When I finally allowed my then-boyfriend, now-husband to come to church with me for a regularly-scheduled service, it was Ash Wednesday. I believe I let him come because there was to be good BBQ afterwards, as was our Kansas City tradition.***
To my surprise, he informed me afterwards that he really enjoyed the liturgy. “You get to apologize for all this stuff that’s wrong!” he told his mother, later “And it feels really nice!”
Til then, I hadn’t contemplated the idea that repenting corporately could be experienced as a positive. The conventional wisdom I had inherited taught that we should probably steer clear of sin and repentance, because it bummed folks out.
Yet, the truth is, we know things are wrong, in the world. We see people make bad choices. We see those choices cause suffering. We even see people justify their hatred and violence in the name of God. And when the church refuses to name that reality, I don’t think it helps any; rather I think that it feeds into a culture of denial and hypocrisy.
Lent, for one, helps us name the reality that Everything Is Not Ok, and also reassures us that even though Things Are Not Ok, that doesn’t mean this is permanent, or that we are powerless in the face of it.
Hence, my Happy Lent! sermon.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
March 6, 2019
In my varied career, I’ve been a school chaplain for preschoolers several times on Ash Wednesday. Each time, there has been dire concern expressed over how such young children will react to this particular holy day in our calendar. “Isn’t it a bit much for them?,” well meaning adults ask. “All the sin and death. Can’t you save this for when they’re older?”
The same sorts of concerns arise around Holy Week (once I was explicitly told not to tell small children that Jesus died “because they’d be sad”. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure they figured that one out anyway.)
Ash Wednesday has that reputation—actually, all of Lent has that reputation. This is the time of the church year when we are to be properly sad about ourselves, right? When we are to recall with guilt and shame that we are dust, and we should feel bad about it. The music is sad, the colors are sad, the weather, too, is mostly sad.
Lent is sad, Repentance is sad, sin is sad. So we should avoid it at all costs, and focus on the nice, happy things, and avoid all this sad stuff.
Here’s the problem: the theological constructs of sin and repentance actually get at something very important to the human condition. They describe something fundamental that exists.
Sin is fundamentally the notion that the world we know has missed the mark that God has set for us. That the world we inhabit, the choices we make, does not live up to all that God intends for us. That basically, this world—the way things are— is broken.
And there is a deep truth to that fact that we innately recognize because it is possible to see in this world both the potential it holds, and how we squander it. We can see institutions and systems that increase inequality and oppression between people. We can see injustice occurring around us. We can see poverty, hatred, and violence, and the innocent suffering. We can see things that we know are unfair, that should not be present in the good God’s good creation. And so, the language our tradition gives us for that wrongness, both on a macro level and when we individually contribute to that brokenness, is sin.
Sin—it’s when things go wrong.
And it is hard, I believe, at this point in our history, to look around and not recognize the presence of things going wrong. Not recognize the presence of sin. The front page of the newspaper is testimony enough to the idea that everything isn’t going great. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, to quote Yeats.
And so, our tradition gives us the idea of repentance. Because left unto itself, the reality of the broken world is sad. Goodness knows, listening to the news too much will make a person lose it. But we are called, over and over, in a multitude of different ways, that when we fall short, when we discover that things are broken, the proper response is to turn back, and try again. Repent means to literally turn around, so when we repent, as we do today, we are turning back from the brokenness, and promising to try something different.
In this reading from Isaiah, the prophet reminds the people that repentance isn’t just about wailing, and weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s not about feeling guilty and sorry for yourself and saying the right series of prayers. The repentance God wants is a renewed pursuit of justice. A renewed dedication to equality, to truth, to doing the right thing for all people. That when we discover that our lives, or the world as a whole, has gone wrong, we stop, turn around, and try something different. The point of sin is not to make us sad, and it’s not to impress upon us how horrible we are. The point is to urge us to turn around and try again.
Because Isaiah makes very clear—when we try again, when we figure out we’re going wrong and turn around, God is immediately at hand, to answer our call, to show us the way, and to lighten our footsteps. God’s role is not to shame us or guilt us—instead God encourages us to get it right, to try one more time, to pick up, and take one more shot, till we set this world aright.
Ash Wednesday is not about how wretched and sinful we are. Or rather, it sort of is, but along with that comes the rather good news that none of our sins, none of our mistakes are the end of the story. For as dire as our mistakes seem, as in deep trouble as this world is, God is right there, hands outstretched, ready and waiting for us to turn around, and try a different way. Sin is no barrier to God’s love, and neither is our mortal frailty. For as often as we fall short, for as frequently as we mess up, God is just as ready to pick us up, to steer us the right way, until we figure this out. We may be fallible dust, but God transforms even our ashes and dust into a profound, splendid creation. And that is good news indeed.
***The first time a priest brings a new romantic partner to their church is a BIG DEAL. It’s like introducing a new partner to your children, if you were a single parent, and if your children are 3 years old, and you have 60 of them. They are all adorable, you love them dearly, but you are also aware that they will get attached Very Fast, and have Many Feelings about the situation that you will then need to manage. It’s fraught, is my point.