Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?”
In The New Handbook of the Christian Year, Ash Wednesday is described as a day when we are to focus our lives upon the dual themes of sin and death in the light of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ. But most people I talk to here at KUC have a dim view of the word sin because they equate sin with feelings of self-hating and worthlessness. I think we can lay the blame for that interpretation at the feet of the concept of original sin. Original sin is the idea that all of us come into this world with a black stain on our hearts that only God can somehow erase. It says that though we were made in the image of God Adam and Eve’s choices in the Garden condemned us all to lives of sin, alienation and death. As a result Lent has been understood as the season to immerse ourselves in understanding just how bad we are and how far we have strayed from God. It is the season that culminates in Easter when Jesus dies and rises to save us from ourselves. This is an appealing scenario to some who like to beat themselves up for coveting their neighbor’s car or kicking the cat or cheating on their income tax. But for others of us our experience of life tells us that maybe the concept of original sin is an attempt to explain why the world, and all of us, have gotten so far off the track of how we know the world could be and not a truth we must all embrace. We know that we are capable of amazing beauty and love. But if we are honest we also have to admit that we have a dark side of fear, greed and anger that alienates us from God and our neighbor and that we would like to hide from ourselves as well as others. With this understanding Lent then becomes a time to “come to terms with the recognition that all self-reflective beings have, at some point, that we are not only what we could be, but not what we should be” to quote from Richard Rosengarten in an article by Mary Schmich in the Tribune on Ash Wednesday morning. Rosengarten suggests that “Lent is a time to notice your habits of mind.” To ask ourselves to whom and to what do we give our attention.
So, I suggest that we reframe Lent, not as a time to beat up on ourselves but as a time to notice the habits of mind that lead us to think much more about what we are going to wear in the morning than about God. And we, who live in the midst of every kind of abundance, need a push and a shove to notice our thinking, let alone change it. Scientific research has shown that it takes anywhere from 30 to 45 days to change a habit. So, amazingly Lent gives us 40 days during which to flex our spiritual muscles and develop new habits of thinking about our lives and our relationship with God. Lent gives us some time to turn our attention which is centered, let’s admit it, on ourselves and return to God and to our call to love God and our neighbor…to have a change of heart.
Stories of changed hearts abound in the Bible. David, king of Israel, looking out of a window in his house one day saw his neighbor, the beautiful Bathsheba, lounging on the roof of her house. Greed and lust possessed him and he had her brought to him and he slept with her. When she became
pregnant, David panicked and had Bathsheba’s husband sent to the front lines of battle where he was killed and David was saved from public disgrace. But God knew what he had done and God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David with what he had done. Nathan told David the story of the rich man who, not wanting to sacrifice one of his own flock, took the beloved lamb of a poor man to serve his guests. Hearing the story David became furious and told Nathan “As the Lord live, the man who has done this deserves to die,” and Nathan told him, “You are the man.” (2 Samuel 12) We too have had these kinds of experiences. This is the kind of experience that pops our bubble of self-satisfaction and pride. This kind of experience has the potential to propel us on a difficult inward journey that can be full of fear and anxiety but also has the potential to be a journey full of joy and excitement that provides us with new experiences that transform us. It is this kind of experience that can motivate us to have a change of heart, to enter into a journey of soul searching and transformation and return to God.
After coming face to face with ourselves, our journey of transformation continues with confession. David wrote Psalm 51 as a confession of the terrible things he had done: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” Confession is not a popular concept in our society. Sadly we have lost the sacrament of confession where we are forced to admit, not only to ourselves but to another person, the wrongs we have done. Jesus knew the value of an honest confession. He encouraged his followers to be reconciled to one another. “So when you are offering your gift at the altar,” he said, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister and then come and offer your gift.” There is nothing like an open and honest admitting of our mistakes to cleanse our souls and set us on a new path, and God knows it.
However, facing who we truly are and confessing it is not an end in itself. Facing that something is wrong and admitting it is just the first step in accepting the responsibility for how things are. God wants true repentance but also a willing openness to change. Repentance means that not only do we feel badly about what we have done – but also our feelings move us into action.
“Our lives are to be God’s sign language to the world,” Barbara Brown Taylor says in her book, Speaking of Sin, but not by making a show of prayer and fasting and doing for others. We are not called to live disciplined lives in order for people to see us and praise our works. Our work is for God and it is in the doing of God’s work and our witness to God’s care for one another that we silence those who ask, “Where is [your] God?”
We are given these next 40 + days to listen, pray, ponder and ask what is it that God wants us to be and do and how God would like us to change. What are the opportunities that God has given you to come face to face with all the things you don’t like about yourself and with your need for forgiveness and transformation? As you remember don’t be weighed down or overwhelmed. At the end of 40 days comes the hope of Easter. Because of Jesus we can freely confess. Knowing of God’s love and forgiveness we are empowered to act in a way that reflects who God is in the world.
The message of lent is this: wake up to your need for reconciliation with God and others, confess and then go out into the world as God’s sign language of love. Amen.