Here’s my sermon from Ash Wednesday. You can listen to below, in the sidebar to the right, or download the Tamed Cynic app here.
Maybe its the last dregs of chemo brain, but am I the only one who hears ‘…against you, you alone God, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight…’ and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’
I mean, I don’t know what you look like in your baby photos but I look absolutely adorable. Even back then I had a face any woman could love. Did God really look at me, wearing an OshKosh onesie and a world weary expression, and think to God’s self: Baby Jason, he’s a miserable, wicked sinner? Is God’s ego really so fragile?
True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but from the moment my mother conceived me?
And I don’t know if my guilt extends all the way back to the womb like today’s scripture contends- seems awfully grim- but I know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic on Route 1.
Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the next traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I rebel against God, day and night, and that I’ve done evil in his sight sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.
Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath? Shouldn’t God be at least as nice as Jesus?
We’ve all heard the cliche that the Church is a place not for great saints but for great sinners. ‘The Church,’ as the sign out front of Bethlehem Baptist Church said last week, ‘is a hospital for sinners.’
What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?
Like you? Like me?
Just read through the Ash Wednesday liturgy the Church with a capital C has given us- there’s no room in it for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.
Or take another scripture that’s a standby for Ash Wednesday, where Isaiah says we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’ It’s over the top.
And consider King David who wrote Psalm 51. David is exactly like a Game of Thrones character. David is a peeping tom, a sexual predator, a murderer and a religious sycophant. David collected 100 foreskins just to impress his girlfriend and I’m willing to bet at least 99 of them came from reluctant donors. David tore off his clothes and danced naked on the altar of the covenant.
Even by the Jersey Shore standards of his Old Testament day, David was terrible, a terribly exceptional sinner.
I mean, it’s no wonder hardly anyone brings their kids to Ash Wednesday service. You all come here to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you’re secretly thinking about voting for Trump and what do we do?
Bam, we hit you over the head with ‘…against you, you only, God have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.’
And then, as if that wasn’t overkill enough, we invite you to participate in this liturgy of sackcloth and ash that derives, lemme tell you, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation and forgiveness of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists.
When it comes to you and me, the scripture, the ceremony- it misses the mark.
King David’s language in Psalm 51 is beautiful, but as gorgeous as the words are, it’s bad language. It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.
Here, of all places, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.
So, let’s be honest. Most of us are ordinary, mediocre sinners. Boring even.
I mean, the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like David, but I for one, after the year I’ve had, don’t have the energy for that.
We are not great sinners. We’re not rebelling day and night against God. We haven’t been guilty since our mother’s first trimester. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.
No matter what the baptists will tell you, you’re not totally depraved. When God made humanity he called it ‘very good’ and then God considered you and me good enough to put on skin himself. So, no, you’re not totally depraved.
We’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or spiritual psychopaths. Other than Dennis Perry, I’ve not seen one of you dance naked at the altar. So forget the psalm. Forget David’s confession for a moment and let’s be honest.
Your sins do not offend God.
There, I said it.
Your sins do not offend God.
No doubt you commit ordinary, mediocre sins against a great many people in your lives, probably against the people you love most. And probably your sins leave most of those people PO’d at you. But your sins- they don’t anger God.
Let David narrate David’s experience for himself, but let’s be honest about ours. There’s a difference between David and you. He’s a lot more interesting of a sinner. Fine. Whatever. So be it.
Let’s be precise, David’s a Game of Thrones sinner and most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.
You may hate your ex or grumble about your pain in the butt neighbor, but those sins don’t mean God takes it as though you hate God.
No, your sin just means you’re lazy and shallow and stingy and careless in how you love God and love your neighbor.
You haven’t been committing evil since you were teething- that’s insanity. No, you just screen your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.
Those are the kinds of sinners you are. We are.
But compared to David? Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not much of a sinner.
No matter what the liturgy says, you haven’t been guilty since the day your mother conceived you.
I know it’s Ash Wednesday, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is.
Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.
As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously as a sinner is the best way to understand what sin, for most of us, really, is.
Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.
They’re not errors that erode God’s grace. They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you. They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.
Don’t take yourself so seriously.
Sin is about where your love lies.
Sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies.
God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like David or a jackass like me or a comfortably numb suburbanite, doesn’t change. Because God doesn’t change.
There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father.
God’s heart is no different whether you leave here with your forehead smooth or smudged tonight.
So before you come up here today to put on ash, before we invite you follow Jesus into the wilderness for the 40 days of Lent, don’t think it has anything to do with where God’s love lies.
God’s love for you is unconditional because God is unchanging.
Don’t think an ashen cross keeps the fires of hell at bay. Don’t think Lenten penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor. Don’t think that by confessing your sin you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you.
No. When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. He is changing our minds about him. God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.
Who the hell are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God?
You’re not putting on ash tonight to change God’s love, you’re putting on ash to change your love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection.
Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip.
Most of our sins- they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One.
And so with sackcloth and ashes, we invite you, over the next 40 days, to kill your lovers.
Or if the sound of that makes you squeamish, we invite you to die to them.
Because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God.
Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us. That’s a lesson I learned about a year ago tonight when the doctor called and asked if I was sitting down.
Jesus didn’t suffer and die so that we don’t have to. Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross.
Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments.
Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus.