24th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C (2004)

If you read the report from the September 11 Commission,
I can’t blame you if you couldn’t read much more than the first chapter.
It’s a very sober narrative of plane flight after plane flight leaving early that morning.
The straightforward words make the sheer heartlessness of it all overwhelming.

Reading that stayed with me for a few weeks,
until the image of evil I was carrying around in my mind was replaced
by pictures from the front page of the New York Times.
The unforgettable photograph of an Iraqi militant battling Americans in Najaf,
standing on the ledge of a window of a Moslem shrine,
his face grotesquely distorted with anger,
firing an automatic weapon at Americans.
Or just this past week, with dozens upon dozens of Russian schoolchildren
held hostage and abused and finally killed on their first day of school.

I don’t know how to react any more to scenes like this,
how people can possibly be brought to such a pass
where they do what we would like to be able to call the unthinkable.

It’s all so overwhelming that the sin we hear about in our scriptures
seems pretty tame, doesn’t it.
Especially today.
Worshiping a golden calf in the first reading from Exodus,
or in the case of the prodigal son it was being greedy for money, that’s all,
a few wild years off the reservation for a young rich kid.
Not much harm done in either case, really.
If God is willing to work with people who do things like that
we can understand it.
But what about worse, far worse?

These readings today are all of them about sin,
but really, they are about reactions to sin.
Even when what Jesus encounters is clearly sinful,
it is the way that people who are not involved in the sin react to it,
how they live in response to it,
that Jesus wants us to pay attention to.
He wants us to notice Moses arguing with God to save the people of Israel
even when they don’t deserve it at all,
and when Moses could just as easily wash his hands of the whole bunch.
He wants us to see the father of the prodigal son making a public fool of himself
for happiness at the repentance of someone who doesn’t deserve it.
He wants us to see the resentment and anger of the older brother
who didn’t do anything wrong.
These are the three people Jesus wants us to see today when we think about sin.
The passionate arguer for mercy, the foolishly generous father,
and on the other hand the righteous man who expects rewards and recognition
for how saved he is.
Two models of how we should feel towards sinners,
passionately caring and flexible,
one model of what to avoid,
self-righteous confidence that we’re in the right.
We’d love to feel that we could find the right course,
trying to be as generous as the first two, the prophet and the father,
avoiding the unattractive confidence of the older brother.

But what about sin so terrible that it can’t be understood, much less overlooked?
I don’t know if there is an answer,
if by an answer you mean something that will fix the problem.
What’s more, I don’t think we can even talk right now about forgiving the people
we encounter in our world who have done something so horrible –
although the unforgettable image of the current pope
visiting the man who tried to assassinate him
perhaps should be even more inspiring to us now than it was 20 years ago.
Openness and nonviolence like that often seems so impossible,
and yet apparently it is not.
But for a starting point,
let’s take the second reading we just heard today,
from a sinner, a persecutor, an executioner.

If St. Paul knew anything for sure, it was that he was a sinner,
had been in the past, and in his mind still was.
And what’s more, he knew that that was the main reason
Jesus came into this world at all.
Listen to what he says today:
This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
But then he said what really mattered:
Of these I am the foremost.
Not was the foremost – am the foremost.
We hear a lot about sinners being saved,
and St. Paul believed that he had been —
but he knew that being saved didn’t mean that he couldn’t sin.
Sin for him was something like alcoholism comes to seem to an alcoholic:
a flaw that is always with you,
even after you have been given the grace to overcome it.
People aware of their own sinfulness,
who know that the possibility of being saved from it is a joy greater than anything,
who know that the instincts inside themselves are just as flawed as anyone’s,
they are the only people who will figure out how to respond to sin
in way that will save other sinners.

If we know we are sinners,
it will prevent our deciding that our rightness entitles us to do anything in response to sin,
because we will always be aware how close we are
to the sin we are so outraged by.
But if we know we are sinners,
it will also prevent us from ignoring sin, isolating ourselves from it,
imagining that it is somehow far away from us.
Because if we too are sinners, we are not too good to be there,
we above all should be the people who are actively trying
to understand and to repair and to heal.

Three years after September 11,
when the world in many ways seems even worse off than it did that day,
all we really know about sin is that Jesus came to save sinners.
And that it is sinners like us
who will, if we know we are sinners,
bring the presence of Christ to a world that needs it desperately.

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