Micah 6:6-8 With what shall I come before God and bow down before the Holy One? Shall I come with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will God be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? God has showed you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Holy One require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
John 8:2-11 Early in the morning Jesus came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."
Will you pray with me? God of Grace, open our hearts and spirits to your wisdom; may our speaking and our hearing be a blessing. In all your names, amen.
As we continue with our hard questions series, today we are looking at the idea of sin. What is sin? How do we recognise it? How do we avoid it? Is it even real? How can we be free of sin—if we can be?
Sin is a very loaded word. So many things have been called sinful, so many different actions and beliefs and lifestyles—and even identities and individuals. Some of us may have been called sinful because of—well, lots of things. For some faith traditions, tattoos or divorce or the use of birth control or loving a person of the same gender are all sinful—to them, I am personally very sinful. It’s a hurtful word that has been used to separate some people from their faith community—because they had a child without being married, or they went through a divorce, or they wear clothing that is deemed inappropriate or because of the work they do, or because of who they love.
So what is a better definition of sin? I offer you this--sin is anything that separates us from God. Anything that violates what God calls us to do is sin. And that begs another question—what does God expect of us? Hear again the wonderful words of Micah: “God has showed you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Holy One require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Justice, mercy, humility. Beautiful words, but how do we understand them in our own lives? How can we live those out? God expects these things, but what do they look like, in an everyday, real and concrete sense?
First, justice. Justice is fairness and equity, or making sure everyone has what they need and that no one takes from others what is not theirs. So injustice is one person or group taking something away from someone else or another group, or preventing them from getting something that is rightfully theirs. So it is obvious that theft—robbery and burglary—are injustice, because one person is taking another person’s property (camera, car, cash, etc.), but so is unfair income distribution, or violating personal covenants, because some people have what rightfully belongs to another, or have more than they need but not giving that excess to someone who needs it. Denying education to women, or access to civil rights is injustice—whole groups of people, whether women, the LGBT community, or ethnic minorities are kept from what is rightfully theirs—education, work, safety at home or in their community. Justice, then, is the work of reversing all this—ensuring equal rights for everyone, working towards that goal in whatever way we can. We do justice on a personal level too—the integrity of our everyday lives, from not taking someone else’s lunch from the office refrigerator to awareness of the language we use and how it can hurt or divide. Anything that makes someone less than another is injustice; those who do justice seek to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and according to their needs.
Mercy is accepting each other as we are, allowing each person the dignity to be who they are, even allowing them to make what we may think are mistakes; it is caring for those who are hurting in any way. It means feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, supporting the ones who are vulnerable for whatever reason. It is knowing that you could walk away, but instead choosing to stay and help and support another person. It is a lack of judging another person who has made—or been offered—different choices than we had. That cuts both ways—sometimes it is easy to see how we judge someone who is homeless, but more difficult to see how we judge people who are wealthy.
Finally, walking humbly with God, or humility, is acknowledging that there is a power greater than ourselves in the universe, knowing that there is something larger and more powerful than we are. Humility is the opposite of arrogance, which assumes that we are the centre of the universe, of everyone else’s concern and care, and that nothing and no one matters more than we do. Humility recognises the value of each person, no matter who they are or seem to be; it does not mean thinking less of ourselves than we are worth, or treating ourselves badly, but understanding that we are all in this together and no one person is more important than any other.
Humility may be the most important of these, because when we are humble, we can recognise more easily how others need mercy and justice. So recognising the presence of God, being humble, is the first step.
What does God require of us? Mercy, justice, humility. Violating any of these is what is meant by sin—it separates us from God, we are not acting out of our best selves. So greed for example, which is one of the classic deadly sins, leads to taking from others, whether on a corporate level (such as poor working conditions that endanger the workers in order to increase profits), or on a personal level, like indulging oneself while denying the same things to one’s children, or even a legal level, such as giving one group rights that another is forbidden to enjoy—segregation, apartheid or marriage rights, anyone?
We all have sinned, by these definitions, because we are all human. We have not acted as we know we should—we have been arrogant or unjust or unmerciful. Please note that who we love is not a sin—whether our beloved is a person of the same gender, a different race or faith or of a different nationality. We have all, at some point—probably many times—failed to live out of our best selves and not been merciful when we could have, or denied God’s power over us. We are indeed human, and fail even when we are trying so hard to do what is right.
That doesn’t mean we give up trying to do better. Like the accusing people in the reading from John today, we can acknowledge our errors, and turn away, to do better. Those people who wanted to stone the woman were guilty of injustice—because they were only attempting to punish her, not her partner; and of arrogance, or lack of humility, because they decided they could pass judgement on her, and they showed a lack of mercy in their insistence on her being punished. And when they realised that, they slunk away. But Jesus, while he shows mercy and humility and even justice to her, also does not let her off the hook. He accuses her of nothing, but he tells her to sin no more—he’s not making a judgement, he’s accepting the facts of her life, while at the same time, offering her an opportunity to change. “Go and sin no more.”
This being human thing is not easy; but this is a principle we can live by—do justice, love mercy, and show humility. That is what God requires of you.
In all God’s many names, amen.