Emerging Christian Story – Sermon #1 Ash Wednesday – February 22, 2012
Pastor Monte Stevens — North Riverdale Lutheran Church
“Original Sin or Original Blessing”
For the next five Wednesday evenings I will be sharing with you some foundational building blocks of the Emerging Christian Story. Remember this will be a year-long process, but we formally begin tonight. Let me quickly remind us why we are taking this journey.
The Emerging Christian Story is being offered for your consideration and your own spiritual renewal. It is also being offered because I find it more relevant, enticing and believable than the Predominant Cultural Christian Story – the story that we are most familiar with. But it is also a story that I believe is more relevant, enticing and believable to those that are not yet here – those folks that have rejected certain parts, or all, of Christianity.
I am starting with the sermon tonight because I want us to think about what this night is typically about and maybe see this night in a new light.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the forty days of the season of Lent, remembering the 40 days of Jesus fasting in the wilderness. Lent is the penitential season – the season of repentance – repentance from sin. In our liturgical year this is the most penitential of days where we kneel before God as we ask for God’s mercy for our sins – to forgive us sinners – for all the sins we have committed.
The language of the church that we are probably most familiar with is the language of sin and confession. Most of you grew up with a confession that sounded something like this:
We poor sinners confess unto thee, that we are by nature sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against thee by thought, word, and deed. Therefore we flee for refuge to thine infinite mercy, seeking and imploring thy grace, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We are by nature sinful and unclean. The vast majority of Christians believe something like this.
Officially, the church refers to this as the doctrine of Original Sin. As you saw in your bulletin the title of the sermon is “Original Sin or Original Blessing?” So first let’s talk about the doctrine of Original Sin. What is it and where did it come from?
The doctrine of Original Sin states that we are born sinful. We are born “fallen.” We are born with a defect. We are born with a very big problem. The doctrine of Original Sin is first and foremost a statement about our human nature. This doctrine states that our nature begins broken and bad. Because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, all humans thereafter were born in a state of sin. This comes from a mostly literal reading of Genesis chapter two.
St. Augustine, around 400 years after Jesus, popularized this understanding of our human nature and from there, it has been a core tenant of the church and the chief reason churches baptize infants to erase the stain of original sin. This was done for infants, as soon as you could make it to church, because if the baby died before being baptized it would die in a state of sin and presumably go to hell.
St. Augustine solidified the notion that we sin because we are born into sin, that we are children of sin, that sin is in our DNA – passed down to us from the disobedience of Adam and Eve.
Interestingly enough, there is no doctrine of Original Sin in Judaism. Genesis chapter 2 was their text, before it was ours and they read the text symbolically not literally.
With Augustine sin became a condition, not a choice.
If you haven’t noticed the Church – with a “Big C” – has been big on sin. The church by pronouncing the whole of humanity to be incurably sick leaves one asking how can I be made well? It just so happens that the church is the only one with the cure. It gives the church a monopoly on salvation.
How can I be made well from this incurable condition? Well, there is Jesus. Jesus came to save you from your sins – to save your sinful nature – and to save you from all your sins, pre- and post-baptism. Without Jesus you will be incurably sick and not able to return to the Garden of Eden. You were kicked out of the garden and there’s only one way to get into heaven.
Have you ever asked yourself, “What kind of God would condemn billions of people to hell because the first couple, Adam and Eve, sampled a bite from a piece of fruit?”
That God, to me, seems at the very least terribly eccentric or worst of all, despotic. It’s not a God I want to worship.
Nor do I ever find Jesus saying, “I came to rescue you from your sinful, fallen, corrupted, nature that all started when Adam and Eve took a bite from the fruit they were not allowed to eat. Did you ever hear Jesus say anything even close to that?
Genesis 2 can’t be read literally because it was never intended to be read that way. It is a story about many things, including disobedience, but it is not a story about being created bad and sinful and needing to be rescued.
Original Sin is not a Jewish thought. It was fully articulated by St. Augustine and deepened in teaching over the centuries by the church.
So if we are not born by nature sinful and unclean how are we born? If not Original Sin, what is Original Blessing?
Right before Genesis chapter 2 what do we find in Genesis chapter 1?
There are two creation stories in the first two chapters of our Bible. Listen to how the author of Genesis Chapter 1 speaks about humans.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth …”
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it …” God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
In this creation story, men and women were made in the image of God, urged to procreate, entrusted with the stewardship of creation, blessed by God and pronounced good.
Did you hear that? They were pronounced good, from the beginning!
The difference between this story and the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter 2 is vast. This story has men and women created simultaneously, suggesting equality. In the second story Eve created from Adam, implying subservience.
The first story urges men and women to procreate, implying a divine blessing of sexual intimacy. The Adam and Eve story has them cowering in the garden, ashamed of their nudity and sexuality. The characteristics of our relationship with God, in the first story, are wonder, trust, blessing, and love.
The first story, Genesis 1, is about Original Blessing. We are born good. At our core we are good. God created us “very good,” not defective or flawed as the doctrine of Original Sin states.
We are born blessed to be a blessing. In Genesis 1 we are born in God’s image. Our parents have not passed on a disease that goes back to Adam and Eve. In Genesis 1 our DNA is created and made in the image of God. We are born not fallen, but full of promise, for we are born in God’s image. We are born with the potential to reach not only our fullest humanity, but to manifest and reveal God’s image.
I find this so much more meaningful, so much more in line with what I experience in the world. Born with Original Blessing has me envision a God that gives me everything I need to live life as God intended life to be lived. God gives me a beautiful start by creating me in God’s very image – the image that God declares to be very good.
Original Sin or Original Blessing?
I believe you are born blessed and made in God’s image and, as the saying goes, God don’t make junk!
Now, which is more prevalent in the majority of churches? We are born sinners deserving God’s wrath, or we are born blessed with the capability of great good, filled with transcendent beauty and rich promise, filled with divine presence?
Philip Gulley shares an experience that he had observing an infant being baptized. During the ceremony that pastor spoke about the child being born in sin. As he spoke, Gulley recounts, I caught a glimpse of the child. His right hand was curled around the mother’s finger, a beautiful smile illuminated his face. Were I asked to paint a picture of an angel, I would have painted that infant.
I wanted to stop the ceremony and ask the minister how that tiny, beautiful infant could possibly have sinned. “Think of it!” Gulley said, “The church’s first liturgical words to that child were to condemn him, to call him a sinner.
He goes on to say, “Had I stopped the ceremony and asked those gathered if they actually believed the child were evil, many present that day would have likely said, ‘Of course not’.”
Yet, the words and images persist in the Christian tradition, having taken root after centuries of repetition. In most Christian traditions the path to God and salvation begins with the explicit, and often public acknowledgement, that our nature is primarily wicked.
I don’t believe that. And if you do, I invite you to reconsider.
Why would God create us to be wicked and depraved? Just so he could send Jesus to save us? That doesn’t make sense to me.
But you say, “God didn’t created us to be wicked and depraved, we chose that by being disobedient – taking a bite of that fruit.”
If you believe God knows everything, then God would have known that they would take a bite of the fruit, and we’re back to square one with God creating us for failure and soon to be in need of rescue. Scene two: send in Jesus to die on a cross! That doesn’t make sense to a lot of people.
In our very last Wednesday night we will get to “Why Jesus died on the cross.” But for now, let’s get back to Original Blessing.
Original Blessing builds more upon Genesis 1 …being created in God’s image and God declaring humanity to be good.
I think it’s always good to look at Jesus when we need direction and, when looking at Jesus, asking, How did he treat people? Did he treat them as inherently flawed and bad, or inherently good with potential for goodness?
Let’s look to Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, as you remember was strong armed tax collector whose traitorous alliance with the occupying powers caused his fellow Jews to brand him as a despicable sellout.
Passing through the town Jesus sees him in a tree and calls him down and urges him to open his home so they can have a meal. This scandalized those present, whose culture forbid table fellowship with known sinners. Zacchaeus, touched by Jesus’ welcoming gesture, was spontaneously inspired to return all he had stolen and more.
His neighbors held him in contempt and just saw him as a bad person. Jesus saw something different. He saw a person that had sinned, but he also saw a person created in the image of God and one that could be liberated from his selfishness and greed.
His neighbors tried shame-based negative religion to try to save him. They saw only bad, and by shunning and excluding him they tried to turn him good. Jesus’ gracious invitation saw him for what he was, not what he had become. Zacchaeus responded with goodness repaying fourfold what he had stolen.
Do we see people flawed and having failed or do we see them as fundamentally good and full of potential to do good?
What kind of community of faith are we to be?
It’s not that we need to be blind to people’s failings but how do we see them on their deepest level. Because how we see them at their deepest level is ultimately how we will treat them, and how they will feel as they walk through our doors.
I’m a Genesis 1 person. I see people created good and I believe everyone is ultimately good at their core.
On the CBS Sunday morning show, this past week, there was a wonderful story that spoke to people’s inherent goodness. Janice Firehark was in need. Janice lives in Steven Point, Wisconsin. Janice is not only a doting grandmother; she has been a foster parent for over 100 kids.
Her situation is that she had received a letter from the bank, telling her, that her house was soon to be foreclosed on. She didn’t know what to do. She needed $10,000. As was shared in the story, there are no foster homes for foster parents.
Into the story comes her twelve year old grandson – Noah. Grandmother had not told her grandson Noah any of this terrible news, but he overheard her talking to his Mom. With only $100 to his name he decided to try to help his grandmother.
So he goes to the internet and shares the news of his grandmother needing help so that she can continue to help foster kids in her house. Soon the checks started pouring in and, in the end, the bank forgave the loan and his grandmother gets to keep her house. Noah said, “This helped me realize how many good people there are in the world.”
The story segment ended with these words. “Noah has helped us to realize that this is what America is really about.”
I would say, “Noah has helped to realize what humanity is really about.”
God created us in God’s image, and it was good. Our human nature is good! We see it all the time! This is Original Blessing!
We are born a blessing – to be a blessing in God’s world.
So what about this penitential season we are entering into? What about sin? If we were created good can we still sin? You know the answer to that. Can we still turn from God and separate ourselves from God? Sure we can, and sure we do. And when we do … let’s repent and change our ways.
But just because we have the capacity to sin doesn’t mean we are born defective. Sin is a choice – not a condition.
This is not just semantics. This is fundamentally about having a religion this is built on a positive view of our humanity verses a religion that is based on a negative view of humanity.
The church has a long history of telling people how bad they are. What we have learned from psychology is that we tend to live up, or live down, to the expectations that people have of us, or how the church has defined us.
What message does the church send with the doctrine of Original Sin? One of our most beloved hymns expresses this well. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
I believe it is more faithful to our biblical stories and understanding of our humanity to understand ourselves as born with Original Blessing.
What would it mean to be a community of faith that no longer viewed people as wretched sinners, but would rather see ourselves, and others as beloved, accepted, valued, cherished, and of infinite worth and potential?
I invite you tonight to come forward and receive an ash cross on your forehead, reflective that we have made choices that are sinful and our need to return to God.
But more than that, to hear God’s deepest word and whisper of love spoken over you:
“You are created in God’s image and beloved by God.”
From the moment of birth, to this day, you are loved and have always been loved, for you were born a blessing – to be a blessing.