March 3, 2013
In the movie “The American President,” Annette Bening plays Sydney Ellen Wade, an environmental lobbyist. Her job is to convince the White House to advocate for higher automobile emission standards.
During her first trip to the White House, she meets with A.J. MacInerney, the President’s Chief of Staff, played by Martin Sheen. During their meeting, Sydney Ellen Wade becomes frustrated, turns to a colleague, and tells the colleague plainly, “The White House won’t let us leave until AJ delivers the bad news.”
Her colleague is aghast at her brashness, but AJ answers, “I’m afraid she’s right,” whereupon he tells them that the President won’t support the high emission standards they want. And worse, that the President expects them to support his position.
The bad news. The uncomfortable truth. Most of us don’t like bad news or uncomfortable truth. It makes us, well, uncomfortable.
Rather, most of us want to hear what we want to hear. What some people call “words that tickle the ears.”
Psychologists call this phenomenon “confirmation bias,” the tendency to seek out or believe only opinions and reports that confirm what we already believe to be true, not words that challenge us. We like people to agree with us.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the emperor wanted everyone to tell him how stylish and exquisite his new clothes were. But he was naked! Nobody would tell him the uncomfortable truth, except for one little girl. “He’s not wearing any clothes!” She exclaimed.
This is Lent, the Christian season of Uncomfortable Truth, and your nakedness is being discussed openly.
Even discussing why bad things happen to good people – such as towers falling and killing innocents – Jesus oh-so-uncomfortably tells us, “Repent, or you will likewise perish.” Not the ever-popular “I’m OK, you’re OK.”
“Repent!” Jesus tells us. “You have sinned. You have done things you shouldn’t have, and you have failed to act when you should have.” Jesus spoke raw, uncomfortable truths. Our problem is that Jesus still speaks the Uncomfortable Truth, only we can’t hear him.
One reason we can’t hear Jesus is this: the word “sin” has lost its edge, its meaning. It carries too much religious baggage. For some, the word “sin” conjures up images of Catholic confessionals in which teenagers are forced to admit precisely how bad they are. For others, the word conjures up evangelical images of God angrily hoisting helpless people as marshmallows over open flames. Because of its baggage, the word has lost its razor-sharp ability to challenge us.
Did you hear the story of the little girl in the confessional? She confessed to the Catholic priest, “Father, I have sinned. I cannot stop looking at myself every time I pass the mirror, and I keep telling myself how beautiful I am.” To which the priest replied, “My dear, I have good news; yours is not a sin; it’s only a mistake.”
To reconstruct the term “sin,” consider its existence in two forms: as big S and little s.
Big-S “Sin” is the state of the world. The fact that the world cannot, despite the best and heroic efforts of so many people – from Jesus to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., to you in this room – cannot seem to right itself. The world is shrouded in darkness. War continues. Brutal killing continues. Abuse and manipulation continue. Hunger and homelessness continue. Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea.
Little-s “sin” represents the actions, the things you, as an individual, do and the things you fail to do. Like cheating on your spouse or on your taxes. Kicking your dog or lying to your friend.
Most of us don’t like to admit the sin in our lives – big-S or little-s – so we try to hide. Adam and Eve certainly denied their sinful plight, metaphorically, which is what it means when the story says they hid their nakedness with fig leaves. We try to hide the shame of our own nakedness.
One way we hide the shame is by changing the language, using softer words. Which is a variation on confirmation bias, if you think about it. “I tried my best,” we might say. Or “On balance, I’ve lived a good life.” Or “I’m a pretty decent person.”
Euphemisms are inadequate fig leaves; you can’t hide nakedness from God any more than Hans Christian Andersen’s king could hide his nakedness from the people.
God sends Jesus along, who in his very public words, slaps us rudely across the face with the stark reminder that we are naked. That we require forgiveness. Restoration.
Because sin is not what you think. Sin is not sin because of the action itself. Sin is sin because of the result. In his essay “What Is Sin?” from his book “Wishful Thinking,” Frederick Buechner writes:
“The power of sin is centrifugal. When at work in a human life, it tends to push everything out toward the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only the core is left. Eventually bits and pieces of the core itself go flying off until in the end nothing at all is left.”
You get that? Nothing is left because of the centrifugal force of sin. What he means is this: Envy is sin because it pushes others away; haughtiness is sin because it sets you apart from others.
Buechner points out that even religion itself – and for that matter, “unreligion” – becomes dark when it expands the gap between you and those who do not share your views. Lent isn’t about sin and repentance because God cares about the silly little things you do – your little-s sins.
Lent is about sin because God cares about you.
God cares about your isolation, cares about a world of increasing isolation. Redemption restores relationship.
Jesus immediately proclaimed Good News, because in restoration there is hope that you do not have to be alone.
Lent presents Uncomfortable Truth – but only if you are paying attention – so that you might become truly free on Easter. Repent, therefore, and receive the very Good News.
— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years, he is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.