What I Didn’t Learn at Harvard Divinity School

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By Chris George
Well, I am certainly honored to have the opportunity to be with you this morning. If I must confess, I am a bit envious of you as I have many fond memories of my time in Divinity School. I went to Harvard Divinity School, a place where they are still debating the existence of a Diety. It was a strange place to learn to be a minister, but a wonderful place to learn about life. I hope you are having the same kind of experience in this setting.

Sometimes, I miss the classes and the theological conversations. I miss meeting with the professors to share a new idea only to learn that someone else had thought of it six centuries earlier. That was disheartening enough, then the professor added, “Of course, he was burned at the stake as a heretic a few years later for having that thought.” And, I miss going out with classmates to Sullivan's Tavern to discuss the day and enjoy a pint of cold…wait-Mercer is still a Baptist school right?, so, as I was saying a pint of cold Coca-Cola.

As I reflected on a topic of my remarks today, I tried to remember something we never really discussed in Divinity School. Which, to be quite candid, was difficult, not only because it was more than ten years ago, but also because we talked about so many different subjects. I considered seeking to impress with you some obscure scholar or radical idea, which in seminary circles is the same as celebrity name dropping in modern society. What if I did a message from an apocryphal text like the Gospel of Phillip, or offered an extended analysis on the Gospel of Mary?

I paused in preparation to think about the Season. It is Lent. And, at that moment, I remember a word long since forgotten. I had never once heard addressed at Harvard Divinity School. It may have been a bit too radical for the academic setting. I know it is not politically correct.

A little three-letter word—SIN

Now, I must confess, preparing for this chapel was a bit strange for me. I have been asked to speak about many things during my ministry. I have been asked to talk about Satan and Salvation, Grace Issues and Race Issues, the Elect and the Select, Sprinkling and Dunking. But, I am not sure I have ever prepared a sermon on sin.

Perhaps, the word has become the exclusive property of the street corner preachers who are screaming at passing cars. We roll our eyes and commit never to follow in those footsteps. Perhaps, we have seen the word used as a weapon to attack others. We cringe when a television pastor says that the natural disasters and calamities which kill thousands are God's righteous punishment for sin. And rightly so.

But, just because a word has been misused does not mean that it must fall into disuse. If anyone should know that, Baptists should know that…for our name has been misused by many, but our calling is to reclaim our identity…Preach and practice what it means to be Baptist. But, I digress.

Sin is not a popular concept in contemporary culture, but it is certainly an ever present reality. We can call it whatever we want…a mistake, an accident, an innocent error, a transgression, a trespass, a little white lie, bending but not breaking the law, fudging the numbers…But whatever we call it, it is sin. And, we know sin exists because we see the results of sin in our world. Broken hearts. Broken lives. Broken people. Brokenness.

And whatever your calling, wherever you minister, your role first and foremost will be to bring healing into a broken world.

Whenever we talk about sin, we are going to be preaching those “meddlin” kind of messages that impact each one of us, pastors included. We are no longer pointing toward others, but looking inside ourselves. We are thinking not only of our actions, but our motivations. In the words of the old Episcopal prayers, we are thinking “not only of what we have done, but also what we have left undone.”

Some sins, like murder, theft, or adultery, shout.

Other sins don't shout, they whisper. Gossip, Worldliness, Pride, Envy…these sins work their way into our hearts. These sins alter our perspective slowly. Like a terrible disease, these sins attack us internally and gradually seek to destroy us from the inside-out.

Jesus talked about Respectable Sins in Matthew 23:25-28.
25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
These are some of Jesus harshest words. We are meeting the “Mean Jesus” and we don't really like him much, do we?

Those in the church may be shocked to learn Jesus' words are not directed at the “real” sinners like the prostitutes, thieves, or murderers. Baptists may be shocked to hear that He does not offer his strongest condemnation for those who drink or the worst sinners of all–those who dance. No, Jesus harshest criticism is directed at the religious who are engaged in respectable Sins. Jesus seems not worried with those who are (in my grandmother's words) “going to hell in a handbasket,” but rather those who are hypocritically tolerating sin while verbally espousing spirituality.

And, here is the problem. Most of us. We are them. They are us. We are the religious.

Notice, no one says “Amen” here? Instead, we echo Jesus, saying “Woe”

Let's read these same verses from the Message translation. It is a modern rephrasing which seeks not to directly translate words, but to effectively translate ideas. The Message reads:

You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.

You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You're like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it's all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you're saints, but beneath the skin you're total frauds.”

These are not words for the faint of heart. Actually, as I was reading them, these may not be the best words to read before lunch, right? I wouldn't recommend this for a funeral service.

If the words shock us, cause us to be alarmed, then they are probably serving the purpose that Jesus intended. Sometimes, we need to be awakened from our slumber.

At Samford University, I was an English Literature Major and my favorite author was Nathaniel Hawthorne. Most are familiar with his work, The Scarlett Letter. Contrary to popular opinion, the book is less about the Cardinal Sins of Adultery (The Scarlett Letter A) and more about the subtle sins of her Puritan Community.

In another lesser known Hawthorne work entitled “The Minister's Black Veil.” The minister in a small New England town chooses to wear a black veil. His preaching is extraordinary. His life is exemplary. But, the townspeople were always gossiping about him. They assumed he was wearing the veil to hide some past sin. At the close of the story, the minister lifts his veil and looks upon the townspeople. He says, “Why Do you tremble at me alone?…I look around and lo! on every face a Black Veil!”

We are all wearing Black Veils. We are all sinners. Respectable veils do not hide the vile nature of our sins. Respectable sins still leave black marks on our souls.

And, if we dismissed from chapel now, I would have spoken to you about sin, but failed to preach the Gospel.

The Gospel does not ignore our guilt, but says in spite of our guilt, God extends to us grace. The Gospel does not dismiss our wrong, but God seeks to make all things right. The Gospel says that God loathes sins, even the respectable kind, but God loves the sinners.

My wife who is Catholic has helped me learn to appreciate her rich tradition. Growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, I had dismissed Catholicism as some form of voodoo. In particular, many protestants criticize the Catholics for the Confessional Booth. “I don't need a priest, I only need God to forgive my sins.” Of course, I agree, sorta of. And, to be honest, most Catholics would agree as well. God alone forgives sins.

But, my wife has helped me to better understand the role of a priest. In a confessional booth, the role of the priest, as much as anything else, is to provide a mirror for the church member. In confession, the individuals must look back on his or her life, must acknowledge and admit sins, big sins and little sins, sins of omission and sins of commission, reprehensible sins and respectable sins….All of these sins.

As we close today, let me ask you a simple question…

When we the last time you really looked in the mirror?

Lent is a Season of repentance and renewal. But, we don't start with the Easter Celebration. We start in the shadows of our sins.

The real purpose of this Lenten Study is to provide you with a mirror. Let me warn you, it is not always easy or comfortable to look in the mirror. If you think a bad hair day is scary, imagine what you may see when you look into a soul where sin has been acceptable and respectable, where sin has been allowed to sit, stagnate, and fester. It is not a pretty picture.

Every year, about this time, my wife and I engage in some Spring Cleaning around the house, but one area has always been off-limits. It is the spare bedroom closet that has become the “dumping grounds.” It is filled with items we don't really need, but we don't really want to get rid of. (Things like my seminary papers)

It will never get cleaned if we don't open it. If we keep the closet shut, we can ignore it and pretend it doesn't really exist. But, the problem is…it does. Sin is similar. We could avoid talking about it, hoping it will go away. But it won't. So, today, we take our first step. We talk about it. Over the next few weeks, I hope you will unpack the closet and see what is inside. I must tell you, it won't be easy. It won't be comfortable. But, it will be worth it.

At the end of this Lent, I hope to have a clean closet at my house.
At the end of this Lent, I hope you have a clear mind and a clean heart.
……….
Chris George is the senior pastor at FBC Mobile in Mobile, Alabama. He was the chapel preacher at McAfee School of Theology on March 13, 2012.