2 Corinthians 5:21
In our day and age we don’t like the word sin – at least as it applies to us personally, to our habits, our short-comings, to the behavior groups to which we belong. For many of us the word sin carries with it all the images of an angry God who is hateful and punishing, just waiting to catch us out, and all wrapped in the cadences of a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. That language strikes us as unseemly, over-the-top dramatic, a God we have no interest in believing in.
And yet, Ash Wednesday is all about sin – our sin, personal sin, corporate sin, the sin of humanity and human structures, and the very real ways we have all failed and fallen short of the glory of God. When we stand still long enough to really look, when we take our fingers out of our ears and listen, we will be able to acknowledge – at least to ourselves – that we have sinned in any number of ways large and small. In fact, St. Augustine, writing around the year 400 AD said that it was not possible for men and women not to sin; it’s baked into our human nature, at one level.
There are, of course, preachers, and teachers, and traditions that spend all their time talking about sin and its ravages. When that happens, it pulls our picture of God out of focus, gives a skewed sense of God’s nature. But we can also go too far in the opposite direction – running away from ever facing or addressing the presence of sin in our lives, and instead trying to bask solely in the warmth of God’s approval.
As with most things connected to God, the Bible, and the Christian life, sin and grace are a both/and, not an either/or. And really, as Episcopalians who have our roots as a Church in the via media, the middle way, this should not be too hard to wrap our minds around. Sin is real, and God’s grace and forgiveness are real, and we have to keep both of these in the picture.
The Collect for Ash Wednesday gives us a lot of help with this. We start by remembering and claiming that God hates nothing he has made – nothing; that includes us. It also includes the person or group who most vexes us and over whom we fret and fume the most. God does not hate us – and God forgives the sins of all those who come in humility and penitence to ask for forgiveness. There it is, right up front, the two together: love and sin; grace and penitence.
The Collect goes on to ask God to do what God does best – to create, to make anew, to bring order out of chaos, and goodness out of pain and sorrow: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts. We do not ask to be made perfect, but we do pray for God’s perfect forgiveness and mercy. This is the language of a God whose first impulse is to love, to create, to bless.
The hitch is, that if we stay stuck in out sin, if we refuse to see our condition – what is actually going on with us – then we will miss the grace, and mercy, and blessing. It’s not something God forces on us. We can close and lock the door from the inside, keeping God our...along with anyone else we don’t want to deal with.
So the Church in her wisdom has given us time to work on our aversion to the truth about ourselves. We get forty whole days – not including the Sundays – to take stock, to examine our behavior and attitudes and relationships. We’ll each have different things we need to bring to the surface, to let the light of the Holy Spirit begin to disinfect our hearts and minds. Some of us will have really big and hard burdens of sin to address. And for some people, this is where the practice of private sacramental confession can be helpful. Others of us will have smaller, less obvious, but no less painful on-going failures to address. In every case a good place to start is by asking oneself about Jesus’ Great Commandment:
- First: Am I loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength? If not, why not, and what steps is God calling me to take to change that?
- Second: Am I loving my neighbor as myself, remembering that neighbor refers to everyone who shares the planet with you, as well as the person who lives next door. It also means that we are to love ourselves as God loves us. Are we doing that? Where is that hard? What practical steps do we need to take to be more loving toward others and toward ourselves?
God doesn’t point out our sin to us so that we will be miserable and feel ourselves beyond redemption – quite the opposite. God calls us out from our sin so that we no longer have to be miserable – to ourselves and to those around us. Wounds that fester need to be cleaned and bound up; infections need to heal; relationships that have been breached need to be mended; the brokenness of the world needs to be repaired. That is what God does, in God’s mercy, that is what is on offer this Ash Wednesday, this Lent.
It may not be possible for us not to sin, but God’s grace and mercy are greater than our human nature, if we allow God access to our soul.
Let us pray.
Almighty and everlasting God, you indeed hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; that we may live in your love and walk in your ways. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
March 6, 2019