For many years I have been a fan of “The West Wing,” a political show that offers a positive view of government, with respect for leaders on both sides of the aisle. Whatever your political views, I wonder if you can appreciate a particular scene in which the president admits that he was wrong, that he simply did the wrong thing. He did this wrong thing not because of his party affiliation or his political agenda, or really for any reason other than the fact that he was a flawed human being, and he listened to his fears, and he messed up. He could have denied his wrongdoing and fought against those who wanted to punish him for his mistake, but he chose to cop to it. And here is what he said: “I was wrong. I was. I was just...I was wrong. Come on, you know that. Lots of times we don't know what right or wrong is but lots of times we do and come on, this is one. I may not have had sinister intent at the outset but there were plenty of opportunities for me to make it right. No one in government takes responsibility for anything anymore. We foster, we obfuscate, we rationalize. ‘Everybody does it.’ That's what we say. So we come to occupy a moral safe house where everyone's to blame so no one's guilty. I'm to blame. I was wrong.”
It can be difficult to talk about wrongdoing… about sin. The church has a troubled history with this topic, sometimes using sin to hurt people, to shame them, to frighten them. There is no place in our church any longer for harrowing homilies on the wretchedness of the faithful. I know a priest who resolves never to preach about sin, and for the first 35 years of my life, when I was a Lutheran, sin was never mentioned except in a message of reassurance and hope about the abundant grace of God.
But there is a downside to avoiding the topic of sin. If we don’t talk about it, we can unintentionally give it a disturbing strength: it can become the elephant in the room.
I want to talk about sin.. and death. It is Ash Wednesday, after all: this is as close as Christians come to Yom Kippur. It is our day of atonement and repentance. It is a day when we are reminded of our mortality, and also a day when we come clean about our wrongdoing. So let us talk about these things without fear. We know the Good News of Resurrection; we know that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever; we know that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. (The prophet Joel just told us that!) So we are safe as we talk about these hard things. We are safely resting in the Everlasting Arms.
Sin and death are Powers. Paul speaks of them this way. They are Powers that have gotten the best of human beings: we are not equal to these Powers. God walked through the garden of Eden in the cool of the evening, calling out to the human ones, saying, “Where are you?” This question is an existential one: your smart phone need not tell God where you are, for of course God knows your physical location. No, God calls out to the human ones on a deeper level, for they are lost in sin and death. They are buckling under these terrible powers. God tells them that life will be hard now: they will have to till the earth; child-bearing will be painful; the snake’s bite will injure; they, we, will die.
A good example of Sin as a Power can be found in the world of recovery from substance abuse. Maybe you know about the “disease model”: we now know that alcoholism is a physical disease; it is a mental disorder with a diagnostic code and a list of symptoms. Alcoholics in recovery (and I can admit freely that I am one of them) know that we are not equal to the challenge of addiction. As the second Step says it, we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Sin is a Power, and only a Power greater than humanity can restore us to sanity.
Death also is a Power, and this is blatantly obvious to everyone. I heard a funny but true story a few years ago of a little boy whose church asked him to be one of the people who imposed ashes on the congregation. (I am not sure I like this idea, but okay.) They rehearsed with him, repeatedly teaching him the line he was supposed to say: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” He repeated the line back to his trainers, several times. And then, when the time came for him to impose ashes, he did so, paused, and said to the congregant, “You are going to die.” Did he simply forget his line in the excitement and anxiety of the moment? Or was he a prophet of God, knowing even at a very young age how to tell it like it is?
You are going to die. I am going to die. Death, like sin, is a Power.
But there is another thing we need to think about, when we reflect on these Powers, and particularly the Power of Sin. Recovering alcoholics don’t stay sober long if they simply throw up their hands and say, “Well, what are you gonna do? It’s a disease! I just can’t help myself.” No, there is still the problem of human agency. We may not be able to defeat Sin and Death without God’s help, and more specifically without God’s help on the cross; but we can and should participate in our own atonement by standing (or kneeling) before God with a contrite heart. Remorse is the way human beings share creatively in the atonement, the rectification, that is won for them on the cross.
In the Gospel according to Luke, Peter denies his Lord three times, like he does in all the Gospels. But in Luke’s telling of the story, after his denials, Jesus looks at Peter. Imagine the devastation of that look. In my hearing of this passage, Jesus has no particular expression on his face. He is not weeping; he is not raging. He is simply looking at his friend. Like God calling out, “Where are you?” Jesus looks at Peter and his gaze just says it all. Peter responds with bitter tears and profound remorse.
This is, I think, a healthy response. Peter’s story is far from over. He becomes the Rock of the Church. In John, Peter and Jesus reconcile after breakfast by the sea. In the book of Acts, the Spirit rests on Peter, a fiery power that transforms him into a mighty apostle. Peter ultimately loses his life as a witness to Jesus, and takes his place in the communion of saints as our teacher and brother and friend. Remember: the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
Peter’s story reminds us, then, that sin is not just a Power. It is also something we may appropriately feel guilty about. It is something that can lead to genuine remorse on our part. And that can lead to better behaviors, a better community, a better world. Today, Ash Wednesday, we express this remorse extensively, confessing our sins in a lengthy, detailed litany. Today, Ash Wednesday, our Lord looks at us. God does not shame or humiliate us. We simply take steps in the direction of a better relationship with God, who loves everyone God made, and looks upon us with abundant mercy.
In a few moments, when we gather once again at this Table of Thanksgiving, and are strengthened once again as God’s forgiven and renewed people, we will sing an old-time hymn, Rock of Ages. Theologian Fleming Rutledge notes that this old hymn speaks of a “double cure” for sin: we are cured from both its guilt and power. Our choir will also sing this Gospel, this Good News, for us. Our choir will sing the poem by John Donne, Wilt Thou Forgive? This poem is filled with healthy remorse for sin, and a healthy awareness of human frailty and mortality. But notice what the poet does at the end. I will read the whole poem now, and I hope you can hear in the final stanza a song of hope, a song of trust. We are praying to God, after all: God, the Lord, the One who delivered Israel from bondage at the Red Sea, the One to whom our sister Miriam sang a song of triumph. This poem by John Donne sounds much less triumphant than Miriam with her tambourine, yet it proclaims the same joyous hope. This hope will not disappoint us. God is with us, in our remorse, in the hour of our death, and in our celebration of forgiveness and resurrection.
Here is John Donne’s poem:
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.
Preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria, VA, Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.
Aaron Sorkin, “H. Con-172,” an episode of The West Wing (Los Angeles: Warner Bros., 2002.).