Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Ash Wednesday; texts: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51; Psalm 103:8-14
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
In the waning weeks of the Epiphany season we have just concluded together, we heard a persistent call from our Lord Jesus to grow up into a maturity of faith and discipleship. Today we face perhaps the most difficult challenge to such maturing and deepening: the question of how we do or do not face our own sin and brokenness.
Finding some of the joy and hope Jesus intends in his description of the way of God we’ve been hearing in these past weeks at least opens the possibility that we might also become people who can honestly and openly look at our failures to live in that way. If God’s law is intended for our life and joy and fullness, then confession of our failure to live in God’s law need not be a fearful thing; it could be a life-giving thing to recognize and admit when we do not live abundantly and graciously as God made us to live. Such recognition and confession, in this mature view, would be the only logical thing to do, that we might be forgiven and given the strength to once more walk in the way of God.
Today the Church gathers to confess our sins to Almighty God as we begin an intentional 40 day journey together; today we remind each other of our mortality and fragility. Today, as much as any day we have, we openly say we are not God – all our foolishness and posturing notwithstanding – and we don’t live individually or collectively as the true God would have us live. Today, then, we face the hard question of whether we want what we do today or fear it, whether this is a day of hope for us or one which we sometimes wish the Church would not do.
This is no small question, either, because the tendency to avoid such honesty and truthfulness is a very human tendency.
From when we were children we knew that it was an attractive option to dodge any honest assessment of our faults, certainly internally, but equally when confronted by a parent or another in authority. When we did wrong, even if we knew it, it didn’t take a lot of thought to find some way to divert it.
We would divert by ignoring it and hoping nobody noticed. Maybe if I just lean the lamp against the wall and walk away, no one will know it’s broken. Or we would dodge it by blaming someone else, either for the thing itself, or even the person who had the temerity to point it out to us.
This tendency as children often isn’t outgrown in adulthood. There are many adults who still live by ignoring, constantly saying, “Who, me? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” There are many adults who still live as if the only way something is wrong is if you get caught at it, and even then it’s in dispute. There are many adults who still angrily resent it when their wrongdoing is pointed out.
We’ve become a society and a culture that has elevated individual rights and autonomy so high we have brought along a sense that each of us is entitled to act however and whenever we choose, and no one can tell us otherwise.
So when someone talks about sin, about the possibility of a standard of living beyond our own inner decisions, it’s seen as intrusive, outdated, offensive, oppressive.
Even in the Church this can be true: I once had a pastor of a large Lutheran church tell me that they didn’t do confession there because it was too depressing. That’s not what people wanted to come and hear about or do. And that is not an isolated view in the Lutheran church, or even beyond Lutheran boundaries.
It’s a logical next step to our avoidance tendency: If sin is not a reality to be faced but an arbitrary category we can avoid, why get everybody down and talk about it, even in church? some would say. No one wants to do that. Lift people’s spirits, make them feel good about themselves, that’s how to build a congregation.
When we persist in such immaturity we also mistake the conversation about sin to be strictly about avoiding punishment. Most of the avoidance techniques we have are designed to keep us from being punished, from dealing with consequences.
In this immature view, sin is irrelevant, but if punishment is in the offing, that we wish to avoid, by denying, ignoring, or deflecting our sin onto another. Confession is seen as a way to get out of being in trouble, not as an honest asking for forgiveness so that a relationship can be restored.
Within the Church this can be seen both in the need for some to rail against the sins of others and threaten eternal punishment on them if they don’t change, and the need for some to see confession and forgiveness as only a convenient get out of jail free card, with no impact on the rest of one’s life.
In this view, resentment extends even to spiritual disciplines which others have found helpful in maturing and growing in faith. The disciplines of Lent we name, fasting, sacrificial giving, prayer, self-examination, works of love – which are actually disciplines of life in the Spirit, we only are invited to begin to learn and practice them during this season – these are great gifts believers have found deeply helpful in their growth in faith.
When we’re immature, however, we treat them as “have to” things. Do I have to fast? Do I have to give up something for Lent? Do I have to put ashes on my head on this day? Do I have to pray daily, read the Scriptures daily? Do I have to . . .?
Asking “do I have to” is a sure sign that we haven’t quite grown up to the place we could be.
Growing up into an understanding of the gift of God’s way leads to a very different perspective on all of this.
If God’s way is seen as a way of life for us and for our community and even the world, then sin – going off of that path – is dangerous and needs correction, not a topic for avoidance.
Think of it this way: if you’ve fallen out of the lifeboat, it’s not something to fear to shout for help, so that you can be brought back into the lifeboat. Even if it’s your fault you fell. If you’re walking the only safe path in a dangerous place and you step off to the side, denying it, resenting someone for pointing it out, or pretending you didn’t notice is only going to get you hurt.
This is the attitude toward sin that is going to be life-giving for us.
We begin to recognize God’s way as a way of life, and so any time we get off we want to get back on. We confess our sin not to avoid punishment, but to be put back by God into a relationship of life and love with God and each other, to be put back on the safe road, into the lifeboat, on the way of love and grace.
This mature attitude helps us understand what Isaiah says today. The people are angry because they’re doing all these things that they think are going to keep them from being punished by God, or to make God like them, and the LORD God tells Isaiah to tell them they’re missing the point entirely.
Living in God’s ways of justice and life – sharing bread with the hungry, ending oppression for those in bondage, clothing the naked – this is the way for the healing of the world, for the community and the world to have life. That’s the way, God says, that is like light breaking forth in the dawn of morning, the way of a watered garden, of rebuilt ruins.
In this attitude, confession becomes a gift, a hope, a joy. So David, even in the throes of confession, is seeking a return to the joy of relationship with God, not seeking to avoid punishment. “Let me hear joy and gladness,” he sang, “restore to me the joy of your salvation . . . and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”
Confession, what we do today, becomes a mature hope in our restoration and in God’s great forgiveness, just as we sang together in Psalm 103 today.
And Jesus’ invitation to spiritual discipline isn’t “have to,” but a possible way of life. He’s rejecting spiritual disciplines as show-off things, but he assumes they are all part of our practice. And in that spirit we can take on such disciplines, not just for Lent, but for life, in hopes that they help us continue to grow, to walk this path, to find life in Christ.
There’s a key element left to consider, though: the community of faith.
We have gathered together today, and that’s significant. We do not walk this road alone.
We often speak of Lent as a journey, which it is, but it is best understood as a model for the journey of life. This is a helpful metaphor for us to carry, that we are walking our lives on a journey, sometimes through lush, beautiful places, sometimes through rough wilderness. The Scriptures are full of references to this metaphor, so it comes before us a lot.
Now, if we each are on this journey alone, that’s a very difficult thought. If you’re driving or walking all by yourself, it’s easy to get lost, frustrated, resentful of wrong paths, confused. Alone, we can even be completely unaware we’re on the wrong path.
In community, it’s a very different feeling. Think of what it’s like with two in a car instead of one, two on a wilderness path instead of one. There are lots of advantages: shared wisdom as to direction, comfort in difficulty, correction of each other when going astray, companionship and joy in the journey. That’s the gift Christ gives us in the Church, the Body of Christ. We are journeying through life on the same road, together, and that makes all the difference.
Together, then, we can encourage each other to this maturity and life. We name truths that need confession to each other, not to beat each other up but for good and growth. David needed the prophet Nathan to help him recognize his great sin with Bathsheba and Uriah before he could confess as he did in Psalm 51.
We need each other to tell us the truth, individually and collectively. When the group is straying, someone needs to speak up. When individuals start getting lost, the loving companions reach out a hand and help them back to the path.
In the community, then, we strengthen one another to have the courage to approach God with confession, trusting that forgiveness will restore us all to new life, to the path of life. There are times for individual confession, and in fact I will be offering some times for that this Lent. But today we come together, to encourage each other to be bold before God, honest about ourselves, truthful about our sin.
Together we can approach the throne of God and remind each other that our Lord Jesus has promised forgiveness and grace when we come. Alone, we might fear even facing this.
And together we can support each other in our spiritual disciplines. As we all come to the Lord’s Supper in a little bit, we will be a sea of ashen crosses flowing up to the meal and back to the pews. We wear the mark of our mortality together, because we share it. And fasting, prayer, alms-giving, and other spiritual disciplines become things we teach each other, the wise ones among us sharing how these things have helped to deepened connection with the Triune God, to deepened maturity.
We need each other. That’s the great gift of Christian community.
So, sisters and brothers, I am glad you are here with me today.
Let us stand together, and approach the throne of grace, holding each other by the hand, strengthening the weak knees, as the Scriptures say, encouraging each other as we all honestly make confession, and eagerly seek the Spirit’s grace in our growing up into the people we are meant to be.
It is good we are called here together today. We need each other. Together we come before God’s throne, together we open our hearts in confession, together we stand, expecting to receive God’s grace. God be with us now in our confession, and in the new life God will give us as we go from here.
In the name of Jesus. Amen