"Sinners Anonymous," Sermon by Rev. Fred Kinsey
Welcome to Sinner’s Anonymous! No, not Alcoholics Anonymous, not AA, but SA, Sinner’s Anonymous. A church that welcomes all who have sinned, because, as St. Paul says, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Of course, most of the time, we don’t think of church this way. Usually when we walk into a worship service, we like to, put our best foot forward. We naturally want to portray our most attractive selves. We assume that, to be accepted, we have to be, good people.
But church is really supposed to be about people who acknowledge that they are sinners, and are clear about that. We can never fully shed our human condition of sin, but, at SA (Sinners Anonymous), we are always in recovery. We can never be perfect, except in so far as we turn around, walk in a new direction, and give ourselves over, to our life of baptism in Christ.
1bShould we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means, (says Paul)! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
We know we sin, but we’re trying to live into a new reality, the dawning of the kingdom, that Christ brought us. To live an honest life that acknowledges the problems we face, so that we can work through the “steps” that help us live into God’s forgiveness and grace. Going out and sinning more, so that grace may abound, is not honest, and will only deliver us into the hands of Beelzebul, the Evil One’s hands.
When we begin worship with corporate confession, that’s really what we’re doing. We’re standing up, as baptized people, and saying out loud: Hi, my name is Fred. I’m a sinner. Last week I sinned, and participated in structures of sin, like racism, in the following ways. And we say the Confession together, admitting to our condition of sin. Then we sit down, having unburdened ourselves, and begin working at living into the promise of God’s forgiveness in Christ, spoken by the presiding minister, on Christ’s behalf. It’s our weekly meeting. And then we gather round the coffee pot afterwards – as long as there’s no pandemic.
Not everyone is ready to come to Sinner’s Anonymous. Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we’re ready to admit our sin. Before we’re ready to be buried with Christ. The hardest to fall, are usually those on top of society’s hierarchy. The high and the mighty. The rich and famous. Perhaps you can think of some examples.
I’m thinking of Abraham and Sarah – the patriarch and matriarch of our faith. Paul, of course, deals with them theologically. How they are our parents in the faith. Great examples for us to live by. But the details of their life, as parents of God’s chosen people, are much more fraught. They are, actually, great candidates for SA, Sinner’s Anonymous!
When we pick up the story in Genesis today, God has already visited Abraham and Sarah a few times. The original call to them was a promise of a new land, and a progeny, that would be more in number than the stars of the sky. But after 10 years, already in their old age, they wavered in their faith that God could do this for them.
And since Sarah was beyond her childbearing years, she decided that God must have meant for them to have a child some other way, and Sarah suggests to Abraham that he could take their Egyptian servant girl, Hagar, as another wife, to bear a child for them! Abraham, being the macho Patriarch, that he no doubt was, doesn’t give it another thought, before doing just that, and soon, Hagar is visibly, with child.
Hagar, enjoys her new status as the woman who, in place of Sarah, will give birth to Abraham’s first child, and makes no bones about rubbing it into Sarah’s face whenever she can. When Sarah feels slighted, she goes to Abraham to complain, who, in his elite and aloof way, absolves himself from responsibility, telling Sarah she has the power to do with their servant Hagar, as she wishes.
So Sarah, with this permission from Abraham, uses her freedom, not for grace, but to sin more, harassing and humiliating Hagar, who then runs away. But God visits Hagar and tells her to return, for through her son Ishmael, God will bless them with descendants beyond counting – much like the promise to Abraham and Sarah.
So Hagar returns to her life of bondage, gives birth to Ishmael, who God also said, would be “a wild ass of a man,” which later, will come in handy!
In due time, God comes ‘round again, one more time, to remind Abraham and Sarah, that God is giving them a child, of their very own. Sarah will give birth – which she does, within the year. And they call him Isaac, or “he will laugh.” Which is where we pick up the story in our reading today.
Isaac grew, it says in Genesis, and when he was weaned, Abraham was so proud, that he threw a great feast for him. But, Sarah was looking further down the road at the dilemma they were soon to be in. Ishmael, as the firstborn son, had a right, to double the family inheritance. And Sarah demanded that Abraham should not allow this – “a slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac,” she insists.
I’m not sure we should give Abraham a pass, when he feigns sadness, here. He has not been attentive to God’s plan anymore than Sarah. But God steps in for them both, reminding them that God will keep his promise of a great nation through Isaac. But also letting them in on his promise to Hagar, that from Ishmael shall come a great nation too. Which we know today, as the seed of Muhammed, and the people of Islam.
In the bittersweet ending to this story, we see Hagar and Ishmael being escorted by Abraham, off the property, with meager provisions, bread and water, for a journey to the wilderness of Beersheba, surely to die. Yet God will provide.
Just when Hagar is about to give up, God hears their cries, and opens her eyes to see a well in the bushes, and, the water is cool, and they survive. And God was with the boy Ishmael, and he grew and thrived as a bowman in the desert wilderness – he was a wild ass of a man, after all! And Hagar “got a wife for him from the land of Egypt,” her home. Ishmael will show up one last time in Genesis – when Abraham dies – for Ishmael and Isaac will come together, to help bury their father.
Abraham and Sarah are our parents, our father and mother in the faith, in all their flawed humanity – no different than you and I. But when God promises, God follows through. God doesn’t wait for these sinners, these chosen people, to perfect themselves. ‘Should they continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!’
God promises, and picks Abraham and Sarah, even in their flawed state. God also promises blessings to Hagar and Ishmael – not God’s elect, but the outcast and underclass – whom God loves, all the same. God saves us, even when we were sinners – all of us!
What the world still longs for today, of course, is the redemption of Hagar and Ishmael, the cast-out ones, the rejected. Phyllis Trible speaks eloquently about her condition of powerlessness. Hagar is, “The resident alien without legal recourse, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, and the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures.” (Trible, Terror, 28) But she is always equally entitled to God’s grace.
So, Welcome to Sinners Anonymous – where everyone in recovery from their sinfulness, and reaching for the best in humanity, as God gives us power by the Holy Spirit – gather each week.
We cannot do it alone, which is why we Confess corporately – together. “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master,” said Jesus to the Disciples; 25“it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” Jesus, is in it with us, expecting our SA (Sinners Anonymous) group to be egalitarian and equitable. ‘If your leaders call me Beelzebul,’ says Jesus, ‘how much more will they malign those of my household,’ i.e., us?!
We know that Jesus is not, Beelzebul – prince of demons, chief among sinners – but the font of forgiveness. We can’t do it, without him. Jesus walks alongside us, in our recovery, in our baptisms, one day, one step, at a time.
And that’s the promise we need, and can count on!