What We Have Left Undone

And this is not something we want to hear. It means that we, too, are responsible for our communal sins, even if we as individuals haven’t committed them.

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Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-17
Psalm 51
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1-21

Growing up, there was one part of worship I really didn’t like or understand. No, not the sermon. That was my doodling time.

I’m talking about the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness, page 56 and 77 in the Lutheran Book of Worship, the hymnal we used when I was a kid. I never liked that part of worship. I don’t know if it was because it was just a long block of words that were said, or because I didn’t necessarily understand it all, or because it delayed the first hymn and I loved to sing, or what. But wow, what a drag that was. Nothing like beginning your Sunday morning by talking about how bad you were. Woo-hoo, yay Jesus.

Now that I’m grown though, and now that I’ve been exposed to a very different world than I thought existed in my childhood—a world where sin seems to rule and injustice is not only present, but fostered in so many open, public spaces—I find my reaction to Confession and Forgiveness has changed. Now, I think it might be the second most important thing we do on Sunday morning (after Holy Communion). It’s one of the few times we directly confront sin in ourselves and in our midst, and it’s something we don’t do often enough.

But what is sin? You’d think that for something so important to our understanding of, well, everything to do with our faith, there’d be one easy, concise definition of sin. How foolish of me to think so.

It turns out sin is surprisingly hard to define. Everyone seems to define it differently. Probably the most basic definition I recall being taught was that sin was a small, fancy word that meant doing bad things. So of course, I did what I always do when I don’t know or don’t understand something: I looked it up.

The dictionary in the back of the Bibles my wife and I received at our Confirmations defines sin as “An offense or rebellion against God…; deliberate defiance, wickedness; iniquity; ungodliness.” The Master Builder Bibles for Men glossary defines sin as “to break the law of God; the act of not doing what God wants.” Hmmm.

Turning to our liturgy, I took the following from our Confession and Forgiveness out of Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Sin is described as something that comes out in what we think, what we say, and what we do. It’s something we actively choose to do, but it’s also something that happens when we actively choose not to do something. It’s described as not loving God fully, and not loving the people around us fully. It’s a turning away from God and focusing only on ourselves. It’s something we do intentionally and something we do without even knowing it (which is scary, when you think about it).

All of which is, again, kinda unhelpful and confusing. That describes sin, but doesn’t clearly define it. Sin appears to be one of those words we use all the time and just assume everybody knows, but as it turns out, nobody really knows.

So let’s do a little definition work. Given all of the definitions and descriptions above, let’s work with this summary of sin: sin is a word we use to describe the wounding of a relationship. That relationship can be between us and God, or it can be between us and each other. Sin does not exist in a vacuum—it always involves more than one person. So sin is anything we think, say, or do—and even things we choose not to do—that harms our relationship with someone else.

This changes the dimension of sin, doesn’t it? Sin is no longer just something I do that’s bad. It’s something I do that’s bad to or for someone else. It gives a relational dimension to sin that is often missing in our discussions around sin, especially as it regards how our actions or inactions hurt others.

For example. We all know it’s wrong to take money from someone. That’s stealing. That’s sinning. But if we look at sin as something that breaks our relationship with others, then this is also sin: withholding our money from others when we have too much and they have none. Because it causes them harm. Ouch. We haven’t -done- anything to someone else. But by not doing something that would help our neighbor, we are just as guilty.

Martin Luther understood this dual nature of sin when he wrote his explanations of the Ten Commandments for his Small Catechism. For the Seventh Commandment—”You shall not steal”—he writes this:

“What does this mean? We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.”

So you see, there are two sides to breaking that commandment: taking our neighbors’ money, and failing to help them protect it from others trying to take it. Both hurt our neighbor.

Do you see what I mean when I say that sin is a wounding of our relationship with others?

And it gets even more complicated than that. The contributors to the Disrupt Worship Project, whose work we will be using through the Lenten season, point out that we are very good about pointing out individual sins: -I- did this, or -I- did that. It fits well into our cultural narrative that each person is responsible only for themselves. Sin is something personal, individual, and each person will be judged individually.

But remember, sin is never something that is done or that happens in a vacuum. Sin is a breaking of relationships. And just as sin itself separates us from each other, it also binds us together in its deadly grip. Sin is not just individual sin. It is communal sin.

This is the kind of sin that the prophets of the Old Testament rail against. This is the sin that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Micah all preach about. In their view, the whole community, the whole nation of Israel and Judah, was guilty of sin as a group. Because even though each person may not have cheated the poor, their society cheated the poor. Even though each person may not have turned away from God’s promises, their community did. Because of this, the whole community suffered the consequences of that sin. The whole community was responsible.

And this is not something we want to hear. It means that we, too, are responsible for our communal sins, even if we as individuals haven’t committed them.

Our society, our church is racist. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that racism, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction. We have left the work of healing undone.

Our society, our church, is sexist. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that sexism, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction. We have left the work of healing undone.

Our society, our church, is homophobic and transphobic. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that homophobia and transphobia, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction. We have left the work of healing undone.

Our society, our church, favors the rich and looks down on the poor. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that classism, we are responsible for owning that sin.

Our society, and even our church, favors the right to shoot and kill 17 adults and children in a school in Parkland, Florida over protecting them. And even if we don’t individually contribute to the gun fetish of our culture that allows mass shooting after mass shooting to happen, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction—we refuse to take any action to stop it, choosing instead to offer quaint and useless “thoughts and prayers”. We have left the work of healing undone, and because of our inaction, more people have died. That mass shooting just happened a few hours ago, by the way; this afternoon.

We confess that the things we have done and the things we have left undone, the communal sins we have allowed to flourish because we won’t address them, are just as deadly as, if not deadlier than, the sins we commit as individuals.

Lent has traditionally been a time of preparation for those seeking to be baptized. It has also been a time to really focus on sin—not to cower in fear before it, but to confront it, name it, challenge it, change it and ourselves, and refocus on the God who forgives.

Because sin can be fought. It already has been. I said that sin not only separates us but ties us together into one big ugly mess. During Lent we look forward to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which broke the ties of sin and death, freeing us from the tyranny of sin. When Jesus told the woman about to stoned to go and sin no more, he didn’t mean that she could be perfect and would never sin. But he gave her freedom from sin that no longer had to be obeyed, sin that no longer held her in its prison without escape. Without Jesus Christ, she wouldn’t be free.

Without Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t be able to name our sins, both the individual ones and the collective ones.
Without Jesus Christ, we would be stuck in an endless cycle of things we have done and things we have left undone, slaves to the constant voice that says, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Without Jesus Christ, sin would still have total mastery and control over us, over our society.
Without Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t be able to challenge our communal sins, repent of our actions and inactions, and change the society around us.

Thanks be to God that Christ broke the power of sin and death, bringing liberation and freedom to those imprisoned by it, and in doing so gave us the strength and power to break sin’s power over our communities. For just as sin wielded power over all in an abusive relationship, the liberation through Jesus Christ brings freedom over all to unite them in a new relationship.

Today, you will receive the sign of the cross,the sign of Christ, on your foreheads. You will bear public witness to your faith. You will show others the liberation you have in Jesus Christ. And through you, as we name aloud tonight our sins and confront them, casting them off, you will bring that freedom and liberation to others.

Featured Image: “Repent Forgive Rebuke” by Jon Worth is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Digging Up Dirt

But unfortunately, today is Ash Wednesday, a day that reminds us that not only are we literally dust of the ground, fated to return to that same dust when we die, but in the grand scheme of things we are less than a speck of dust compared to the universe.

Ash Wednesday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

When I went to Israel and Palestine, I had many experiences that I can only describe as having blown me away. I mean, it’s awesome enough just being outside of one’s own country—it really helps give you a perspective on one’s own culture, society, and beliefs when one gets to experience an entirely different set of beliefs in a different culture and society. It’s an experience I highly recommend for anyone who can find a way to visit another country.

But one of the experiences that really transformed me was the realization of just how old things are over there. I remember being a kid in eighth grade visiting Washington, D.C. and looking at the White House and Capitol thinking, “Wow, this stuff is old!” How little I knew.

I used to go backpacking with groups from Capital University and Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Zaleski State Forest in Ohio. There’s an abandoned railroad line that runs through the forest that passes by an old mine that once existed in the area. Where there were mines, there were mining towns, and as we hiked along the trail we could occasionally catch glimpses of foundations and walls sticking up out of the foliage. It’s been less than 200 years since the town was abandoned, and already it’s almost completely taken back over by the forest.

And there’s more than just old, abandoned buildings in Zaleski State Forest. If you look really hard, and know where to look, you can find a few burial mounds of the prehistoric Adena people who lived in the forest between 1000 and 200 BCE, almost 3000 years ago. Now we’re talking about old.

Over here in this country, we have very few remnants and monuments of the cultures that lived here that long ago. But in places like Israel and Palestine, we could walk off of a recently paved, modern road onto an old cobblestone road that has existed for hundreds if not a thousand years. We visited churches that were almost a millennium old. The Church of the Nativity, built over the sight believed to be the place where Jesus was born, has stood for over 1500 years. And then you have the ruins. Scattered all across the countryside are historical archaeological sites: Bethsaida, Tel Dan, Tel Arad, Capernaum, places mentioned in the Bible from well over 2000 years ago. The most fascinating was the old fortress of Meggido, a city-state with 26 layers of ruins that had been occupied as early as 7000 BCE, 9000 years ago.

It’s almost impossible not to see these ruins everywhere and feel one’s overall place in history. Many of these places, especially the tels, were hugely important sights. Meggido was instrumental in protecting the trade routes. Tel Dan was one of the two most important ritual sites in the northern kingdom of Israel 3000 years ago. Now they sit abandoned, all of their importance and majesty gone. No one who has visited these sites can deny the splendor they once had—they had temples and courtyards, thrones, palaces, all the trappings. Now, they have nothing but stones and a few walls. It really makes one wonder about one’s place in the great wide world.

It gets me thinking about our readings this morning, on this Ash Wednesday. Both the reading from the prophet Isaiah and the Gospel according to Matthew have to do with our outward acts of righteousness, our piety. They’re about “looking good” for God. And let’s face it, we all try to look good for God.

We come to church on Sunday morning (or Wednesday morning, or even Thursday evening) dressed in our nice clothes. We behave ourselves for maybe that only hour of the week (parents especially notice this!). We pretend that everything in our lives is going well so that those around us will see the perfection in us we so wish we actually had. We make sure we look “good”.

And it’s not just as individuals—we as the church do this, too. We maintain our buildings to high standards so that others won’t look at them and think badly of us. When we raise money for a good cause, we make sure to have our picture taken and our names in the newspaper so everyone else can see what we did. We want to make a difference in the world.

Everything we do, we do to look good for God and for others.

Now, I’m not saying that all of that is necessarily bad. Isaiah wasn’t saying that fasting was bad, or that being humble before God was bad. Jesus wasn’t saying that giving money to the poor was bad, or that praying out loud was bad, or that our personal pieties—like putting ashes on our heads—were bad. Trying to make a difference in the world isn’t bad. These are all good things to do.

No, what Isaiah and Jesus had a problem with was the way in which we sometimes use these things to hide our dirtier sides. It’s as if we think that if we shine a bright enough light on our righteous and pious acts, people—God—won’t see the stains that we all have and we all carry.

Unfortunately for us, today is Ash Wednesday. The Lenten season begins with a day dedicated to turning off the bright light of our external pious and righteous acts and letting the stains show. It’s a day meant to remind us that no matter how hard we try to appear so, we are not perfect. We are broken people, a community of gathered, broken people.

We are a people who on some level oppress our workers, who quarrel and fight, who perpetuate injustice against our neighbors, who let the hungry go without food and the homeless without shelter. We are a people who try so very hard to be good and hide our brokenness, pretending it doesn’t exist. We think our grandeur and majesty warrants a higher place in life than we have.

But unfortunately, today is Ash Wednesday, a day that reminds us that not only are we literally dust of the ground, fated to return to that same dust when we die, but in the grand scheme of things we are less than a speck of dust compared to the universe. The universe as we understand it, according to current models, is probably about 14 billion years old. Our planet is only 4.5 billion years old. Humanity has been around for roughly 200,000 years. Our oldest ruins are maybe 10,000 years old, and that’s just what we’ve found—I’ve already talked about the ruins I’ve seen, most of which are only a couple thousand years old at most. There are whole swaths of history, cultures and peoples we simply don’t know about and probably never will. And we have the audacity to believe that we can fool God enough to rise above all of that. We have the pride to think that we can hide enough dirt to be remembered in a good light forever, that we can truly make a lasting difference in the world.

Ash Wednesday is the day on which we gather to recognize this reality: that we are dust, fated to fade away. We can’t overcome that, we can’t outrun it, we can’t make ourselves look good enough to be remembered forever. It’s not good or bad, it just is. This is our reality.

But, fortunately, it’s also Ash Wednesday. On this day, when we lament our shortcomings and our attempts to hide them; on this day, when we lay bare our spirits and our souls before God and put ourselves at God’s mercy, we hear these words: “Remember that you are dust, but you are my dust. To dust you shall return, but you shall return to me.”

Because no matter what we’ve been through, no matter what we’ve done, no matter how much we’ve tried to hide it, God knows our dirt. It’s like when you try to bleach that stained white shirt clean, but there’s always a discoloration left behind; God sees our stain and our attempt to cover it up, to wash it away on our own, to make ourselves presentable. God sees it, our imperfect righteousness, and pulls us in anyway. “I know you’re not a perfect child of God. But you are a child of God.”

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; we say these words at a funeral and are reminded of them today. We are dust. We are dirty. We are foolish and self-righteous. But we are God’s dust. We are God’s dirt. We are God’s fools. And that makes all the difference in the world.

Featured Image: The excavation of the abandoned fortress of Meggido photographed by the author.

Sermon–March 5, 2014–Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

This afternoon, I had a visit from Pastor Gary Gilbert from the Union Congregational United Church of Christ. He had been asked to deliver some materials to me, and after introducing myself, I invited him to sit and chat for a few moments. We didn’t talk about anything too important, but he invited me over in the afternoon for Union’s Ash Wednesday service, and I was happy to accept the invitation (which is also why I already have ashes on my forehead).

He introduced me to the folks gathered there that afternoon, and I was surprised by how many people recognized me once they heard my name. How did they know me already? They read the paper—and all of them had read the wonderful article that Jan Hintz wrote for the Three Lakes News. I had to keep reminding them that I didn’t write the article, so any compliments should be directed to Jan.

But I admit, there was something about having people recognize my name and face being in the newspaper felt kinda good. I’ve only been in the paper a couple of times before, and usually candid shots like when someone at TubaChristmas Chicago this little kid (me) playing this giant horn, and thought it odd enough to photograph and use in the paper. This was different though. I wasn’t puffing my chest or anything, but there was a certain element of pride in people recognizing me.

Now, I am by no means a celebrity, and please, don’t treat me like one. But it’s not hard to understand why, when a new building is built and needs a name, or an event needs a sponsor, billionaires from all over bid to have their name put on it. To have one’s name out in public like that lends a certain air of immortality to life. Who will soon forget the likes John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, or yes, even Curly Lambeau.

Corporations do this too. Aside from the aforementioned, try to name a sports stadium that isn’t named after a corporation. We name everything after corporations. That’s why, during a Blackhawks game, you can have an AT&T Video Replay on a Citgo Petroleum Powerplay Goal in the Fifth/Third Bank Third Period.

The same thing can happen in church. I haven’t noticed this too much around here, and I thank you for that, but I’ve seen churches where every pew, every chair, every candelabra, every cup, has someone’s name attached to it as a memorial. Now, except in excess, this itself is not necessarily a bad thing. But we get so caught up in the names and legacy of people that we can lose sight of what’s important. My internship site did a “clean-up”, trying to throw away old, broken junk, and I can’t tell you how many useless pieces of trash were put back in storage because, at one point, they had been memorial gifts—even if the name had long since worn off.

Both as institutions and as people, we care about our pride. We care that people know who we are, recognize us for our contributions, and give us our due—even if it’s as simple as a smile, a thank you, or a hug. We want that recognition.

Lent, then is a challenging season. It is a quieter time, a time of preparation for the upcoming Easter feast. In ancient times, Lent was the last stretch of preparation for those seeking to be baptized as Christians. It was a time for serious reflection, examination, and scrutiny.

It wasn’t a time for pride. Pride had to be left out on the doorstep. Your status, your wealth, your connections, and even your family meant nothing. Even at the baptism, you were stripped naked, immersed in the water, and then draped in a single white tunic—the origin of the albs we wear today.

We all could use a good breaking down of our pride. The many Lenten disciplines are designed to do exactly that. In a country in which, compared to the rest of the world, we live in gross overabundance, what would it mean to acknowledge our wealth that we take for granted, and give up a luxury?

In a society that expects us to always be on the move, always quote-unquote “productive”, always maximizing every second of our time, what would it mean to take 5 minutes each day—10 minutes? 20? 30?–and simply pray. If you are like me, praying alone, without any guide, is hard. My mind wanders. I want to do what I want to do instead. So maybe this is the perfect discipline for me.

And in a world that puts looking beautiful at the top of its list for being important, what would it mean, for even just one day, to walk around with a big, ugly, smudge of dirt on your forehead, in the name of the faith?

I’ve always found it ironic that the day on which we hear Jesus say, “Do not practice your piety before others,” is the day on which we put a visible mark of our faith on our forehead. But in today’s American society, I think it is absolutely appropriate, on this day to do so.

Putting big splotches of dirt on our heads isn’t being boastful. It doesn’t make us look “cool” or popular. It is dirty. It’s messy. It makes us stand out, but not in flashy ways. The girl at Baker’s this afternoon didn’t treat me like a superstar and stroke my ego when she saw my ashes—she thought I had a really bad tattoo. That’s what she saw when she looked at me—awkwardness.

Further, the ashes are the ultimate dismantler of our pride. You’ve heard the phrase, “You can’t take it with you”, right? When we put the ashes on our heads, we are told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Eventually, you will die. There’s no skirting around it, there’s no avoiding it. You will die. And everything you work for will eventually die, too. We may have the Rockefeller Center, but John D. Rockefeller is dead. Do kids these days even know who Rockefeller was? I doubt it.

Lent reminds us that everything we build, every thing we work for, everything we own and buy—it all disappears. We are dust, and to dust we will return. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Our pride will die with us. It has to, for there to be any new life and resurrection. We are mortal, and we will die. But Lent is a season of preparation that leads to Easter. We die so that we might have new life. But we do have to die. And that’s not something to be afraid of.

Tonight, you are invited to have the ashes put on your forehead. To let your pride die. To be reminded of your own mortality, to face that with humility. You will die. But you will also have new life. Lent leads to Easter.

But for now, remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. Amen.

Featured Image: “Ash to Ash” by Greg Williams is licensed under CC-BY-NC.