Ash Wednesday 2015: All the Idols Averse to Forgive

Preaching, Theology

I wonder whether it matters very much to you to be forgiven by God. I’m wondering this on a day when we publicly confess our deep need for this forgiveness from God, but hold off on proclaiming it just yet. I wonder, at least, if it matters as much to us, living now in Portland, Oregon, USA in 2015 as it did to the folks Jesus spoke with while he walked the earth. By the way he spoke it would seem it mattered to them quite a bit. Nearly everything he preached and performed is tied to forgiveness. The kingdom of heaven is here, your sins have been forgiven. You can walk now, your sins have been forgiven. Your leprosy is gone, your sins have been forgiven. The forgiveness of sins also causes some of the biggest problems for Jesus. “Who are you to forgive sins?” the other teachers ask. I can see the look in their eyes. They’ve spent whole careers cultivating a path of carefully prescribed debt-forgiveness from the divine, and here’s a man playing God, giving it all away for free. I can easily imagine their judgement because it’s actually my own. I just can’t imagine proclaiming God’s forgiveness as brazenly in public places. I just can’t imagine that it’d matter much. I can’t imagine saying to the elderly woman struggling to reach a high shelf in the supermarket, “your sins have been forgiven.” Or to the man asking me for busfare, “your sins have been forgiven.” Or to the police officer who has pulled me over for driving 80 miles per hour on 205 north, “your sins have been forgiven.” I can’t imagine saying it, because I can’t imagine what it might possibly matter in each of those situations, more than helping the woman grab the thing she’s reaching for, giving the man some change, or showing the officer my license and registration. I wonder whether it matters much nowadays to be forgiven by God.

I wonder, partly, because it seems like old hat. Of course God is forgiving, of course God forgives me, I’ve heard it so many times before I don’t even have to think about it. But I also wonder because I think the forgiveness of God doesn’t seem to be so deeply at the root of everyone’s problems these days like it seemed to be then. We can hear it in the way the disciples speak to Jesus, “master who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born like this?” Unforgiven sin was the probable cause for every malady imaginable, bad luck, sore toes, deformities, poverty. Of course one would want to be forgiven by God if it meant getting well again, getting work, getting whatever burden weighs us down off our backs again. Yet I don’t believe that most people I interact with on a regular basis believe that unforgiven sins are at the root of their physical and emotional ailments. For me, this boils down to a simple question, a single problem, that I wrestle with often: if I am forgiven, why am I still so miserable sometimes?

For the people Jesus spoke with, the people Jesus forgave, an ominous solitary god hovered somewhere just beyond their conscious lives, holding the spiritual debts their lives had accumulated as if they were the strings of a puppet. For most people I know that god does not exist. Yet something else does. Something else still holds us captive. For me, on my worst days, this captor is a tiny voice who wakes me up some mornings with a litany of things I have done and left undone. I first recognized this voice the year I got married. This voice would accompany me all the way to work, reciting the lists of tasks that had yet to be completed before the big day, the guest lists, the invitations, the liturgy, not to mention the patients I had neglected to see at the hospital where I was working, the stupid thing I’d said the day before to someone in pain. This voice was like a bully riding my back all day long. It took some work to finally break up with this inner bully, and by work I mean therapy. Most mornings I’m fine now, except when my schedule get’s a little hectic, and then I’m tempted to start the litany again. When I truly stop to study it, this litany of my own terribleness perplexes me. If God forgives me, how can I be so unforgiving of myself?

The simple, difficult answer which I’ve been trying to come to terms with lately is that I’ve made an idol out of my own ego. I have set my own priorities above God’s. I have held my own unforgiving disposition as more directive in my life than God’s forgiving one. The good news is that God’s litany is much different from my own, and God is still willing to make a trade. My own litany, the litany of projects I haven’t completed, emails I need to respond to, opinions which I’m worried about, has very little mercy attached to it. I will never be as forgiving with myself as God is with me, because my own litany is about everything I stand to lose. Only the one who has already lost everything can be as forgiving as God is. God’s litany is simple. Will you love me? Will you love me in the one who is nearest by you? Will you love me in yourself? The litany of penitence which we’ll recite momentarily may sound complex, but it is essentially a dozen variations on the theme of loving God, loving neighbor, loving self. And this litany is accompanied line for line with the knowledge of an extravagant mercy which few saints in this life can manage to spend.

Paul admonishes his readers, “on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” The word for reconcile, katalasso, can also mean exchange, the way you might exchange one kind of currency for another. In his theology, Martin Luther referred to a blessed exchange between humanity and God, in which our sinful nature was exchanged for the sinless nature of Christ, or as Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” By this token, the first verse may not be an admonishment so much as an invitation. Be reconciled to God… on Christ’s behalf. You can take the tired old recitations of fear you’ve been running through your mind and trade them in, a new list of priorities is waiting for you, and this list comes with the expectation of frequent failure and forgiveness.  For you, it may not be so much the voice of self-critique that gets you. But I suspect there’s at least something for everyone to trade in. My friend Gabe posted a list of 40 Things to Give Up for Lent, maybe one of them resonates more with you: impatience, negativity, people pleasing, comparison, fear of failure. Each one of the things on this list can be made into an idol, made into a god which we let direct our lives, made into an obstacle of the true God who asks for love over all. As we move into the observance of a holy lent, I invite you to take the idols down, be reconciled to God, believe that your end is in the mercy of God, and let it be the most important thing your life has to receive.


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