I was sick for a good portion of last week, and while lazing around, I read a book. For fun. It’s called Redshirts, by John Scalzi. And if you spent any portion of your younger life watching Star Trek, especially the first series, I recommend it. Redshirts is the story of a small group of people who become junior crew members on a starship called the Intrepid, the flagship of an interplanetary exploration force. During their early weeks on the Intrepid, they notice several things. There are five senior officers on the ship, including the captain, who nearly always go on away missions, beaming onto damaged ships or plague-ridden planets. That seems… strange. And while the senior crew always mysteriously survive any encounter or adventure, one, two, or more of the junior officers who accompany them on these missions always end up dead… killed by things like sand worms, crazed cleaning robots, and ice sharks. The title of the book, Redshirts, comes from the fact that many of the junior crew members who suffered similar fates on Star Trek in the 1960s wore red uniform shirts on their ill-fated journeys.
The main characters in the novel also notice that sometimes they seem to be living their own lives, and thinking their own thoughts. But at other times, especially moments of excitement, on a mission or facing an enemy, they get caught up in something bigger. Their words and actions are no longer their own, but follow the demands of the narrative, driven by the drama. Almost as if there was a script, and they were just characters in the hands of a merciless writer. Eventually they discover that they are somehow living as extras in an early-2000s era TV series, a B-grade Star Trek knock-off. When the writer decides to kill someone as a dramatic moment before a commercial break, a real person on their real starship … dies. At one point in their investigations, a more experienced member of the crew warns them: Stay away from the Narrative. Stay away from the Narrative.
Why the book report? Well, you may have noticed that it’s Lent. Lent is the season in which Christians prepare for the mystery and joy of Easter. By ancient tradition, it is a season of penitence, a season to examine our lives, repent of our sins, and try to live more fully as God’s people. It’s the season in our church’s year when the word and notion of Sin stands most in the center of our life and liturgy. So I’ve taken it as part of my work as a preacher and teacher to preach at least one sermon, every Lent, about what we’re talking about when we talk about sin. To offer some fresh way to come to grips with this difficult, important, dangerous, powerful word. So welcome to this year’s Sin sermon.
In Lent we begin our worship with a litany of confession. I appreciate our Lenten litanies, the Great Litany and this lesser Litany, from the Ash Wednesday liturgy, that we use weekly. It feels good for my soul to lay out, line by line, all the small and large ways that I fall short of my intentions for my own life. Anger at my own frustration: check. Intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts: check. Waste and pollution of Creation: Check. I am sorry, God. So very sorry. I believe in the power of the Litany as a spiritual exercise. And, at the same time,I acknowledge its limits.
Marcus Borg, the great Scripture scholar and theologian who passed away a few weeks ago, wrote in his book Speaking Christian that in the church, we have tended to overfocus on sins, and underfocus on Sin. That’s Sin, singular, with a capital S. Sins are the ways that we as individuals fall short of the call of Christ on our lives and hearts. Things done which we ought not to have done, things undone which we ought to have done. What Francis Spufford wonderfully renames as “The Human Propensity to Mess Things Up.” Abbreviated HPtFtU. I have found Spufford’s terminology helpful; some folks who find the word “sin” strange, artificial, or loaded, can readily recognize their own propensity to mess things up, and offer it to God for healing.
Talking about sins, the reality of that propensity in all our lives, is part of the work of the church, and of this season. But do we talk enough about Sin? Singular, capital-S Sin? The great big word for what ails us. For the Human Condition. For what makes the world and our lives imperfect, painful, broken. Do we talk enough about Sin, the flawed and harmful status quo that is simply daily life, the way things are?
Borg suggests that the church’s overfocus on sins has kept us from taking a hard look at Sin. Is this what we tell each other, what we tell ourselves? – “If I can just fix my life, live up to my own standards, and everybody else’s, and God’s, and be a good person, things will be OK.” That’s an impossible illusion. You can’t do it, and even if you could, it wouldn’t save you from pain, from struggle, from life.
What if our calling as people of God is not primarily to help our members correct their sins, but to be a community that bravely names and grapples with Sin, and its grip on all of us?…
Walter Brueggeman – another great Scripture scholar of our time – gave a speech in 2005 about the scripts that run our lives. He writes that our lives and our communities are organized by and around particular scripts. We are taught the scripts of our family, culture, and society, in explicit ways but also, overwhelmingly, in implicit ways, simply by growing up and being formed by images, assumptions, expectations, labels. There are, of course, many scripts in our complex society. A political debate, for example, is a clash of conflicting scripts about what’s wrong with a state or a nation, and how to fix it. But Brueggeman steps back and says, We all, left and right, live under the umbrella of an overarching 21st-century American script. He calls it “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism.”
Our dominant script is therapeutic because of the near-universal assumption that the goal of human life is happiness and freedom from pain, and that there is a product or treatment to counteract every pain, discomfort, or trouble that life brings us. That seems so natural, doesn’t it? But hold it up against Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel, his call to his followers to hold their own lives lightly and walk willingly into risk and suffering, when such suffering may serve God or benefit a neighbor. This assumption we have, that pain is a problem to be solved – that pain is a problem that CAN be solved – it is not the assumption of every human culture. It is not the assumption of Scripture. And it is, in fact, not true.
Our dominant script is technological because of the near-universal assumption that, in Brueggeman’s words,“everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity… There is nothing so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved.” But of course! These are the days of miracle and wonder! Look at all that we’ve achieved; surely anything is possible. And yet, this is not the assumption of every human culture; nor of Scripture; and it is, in fact, not true.
Our dominant script is consumerist, because we live in a culture that teaches us that the world and its resources are infinitely available to us; that if you want it, you need it; that we are defined by our possessions; that she who dies with the most toys, wins; that our deepest yearnings and aspirations can be satisfied with a little help from a credit card. I have a healthy suspicion of the consumerist mentality, and yet this stuff still drives me; it’s deep, it’s powerful. And again: the idea that wholeness, happiness, satisfaction are available for purchase – this is not the mindset of every human culture. It is emphatically not the mindset of Scripture – as Jesus reminds us today, you could gain the whole world, and still lose your life, your soul. The script of consumerism, too, is not true.
And finally, our dominant script is militaristic – grounded in the assumption that our way of life is under threat and in need of protection. That if we let too many of Them in, We might not have it so good anymore. That if we question the Powers that Be, we must not love America or appreciate how good we have it. Our fundamental cultural militarism is based on a mindset of scarcity and fear. And while some of that thinking may indeed be present in every human culture -Scripture tells us that God has called us away from it, again and again and again. Look at Jesus and Peter, arguing, in today’s Gospel: Peter is looking for victory in terms of human power. He says, You’re the One, Jesus! You will ride into Jerusalem in triumph, call down your angelic army to kick out the Romans, restore Israel to greatness, and rule as our holy King! And Jesus says, Nope. That’s not the story we’re living, Peter. Because that story, too, is false. Has always been false. We can’t protect or fight our way into justice, peace, or true human flourishing.
This script, the therapeutic, technological, consumerist, militarist script of early 21st century America, this script promises to keep us safe and make us happy. This isn’t about Republicans or Democrats; all our parties are invested in versions of this narrative. It’s the air we breathe, the water we swim in. It directs how we organize our lives, set our goals, solve our problems, spend our time. And it’s a lie.
Brueggeman writes, “That script has failed… We are not safe, and we are not happy. [That] script is guaranteed to produce new depths of insecurity, and new waves of unhappiness… [Our] health depends, for society and for its members, on disengaging from… that failed script.” In a very real sense, we are all redshirts in a narrative that was not written to benefit us. There’s a moment in the book, Redshirts, when one character asks another, I know you’re a man of faith; but how can you still believe in God, when God keeps putting us in these terrible situations? And the second character says, That’s not God. God is not the writer of the narratives that are killing us. These are human scripts.
Many aspects of the scripts that drive our lives – the narratives that suck us in and write our stories for us – they were composed without our best interests at heart. They were written to protect power and privilege. To maintain a social and economic status quo. To continue concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. To keep most of us too distracted or busy or superficially satiated to ask hard questions. Stay away from the Narrative, indeed!…
Marcus Borg, talking about the churches’ language of Sin, points out that Scripture contains several dominant images of what ails us, as human beings. One of those images is bondage. The archetypal story, though not the only one, is of Israel’s time of slavery in Egypt. Their time, their work, their lives not their own. The Book of Exodus doesn’t tell us that the Israelites were in bondage because they had sinned. Their enslavement wasn’t a punishment. It was just a thing that happened. A thing that humans do to each other. And the solution to their situation of bondage wasn’t forgiveness: it was liberation.
That story and that image come up again and again, in the Bible and in Christian history: the human condition as bondage, enslavement, subjugation to some Pharaoh or another; God’s grace coming to us as freedom, the parting of a sea, the breaking of chains, the bursting open of a prison door; the call into openness and light and the uncertainty and hope of new paths.
Borg writes, too, about what bondage can look like when we take it into ourselves, internalize it: he names it as sloth. Sloth. One of the seven great sins named by the early church. Sloth isn’t laziness, exactly; it’s deeper and darker. Sloth is apathy, passivity. Dejection. Despair. Nihilism. It can even manifest as a crippling restlessness – the kind that makes you hit Refresh on Facebook again, instead of doing something worth doing, like writing a poem or washing the dishes.
Borg describes Sloth as “leaving it to the snake.” He explains, “The reference is to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden [complacently] letting the serpent tell them what to do…. You are ‘going along’ with what you have heard, with how things are.” Sloth is what bondage looks like when you wear it on your soul.
So… what do we do? If we are even a tiny bit persuaded by the idea that we are maybe possibly in bondage to a dominant script that promises us safety and happiness but actually delivers fear, inequality, alienation and struggle?
Here’s what happens in the novel. The characters start to notice.They notice when the narrative takes over, and tries to suck them in, feed them words and ideas that aren’t their own and that put them at risk. They talk about it. Together, they become able to name the Narrative and its destructive impact. Together, they find some ways to evade the Narrative; but they decide that their own escape isn’t enough, because it leaves others still subject to the lethal script. They decide challenge the Narrative itself, to try to change the very script of their reality.
In the book, they use a tidy bit of black-hole time travel to go back to 21st century Earth and convince the TV show’s writer to stop killing them. In the real world,
our driving narratives are pretty entrenched. We can’t change them by convincing one writer. But we can change ourselves. We can choose to ground our lives in other narratives. In Brueggeman’s words, “[we can abandon that dominant] script in favor of a new one, a process that we call conversion.”
What if our calling as people of God is not primarily to help our members correct their sins – but to be a community that bravely names and grapples with Sin, and its grip on our lives?… With that which holds us in bondage, which I am naming today as a Script, a Narrative, the therapeutic, technological, consumerist, militarist logic of our nation and our century? What if our calling as people of God is, in part, to notice and share and muster the courage, together, to name that Narrative and its costs and victims, instead of leaving it to the snake, sunk in weariness and apathy?
Brueggeman sees no “What if” about it. He writes, “It is the task of the church and its ministry to detach us from that powerful script, … through the steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we testify will indeed make us safe and joyous… “The claim of that alternative script,” he continues, “is that there is at work among us a Truth that makes us safe, that makes us free, that makes us joyous in a way that the comfort and ease of the consumer economy cannot even imagine…. The slow, steady work [of the church is to make us able,] personally and communally, … to renounce old scripts of death and enter new scripts of life.” Or as Paul puts it in the Letter to the Romans: “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
It is hard and uncertain and strange to step out of the dominant script, to wade against the powerful currents of our culture and way of life. The alternative script isn’t straightforward or tidy. In many respects it’s much messier than the Narrative that drives our world. But that uncertain, ambivalent, wondering space is exactly the kind of space where the Holy spirit can find us, and work with us and in us.
Maybe this is what a church that engages with Sin, singular, big-S, human-condition Sin, looks like: A plucky band of redshirts talking together about what we see, in our daily lives and the world around us, of the ways that the dominant narrative closes minds, damages lives, limits possibilities, holds us in bondage. Finding courage in our community, and wisdom in our Scriptures, and power in the Spirit of God, to begin to live by another script, the messy, sprawling, lifegiving story being written and rewritten, day by day, century by century, by the One whom we name as the Author of our salvation.