Sinners and Saints
Video of this sermon posted (here)
Opening words (here)
Have you ever been called a saint? Have you ever been called a sinner? If so, it’s time to get over it. It is just not true; it isn’t who you are. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in your life, be it good or be it bad. You are not a saint and you are not a sinner – and neither is the person sitting next to you. Your neighbors aren’t saints and they are also not sinners. It might be a stretch, but I think that is probably true even for our politicians here in Utah. They may be self-righteous, but they are far from saints. They may be corrupt, but they are not just sinners.
No, we are all human. We are capable of amazing acts of compassion, generosity and love. We are also capable of disgusting acts of cruelty, selfishness, and hate. It is important that we learn to accept this. It is critical that we learn to forgive each other and ourselves. It is the only way that we can begin again in love and create the kind of world we would like to see for ourselves and for our children.
It is a radical religious idea, that there are no saints and no sinners. It is not the history of most religions in this country or in the world.
Most common is the theological belief that we are all sinners, and are saved only by the grace of God, or maybe just by believing in certain very specific ideas about God.
Universalism was born out of a rejection of the idea that some are saved and some are damned. I love the quote from our reading about God dragging the last sinner kicking and cursing into heaven.
If you think that some of your neighbors are damned because of their sins, and by neighbors I mean every other human being that shares this planet, then it is not much of a stretch to try and make their life in this world a living hell. Hey, you’d just be doing God’s will. I won’t count up all the atrocities committed in the name of this type of religion. They include the crusades, 911, and all the witches and heretics that were burned at the stake. They include hate crimes and the murders of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and they include the genocidal war waged against the native peoples of this continent. Who cares about a heathen, who cares about a heretic, and who really cares about a sinner? God is going to punish them with hell anyway, so why do bother to treat them decently now?
Saying you love the sinner, but hate the sin, also just doesn’t cut it. If you really love someone, then you look beyond whatever flaws they might have or mistakes they might have made. You shouldn’t qualify that love by saying what you hate about someone. That isn’t love, it is just self-righteousness. Don’t tell someone that you love them, but that you believe God thinks that their love is an abomination. That’s not love; it’s spiritual violence.
Conservative beliefs about sin and damnation are obviously dangerous to the people they consider to be sinners, but they are also dangerous for those who hold those beliefs.
I did an interview on a Christian TV station in Salt Lake a couple of years ago. The man wanted to talk about how the Bible condemned homosexuality, but I somehow managed to turn it into a discussion about why one should never take scripture literally. The scariest part of that experience for me was when he said that we are all sinners. I responded that while I knew that some people did very evil things that caused great harm, my experience was instead that most people wanted to do good and tried their best to do so. He responded by saying that the person who stops and helps you change your flat tire goes home afterward and abuses his child. I think he really believed that, and it was a frightening view of the world. I asked if he believed that he was evil too, and he said that he was. He said that was why he believed in Jesus and the Bible. His religion was all that was going to save him from burning in the hell he believed that he deserved.
How can someone live like that, believing that they are nothing but a depraved sinner, believing that humans are nothing more than horrors? It is a belief that I think must eventually rot your very soul.
You can’t see the good in yourself or in anyone else and you focus instead on your failings and the so-called sins of others.
That world must seem a dreary and dangerous place.
That fundamentalist scared me, but I also had to feel some compassion for him, as it seemed a very sad and limited life that his belief system was causing him to live. Maybe there would be pie in the sky when he dies, but meanwhile here on earth his spirit was simply starving for joy.
You can’t love yourself if you think you are nothing but a sinner. You can’t really love other people either if you can’t love yourself. Yes, we all do some bad things, things we are ashamed of; things we regret, but those sins don’t define who we are as people. No matter what we have done, we have the potential to make amends, if not to the same people we have hurt, then to someone else and even to the world as a whole. That is the glory of being human and the grace that comes from being alive.
There are other theologies that don’t think everyone is a sinner, but they divide up the world into the sinners and the saints. People that believe in those religions, of course, think they are the saints and those other people over there are the sinners.
They are doing everything right, and God will reward them for their efforts. Saints tend to love themselves, at least as long as they continue to feel that God is blessing them.
In the old story of Job, a righteous man as described in the Bible, his life quite literally falls apart and he begins to question both himself and God. What had he done wrong that life would treat him so cruelly?
His neighbors assumed that he must not be as righteous as he appeared. Which is another danger with that type of theology, which says that if people are suffering it must be their own fault, because suffering is all a part of God’s plan.
I do not think we can blame God, or the divine, for the bad things that happen to us. I also don’t think everything good that happens is part of some cosmic plan.
Much of our suffering is human caused, either because of the acts of individuals or because of what we do collectively as a society. The same is true for the good things. That doesn’t mean we should not be grateful for the good things is our lives, but we also don’t always have to blame God or ourselves when bad things happen.
“If only I were a better person, if only I could be more Christ-like, if only I could be compassionate like the Buddha, then everything would be OK.” Saints have a hard time, because, well, no human being is really capable of pure sainthood. Yes, we all have a spark of the holy within us and in that sense we are partly divine, but there is no way that any of us can achieve God-like perfection. Thinking we can, trying and failing, can be spiritually devastating.
Some of the new age philosophies contain a similar trap. “Think positive thoughts, repeat your aspirations in the mirror daily, release the power of this crystal, and don’t forget to check your horoscope. If you do everything right, you will be rewarded either in this life or in heaven.
But what happens when you can’t do everything right? When you just aren’t good enough?
I think we know what happens, because we see it all around us, here in Utah. People are so polite. When I first moved here, I was startled by one of the common expressions here. If you bump your shopping cart into someone in the grocery store and say that you are sorry, what is the response you are likely to get?
In other places, someone might say, “no problem,” “no worries,” “it’s OK”, or even “you need to watch it.”
Anyone know the phrase I am talking about? Right, people here tell you, pretty much every time you apologize for anything: “you’re fine.” I am used to it now and even say that myself sometimes, but in the beginning I was tempted to say, “No, I am not ‘fine,’ I just made a mistake and I am sorry.”
There seems to be a culture here wants everything and everyone to be “fine.” Some of it comes, I think, partly from LDS theology. Mormons are essentially Universalists, believing that all can choose to be saved, if not in this life then in the next. They are also Unitarian in their belief that we all have divine potential. I obviously have no real quibble with any of that. Mormons are actually in many ways our close cousins in the larger family of world religions.
But I cannot help but be concerned about the suffering I see around me. I worry about the people who know they aren’t “fine”, that everything is not OK, but they can’t tell anyone because if you are supposed to be a saint, then you must be good all the time. You must do everything right. Perfect as your heavenly father is perfect. That, my friends, is impossible and is a distortion of the universalism that Joseph Smith inherited from his father and which influenced how his church developed. Universalism says God loves all of us, just the way we are. We don’t have to be perfect.
Utah has extremely high numbers of people who are diagnosed with depression. Many get addicted to prescription drugs, trying to ease their pain. There is also a very high suicide rate in Utah, particularly among young people. We also know that it isn’t just young people who kill themselves. We tragically lost one of our own just this last week.
Is this epidemic of severe depression and suicide partly because people can’t, in the end, live up to the expectations they have for themselves? Do they feel like failures because they aren’t perfect, because they can’t control their “same gender attraction,” because sometimes the contradictions are so great that they are swallowed up by despair? Do they feel like being depressed is even worse than it is because it is something they are not supposed to experience? They are supposed to be “fine” but they are not. They judge themselves as unworthy, perhaps too unworthy to continue living.
I’m going to quote the Pope here, who said, “Who am I to judge?” Who are we, indeed, to judge? How can we judge others or even ourselves? Who are we to call someone else a sinner, and who are we to think that we can become saints?
Simply human, that is all we are, and it is a wonderful thing. We can, as the Rev. John Wolf has said,
“(We can) search for the holy, rather than dwelling upon the depraved. (We) call no one a sinner, (because we know) how deep is the struggle in each person’s breast and how great is the hunger for what is good.”
Let us continue search for the holy, wherever we might find it, that we each might find a way to feed our hunger for the good. But most of all, may we learn to forgive ourselves and each other, as we begin, again, each new day of our lives, in love.