I ask you ladies and gentlemen this morning to join me in my campaign. I am forming and standing for and working for the elimination of a scurrilous and terrible force in our lives, an influence upon pour souls and upon our hearts that is pernicious as well as dangerous and several other negative adjectives as well.
This influence has been with us since the beginning, it has dogged our steps as the first disciples heard the teachings of Christ from the divine lips and it was with us when Paul walked ten thousand miles, spreading the word as it had come to him on the road to Damascus, a word for change, a word for the kingdom of god come near, a word of peace and a word of hope.
This terrible force was with us when we entered both world wars, it was with us when we launched the first rocket into space and when we sunk a submarine into the deepest parts of the ocean. It will warp your soul, curve your spine and keep this country from winning the war against plaque and periodontal disease.
It leads us astray, down the primrose path so to speak. It convinces us that we can do things we cannot do, daring us to take risks that will inevitably lead us into destruction because our pride will always convince us that we can where we can’t.
The battle we will join is a holy one, one which will place us firmly on the side of the angels, the holy ones who have gone before and have claimed the promise of their baptisms. Our enemy is intractable; it whispers flattery and deceit in our ears and will try and lure us astray but is we are steadfast and sure, with Christ as our ground and guide, then we can prevail, we must prevail.
Our enemy is no less than the letter “s.”
Doesn’t seem that dangerous, does it? After all, many of us have two car(s). The property up in Mendocino is 137 acre(s). Two cat(s), good neighbor(s), none of these things are a problem for us are they? We like neighbors, or at least we do over at the Carnahan place. I love my cats and so on.
The problem is not plurality as a concept.
It is how we use it.
When drafting the Bill of Rights, James Madison thought the whole process was a mistake, calling it the “parchment barrier” protecting people’s rights and that by naming them individually, that the framers might be tempting someone in later years to think that Americans are guaranteed only the rights listed and no others. Given the way that some folks read the constitution, you can see that he had a point.
As soon as you start listing them, they become things, individual and discreet, instead of something larger, more compelling.
They’re like the four cardinal virtues of antiquity; they are a list of things to do. If you have these convictions, then you care about these things, you care about something.
But if there’s a list, doesn’t that mean that there are things that are not on the list? Madison saw it clearly enough.
The letter s is the difference, you see, between a set of convictions, individual things about which we feel passionate, and conviction. If you read the Bible and find things mentioned there that fill you with righteous indignation, like injustice, or poverty or the plight of widows and orphans and add them into yourself then that is a good thing, something worthy of a Christian, one might imagine.
After all, Jesus paid a lot of attention to these things, a lot of attention to who was in the club and who was out of the club, what the meaning of faith might be and how we might enact it. Paul too had things on his mind that were important to consider for the Christian, things that were symptoms of a world not transformed into the Kingdom of God by the coming of the Christ.
One could certainly be forgiven for glomming onto these things and making of them the convictions of a Christian soul, the things that a Christian ought to think about, pay attention to and work to resolve, after all, Jesus mentioned them, or Paul did, they’re in the Bible they must be important.
That’s what people do with scriptures. How many times have you heard someone advocating for their position begin with the Phrase, “The Bible says . . .” and then point to one of these things, these convictions and say, “this is what we ought to be doing, this is what is important.”
The problem with making lists, though, is that as soon as things are on the list; that means that things are off the list as well. It is the dilemma of every award winner everywhere. As soon as you start listing the people you want to thank you have to make sure you don’t leave anyone off or they may get offended.
When you make a list of the things you believe you either make the list comprehensive or admit to yourself (and not coincidentally, to God), that there are things that are simply not on the list, things you either do not have the heart or the time to list among your convictions. It is the s that does this terrible thing. It is the s that changes conviction into convictions and tempts us to leave things off of the list.
Conviction, on the other hand, is the passion with which you approach, well, whatever you do in the name of God. Take the s away and it begins to acquire nuance, it s the notion that we are all culpable for all of the things that Jesus mentions in the Bible, and all the things that Paul mentions too, and a whole host of other things as well, things not thought of in the first century in Palestine.
Conviction, no s, means that as the children of God we are called to see things as Jesus sees them, and to weep because the Kingdom, so close we can taste it at the rail, is not complete in the lives of those around us.
We are convicted by the knowledge of all of the suffering in the world, that we are called to see all people as brothers and sisters and that sometimes our hearts are not completely turned toward doing god’s will.
Instead of individual convictions, discrete and separate if we got rid of the s we could all speak with conviction, as my favorite Slam Poet Taylor Mali would say, “Saying what you believe in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it.” Not limiting ourselves to the individual convictions but allowing Christ to turn our hearts into a people who could speak of the condition of the whole world, the whole of creation with a conviction that Christ has come to save it all, not this list or that list, not your list or my list, but all of it.
The same s infects our thinking about sin as well. When we confess our sins we fall into the medieval trap of listing them, one by one, the things we have done during the week, speeding and lying and lustfulness and all the rest of them. I do it too. In that moment in the confession when I let you hang there, uncomfortably, and I turn toward the cross, I am thinking of the things that have disturbed me about myself during the past week but I am thinking in scenes, in vignettes, in individual instances, in sin(s).
But that is a lie. Sin(s) are not the problem. They aren’t good, but they are the temptation of the s that we find it nearly impossible to avoid. Sin(s) are thing; you can do them or not do them. If you did them last week you can congratulate yourself for not doing them this week and thereby feel the burden of that sin being lifted from your shoulders by nothing more than the work of your own hands, you successfully avoided that one this week, yay for you.
Did you Spot Jesus in that paragraph anywhere?
That’s because He wasn’t there. Making the forgiveness of sin(s) about individual sin(s) is to strip the truth out of the center of our confession like sucking the jelly out of a donut. It’s still nice and sweet but no longer is as advertised.
To ask for forgiveness of our sin(s) is to ask that we be a little better at this or at that, to ask that Jesus lend us a hand, to ask that tomorrow we might be a little more saved, a little more free of our sins that we are today.
To confess and seek the forgiveness of God made manifest in the flesh of Jesus Christ is to still see Jesus hanging there on the cross and to feel the sting of our sins and they play out across His flesh and to see the agony of being separated from God etched upon His face and to know deeply the lengths to which God has gone to set us free from that pain, that agony.
To confess is to know that Jesus did not die to make us better drivers, or better husbands or better wives, every day in every way getting better and better at the things we do and at avoiding those things we’d better not do.
It is to know that Jesus came for us so that we might have life. Not subject to the constant pull of this or that sin, wearing blinders to the truth and hearkening only to the sounds of our own voices, seeking only for the shallow rewards of pleasure, Jesus came to put that person and their trapped and lost self to death with Him and to raise up a new you, still you, but changed, set free.
Paul writes to Philemon about his slave, Onesimus. Philemon appears to have been pretty selective about which sin(s) he will be dealing with and has kept a slave, even though that slave is also a brother in the Lord and a fellow Christian, not of course, that that is what makes it a problem.
Paul asks Philemon to open his eyes a little wider and see that he is freed not from sin(s) but from sin, and that holding another in bondage is to bind also himself, back to the way before his salvation, back to the way of the law and the flesh and the individual effort to follow the law.
Paul asks Philemon to see his earthly loves, the way that he behaved and strove for righteousness and to follow the law as so overshadowed by the love of God for him that all of his earthly loves might seem like hate in comparison. Love of status. Love of self. Love of money. Even the love of family, mother and father so overcome by the love of god that they seem hateful.
And to see that as a way forward. To see that as the call to speak the better way, the way of god that does not give you a hand in your search for righteousness but puts to death your sin and delivers you whole and intact, the righteousness of Jesus shining upon you like the noonday sun. Paul calls Philemon to allow that love of God to double, triple, incomprehensibly expand his earthly love because it is from God and to let that be his guide and path, his light for living, his very heart.
You need not love your mom or dad or children any less. Like Philemon we are all called to open our eyes a little wider and to see how God’s love has delivered us, and to see how much better God’s own creation would be if that were the words we spoke the path we trod and the life we led, allowing that unsurpassed love shine into the world as it shines into our hearts.
No more s. No more lists. No more this or that. One people, One God, one salvation, forgiven of our sin.