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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

Choosing well.

A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

February 25, 2024 at Holy Communion

“Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths” (Psalm 25:4). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.

This morning, I want to explain something about a key word for this Lenten season: “sin.”

Of course, even just to say “sin” conjures up dramatic images for us: we think of various kinds of illicit sexual activity, or of murder, or of racial hatred, or of drug use. Perhaps if we are more sophisticated we also realize that sin has to do with certain attitudes that are harder to put into an image: pride, envy, bitterness.

But so long as we think of sin as a list of prohibited activities and attitudes, we risk missing the power of devoting this season to repentance from sin.

So here’s a way of thinking about sin that isn’t about keeping yourself away from everything on the naughty list. Instead, sin is choosing something that is worse for you when you’re offered something that is better.

Every one of the classic sins for which images readily spring to mind can be explained this way. When you are offered an opportunity for joyful and life-giving sexual communion with your spouse, to introduce secrecy, deception, and betrayal into that relationship is simply not a good choice, even from a totally self-interested perspective. When you are offered the opportunity to live at peace with your neighbours, when you have been given the gifts of language and empathy to work through conflict, to turn to violence robs you of that peace, and makes you a violator of the human dignity on which your own sense of self depends; it is a poor choice.

The more subtle sins, like pride, can also be explained this way. When you hold yourself above other people, you damage the possibility of having real mutuality with them. You have chosen to constantly and anxiously build up your own sense of self-worth rather than receiving the gift of self-discovery as you engage open-heartedly with others. If you are proud, you loose out on the best things of life.

But the real power of this definition of sin—choosing something that is worse over something that is better—is how it can help us find the way forward in all sorts of situations where it is difficult to identify a particular “sin” that we are at risk of committing.

What do you do when you are sad? We all have our go-to habits. Some of us eat away our sorrows. Perhaps some of us drink them away. Some people take their sorrows to the television, and some people take them to the internet. We might find it difficult to say that eating a third doughnut or spending an hour on Facebook is a “sin,” but perhaps we have to think of it differently. Perhaps we should simply ask, “Is this a good choice? Is it the best choice available to me? Is there a better way to address the fact that I have an uneasy mind?”

Repentance from sin is about what you do when you’re sad, or angry, or lonely. Repentance is about learning to stop yourself before you choose self-destruction, and turning instead to healthy ways of navigating the stresses of this life. Repentance is about learning to choose joy when you are tempted to deaden yourself with your favourite ways of ignoring what you’re really feeling.

In 1 Corinthians 10, St Paul says that God “will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape” (v 13). You are never in a situation where a bad choice is forced upon you. How is that possible? Because there is always the option of holy silence. Even if you don’t have words to cry out to God, temptation can always be escaped by meditating on the name of Jesus in the quiet of your heart.

I have mentioned it before, but I do so again: no prayer has been more helpful to me in my spiritual life than the “Jesus prayer,” which goes: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I say this prayer when I am bored, when I am stressed, when I need to deal with feelings for which my imagination devises only false comforts. This simple prayer is a way of escape, a good choice which is always available to me.

And it is a good choice, a choice to spend my despondent moments with my God, the bringer of my joy. Silence is not a refusal of life or joy, a kind of dead stillness. Quite the opposite: when I am in distress that is a kind of emptiness, a dark hollowness in my heart that needs to be filled. To convert that moment into holy silence is to invite God to fill it, to come to me as the bringer of joy and the restorer of peace.

To choose meditation on the mercy of God in moments of temptation is to choose centredness over dissipation, life over self-destruction, equanimity over anger, good over evil.

May God bless us with the wisdom and grace to choose well for ourselves, and find in God restoration and healing from all the ways we have chosen poorly in the past.


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