This morning I’m not going to talk so much about sin as I am going to talk about talking about sin. So often, sin is something we don’t talk about – at least not much – which is a loss because the “grammar” and “vocabulary” surrounding sin contain great capacity for healing.
But I don’t want to begin there. First, I want to go back to November 11, last Veterans’ Day. Last Veterans’ Day, NPR told the stories of several different veterans from several different wars. Though all the stories moved me, the one that touched me most was the story of Coast Guard veteran Joe Williams, who was part of “Operation Tiger,” a dress rehearsal off the coast of England for the Normandy invasion. Williams had been in a troop transport off the English coast preparing to practice landing several thousand troops when German patrol boats, moving under the cover of the pre-dawn darkness, surprised the drill and launched torpedoes at the heavily-laden landing crafts. Another veteran described the chaos: “A flare broke over our head, over our ship,” and “I said, ‘Oh my god, we’re gonna get it.’ And apparently we didn’t. It must have gone under us… because [our boat] was a flat-bottom boat. I looked to the stern and saw [another boat] get torpedoed.” “The torpedoes tear into these vessels,” remembered another veteran, “and literally blow them apart… They all catch fire and there’s complete carnage.” Joe Williams recalled seeing the scene for the first time clearly as the sun rose over the water: “When we got back and the light broke, you could walk across the dead bodies in the water. There was 700 of them killed.”
It was awful tragedy. What struck me most was the fact that, for nearly 50 years, Williams – following orders given to all the survivors – never spoke about Operation Tiger: not to his family, not to his friends, not even to his wife. Williams said, “They told us, ‘You will not write home about it, you will not talk about it, and we will escort you to prison if you do.'” His wife, when she heard about Williams’ experience for the first time – 40 years into their marriage – said, “I was flabbergasted.” In the interview she added, “All the guys were like that. They didn’t talk about it.” What must it have been like, to go through an experience like Operation Tiger and not be able to talk about it? What must it have done to the men’s psyche to have experienced something so traumatic and then to bury it for 50 years? Imagine how those memories festered in the corners of the men’s minds, weighing on them, burdens that they were forced to carry by themselves, in the dark, for years. And imagine how cathartic it must have been, 50 years later, to finally talk about his experience. As Williams’ wife said, “It was good [for him] to get it out of his system because he had thought about it, but didn’t talk about it.”
When I hear the familiar story of the Fall in this morning’s reading from Genesis, I am reminded of Williams’ story. I am reminded of Williams’ story not only because of the tragedy and waste of the Fall – just “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all,” as Paul put it – but also because I have a hunch that many of us, while we have fully experienced the trauma – and “trauma” is not too strong a word – of sin and separation from God, we don’t talk about it. I have a hunch that all of us, deep down, know the reality of sin; we know we are fallen and that sin has entered our life, and we know that we are held – imprisoned – in sin’s grasp. We all know about the trauma of sin… but we don’t talk about it.
Sin, as we know, has deadening effects – sin weighs us down, it imprisons us, it diminishes our life – and sin’s deadening effects are compounded by not talking about it. Not talked about, sin will go on living, unchecked, inside. The Desert Fathers spoke of the “worm” of sin – sin was a tapeworm living inside of us, stealing our food and slowly sapping our life. The only way to get the “worm” out of our system is to talk about it.
I am extremely grateful, then, to Genesis for telling the story of sin. Finally! – after thousands of years of human existence, after thousands of years of burying the trauma of sin and separation from God, Genesis tells the story of our separation from God. And just as Mrs. Williams said that it was good for Joe to talk about his experience in Operation Tiger – “It was good to get it out of his system because he had thought about it, but didn’t talk about it” – so is it good for us to tell the story of sin. Maybe, in telling it, we can begin to “get it out of our system.”
This morning, the First Sunday in Lent, we tell the story of sin. We tell the story of sin in the Great Litany, in the Collect, and in Genesis and the readings we just heard. We tell the story of sin in our hymns and in the Eucharistic prayers we are about to pray. And in the Episcopal Church we have the opportunity to tell the story of sin more specifically, as it affects us personally, in the sacrament of Reconciliation, commonly called “Confession.” If you’d like to use the sacrament of Reconciliation to help set you free and to be assured of God’s love and forgiveness, please contact either Sharon or me.
We tell the story of sin in order that sin might not root itself within and slowly sap our life; we tell the story of sin that we might “get it out of our system” and be healed. And isn’t healing what Lent is ultimately about? The disciplines we might take up for Lent – fasting, or prayer, or service, or any other discipline – aren’t they ultimately for the purpose of opening ourselves to the healing touch of Jesus, who yearns to touch us and make us whole? I wonder if this Lent we would like to break sin’s silence, to let out what may lie buried within, and to know Christ’s healing touch.
I want to leave us with an image. I’ve already spoken about how I think each of us knows, deep down, about the trauma of sin; we might not always talk about it, but we know about it. I think each of us knows, too, deep down, that we were created for union with God. Writing in the 4th century about the early chapters of Genesis, Gregory of Nyssa says that the first thing we human beings saw, our very first memory, was the face of God inches away from ours, having just breathed into us the breath of life. At that moment, just like newly-hatched geese imprint on the first thing they see, we “imprinted” on God. And the whole of our lives is spent, Gregory says, trying to get back to God, our “mother.” We humans want nothing more, says Gregory, than to get back to being held in God’s arms, to seeing God’s face inches from ours, to looking up at God’s eyes looking back into ours. Deep down we all yearn for the experience of being held, intimately known and loved.
I wonder if this Lent we might hear God’s invitation to return. I wonder if we might – in the liturgy, in our prayer, or in the sacrament of Reconciliation – tell our story, a story that gives voice to how sin weighs on us, and how the powers of sin and death diminish our life. As we are able to talk about sin, so we can begin to get it out of our system and draw closer to our hearts’ desire, which is God. I wonder if this Lent we might more fully come to know not only how much we desire God, but how much God desires us, and how – no matter what may lie in our past or present – God will always welcome us back as the Father welcomed home the Prodigal Son: with open arms, with complete forgiveness, with love.