Byron C. Bangert

July 12, 1998

Psalm 51:1-12; Romans 7:14-25

There is an old Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy says to Charlie Brown, "You know what the whole trouble with you is, Charlie Brown?"

"No! And I don't want to know!" Charlie Brown retorts. "Leave me alone!"

As he walks away, Lucy shouts back, "The whole trouble with you is you won't listen to what the whole trouble with you is!"

There are a number of people in our churches these days who think that there is trouble, right here in Church City, with a capital "T", that comes after "S", and that stands for "Sin." And a good part of our problem, in this view, is that we don't want to hear about it. We don't want to be told about our sin.

There is another Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy says to Charlie Brown, "You know what the trouble with you is? The whole trouble with you is that you're you." Not much one can do about that!

Sin is a major theme of the Christian story. And while there may not be much that we can do about sin, the Christian gospel declares that God has done something about it. Basically, the story goes like this: Human beings were created by God. They were given freedom, and they were commanded to live in obedience to God. But they disobeyed and fell into sin. In their sinful state, human beings are unable to fulfill God's commands or to earn God's favor. Thus we became separated from God. But God sent the Son, Jesus Christ, to die on a cross for our sins. Through this death we have been forgiven and redeemed from our state of sin so that we might enjoy everlasting communion with God.

In this view, the basic human condition is one of sin. And the answer to the question, What's wrong with you?, is that you are a sinner.

The question I invite you to consider with me this morning is whether being a sinner is all that is wrong with you. Or whether being a sinner is an adequate way of understanding what is wrong with you. You will note that I take it for granted that each of you is a sinner. So am I. But just so you know what I'm thinking, I have a hard time believing that being a sinner is the whole trouble with you, or the whole trouble with me. My aim this morning is to suggest in a small way what else is problematic about the human condition. Next Sunday I will preach on "What's Right with God?"

Our two texts this morning are two of the Bible's profoundest statements about sin. In the Old Testament, the psalmist calls upon God to be delivered from a pervasive sense of sin: "Have mercy on me, O God. . . Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity. . . For I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me." The psalmist is beset with guilt, filled with an almost overwhelming sense of defilement. What strikes me as most profound in this prayer, however, is the author's realization that sin is not just a matter of personal defilement, nor is it simply a transgression of law and commandment. Ultimately, as the psalmist understands, all sin is against God: "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight." This is not a disavowal of sin against neighbor. It is the insight that, inasmuch as we have sinned against the "least of these"--including against ourselves--we have sinned against God. All that we render of our lives, we ultimately render to God. And it is God alone who can deliver us from our guilt and distress, cleansing us, upholding and sustaining us, restoring to us the joy of divine salvation.

When we turn to our New Testament text, we encounter a different situation, but a similar problem. Paul speaks of his own inner conflict, his own inner struggle, in which his desire to do what is good is thwarted by his propensity to do what is evil: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . . Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Like the psalmist, Paul finds himself powerless to overcome the power of sin in his life. Like the psalmist, he turns to God for his deliverance.

These words from Paul's letter to the Romans come at the end of a long section in which Paul has provided his account of the human condition before God, under the law, beset by sin. Paul clearly links this condition to the sin of Adam, the initial act of trespass and disobedience. Clearly also, however, Paul understands sin to be something more than moral failure. Sin is a kind of power that has entered the world, and that has infected the human spirit. Sin is at work in us, apart from our wills and desires. Thus, it is not sufficient for us to will and desire the good. Paul avers that he wills the good, but is not able to do it. It is only by the power of God that we are able to overcome this power of sin in our lives.

For Paul, as for the psalmist, sin is not simply a word to describe a moral failure, a misdeed, an act of transgression. Sin is more like an infection, a debilitating condition, a pervasive power. To be a sinner is not just to be someone who does things that are bad from time to time. To be a sinner is to be someone who has been infected by corruption, overcome by debilitating forces, or hostage of an alien and hostile power. To be a sinner is to be in a state or condition that consumes your existence, and that robs you of joy. It is a state from which you cannot rescue yourself without the help and power of God.

Both Paul and the psalmist understand that the human condition is more than the consequence of individual moral failure. Our problem is not just that we use our freedom wrongly, that we make bad choices, that we often do bad things. The human condition is a state in which we find ourselves unable to be and to do all of whatever it is that we regard as good, or as God's will and purpose for us. Unfortunately, the profundity of these understandings is usually lost upon us when we begin to think and talk about sin. We usually end up thinking about sin and the human condition in just the moral terms of good and bad, right and wrong. Sin is what people do wrong. Sin is disobedience toward God. It is a failure to keep the commandments. It is a violation or trespass against others, or against the law of God. In other words, our everyday conception of sin does not adequately express the full range of human experiences by which we are persuaded that there is something wrong with us. Even Paul's profound conception of sin is rooted in an event of moral failure, an essentially moral transgression, and does not take into view the full range of defects and failures that we experience as human beings.

What's wrong with you? I will not try to answer that for any of you. But I venture that each of you experience things that are wrong with you that do not seem to be matters of wrong or bad behavior. I venture that at least some of the trouble with you--so far as you can tell--is not related to any acts of disobedience toward God. I am not trying to let you off the hook. I am not suggesting that maybe you are not really a sinner, and that your behavior is always acceptable. But I am suggesting that your own moral failures and limitations, your own shortcomings and misdeeds, and your own acts of rebellion and disobedience toward God, may be only part of the trouble with you. The whole trouble with you is not just a matter of the will. It is not just a matter of moral defect. It is also a matter of mental and physical and emotional and spiritual failure and limitation as well. The whole trouble with you is that you are you!--a human being, subject to the human condition. You are not God!

Over fifty years ago, theologian Paul Tillich preached a sermon titled, "You Are Accepted" [SHAKING THE FOUNDATIONS, 1948, 153-163]. It was a sermon about sin and grace. The sermon, or at least its title, became widely known. I think I know why. I think it was because Paul Tillich did not just say, "You Are Forgiven." He said, "You Are Accepted." Acceptance means something greater, bigger, more encompassing, than forgiveness. We all stand in need of forgiveness, but we stand in need of more than that. What's wrong with us is not just that we are guilty and need to be forgiven, but also that we experience ourselves to be rejected, excluded, neglected, deficient, defective, isolated, estranged, unloved, unaccepted and unacceptable in so many other ways. The good news is that God loves us, not just in spite of our sins---which are many---but in spite of all that we are and all that we are not. We are accepted as we are.

While I was at Princeton Theological Seminary a little over two weeks ago I took an afternoon walking tour of neighboring sites, including a walk by the house where Einstein used to lived. One of the other sites on this tour was the graduate student housing of Princeton University. There we saw an imposing bell tower rising several stories high. Our guide told us that the tower had been closed several years ago. Why? Because it had become too popular a site for students who had failed courses or major exams to commit suicide by jumping off.

What does the Christian gospel have to say to such persons who feel that their lives are no longer worth living? That they have not tried hard enough? That they failed because they did not study enough? Perhaps, for those Princeton students, it was true in some cases. But failure comes in many forms, not all of them moral, not all of them due to a failure of will.

Television commercials are a constant reminder of the many ways in which we are threatened with rejection of one sort of another. You can be in trouble if you only have American Express. You can look the fool if you spurned Hertz in favor of "Not exactly." You can be shunned if you haven't used the right mouthwash, underarm deodorant, dandruff shampoo, or toothpaste. You can lose out on a major opportunity if you are guilty of ring around the collar. You can lose the guy or girl if you're not drinking the right kind of beer.

Commercial advertisers know that people feel inadequate, unloved, at risk of rejection, or just plain unacceptable in all kinds of ways for which sin does not seem to provide an adequate account. What's wrong with some of us is that we do not feel we are pretty enough, or smart enough, or interesting enough, or talented enough, for whatever we hope from life. What's wrong with some of us is that we are timid and fearful when it comes to strange and new situations, and so we lose out on relationships and experiences and joys that seem to come naturally to others. What's wrong with some of us is that we are not happy, and don't know how to fix things or make them right. What's wrong with some of us is that we lack a sense of meaning or purpose, we don't know why we are here or where we should be going, and what we could be doing, that would put us in touch with ourselves or our destiny. What's wrong with some of us is that we are restless and distracted or easily discontented, and seem unable to make those commitments or stick with those relationships that might provide us enduring satisfaction and reward. What's wrong with some of us is that we do not trust other people enough to develop friendships and learn to rely upon them to help nurture our own spirits. What's wrong with some of us is that we are filled with ideas and thoughts and opinions that cloud our thinking and distort our perceptions and make us suspicious and prejudicial in our encounters with people different from ourselves. What's wrong with some of us is that we lack imagination or the capacity to see the world through the eyes of others, and thus are prevented from sharing our world with them or allowing them to share their world with us. What's wrong with some of us is that we are not sufficiently sure of ourselves to know where we stand or to possess the confidence to relate to others with integrity and respect.

As Christians, we could say that all of what is wrong with us is due to sin, and that may be true--if we understand sin in the broadest possible terms. But I do not think that is very helpful. Surely we are not individually to blame for all that is wrong with us. Forgiveness is not all that I seek or need from God. It makes little sense to me to ask forgiveness for being a white, middle-class, middle-aged, male from the American Midwest. But there are times when I seek and pray for acceptance in just these terms of who I am!

A good part of what is wrong with us is that we are not content with who we are. We have a hard time accepting ourselves, with our given limitations. But, in truth, this acceptance comes hard because of the world in which we live. Often it is that the world does not accept us as we are. Sometimes it is that the world entices us with possibilities and prospects that lie beyond our reach, our abilities, our capacities to attain. Sometimes it is that we recognize that we have yet to find the way to become all that it is within the realm of our possibilities to be. There are various possible sources of the feeling that there is something wrong with us. However it happens, we are made to realize that we are profoundly limited in who we will be and what we will do. We are also made to realize that many of the limits that are placed upon our lives are matters of time and circumstance. The challenge that confronts us is not just to reckon with our sin, but with all our fallibilities and with our finitude. The whole trouble with us is that we are finite human beings, subject to the conditions of time and place, limited in what we can be and do by the resources of our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our spirits, and that we seldom make the best of what we are, and that we often act in ways that diminish the possibilities of life for others and for ourselves. We need the message of forgiveness for what we do and what we fail to do that afflicts and depletes the lives of others and that lessens our own existence. But we also need the message of acceptance of everything that lies beyond our powers that makes us who we are.

What's wrong with us? In the first place, that we are only human! And in the second place that we have a hard time living with that fact, and often rebel against it. And in the third place, possessed by pride and all the other self-preoccupations that we know as sin, our actions turn evil and destructive, harming others and robbing us of the joy of our existence. If we could only learn to accept ourselves and others!

Paul Tillich understood such acceptance to be a gift of grace. He said:

We experience moments in which we accept ourselves, because we feel that we have been accepted by that which is greater than we. If only more such moments were given to us! For it is such moments that make us love our life, that make us accept ourselves, not in our goodness and self-complacency, but in our certainty of the eternal meaning of our life. We cannot force ourselves to accept ourselves. We cannot compel anyone to accept himself. But sometimes it happens that we receive the power to say "yes" to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear, and that our self is reunited with itself. Then we can say that grace has come upon us [ibid., 163].

You know what the whole trouble with you is? I don't! I doubt that any of us does. But wouldn't it be something if we could learn to accept one another. For that to happen, I suppose we would have to learn to accept ourselves. And for that to happen, we need to know that we are accepted. We need the knowledge of God's grace, the gift of God's love. AMEN.

This is a crucial insight that often gets lost in Christian thinking. It is often supposed that human mortality, finitude, and death are the consequences of sin. To the contrary, it is the refusal to accept our finitude that leads to sin. The serpent in the garden of Eden succeeds in his temptation with the promise that the woman will become like the gods if she eats of the forbidden fruit.