Let’s talk about sin

Sep 29, 2014 by

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More than 60 years ago, Howard Ham­mer and his revival tent came to Kalona, Iowa. Some still remember how riled up people got. They tossed cigarettes and jewelry into a barrel. According to one account, a pastor declared: “The day is not past for the Holy Spirit to move men and women to repentance. . . . [People] found joy in making restitution.”



Times change. Cigarettes are now discarded for health reasons, and jewelry has been reclassified as a non-sin. We look back critically at the old-time revival meetings. They sensationalized and oversimplified salvation. Today we understand and value self-esteem. We aren’t going to use fear to manipulate people into the kingdom.

Revivals weave their way through history. Paul’s preaching in Ephesus resulted in the people bringing forward magic books. A clear distinction was made between the worldly Greco-Roman magic practices and the mission of Jesus. Many believers confessed their practices. Magic books worth 50,000 silver coins were publicly burned (Acts: 19:18-19). People were transformed.

Let’s be honest. We still long for revival and transformation. We still long to find joy in making restitution. We long for meaning and passion in life. Can we have revival and transformation without talking about sin?

Some of us are reluctant to use the word sin. Some of us point to sin in harmful ways. Can sin-talk be healthy?

Not talking about sin won’t make it go away, but how we talk about it and which sins we focus on is crucial. Mainstream Mennonites can list our past mistakes — worrying about sinful bowling alleys, radios and sleeve lengths. Sin can’t be reduced to a list of behaviors easily discarded in a barrel.

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer were leading a revival, he might remind us that sin can be doing nothing. Living in Nazi Germany taught him that sin can happen by merely participating in society. He said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

We can be seduced and unaware of our political, economic and cultural entanglements. Greed and overconsumption can’t simply be tossed into a barrel. Complacency in the midst of our nation’s drone strikes can’t easily be discarded. Privileged status and self-importance can’t be burned into nonexistence.

We sinners are not without hope. Acts 1:8 reminds us that we have received the power of the Holy Spirit, which transforms us into witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. We become empowered to be Jesus witnesses — witnesses that name the sins of white privilege, that name the sins of drone killing, that show love even to the foreign stranger. We are witness to God’s dream for humankind where love rules.

As communities of Jesus, we are passionate about reconciliation, revival and transformation. We may even occasionally get riled up about it.

Just because we have gotten sin-talk wrong in the past, and continue to get it wrong today, doesn’t mean we should stop talking about it. The need and desire for transformation and revival is still with us. The day is not past for the Holy Spirit to move us to repentance.

I imagine a big tent making its rounds. Could people be moved to throw their smart phones and electronic toys into a barrel? Imagine the silver coins they would bring on eBay. Tossing away sin has always been tricky business. What did happen to those jewels that were discarded?

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.

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