by Robin Bartlett Barraza
That’s how I began my first sermon during my intern ministry last fall. It was Rosh Hashanah, and the topic was repentance and reconciliation in the new year as we got ready for Yom Kippur the following week. Most of the congregation cracked up laughing when I said this. I mean, a new intern in a UU church beginning her first sermon with “sinners, repent”. Of course they laughed. The response was probably a cross between a “she can’t be serious!” hilarity and an uncomfortable, “maybe she’s serious!” guffaw. Those are words I had certainly never heard from a UU pulpit in my entire life, after all.
Incidentally, I re-preached the same sermon for a sermon class at my Christian seminary later in the week. I was the only UU in the class. I said the same line, “Sinners, repent!!”, wagging my fingers at them. My colleagues looked at me earnestly and with serious faces intent on what I might say next, not even cracking a smile. When I told them that my UU congregation had laughed at me when I said “sinners, repent!”, they laughed uproariously.
I didn’t know what was more arrogant–me expecting laughs for talking about sin the way many Christian churches do, UUs laughing at the idea of being sinners, or Christians laughing at UUs. Though I was going for laughs, I was truthfully a little uncomfortable when I got them.
Still, there is a big part of me that is relieved that UUs laugh at the idea of sin. That laughter reflects freedom from bondage for some of us. Sin, as a religious concept, has been used to oppress and deny and send to hell and explain away and to harm, harm, harm, harm. I know that. I get it.
My parents found the UU church as a young married couple because they didn’t want to bring up kids with the theology of original sin. They were brought up Methodist and Episcopalian respectively, and weren’t particularly wounded by their church experience growing up. My dad was a (skeptical atheist) who loved church. My mom, despite her quarrels with theodicy, sung in a beautiful church choir that she still misses. But both of my parents couldn’t bear the thought of telling their children that they were born “bad” or “fallen” or “sinful”. They found the UU church simply because they wanted me to know that I was born good. I was wonderfully made with a kernel of goodness in me so strong that I could change the world with my love. As a parent myself, who has held my beautiful, perfect new newborns in my arms and watched as they looked up at me with glowing new eyes, looking at the world for the first time, screaming because they would like to crawl back in the womb where it is dark and warm and safe, I know why my parents felt this way. My children were born good–knitted of goodness and love in my womb, untouched by the terror and grief and meanness of this world. I get it.
I get why my parents brought me up in a humanist UU church where the word sin was never uttered. I was taught that I had inherent worth and dignity. I was taught that sin was for Catholics and televangelist, and used for social control. I was taught that the Adam and Eve story where Eve is responsible for all of the bad things in the world because she ate an apple was sexist.
I was also taught that since I was so good, I was capable of goodness all the time. Of doing good works. Acts of charity; acts of justice.
And this was all true, except when it wasn’t. I wasn’t always charitable and merciful. I was an eighth grade girl once, for instance. I wasn’t even good and loveable all the time in church.
When I was about 6 years old (my oldest daughter’s age now), I played an angel in the church Christmas pageant. I sat next to my best friend in the front row with the other angels while I waited for my turn to go up to the stage. I was SO EXCITED to be an angel…to wear that beautiful white dress and the wings and the halo, to sing all of the Christmas carols in front of everyone…to stand next to the totally cool teenager who was playing Mary and who sometimes babysat me in the nursery.
But I got the sillies that day. My best church friend and I started whispering jokes to one another. We poked each other, and tickled each other. We missed our cue, and the Director of Religious Education had to hiss at us and give us a stern look so we’d go up onto the chancel. Unfortunately, our hijinks didn’t stop once we were up in front of people exposed to the whole church. We stood there during “Angels We Have Heard on High” whispering to each other and telling jokes and laughing. I didn’t even sing the “glorias” I had practiced so faithfully. We missed our cue to leave the chancel, and slunked back to our seats.
At the end of the performance, one of the church elders, a pillar and friend of my mom’s, looked at me sternly in the receiving line and said, “You were more like a devil than an angel up there.” In a church that purportedly did not believe in the concept of original sin, I was compared to a devil by a powerful church adult.
My face turned bright red with shame; my eyes filled with tears. I feared going back to church and seeing this woman, or seeing anyone else for a whole year. I never looked her in the eyes again. The thing is, I knew I was capable of wrong-doing despite being told that I was born good; despite never learning the concept of original sin. When I was called on it, I was very contrite. Even as an eighth grade demon spawn, I was contrite. I knew I was capable of ganging up on other girls with my girl group, capable of hurting my mother’s feelings, or being tremendously mean to my little brother. These facts about myself hurt me. And despite the fact that my parents wanted me to believe I was born good, they were just as swift as any other parent to point out when I had made a choice that was not so good.
Kids are swiftly told all the time when they have done something wrong, aren’t they? They are sternly talked to, corrected, put in time out. Kids know that they are capable of missing the mark. And this isn’t really a bad thing, is it? We hope that kids, like adults, learn from their mistakes. When we are parenting up to our highest standards of parenting, we teach our kids that everyone makes mistakes and fails.
Most importantly, when we are at our best, we teach that there is always forgiveness offered and chances for redemption. We teach kids that despite their wrong-doing, nothing can separate them from Love.
Should we, as Unitarian Universalists, laugh or scoff at the idea of being thought of as “sinners”? What about those of us who lay in bed at night knowing we have done wrong, wanting so badly to be forgiven, worried that we have to be perfect all the time because we were born simply good? What about those of us wondering if there is something inherently wrong with us because we sometimes miss the “good” mark? I worry about the kids and adults who lay in bed at night stewing about their brokenness, sure that it means they are defective rather than fully human. We need acknowledgment of our human capacity to harm, and we need forgiveness. If not from a loving parent, than perhaps from a loving God.
And forgiveness begins with our ability to name and accept our brokenness as a part of our humanity. We can ask for forgiveness once we have admitted what we have done wrong. More importantly, we can forgive others when we admit to ourselves our own human failings…our own human tendency to cause harm. This gives us the brave and bold empathy we need to reconcile with those who have harmed us. It allows us to begin the brave and bold work of forgiving ourselves. We are more apt to forgive others once we have forgiven ourselves, aren’t we?
Kids need this reconciliation and the chance to begin again, too. They need to be able to offer forgiveness and be forgiven. This process starts with acknowledging their own human capacity for wrong-doing; for mistake-making; for harm-causing. Our kids cannot recognize their own inherent goodness and worth without acknowledging their human failings and being offered unconditional love and forgiveness in the face of them.
Let us help one another to know that we are a radically forgiven and loved people by practicing this ethic with one another. Because neither height nor depth nor any other creation shall be able to separate us from Love. (Romans 8:39)
Happy New Year, my faithful people.