Since Ash Wednesday is a day for confession, I suppose an apology is in order.
Dennis and I- we should say we’re sorry. It’s our fault.
After all, every year, every Ash Wednesday, we make you flagellate yourselves with King David’s hyperbolic guilt and indulgent self-loathing: “My sin is ever before me…Against you, you alone God, have I sinned…Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner since my mother conceived me.”
It’s our fault.
Every year, every Ash Wednesday, we drag you through this liturgy that, no BS, derives, from the ceremonies for the reconciliation of grave sinners, like torturers and rapists and conquistadors.
And then every year, every Ash Wednesday, we invite you forward to receive ashes to remember that from dust- by God’s grace- you came but to Death- by your sin- you deserve to go.
So I apologize. We’re sorry. It’s our fault.
If you’re one of those people who think that when we do good God will reward us, if you’re one of those people think that when we do evil, when we sin, God will punish us, if you’re one of those people then maybe it’s our fault.
I mean, it’s freaking strange that Christians of all people should think this way about God, think that God doles out what we sinners deserve but maybe it’s our fault.
Maybe we’ve let the sackcloth and ash mislead you.
Sure, it’s not really odd that other people should think of God this way, think of God rewarding us when we do good and punishing us when we sin. It’s probably the most common way of thinking of God.
Freud was dead-on right: for most people God is just a great projection out onto the sky of our own interior. Our own feelings. Especially the guilty ones.
But if that’s who God is, rewarding us when we’re faithful and punishing us when we’re sinful, then I don’t believe in Him. And neither should you.
I mean if you think God is like Santa, forever auditing us to reward the nice and punish the naughty, then you better wipe your ashes tonight because you’ve lost the plot.
God, Jesus preaches again and again, isn’t like that all.
Just take the parable.
The prodigal son goes off to a distant country, far off from his father, and goes on a Tinder binge. Only after he’s penniless and debauched as Tiger Woods, does the prodigal see himself for what he is.
“I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”
Here’s a question for Ash Wednesday:
Where did the son get the idea that his father would ever treat his children like hired hands? Where did he ever get the idea that his father gave his children what they deserved?
Notice- how the prodigal son’s sin- his sin– alters his whole relationship with his father.
Alters how he sees his father.
Instead of seeing himself as his father’s beloved son, the prodigal sees himself as one who gets the wages he’s earned. Instead of seeing his father as someone who loves without condition, he now sees his father as someone who doles out to his children what they deserve.
Notice, and this is everything tonight, seeing his father as someone who doles out what his children deserve- that isn’t who his father is. That is what the son’s sin has done to how he sees his father.
His father hasn’t changed.
His sin has changed how he sees his father.
Seeing his relationship with his father this way, it’s what his sin has done, and just so you see it too, Luke repeats it twice.
The prodigal son’s sin- it’s something that changes God into a wage-master, into a judge, into a father who doles out what his children deserve.
Sin turns God into exactly who Freud said God was: the projection of our feelings of guilt. Sin turns God into the projection of our shame so that we no longer see the real God at all.
‘God’ isn’t a proper name, don’t forget. It’s an answer.
Fundamentally, ‘God’ is the answer we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ a question to which there is never any other answer but grace and love.
But instead, according to Jesus here in Luke 15, our sin turns God into an accuser, a wage master, a judge who weighs our deeds and damns us.
Maybe tonight, more so than any night, when we put forth confession and put on ash, it’s crucial that we stop and notice how so much of our Christian speech and thought is in fact a kind of Satan worship.
It’s worship of an Accuser.
Which can never be motived by love or joy.
Maybe tonight of all nights, instead of confessing, we should be lamenting, lamenting how for many of us, because of our sin, the only glimpse of God we ever see is how God looks from Hell.
That’s what Christians means by ‘damnation’- it’s self-imposed exile.
To be damned is to be fixed forever in this illusion about God. It’s to be so stuck on justifying your self, so shut-eyed towards your sins that you end up seeing our Father as your Auditor in Heaven.
Don’t let the ash get in your eyes and blind you to the real God.
The real God isn’t a kind of Satan, an accuser, weighing your sin to dole out the wages you deserve. The real Father is like this father. And this father, Jesus says, his heart towards his son is no different on the day his son forsakes him than on the day his son returns home to him.
The real God doesn’t mete out reward or punishment according to our merit. Freud was right- that god is a caricature drawn by sin. Our Father in Heaven is like this father, Jesus says, always helplessly and hopelessly loving.
God is like a father whose love without condition.
Because God- pay attention now- is without change. God, by definition is immutable.
God doesn’t mutate. God doesn’t change.
If God does not change, your sin cannot not change God’s attitude towards you.
Your sin does not change God’s attitude about you.
No, what sin does- it changes your attitude about God.
Sin blinds us, distorts our vision, so that the Father we see is a punitive paymaster, an angry judge, a kind of satan.
Just look at all the trouble we’re going to tonight. We’ve carved out a day on to the calendar. We’ve mixed oil with ash- who would ever think to do something like that? You’re skipping Tucker Carlon’s show on Fox News.
Look at all the trouble we’ve gone to tonight- sin matters enormously… to sinners.
Sin matters enormously to us if we’re sinners.
But it doesn’t matter- at all- to God.
God doesn’t change. Your sin cannot change God.
God, literally, does not give a damn about our sin. It’s we who give the damns. We wish our father dead. We hate our brother. We give the damns.
And then we justify ourselves for having done it.
Until finally all we can see is a Hell’s eye view of God.
Before I graduated, my Jedi Master at Princeton, Dr. Robert Dykstra, a counseling professor, told me that it’s not until year seven in a congregation that the curtain comes up, the pretenses fall away, and you see who your people really are.
“You need to stay in one place long enough,” he said, “so that they no longer have the energy to keep their secrets.”
Well, this is my twelfth Ash Wednesday here. And, by now, I’ve worn you down.
I know a lot of you pretty well. I know who’s cheated on their taxes and who’s cheated on their husbands. I know which husbands were on the hacked Ashley Madison website I know who used to hit their wife and I know the friends that pretend they didn’t know it happened.
I know the fathers who refuse to welcome their own prodigal sons home. I know the children who can’t forgive their parents. And I know who fills a hole in their marriage with stuff or drugs or drink.
After all this time, I know a lot of you pretty well.
And I know a lot of you see God as angry. At you.
As judging, damning. You.
I know a lot of you worry about getting from God what you have coming to you.
I know some of you are here tonight, hoping that if you muster up enough contrition, kneel in penance, pray for forgiveness, and bear your ashes then maybe, just maybe, God will forgive you.
You see God the way you do because of your sin.
Freud’s right, you’ve made that god in your image. Or your sin has.
God’s not angry at you because of your sin. That’s not how it works.
Rather, because of your sin you see God as angry.
God doesn’t give a damn about your sin.
Rather, it’s because of your sin that you see God as damning.
God doesn’t mete out what you deserve.
Rather, because that’s the currency you pay others, you see God as a merit-weighing, sin- auditing, wage-master.
God doesn’t mete out the punishment you deserve.
If you think that then you’ve lost the plot.
God responds to the crosses we build with empty tombs.
After all this time I know you pretty well. I know the damns you’ve given to others in your life. So on this night of sackcloth and ash I want you to know:
God’s love for you doesn’t depend on what you do or who you’re like.
There’s nothing you can do to make the Father love you more and there’s nothing you have done to make the Father love you less.
Our heavenly Father doesn’t care whether you’re a sinner or a saint, a prodigal or a self-righteous elder brat.
It makes no difference to our Father because nothing can make our Father different.
Your sin doesn’t do anything to God, but it can distort everything about you.
It can ruin your eyes even, to the point you don’t recognize your own Father anymore.
Don’t let all this talk tonight about sin mess with your sight.
Don’t let your sin change how the Father’s seen by you.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that if you have contrition, if you confess your sins, if you bear your ashes with the proper penitence then God will come and forgive you, that God will be moved by your heartfelt apology, that God will change his mind about you and forgive you.
Not at all.
God never changes his mind about you.
Because God doesn’t change.
No, what God does do- over and again, as long as it takes- God changes your mind about him.
If you’re sorry for your sin, that’s why. If you’re contrite over your sin, that’s why. If you want to be forgiven of your sin, that’s why.
It’s the unchanging God, at work, in you. To change you.
It’s God changing your mind, helping you to see your sin, and see how your sin has changed how you see him.
You are not forgiven because you confess your sin.
You confess your sin, see yourself for what you are, because you are already forgiven.
Forgiveness is not the product of something we do to change God.
Forgiveness is the product in us of what God does to change us.
God’s forgiveness always precedes our confession and contrition.
That’s why when you come forward for a smear of ashes, you are not coming forward in order to have your sins forgiven. You’re coming forward to celebrate that your sins are forgiven.
These ashes are not a sign that we are the people who have changed how God views us.
These ashes are the sign that we are the people whose vision God has changed.
Sure, these ashes are black and gritty and oily but you should bear them as though you are wearing the finest robe and gaudiest ring, as though someone has kicked on the turntable and set out the flatware and linens, killed the fattest calf, and invited you to get drunk out of your mind because you once were blind but finally you see.
The God you thought was an angry judge.
He’s just a Dad on a porch.