The Screwed Up Sermon

Below the fold is a written version of my (John’s) sermon from Sunday, May 28, 2017, the day we observed All Saints Day at Abilene First United Methodist Church. My text was 1 John 3:1-3.

1 John 3:1-3 (NRSV)
1 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Sermon

The renowned public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr liked to say that “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” [1] I realize that statement may need some explanation. Original sin is the belief that although God created all that is and called it good, humanity fell short, sinned and screwed it all up shortly thereafter and it’s been screwed up ever since. And we’re screwed up right along with everything else. Every human being who’s ever lived was and is screwed up, except for Jesus Christ who died to break sin’s grip on us. That’s what original sin is. It’s empirically verifiable because it’s in plain view. All you have to do is go outside and look around you on any given day.

I’ve been using the term “screwed up,” it was a term we used a lot when I was growing up, but I may need to define it. Oxford Dictionaries defines “screwed up” as  “(an event or a situation) spoiled by being badly managed or carried out.” [2] The term is synonymous with: botched, ruined, bungled, messed up, fouled up.

In short, things are not the way they are supposed to be and we are not the way we are supposed to be. The contamination of sin is unavoidable, it ensnares us all. And so, from the first Sunday I preached in this pulpit. I knew that you folks were all screwed up. You looked bright and shiny, you looked like you had it all together, but I knew that deep down you were all screwed up, I just didn’t know exactly how. I knew you were screwed up because we’re all screwed up. You and I together. The people we remember today as we observe All Saints Day, they were screwed up as well. I’m not speaking ill of the dead, I proclaiming a time-tested Christian doctrine.

We’re all screwed up. That’s the Christian doctrine of original sin. It’s depressing as all get out, but it also has the ability to be helpful. It can be helpful because facing the truth, even the hard truth, head on is helpful. It should be something Christians specialize in. As the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has noted:  “Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest place in town.” [3]

The Christian doctrine of original sin should help us be honest and open with one another because if we hold that we’re all screwed up, then we don’t need to hide behind a facade of shiny happy people whose lives are in perfect order, or even a facade of middle-class respectability. We don’t have to hide, we can be honest about ourselves, about our sins, about our screwed-upness because we have already admitted how screwed up we are and how much we make a mess of things.

But despite all that God loves us, as 1 John 3:1 puts it: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

The fact that we are called children of God, despite all the things that we have screwed up and all the ways we are screwed up, means that God has not forsaken or abandoned us. And as Paul put it in his letter to the church in Rome: “If God is for us, who is against us? … It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” [4]

We can be honest about how messed up we are because in Christ there is no condemnation. But even more than that we can be honest about how messed up we are because we have the hope of things getting better. We can’t fix ourselves, but we can, here and now, let God begin the process of fixing us, of purifying us. That we might be pure just as Christ is pure.

The first step in the long process of becoming pure as Christ is pure, is to be honest with ourselves and each other about the fact that we, both individually and collectively, are screwed up. That’s a big step. It’s almost the exact opposite of what we’re currently doing so it won’t come naturally, it won’t come easily, but it must be done. And as we begin to do it in one another’s presence (We are called together to be the church, we don’t have any other options), let us remember the words of Frederick Buechner: “If you want to be holy [that is if you want to be pure as Christ is pure], be kind.” [5]

Let us be kind to one another. We all carry heavy burdens, but they are lighter when we share them. Amen.


[1] Joel B. Green, “Original Sin: Humanity’s Misery,” Catalyst: Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives for United Methodist Seminarians, November 30, 2015, accessed June 12, 2017, http://www.catalystresources.org/original-sin-humanitys-misery/.

[2] “Screwed-up.” Oxford Dictionaries. Accessed June 12, 2017. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/screwed-up.

[3] Peter Enns, “When God Is Unfaithful,” Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith, October 24, 2013, accessed June 12, 2017, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/10/when-god-is-unfaithful/.

[4] Romans 8:31-34 (NRSV).

[5] Frederick Buechner as quoted by Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015), 114.