything as Christ does, especially since His call is precisely to crucifixion and the transformation of the mind, not to accommodation to the modern zeitgeist.

      As for “most people in our post-Enlightenment culture” saying “to heck with it and discard[ing] it all as being antiquated and hopelessly out of touch,” well, we’ve known from the beginning that the Way would never be popular. Even speaking of sin is regarded as “antiquated” these days.

      The modern-minded man has to crucify his mind if he is to acquire the mind of Christ. Scandalous? It always has been.

  2. Indulge me to rewind a bit because that was indeed a bit of a ramble.

    First, about me: I’ve spent a number of years studying theology and reading everything from Barth to Calvin to Aquinas and Teresa of Avila. I went to a Catholic high school, spent time in college in the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, thought of becoming a priest and even a monk after being inspired by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. I realized it would have been more of a “running away” than anything else, so I decided against that. I ventured over to Protestantism and even flirted with 5-point Calvinism (which I found poisoned my view of everyone and everything).

    I bring all this up to indicate that I’m not simply a “mocker of religion”. This has, and probably always will be, serious stuff to me.

    Throughout all of this, though, I have remained someone who is fundamentally attracted to other men (even when I lied through my teeth and said it was not the case): women, although I appreciate their friendship, hold as little appeal to me as men probably do to you. I’m not effeminate. I wasn’t abused by my father or any other male. My relationship with both parents is stellar. I love them dearly (both devout Catholics, btw).

    Although I have a nice, well-paying job and am surrounded by lovely things, life is for me, as I’m sure it is for most people, difficult at times. When we’re not concerned about the cares of today, there’s always the concerns about tomorrow. There is someone I love who makes the house I live in a “home”. There is comfort, security, companionship, friendship and love. There have been sacrifices to accompany this as well, though. This isn’t about simply indulging in every sexual whim.

    Life as a bachelor would be simpler, of course, in a way. Cheaper, too. I could spend every last dollar on myself. I wouldn’t have to fret about the other’s brain cyst that makes getting out of bed impossible for him on some days. Would that really be the more “noble” life? If love is the fulfillment of the law, how does one fulfill that living as a single bachelor who’s only interaction with others is the soup kitchen or homeless shelter? Although these things are good to do, they are also safe: you can control the level of demand placed on you. Marrying a woman is out of the question. She’d say I was never there, even when I was.

    I’ve seen the accommodations both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches have made for its heterosexual parishioners. The Bible says: divorce not your spouse, lest you force them to commit adultery. There are no “outs” for physical/emotional abuse, or because they’re an incorrigible alcoholic. Yet, both churches have graciously allowed many believers to make the best of the mess they made or the hand they were dealt and go on. The Catholic Church allows its members to “annul” their first marriage. Orthodox believers get up to three attempts at making a go of it.

    So, through all of this, my question is: why is the only viable “moral” option for gay believers that of living and dying alone and never knowing either the joy or sacrifice you can only experience when involved with another adult in a mutually exclusive and devoted relationship? Further, why have both churches shown so much more grace and leniency to its heterosexual believers than its gay ones?

    1. A lot of these questions are not the kind of thing that should be answered on a publicly readable weblog. I’m also not your confessor. I will say, though, that I believe all kinds of narratives can be constructed by people that may be interpreted in multifarious ways. That doesn’t prevent elements of them from objectively being delusion, which is all the more believable when it is mixed with truer perceptions of reality. There is a lot that goes into what seems to us to be right, normal and good. But any quick survey of the population’s views of such matters will yield either the necessity for relativism (in which case “morality” has no real meaning) or the conclusion that some people are wrong.

      This post also wasn’t about homosexuality specifically but about the nature of sin in general. So I’m not sure why you chose this particular post on this particular weblog, given how many places online there are to discuss such things.

      You asked, this, though: why is the only viable “moral” option for gay believers that of living and dying alone and never knowing either the joy or sacrifice you can only experience when involved with another adult in a mutually exclusive and devoted relationship? Further, why have both churches shown so much more grace and leniency to its heterosexual believers than its gay ones?

      I’ll take these as #1 and #2.

      1. One could ask why monastics and celibate clergy would be so utterly cut off from this, as well! What about the joy and sacrifice that only come from being unmarried? What about the joy and sacrifice that only come from struggling against any overwhelming sinful passion? What about the joy and sacrifice that only come from motherhood?

      I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s comments on people who don’t think they’re going to like Heaven because they think it hasn’t got what they like here on Earth. He essentially says (IIRC) that whatever it was within what you loved that made it truly lovable will be fully present in Heaven, but moreso. Look, God is all you really need. Really. And if that’s so, then that means that there is no circumstance or status of life—celibacy, marriage, intelligence, retardation, femininity, masculinity, ordination, age, temptations, wealth, poverty, parenthood, infertility, freedom, slavery, etc.—that can stand between you and sainthood. Sainthood is what Orthodox Christianity is about. Nothing else. Whatever glory can be had from one particular path (e.g., marriage) is fully possible in any other.

      Insisting that there is something only available in one of these circumstances that should be a sine qua non for your particular spiritual life is, frankly, idolatry. What if your special person died? What if no one ever desired you in return? What if you were maimed and unable to function in some way? What if some unforeseeable circumstance happened and you lost your freedom, ordination, brain power, etc.? The sacrifice and joy that are the only sacrifice and joy truly worth having are still available to you.

      Because of how God made humanity, marriage between a single man and a single woman is but one of the paths that can serve the goal of sainthood. We are not our own creators, so we don’t get to decide what will work and what won’t.

      2. I cannot speak for the Roman Catholic Church. Personally, I believe that annulments are a legal fiction made necessary by a broken theology more concerned with categorical status than with reality.

      Your question here assumes a quantifiable assertion that has not been proven. In order to prove it, you’d need to be able to assess the entirety of pastoral practice for the past 2000 years. You’d have a hard time finding out exactly what’s happening between various penitents and their confessors right now, to say nothing about the past 20 centuries. That said, I suppose one might reword your question as to why there seem to be more options available for those who marry according to the traditions of Christian doctrine.

      Part of the problem here is that Orthodox Christian theology does not make an ontological identification between the person and his passions and desires. There are no theological categories of “gay” and “straight.” That is a major problem with the modern theology of sexuality, which comes not from God but mainly from Freud. We are being taught in the modern world that our desires are what we are. And what a sell it is! After all, if I am my desires, then that means my identity hinges not only on my sexual feelings but also on how many doughnuts I have a right to. It is no wonder that our culture has defined us by the word consumer. Consumerism has become so secularly sanctified that we collectively see nothing wrong with identifying our desires with our persons. (That handbag is so you.)

      For Orthodoxy, sin is a matter of missing the mark. The mark is the same for every person, no matter who or what they are attracted to, whether that attraction may be fully-fledged from the moment of conception, present only as a seed that gets developed over the years, or suddenly chosen at some point. There aren’t separate moralities for “gay” people and “straight” people. Within the Orthodox tradition, I can no more marry a man than you can. In terms of the objective moral theology, it doesn’t matter that we feel differently about men. Of course, dealing with us pastorally will be different, and the particular circumstances of each Christian’s personality, past, experience, etc., will all affect what may be done.

      Granting a second marriage is not permission to sin. Even the Law of Moses permitted the possibility of more than one marriage (and commanded it, in some cases). But it was never the ideal. Getting married a second time is not planning to sin. Claiming to be married to someone of the same sex is planning to sin. It’s not just less than ideal. It’s sin. The same goes for people who feel that their life of love, sacrifice and joy can only be satisfied through sexuality, whether by themselves, by multiple partners, by children, by animals, by violence or by eschewing marriage altogether. It’s not a question of giving “grace” or “leniency” to one ontological type of person more than another. It’s a matter of all of us being called to hold to the one thing needful, no matter what shape our temptations take.

      Look, I’m very sorry that the temptation that homosexuals have is often so strong. I’m even more sorry that our cultural lens has magnified it more powerfully than it has to be. But the answer to sin is struggle, not surrender or (worse yet) sanction. So why do some people struggle and others give in? I really don’t know, but I have pastorally dealt with both situations. In one case, the person’s temptation led him to adhere all the more powerfully to his faith, and he is one of the more faithful people I’ve ever seen. In another, the temptation led that person to reject the Church entirely.

      I suppose that it comes down to whether someone is an idolater or not. Is God’s way more important to me than my own way, no matter how right it seems in my own eyes?

      You’re not your desires. You can be perfect. You can be transformed. It may not happen fully in this life, but it can happen. That’s the Gospel.

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