by Rev. Joe Connolly
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“You who have found your own life will lose it; you who lose your own life for my sake will find it.” — Matthew 10:39.
Many of you know in my younger years I was a church member in the Roman Catholic tradition. In that context, as a member in a Roman Catholic Church, one is expected to go to confession.
When I was in grade school the nuns always taught us that, in order to prepare for the Sacrament of Confession— and do note in the Roman tradition Confession is a Sacrament— in order to prepare for the Sacrament of Confession a person had to do what was called an examination of conscience. Or so the nuns said. But what is meant by an examination of conscience? (Slight pause.)
Perhaps the informative question to ask here is the obvious one: ‘what is sin?’ In our Western culture we have somehow decided sin can be defined as specific acts committed by individuals.
Therefore, if little Tommy in Sister Mary Patrick’s 4th Grade class happens to accidentally lift a chocolate bar from the supermarket shelf and, unobserved, slip it in a pocket while shopping with Mom— well, that should be confessed. Hence, in the course of the aforementioned examination of conscience, little Tommy needs to count this as a sin.
In fact, Little Tommy needs to calculate what sins have been committed since the last time he went to confession and be ready to confess each of these. And this tends to be the practice to which many adhere from the 4th Grade forward until death. Assessing sin becomes a game of numbers. What was done? How often did you do it?
“Are you sorry for it” might not even be a part of the picture. Indeed, if one sees some act as sin but keeps doing it over and over, it becomes hard to envision a state of actual confession, handing one’s self over to God about one’s own behavior.
Well, why does little Tommy often account for sin this way when an examination of conscience is employed? Believe me, my 4th grade teacher, Sister Mary Patrick, used that little Tommy example of the lifted chocolate bar to explain an examination of conscience. Hence, for many an accounting mode becomes a reality. How many times, how often?
Of course, lifting a chocolate bar from the supermarket shelf does seem to fall under the heading of ‘Thou shalt not steal’ and all that rot. Therefore, this action and act is a sin, something you, individually, and you as an individual, can and might do.
But is that sin? (Slight pause.) Since I have made this point many times here before, I hope it will not surprise you if I say that, from the Biblical perspective, lifting a chocolate bar from the local supermarket shelf is, at best, a minor offense and probably not worthy of the name sin.
There are two things that need to be said about sin, from the Biblical perspective. First, sin is a corporate offense, something done by the community or in the community, not necessarily done by the individual. Second and therefore, what kind of act should be defined as sin? The definition of sin from that Biblical perspective is quite simple. Sin is missing the mark. What mark?
The mark is that in some way our covenant relationship with God has been broken and our covenant relationship with one another has been broken. In fact and from the Biblical perspective, sin is always considered to be so corporate, so communal, that the Biblical concept of sin says if any one of us offends God or one another, if any one individual breaks covenant, we have all offended God and one another, we have all broken covenant.
To reiterate, sin is not individual. I know that sounds un-American. It’s theologically quite sound. Sin is not individual. To make the claim that sin is only individual is a very secular way to look at it. Sin is corporate. And, I might add, sin is not a game of numbers: ‘how many times did I do what?’
All that brings us back to covenant. When we break covenant with God and one another, we miss the mark. It’s that simple. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Matthew. “You who have found your own life will lose it; you who lose your own life for my sake will find it.” (Slight pause.)
Socrates was a Greek philosopher who lived from approximately 470 to 399 Before the Common Era and is one of the founders of Western philosophy. This is among many things Socrates is famous for saying: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
The examined life— to be clear, not the unexamined life but the examined life— is what philosophy is about. Why do I say that? Well, what does the word philosophy mean? Philosophy is a combination of two Greek words— philo and sophia.
I am sure you know Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love. Well, philo means love. Sophia is a common name for women. But sophia is also the Greek word for wisdom or virtue. Hence, philosophy is the love of or the pursuit of wisdom or the love of or the pursuit of virtue.
Hence, when we examine our lives what are we really doing? When we examine our lives we are not trying to decide if we are guilty of lifting a candy bar off a shelf. When we examine our lives— or as the Nuns would have had it, when we examine our conscience— we are trying to see if we have fully pursued wisdom, virtue. If we have not fully pursued wisdom, virtue, or put another way if we have not adhered to a covenant with God and one another, we have missed the mark. (Slight pause.)
And that turns me toward another modern Western concept, the thought that we are constantly and always good, without fault. We hit on this earlier in the Prayers of the People.
In that litany of Confession, which we often use in the seasons of Lent and Advent, first one person says “I confess to God and in the company of the people of God that my life and the life of the all the world is not whole.”
Then everyone responds, “May God forgive you, Christ renew you and the Spirit enable you to grow in love.” Once that happened then this was said: “We confess to God and in the company of the people of God that each of our lives and the life of all the world is not whole.” That was then followed by an expression of forgiveness.
This, my friends, illustrates the examined life. And it also brings us directly back to the words attributed to Jesus (quote:) “You who have found your own life will lose it; you who lose your own life for my sake will find it.”
You see the love of or the pursuit of wisdom, the love of or the pursuit of virtue is not about us. The love and the pursuit of covenant is not about us. Nor is it about goals or numbers. The love of or the pursuit of wisdom, the love of or the pursuit of virtue, the pursuit of covenant, the love of covenant is about a purity of heart and about doing for others.
An examination of life is about being in covenant with one another. And we need to come to that place— being in covenant with one another— because God is in covenant with us.
Or as it says in another section of the reading from Matthew (quote:) “…not a single sparrow will fall to the ground without the knowledge of Abba, God.” These words about sparrows are really, you see, about what happens when we are in covenant.
Why would I say these words about sparrows is about what happens when we are in covenant? Because, as the lyric in the hymn we used earlier says, “God’s eye is on the sparrow, and I know God watches me.”
So, God’s eye is on the sparrow. And yes, God is in covenant with us. And God, who is in covenant with us, invites us to be in covenant with one another. Why? We are all children of God. Or, if you like, we are all sparrows.
And, as children of God, as God’s sparrows, we need to see to each other’s well being, to each other’s welfare, to each other’s well-ness, to each other’s wholeness. And perhaps most importantly, we need to see to each other’s holiness. We need to see each other as holy. Seeing each other as holy: that is what I call the pursuit of virtue, the pursuit of wisdom, the pursuit of… covenant. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY
06/25/2017 – Sunday of the Annual Meeting
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Robert Green Ingersoll, born in Dobbs Ferry, was an American lawyer, a Civil War veteran and political leader. He said, ‘In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.’ And, indeed, we tend to divide things up into rewards or punishments, hence we divide things up into winners and losers. But in God’s economy there are no winners or losers. There are sparrows.”
BENEDICTION: May we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.