Death or Abundance

Year A
Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4,15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

May the words of my mouth… O God… speak your Truth…

In today’s passage from Romans… Paul writes… The wages of sin is death… I’ve heard this shouted from the mouths and pulpits of TV evangelists… and I’ve sometimes felt threatened by it… that it was said as a way to maintain power and control… perhaps imply that the one speaking had all the answers… and that we’d better listen… but messages like this… seem to point us to questions about whether we’re saved… or not… whether we’re getting into Heaven… or not…

But this is not the Jewish framework out of which Jesus spoke… about how the Kingdom of Heaven is here… now… a framework that embodied the words of God’s prophets… to ease the suffering of others and enhance life… about how we are to do unto others… as we want them to do unto us…

And remember that Paul was writing this letter to a group of people he never met… in a church he never visited… and by itself… this phrase sounds harsh… but we need to keep it in the context of what Paul has just said… and in the context of the lectionary over the last few weeks… we need to remember that Paul was shaped by Laws which exerted a significant influence on his theology…

But in today’s passage… he also wrote… For sin will have no dominion over you… since you are not under Law… but under Grace… this was a major sea-change for Paul… because for observant Jews… the Law… which had been written during the Babylonian Exile… was everything… it was a significant distinction which set the Jewish people apart… so Paul was able to write that we’re not under the Law… only because he understood that salvation was an unearned gift… because he rejected works righteousness…

In one of the Gospel options for Pentecost… Jesus tells the disciples… If you forgive the sins of any… they are forgiven them… if you retain the sins of any… they are retained… but I think Jesus was also directing those words to all of us… to the whole community… as we continue the work that he started… and the verb that Paul uses to describe sin… is hamartia… it’s an archery term… it means missing the mark… it’s a way of saying that we have fallen short of God’s goal for us… and sin is not simply missing the right mark… but it’s also hitting the wrong mark…

The wages of sin is death… it seems to me… that too many people understand this to mean… that we get paid back… for missing God’s mark for us… with death… you sin… you die… but we don’t pay enough attention to the part that says… the free gift of God is eternal life… otherwise… how do we reconcile death… with the promise of God’s free gift of eternal life…

And then in John 10:10… in the reading from Good Shepherd Sunday… Jesus is talking about the sheep… about us… and he says… the thief comes only to steal… and kill… and destroy… I came that they… the sheep… may have life… and may have it abundantly… so again… how do we reconcile death… with abundant life…

So I propose two imaginings… If you forgive the sins of any… they are forgiven them… if you retain the sins of any… they are retained… again… it seems to me… that too many people understand this to mean that Jesus… gave the disciples… Divine power of forgiveness… hoping perhaps that they wouldn’t dole it out capriciously… but John Shea writes… Jesus has taken away the sin of the world… replaced the fundamental separation between God and the world with communion… and communion with God makes possible people forgiving one another and coming into unity… but people must realize and engage this responsibility… if they hold onto the sins that separate… then separation will continue… if they let go of… and forgive those sins… unity will develop

And my second imagining… has to do with death… and abundant life… because if the wages of sin is death… and if sin means missing God’s mark for us… then just where do we miss God’s mark… in the Lord’s Prayer… we invoke God’s Kingdom come… and God’s will be done… on Earth… God’s will is already being done in Heaven… so we’re invoking God’s help… to hit God’s mark for us… to do God’s will… here on Earth… so the wages of sin may be death… but not death of the body… but the death of abundant life…

And one of the most fundamental ways we don’t forgive… one of the most fundamental ways we sin… one of the most fundamental ways we die… is by not welcoming… by not welcoming justly… And while there is nothing we can do that could make God love us any more… or any less… than God already does… we love some more than others… we welcome some more than others… by offering some water fountains with filtered and refrigerated water… and offering others tap water… we welcome some more than others… by applying one set of laws and penalties to some… and by applying another set of laws and penalties to others… we welcome some by making it easier for them to vote… than we make it for others… and we reject some by harboring subtle judgements and prejudices against them… but not against others…

There was an earthquake on May 31… a volcano erupted… and many of us woke up enough to not only see the elephant in the room… but to see it with 3D glasses… so we could see the length… width… and height of its pain… maybe feel the texture of its wounds… and even put our hands in them… and feel the wetness of its tears… all making it more real to us… and if we knew it better… we’d know how to effect more healing too…

Few of us have ancestors who owned slaves… but many of us have benefitted from slavery… and what’s ironic… is that across this country… many who benefit from white privilege… are still slaves to sin… because we miss God’s mark… and we deny ourselves and each other… the abundant life that God desires to give us…

But I heard something once… that has stuck with me… that God blesses what God can… and what God can’t bless… God redeems… and when we make mistakes… when we mess up… when we miss the mark… God continues to provide opportunities for us to grow… for us to learn… for us to repent… so that before long… there will be nothing for God to redeem… but only for God to bless… and I pray that we have the courage… and the strength… and the will… to hasten that day…

About the author: The Rev. Mike Wernick

The Rev. Mike Wernick is a second-career Episcopal priest who grew up in a Reform Jewish family. He relishes his role as the Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Officer for two dioceses and affirms all faith traditions (he has this idea that diversity was never intended to be divisive). He serves on several diocesan and synod committees, including the ELCA N/W Lower Michigan Synod’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, and is currently finishing the final year of a practicum to become a Spiritual Director.