Thursday, April 24, 2014

Atonement Series for Lent

During Lent this year, I worked up a sermon series on various atonement theories and how they are/are not helpful.  I figured I might as well put the sermon texts out here and let the calls of "Heresy!" begin.

If you'd like to hear the sermons, which inevitably include more than is in print, they can be found on online by searching for UKIRK Nashville in the iTunes store.

So, here's week one: 
Genesis 3:1-24 (read along with The Brick Testament)
Original Sin...Is It Really a Thing?

Throughout Lent, we’re going to explore the theological topic of “Atonement.”  To simplify such a theologically loaded word, many people like to say it’s is all about At-One-Ment between God and humanity.  Another question we might ask is, “What happened at the cross?”

My hope is that throughout this series, we might walk away with a broader, fuller, and deeper understanding of what scripture and centuries of Christian tradition have to say about how God addresses the problem of sin in the world.

Before we can get to “theories of the atonement,” I think it’s important to take a step back and talk about the word “sin.”  It’s a word that gets tossed around an awful lot in our communities of faith, and depending on the theological leanings of the faith community that raised you, it might have been emphasized a lot, a little, or really not at all.  And besides that, the definition of “sin” changes depending on one’s theological tradition.  So, tonight, we go all the way back to the beginning of scripture and take a look at an archetypal text about sin.  So, hear now, and see, with the help of the Brick Testament.  Genesis 2:25-3:24.


So, there it is.  The story of “the fall from grace.” The beginning of all sin that has been passed on to every human being in the history of the world.  Many people, if not most, would say that this is the story of “Original Sin.” 

Original sin is defined by the good people at the BBC as: a Christian doctrine that says that everyone is born sinful.  This means that they are born with a built-in urge to do bad things and to disobey God.  Original sin is not just this inherited spiritual disease or defect in human nature; it’s also the ‘condemnation’ that goes with that fault.

Sound familiar?  As Presbyterians, or reformed Christians, we might hear John Calvin’s voice in the background using the term Total Depravity, by which he meant that there is no part of our humanity that is not corrupted by sin.

Basically, in the traditional view, Adam and Eve’s transgression resulted in a loss of living forever and in their guilt being passed on to every human being…ever.  This “original sin” is used to explain the darker side of humanity and becomes the way to explain the presence of sin in the world.

Some of you are fidgeting a bit, I would imagine.  One of my former youth would always push me when it came to this topic, making the case for human beings being basically good, with good intentions, but that they just make bad choices.

So, which is it?  And what does the scripture actually say?

Does Genesis 3 clearly describe original sin?  If you go back and read it, you might notice that words like sin and fall are absent.  To be sure, there are consequences for disobeying God, and one of those is being cast out of the garden before Adam and Eve can get their hands on the fruit of the tree of life.  So, were they created to be immortal, or would that have happened upon eating from the fruit of the tree of life?  Depending on who you read, the answer varies. 

I stand before you and admit that over the past couple of years, I’ve come to seriously question the doctrines of original sin and total depravity.  Now, before you all start calling the presbytery or the denominational headquarters, let me tell you why.

As I hinted at above, I just don’t read Genesis the same way as Augustine and other folks who truly believe in the doctrine of original sin.  I just don’t hear God say, “You all messed up, and now all people in the history of the world will bear the guilt of your sin.” 

This falls into the category of setting aside the question of “Did it happen?” and instead asking the question, “Does it happen?”

Do I look around the world and see people who willfully disobey the commandments and guidelines that God has set in place for the welfare of humankind?  Yes!

Have I joined someone in doing something I knew was a bad idea, or against the rules, been caught, and uttered the cry of every desperate person, “But-she?”  Absolutely.

I tell you what, those But-he and But-she kids are in every youth group and every classroom in the world.

It seems to me that we can look at the world around us and speak of fallibility and brokenness without using terms like total depravity and original sin. 

There is clearly something about humanity as it exists now, that falls short of God’s best plans for us.

Oh, but Alan, the Bible clearly presents a theology of original sin.  Right?  I mean, it does, doesn’t it?

Does it?

As we read the stories of the Hebrew Bible, we see a cyclical pattern that goes something like this:
·     God lays out expectations for faithful obedience
·     Individuals or groups of people fall short of those expectations
·     God sets forth consequences
·     People seek to make things right, either by turning back to God or offering sacrifices
·     And finally, God offers healing and forgiveness and relationship

In all of that, I’m not sure the Biblical record really points to some genetic defect passed along from Adam and Eve to all of humanity. 

This is not to dismiss the presence of sin in the world, but it is to say that I have serious doubts as to that sin being passed along in sperm and egg. 

In fact, I’ve come to believe that we probably need to take sin more seriously than we do, but not in the judgy, equating faithfulness with western moralistic values, be a good American kind of way.  I think we could stand to take the entire biblical record into account when we make pronouncements about what is sinful in the eyes of God.

For tonight, though, and for the sake of our series, I’d like to think a bit more broadly about the nature of sin and how it affects our humanity.  A few weeks ago, Decker asked me for a good definition of sin, and that question has been weighing on me, especially in light of this series.  Up until yesterday, I had a working definition from some theological textbook that was way too technical, but at church yesterday, Chris Adams quoted an article from that really spoke to me, and I want to share it with you.  So, here goes:

Biddle rather proposes that Genesis 3 is the story of the human condition that is complex and paradoxical in nature. Moreover, instead of viewing this text in terms of a “‘fall’ from original essential humanity,” one would be better served to view this text in terms of the human’s “failure to develop into the fullness of being human” (p 7).

The author goes on to say: Viewed in this way, sin may be understood as the fearful avoidance of human potential.

Wolfhart Pannenburg said that sin is, “the universal failure to achieve our human destiny.”

I like those definitions so much better than the many definitions of sin that sound kind of scary.  The fearful avoidance of human potential.  Sin is no longer a boogeyman in your soul, or in your genetic makeup, lurking to work evil in your life.  With this definition, sin becomes that fearful part of you that prevents you from achieving the full humanity that God has planned.

Scot McKnight in his book A Community Called Atonement, makes the case that we are made for relationship, just as God in God’s Trinitarian self is relational, and that we need four basic relationships to achieve full humanity:
·     Union with God
·     Communion with other human beings
·     Love of self
·     Care for the world

In other words, to pursue absolute freedom in all directions severs us from God, from others, from the world, and therefore the self, and that is really what constitutes sin, a brokenness in any and/or all of these relationships.

Throughout the rest of the semester, we’ll be exploring various theories of the atonement, and I’d like for us to decide, together, how they address the brokenness we experience in those four areas of our lives.  I hope we will find that we need many understandings of atonement in order to make sense of the ways God has accomplished wholeness and calls us toward full humanity.

One final note:
·     Yes, we are in the season of Lent, and we are on the journey to Jerusalem and the cross, and we aren’t there yet.
·     Yes, we have much to discuss with relation to sin and atonement.
·     Yes, I started our series with a story about Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden.

But, did you notice verse 21?

Verse 21 is one of those places in the Bible where I go to point to the motherly aspects of God, and let explain why.

My Mom, who is here this evening, is a master on the sewing machine.  When I was kid, she made me and my sister clothes to wear.  When I was marching with The Cavaliers, my Mom made me practice shorts out of fabric that could be washed out in the shower and would be dry by the next day so my laundry loads would be lighter.  When my luggage, and consequently 10 pairs of boxers, was stolen in Honduras, my Mother lovingly sewed me six new pair, and express mailed them, because she knew I was a broke seminary student.  So, verse 21 is one in which I see motherly love, not because God’s act is inherently male or female, but because I see my Mother doing just such a thing.

Genesis 3, verse 21: And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

Even as God has pronounced strong judgment on Adam and Eve, and even as God is casting them out of the garden, God takes the time to make clothes for this man and woman, because those fig leaves just wouldn’t do for God’s beloved children.  In my book, that loving moment of provision is the prequel to all the at-one-ment to come.


Monday, April 07, 2014

To drive or not to drive

As I was weaving my way through the streets on Vanderbilt's campus to get to the Panera where I have multiple meetings scheduled today, I began to ponder just why I drove today.  Two hours before, as I was eating breakfast, I read about opposition to a proposed Bus Rapid Transit system in Nashville (The AMP), and I became frustrated with people who don't see the importance of Nashville having good public transportation options.  Then, when it came time to head to work, my first thought was how glad I was that the places I was going today had free parking lots, and that even if they were full, I could probably find some free two hour parking on the street.  Yes, the prevalance of parking made more of an impact on my decision to drive than anything else, even the threat of rain throughout the day.  Whereas I could have easily ridden Bus #3 or #5 and been dropped off within a 10 minute walk of all the places where I would meet with people today, the thought didn't cross my mind until I was frustrated by the weaving streets in and around Vanderbilt.  Even as I wag my finger at public transportation haters, I realize that my own mindset needs an adjustment.  

It might be time to change the way we talk about public transportation in a city like Nashville.  Instead of relying on tropes like, "Good cities have good public transportation," we might help people think about the actual logistics of riding the bus, or the future bus rapid transit, including the cost and the timing of it all.  Maybe all the people with Yes AMP! signs in their yards need to renew their commitment to riding the bus more often, or even every day for awhile so as to better address folks with questions.  Who knows?  Taking that simple step might actually raise some questions that haven't been asked.

As for me, now that spring is here (mostly), I'm hoping to make more of a commitment to riding the bus or my bike when possible, even if it means leaving earlier, or not getting home as immediately as I'd like.