Sin is a House Divided

“We can’t look at a list of “thou shalt not’s” to determine what is and is not a sin. Instead, we have to tune in to our innate knowledge of good and evil. We have to tune into a deep spiritual sense of who we are, and who God calls us to be. Perhaps the easiest way to become aware of the presence of sin in our lives is to ask: do I feel, right now, like a house divided?”

Sermon Preached: Sunday, June 6, 2021 at Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven

Lectionary Year B, Proper 5: Genesis 3:8-15 | Psalm 130 | 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 | Mark 3:20-35

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

“I love a sermon about sin,” I said, jokingly to two clergy colleagues as we were reading through the texts for this coming Sunday. My friend laughed, in his separate box on the Zoom screen, and we continued to discuss possibilities for sermon inspiration this week. Sin is a pretty hard topic to avoid in Christianity altogether – and it is certainly hard to avoid in our texts for this week. Our first lesson comes from Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve that Christians tell as a kind of origin story for sin. And then we get more sin in our Gospel reading for this week, as Jesus offers a very critical take on the sin of blasphemy. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” It’s hard to read a passage like that on a Sunday without addressing it, pausing to reflect about what on earth it is that Jesus is trying to say to us in this moment. Is there such a thing as an unforgivable sin? And how do we even react to the concept of sin in the first place – sin being a word that has been used at times to strike fear into the hearts of human beings, rather than instilling a deep, abiding sense of the love of God.

So yes – this is a sermon about sin. And I do love preaching about sin! But I don’t love it because I think that sin is ultimately a gloomy or despairing subject. I don’t love it for our harmful stereotypes of sin and hell and damnation. I love preaching about sin because I think it is one of the most helpful ways of understanding our human brokenness. And it’s only when we understand and acknowledge this human brokenness that we can move towards wholeness and fullness of life. I love preaching about sin because it points us to something better – a more whole, and holy, way of living.

So: let’s talk about sin. We pick up with the second story of creation in Genesis Chapter 3, Verse 8. Already God has created man, and a partner for the man to live out his days with – called, in this story, woman. God has also filled the Garden with trees, including two important trees of note: the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It’s this second tree that God forbids the man, Adam, and the woman, Eve, to eat from. Along comes a serpent, who convinces Eve that this tree is actually pleasant to look at, and good for food. Eve eats fruit from the tree, passes it on to Adam, and suddenly their eyes are opened.

The consequences of their choice are clear to God when God encounters Adam and Eve in the Garden, and they hide their nakedness from God’s sight. Adam immediately blames Eve, and God proceeds to curse the serpent – and, subsequently, lay out some further consequences for Adam and Eve.

One thing I find notable about this story is that the word, “sin,” is never mentioned. God never describes eating of the Tree of Knowledge as a sin. It’s us humans who have subsequently read the story and thought “aha! There is the origin of sin!” While the word sin is not used in this passage, I am generally on board with the idea that this story tells us something about what sin looks like in our lives. Or, if you are uncomfortable with the word “sin,” think of it as human brokenness. From this story, we learn that sin has something to do with choice – because Adam and Eve both chose to go against the will of God, and eat the forbidden fruit. From this story, we also learn that sin has something to do with knowledge – not because knowledge itself is a sin, but because when we go against the will of God there’s some part of us that knows it, deep in our hearts. And lastly, from this story we learn that sin leads to separation; to division. Once they have eaten the fruit, Adam and Eve become separated from themselves, suddenly self conscious of their naked bodies in the garden. It’s as if Adam and Eve have become alienated from themselves. But they also become alienated from one another. When God approaches them, Adam immediately turns on Eve seeking to put the blame on her, and separating himself even further from this person who was supposed to be his partner for life. Perhaps worst of all, Adam and Eve become separated, divided, alienated from God and they are compelled to leave the Garden.

That’s a lot of backstory from the Book of Genesis to get to sin, actually named as sin, or ἁμαρτία, in our Gospel passage for today. And yet I think you’ll find several resonances between the second creation story in Genesis and our reading from the Gospel of Mark. Once again, we find that the role of a tempter – whether it be the serpent, or Beelzebub, or Satan – plays an important role in our human understanding of sin. We see this when the scribes seek to put blame on Jesus for his ability to teach and work miracles. The scribes say, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” Jesus replies, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.”

This is an interesting passage because in effect it takes Satan out of the picture. “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Jesus asks. In other words, this isn’t about Satan. Jesus is doing good work and Satan has nothing to do with it. Rather it’s us humans – the scribes – who bring in the idea of Satan, and they do it to cast blame. They are trying to blame Jesus, or Satan – they are ready to blame anyone but themselves, eager to avoid taking an honest look at their own actions and how they align with good or evil. It is no coincidence that the English word “blame” is derived from the word “blasphemy,” βλασφημέω, in the original Greek.

Jesus continues to say, “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” This is a confusing passage, since we’ve shifted imagery from a house divided to a house being plundered. But I find it to be a very interesting passage if we think of Satan as the strong man. In this image the strong man is tied up, but the house is still plundered. In other words, human beings have a great potential to do wrong, even if Satan is tied up out of the picture. There are other ways of reading this passage too, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that Satan, or the serpent, or Beelzebub, are not ultimately responsible for our sins. We as human beings are perfectly capable of going against the will of God on our own. We are responsible for the choices we make in a world where we have knowledge about good and evil.

Another resonance between Mark and Genesis is the theme of division. “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” Jesus says, in those words that have become a famous quotation through a Civil War era speech by Abraham Lincoln. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” While Jesus uses these words as part of his rhetorical strategy to get Satan out of the way, I also think these words serve another purpose. They provide a clear image of sin, and what the consequences of sin feel like in our lives – and this image helps us understand our innate knowledge of good and evil.

Consider this: when we sin, it is as if we are a “house divided.” We become out of sync with ourselves, out of sync with the people we love, and out of sync with God. Sin and human brokenness is a complicated thing. It is a lot more complicated than simply following the 10 commandments! Rather sin is anything that separates us from ourselves, from one another, and ultimately from God. We can’t look at a list of “thou shalt not’s” to determine what is and is not a sin. Instead, we have to tune in to our innate knowledge of good and evil. We have to tune into a deep spiritual sense of who we are, and who God calls us to be. Perhaps the easiest way to become aware of the presence of sin in our lives is to ask: do I feel, right now, like a house divided? Or do I feel like a house that is whole, at home with myself and centered in the person that God intended me to be?

As I was reading our Gospel passage this week, I suddenly remembered the work of M.C. Escher. Escher was a meticulous illustrator who played with shapes and architecture to create images and landscapes that distort our sense of human reality. Take, for example, the drawing “Relativity,” which appeared at the top of our eNews this week. In this artwork there are three prominent staircases that intersect with one another at impossible angles. Faceless figures walk through architectural space on different planes, as if gravity was working in three directions all at once. This image is both playful and, admittedly, a bit eerie. I remembered Escher because it struck me that this is a very good depiction of a house divided.

Escher described his own work in this way: “Here we have three forces of gravity working perpendicularly to one another. The earth-planes cut across each other at right angles, and human beings are living on each of them. It is impossible for the inhabitants of different worlds to walk or sit on the same floor…. Contact between them is out of the question because they live in different worlds and therefore can have no knowledge of each other’s existence” (M.C. Escher: The Graphic, 14). Now, I know that Escher wasn’t writing about sin, but that sounds a lot like a broken world to me. When I look at that picture today, it helps me understand what sin feels like in my life.

When we choose to follow Jesus, we choose to turn away from sin. When we choose to follow Jesus, we commit to working towards a more harmonious world. When we choose to follow Jesus, we seek to heal division – in ourselves and in our communities. God created us to live in this world with one another – walking on equal ground; and not wandering faceless in a maze of our own creation. We were made for wholeness – both within ourselves and beyond ourselves.

When we think of sin as a state of dividedness, this clarifies our understanding of what is, or is not a sin. For example I was taught growing up that homosexuality was a sin. But I believe firmly today that sin rests solidly on the conscience of those who deny gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people the freedom to be who God created them to be. If loving someone of the same gender is what gives a person that sense of wholeness, of being a house united, then that is no sin but a blessing from God. On the other hand, there may be actions or attitudes in our everyday life that aren’t named as sin in the Bible. And yet if they lead us to feel like a house divided, then perhaps they are sin – a part of our human brokenness.

It is almost the end of this sermon, and I haven’t even begun to talk about blasphemy, that sin that Jesus says is unforgivable, if directed against the Holy Spirit. I have a lot more to say about that, but for now I will simply suggest the interpretation of my clergy friends, as we met earlier this week. Jesus’ condemnation of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not simply about saying a bad word  – that is a cheap understanding of the word blasphemy. Rather blasphemy is about blame, an entire attitude of negativity directed towards the Holy Spirit.  We might think of Jesus’ condemnation of this blasphemy as something that is more descriptive than proscriptive. If someone is slandering and blaming the Holy Spirit, the source of life that moves in and around us, then perhaps they are already caught in a deep, deep state of division and self-denial. That person is already living in a hell of their own making – a world of faceless people and stairs that lead to nowhere.

I don’t think that any of us is that far gone. Rather, I think that God created us with the deepest care, attention, and potential for good. You might say, to use the language of architecture, that we have “good bones.” And while our houses may be jostled and become divided it is important to remember – we were made for wholeness. We were made for unity. We were made to live in one world with one another – a garden, if you will – and that return to original blessing is the ultimate destination of our journey with Jesus. Amen.

References:

M.C. Escher: The Graphic Work; Introduced and explained by the artist. Trans. John E. Brigham. Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2007.

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