Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fourth Sunday of Lent.
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved–and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
For a brief period in college, I sang in the choir of a local, small Methodist Church.
There was a tenor in that choir—it’s always a tenor, isn’t it—named Roy. Roy was faithful as the day is long—I don’t think he missed a single Sunday while I was there—but he had a great sense of rather irreverent humor.
Each Sunday Roy would grab a bulletin on his way into choir practice, and turn eagerly to the prayer of confession. He’d skim it and then trumpet out to the rest of the choir, “they didn’t get me today! These aren’t my sins!” while waving that bulletin around in triumph.
Only once or twice did Roy find himself reflected in the litany of sins printed for our communal confession. On those days he’d mock-hang his head and whisper, “I think that pastor musta tapped my phone. Theeeeeeey got me.”
Roy’s wife didn’t much care for his light-hearted take on the confession. But I loved his honesty. How often do we read down the list of sins we’re praying about, only to think in the back of our heads, “this isn’t me. I didn’t do any of this stuff.”
And, more rarely, how often have we read a line in the confession that made our blood run cold? “Oh no. That’s definitely me.”
As Presbyterians, we believe rather fervently in sin—sin that manifests as forces, habits, actions, words, even thoughts—that hamstring our ability to fully love God, our neighbors, and ourselves.
The Greek word for sin, as you may have heard in sermons before, is hamartia. It literally means to miss the mark. Sin isn’t always synonymous with evil—it is just as often the consequence of good intentions gone awry. We’re trying to love—but we miss, and it comes out twisted.
The problem, of course, with sin, is that it doesn’t really matter how good our intentions are. If you aim your shotgun at a target but hit a fellow marksman instead, he’ll still bleed.
Sin, mostly metaphorically but occasionally literally, is a killer. It kills our relationships, with God and with others. It rips apart connection and trust. It picks away at love. It tears down our self-image. It leaves our faith in tatters.
The singer Chris Daughtry is probably best known for being the most popular artist to come in fourth on American Idol. He is not known for being a Christian singer. But his fourth album, not so subtly titled Baptized, he lets his Christian faith come through.
Remember how the Greek word for sin means to miss the mark? One of the songs on this album is called Broken Arrows, and it’s essentially a song about the way sin and love circle warily around each other. You can hear the weariness in Daughtry’s voice; it’s easy to imagine the song taking place after an old, familiar argument, after the same mistakes have been made and the same accusations thrown.
I'm tired of taking my aim When I keep on missing There's gotta be a better way Every little word I say keeps getting twisted or coming out wrong, so [just] hold on I'm tryin' to hit the mark but I'm shooting with broken arrows
I have found this image so poignant since I first heard the song. Shooting with broken arrows.
Doesn’t it feel like that, sometimes, during those arguments that go around and around? Doesn’t it feel like that, when you know better but you go and do or say the same wrong thing again? Doesn’t it feel like shooting with broken arrows—like there’s no way to get it right, like you’re broken right from the start?
How are we supposed to not sin—to never miss the mark—when our arrows won’t fly straight?
Our scripture today is one of my absolute favorites, because it speaks to that exact conundrum so clearly. We know we sin, and we might be desperate to figure out how not to, how to move forward with perfection and precision—but that’s not totally within our power. On our own, we can’t ever get out of the net that sin traps us in.
Luckily, we’re not alone.
“You were dead through the trespasses and sins,” Paul writes to the Christians at Ephesus, but God “made us alive together with Christ.” By God’s grace, by the immeasurable riches of his mercy and the greatness of his love, we have had life poured back into our cold and weary hearts.
I love this passage because it puts us, I think, in the proper order. It is God who saves us—God who reinvigorates us, God who makes life abundant and eternal possible even for us sad sinners—but that doesn’t mean there’s no work for us to do. Christ conquered sin and gave us life, not so that we could sin all we like, but so that we could have courage and firm footing to fight our own smaller battles against the sins that squat in our souls.
Throughout Lent, we have been talking about giving up—but in the good way. After a year when we had to give up so many good and beloved things—when the pandemic demanded so many sacrifices—giving up more good and beloved things for Lent seemed like belaboring the point. After all, the goal of giving up anything is to bring us closer to God—and I’ve never been a better Christian when deprived of my chocolate.
Two weeks ago, we talked about giving up chasing human approval, and last week we pushed back against the exhaustion of constant business—but as universal as these sins seem, I am sure there were a few of you who didn’t relate. Each of us, I think, are prone to different sins, just as much as God has endowed us with different gifts.
You’ll notice in your bulletin today a folded sheet labeled, “I Give Up What’s Killing Me.” It’s a field guide, of sorts, to discerning what kind of sin you might be especially tempted towards—your go-to sin, even, you might say, your favorite sin.
It starts with thinking about a fight or tension you seem to keep having—maybe it’s about who’s job it is to take out the trash, or that you feel like you’re always the one initiating time with a friend. It could even be a fight you’re having with yourself—maybe you feel like you’re not living up to your full potential at work. It may not be your worst or most hurtful fight, but think about one that keeps happening—no many how many ways you try to approach it.
The next step is to try to think through what need is going unmet that’s causing the conflict. You get to be selfish for a moment here, and focus on yourself—what do you need that you aren’t getting, that’s resulting in a fight. Maybe it’s help, maybe it’s affirmation, maybe it’s respect. What are you really trying to ask for?
The third step is the fun one—or the least fun one, depending on your perspective. There’s a chart on page two that takes you through what you feel during a fight, to the kind of buttons that fight is pushing, to the sin that might be pulsing underneath. You’ll recognize some of the names from the seven deadly sins, plus a few—and I want to stress that this list is neither scientific nor biblical—so take it as a starting point, not a definitive clinical test. Try to identify what sin it is that pops out most when you are feeling vulnerable or in need. Our favorite sin is often the one we turn to for protection.
The final step takes us to the last two pages, which offer spiritual practices as antidotes of sorts to each of those sins. Ephesians reminds us of God’s great mercy and love—that we can turn to God for protection and courage, and not to sin’s false promises of safety and invulnerability. Now these spiritual practices aren’t magic bullets. Getting on top of our favorite sins is the work of a lifetime. But Paul promises us that this is what we were made for. “For we are what he has made us,” Paul writes, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
I’ll be vulnerable with you all for a moment and share that when I go through this list, I find that my root sin is greed. And for me, that’s less about money than it is about time and energy—I hoard up my time and energy like there’ll never be enough. And I can’t tell you how often I’ve been fighting with a friend and it’s come down to that sin—they need a bit of my time, to feel loved, to feel valued, and I’m too greedy to give it. I don’t like knowing that; it makes me itchy and uncomfortable. But at the same time, knowing the MO of the sin that kills my relationships has made a world of difference. I can see it coming, I can more easily head it off; my apologies are more honest; I can ask my friends for real grace. It is not comfortable to know your enemy by name, but it’s the only way to begin.
Friends, we weren’t made for sin. We weren’t made to hurt each other. We weren’t made to watch our relationships wither and die because we can’t ever get it right. We were made for good works, for goodness, for working towards hitting that target, even if we never quite get there. We were made to live Christ’s life, and to share that life with others.
I don’t know what sin is killing you, is killing your relationships, is killing your faith. I don’t need to know. But I hope you’ll take a look, a real look deep inside yourself, and I hope you’ll find it in your soul, and name it, and work to give it up.
And while you’re looking, deep within, I hope you’ll find too, that you are already forgiven, by the great mercy of Christ, and that nothing, no matter how much it may feel like it in the moment, can ever really separate you from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.