Imagine with me if you will Millennium Park in Chicago – or really, let’s picture the huge expanse of open space that runs all the way down Lake Shore Drive. Grant Park is the name of that whole area, and it extends south as far as the Museum campus and Soldier Field. If you’ve ever seen that entire zone full of people, it holds maybe 500,000. So let’s imagine that crowd in Grant Park.
While you’re imagining, let’s put a big hi-def screen in there, like there would be at Lollapalooza, say. So we’ve got a huge public space, with several hundred thousand people in it, watching a big screen. Hard to get more public than that. Now I ask you each to imagine one more thing: Let’s imagine that the screen is broadcasting, for all to see, a completely uncensored feed of everything you have ever done.
Some joyous events in there, of course. Celebrations, accomplishments. But also that epic screaming fit, the time you tortured a frog when you were 7, the night you skipped out on the bill, those episodes of binge-eating, the comments you dropped knowing that they would ruin someone’s chances of getting hired. Put everything any human being has ever done on a screen in Grant Park, and there is not a single one of us that could show our face again. Nobody, other than Jesus, has lived every minute of their life in a way that an experience like that would not be humiliating.
Given that truth, what do we do? We see probably the two most popular answers today in our first reading from Genesis, still one of the most profound sources for understanding human nature that has ever been crafted. If you want to live a life of realism and integrity, the beginning of Genesis is where you start. If Adam and Eve, these characters who in Scripture picture for us the root and origin of human nature, could become actual people and be brought to Chicago to watch that screen in Grant Park, the most humiliating scene for them might be the moment when they decided to stop trusting God. All the transparency and richness and beauty of life and relationship as it was designed to be was already theirs, but they became suspicious that the God who had given it all was actually cheating them and withholding something better.
We came in a bit later than that this morning and didn’t read the first part of the story. So we missed that awful moment when Adam and Eve decided God didn’t have their best interests at heart. We only read what happened after they had acted on that decision, and we saw them discover, for the first time, what it is to feel ashamed, what it is to have done something you don’t want anyone to know about. It’s universal. But how do you deal with those feelings? My guess is you deal with them the ways these two characters do, and my promise is that those ways do not work and will not ever work.
So let’s look at it. How do they deal with their shame? What’s the first thing they try? They hide. Once completely free and open with God and the world, now they fear him, and they fear being seen for what they are. Once they were each a unified self, now they are the private me and the public me. They join the chorus of humanity that says, I’ll put the package down at the bottom of the trash can. I’ll only do it when I’m out of town. I’ll use a private browser when I load those websites. That’s one kind of way to hide. Another way human beings hide is to build up layers of praise and esteem, to paint ourselves as the invaluable donor, the athletic leader, the beloved hero, all to distract people from our secrets. We’ve seen all this a million times, from Jerry Sandusky to Bill Cosby to the ex-Bishop Heather Cook.
But it’s not just the dramatic cases. The habit of hiding is much more ingrained and subtle than that, because sin is much more ingrained and subtle than that. We routinely buffer ourselves from being truly seen by just dressing things up a little. It happens with every method of deliberately flattering self-presentation, from the way you choose and crop your posts on Instagram on down. We put out there our own version of us, the one with the filter we think looks best. They ask, How was your visit with your brother-in-law? And we smile and say, Fantastic! This technique for trying to deal with the presence of sin in the world is so much a part of human life after the Fall that virtually all of us will go do it at coffee hour or lunch.
If you let hiding and covering up progress, you may get to the point where you are even hiding from yourself. You really are persuaded that you think your visit with your abusive brother-in-law was fantastic. Or you tell yourself so often that at least you are no worse than anybody else, you begin to believe that’s the standard. But however good you get at self-presentation, it will not actually remove the things you don’t want to show. It’ll all still be there on the big screen in Grant Park, and you will still be carrying all your embarrassment and all your pain and all your shame and all your secrets. Even if you’ve pushed them so far down that they’re nearly invisible even to you, God sees them in high definition all the time.
So hiding, covering up, putting out a more flattering self-presentation – it doesn’t work. It’s one of the main ways human beings try to deal with the presence of sin in our world, but it fails every time.
The second thing we try that never works, again reflected with penetrating insight in this reading from Genesis, is passing the buck, blaming someone else. Adam says it’s all Eve’s fault. Eve says it’s all the serpent’s fault. Mistakes were made, but nobody will take responsibility. Children do this almost as soon as they can talk: Who spilled on the carpet? Not me! But adults are no exception: One of the most frequently used customer service lines these days has to be “Whoever you spoke with gave you the wrong information.” Every time you hear that is a proof of the doctrine of original sin. But we do it in person too. If you are married, you have done it to your spouse. Well, you should have checked the weather before we left!
The blame-shifting method of trying to deal with our sinfulness has grown in popularity as we’ve become more and more post-Christian as a culture. I can remember when it was seen as noble and admirable to admit your wrongs and apologize in a straightforward way, back when people were conversant with the Christian concept of God being able to wipe the slate clean. It would be very tough to get an apology like that seen as sincere now; in our culture apologies are immediately and cynically picked apart as if they could only possibly be a manipulation technique.
What happens if we let blame- shifting progress? Well, we wind up in us and them thinking. We begin to believe that the problems we have aren’t caused by my kind of people, but by other people. If it weren’t for those people – the Christians, the Muslims, the democrats, the republicans, the LGBT activists, the straight white males -- if it weren’t for them, we’d be OK. They’re the problem. We’re reaping a bitter harvest of this blame-shifting strategy for dealing with sin right now in our violently polarized nation.
So people try to deal with sin ourselves by hiding, and by blame shifting, and neither one works. I left out a third technique, self improvement projects, because they don’t show up till a little later in Genesis, but they don’t work either. What does work? We all have this problem, so the question of how to deal with it is of interest to every one of us.
I’ve told some of you before, I think, this story about the writer G. K. Chesterton. When a newspaper sought submissions on the theme ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ he reputedly wrote this letter in response: Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely Yours, G. K. Chesterton. That is the attitude of someone who has found a way of dealing with sin that works. That is the attitude of someone who has grasped the message of Jesus. This attitude refuses to hide, it refuses to shift blame, and it is joyously free to treat the whole matter with lightness of heart, without fear or control or shame.
Chesterton is not groaning about his sin, he’s grinning, because he has found the God who can actually do something about it. He has found the one place where a sinner doesn’t have to cover up and doesn’t have to shift blame. The one place where the entire life story on the big screen can be seen with total knowledge and total love. Let me say that again: total knowledge and total love. The presence of God in Christ is the only place where you can be totally known and totally loved. This is one of the experiences people crave the most, and it deals definitively with your sin, and it is available in Jesus Christ. But there is no shortcut.
The Episcopal priest Paul Zahl talks in his book Grace in Practice about how rather than going all the way to let themselves be known and loved by Jesus Christ, people try to substitute church instead. How people use religion as a way to “skate superficially over [their] real thoughts and acts, as if a few recited prayers could equal what lurks in the hearts of men. …” There is much more hope and love available than that, he says, if we will only let Jesus see our real selves. “Once the grievous nuance and unplumbable depth of the psyche [are] named, the power of the absolution [can] rise to the occasion. Once the total depravity of original sin [is] out of the closet, then the magnificent response latent within the grace of God in the cross of Christ [can] be portrayed. It [can] be displayed for people to see.”
May God display that right here and right now for every one of us to see. If you want to be completely loved, Jesus Christ can do it. But you’ll never grasp the depth of his love until you give him permission to know you completely. Free and full absolution is available in Jesus, as long as you actually show him what is actually there to be absolved. Hiding from him will not work. It may work today, it may work tomorrow, but it will not work in the long run. And trying to get him to blame someone else certainly will not work. He’s way smarter than that. What will work is his love and your need, brought face to face. Your sin, all of it, and his absolution, all of it. Your weakness, all of it, and his glory, all of it. You, on the big hi def screen in Grant Park and him on the Cross, in perfect mercy, already carrying it all.