(Part I of VII in the Lenten Sermon Series: God's Word and Our Struggle to Respond)
First Congregational Church, Columbus
February 13, 2002 - Ash Wednesday
Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching
One of my favorite movies of the holiday season is A Christmas Story. This is a little vignette in the life of a boy growing up in the Midwest, just prior to WWII. I'm sure that it would be a rather nostalgic film for many of the older members of our congregation since its setting may closely parallel their own childhood. The cars, the clothes, the songs will all seem familiar.
About midway through the film there is a scene that takes place in the school of our young central character. Now this is a school like I remember: red brick construction with windows that can really open, shiny hardwood floors, and desks in neat rows. At the front of each classroom is a blackboard with the alphabet in cursive letters on green cards that run above its length.
In the story a number of the children at recess dare a particular boy to put his tongue on the metal flagpole. After a round of challenges, he feels he has no other choice than to prove he's not afraid. The result is that, indeed, his tongue does freeze to the playground pole. Finally it takes both the police and fire department to finally get him pried loose. Later we see this forlorn lad, with bandaged tongue, being led back into the classroom by his teacher. She looks at the other students one by one, then says, "Shame on you! Now aren't you sorry?"
Well, they're not too sorry, but they are a bit ashamed. Those that put him up to doing it know that they probably shouldn't have, and those who just stood around and watched it happen realize that they could have come to his rescue. Kids don't always do the right things. The teacher in this case is justified in admonishing her students.
Now in many films and TV programs today you find the opposite message; that is, if people are dumb enough to get themselves in trouble, then they deserve whatever befalls them. We need take no responsibility for them, even if our actions are partly to blame. We're absolved totally of any wrongdoing, for they acted out of freewill and made their own decision. We can go on our way without needing to feel any remorse.
Guilt and shame are two words about to fall out of the vocabulary of many people. They're seen as archaic expressions of outdated emotions. Guilt and shame no longer make sense in the modern world and are simply inhibitions to personal freedom. We're better off to be rid of them!
So, perhaps to some, a service like this today is an example of obsolete thinking and a harkening back to an outmoded past. To some, Ash Wednesday is passe in today's society, as is the theme of penitence emphasized in Lent. Yet to us who are here, our very presence stands as a witness to a different understanding of life and to a faith that says we are accountable for what we do or fail to do.
One wit has said that "man is the only creature that blushes, or needs to." Our conscience is what sets us apart from the other animals. Something nags at us and will not leave us alone when we have done wrong toward others, unless we have built a wall up around our feelings. Some people become very good at this and the denial which accompanies that attitude. Sometimes a whole society seems to be infected by such moral callousness, as was Nazi Germany much of the time.
Psalm 25 is an ancient prayer which asks for God's mercy. In that regard it is very appropriate for this, the first day of Lent. "To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul in you, I trust; do not let me be put to shame. Make me to know your ways; teach me your paths. Lead me and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation. Be mindful of your mercy and your steadfast love. Do not remember my sins and transgressions. For your name's sake, pardon my guilt for it is great."
The psalmist pleads for forgiveness and undoubtedly felt such a need very sincerely. Yet, do we share this sentiment with the writer? A few minutes ago we joined in words of confession, but did we mean them? Lent begs a question of how our actions square with the professions we make. It challenges us to open ourselves to self-examination that I might see myself for who I am apart from the
image I present.
The Gospel of Mark begins with the arrival of John and Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan. It is with this seemingly life-changing event that this carpenter's son from Nazareth now realizes clearly the mission to which he is called. After forty days in the wilderness where he is tempted to use his power for personal gain, he comes back with a resolve that will stay with him for the rest of his ministry. Then the first words of Jesus that this gospel records are these: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
I find it interesting to note that Jesus doesn't say "listen and believe" or "learn and believe," but he says "repent and believe." Even the order of the words is important. One logically precedes the other. The starting point along the path of faith is repentance, and that opens the way to belief.
So how do we do that? We dare to look in the mirror of our souls. We risk learning what we hide from ourselves, but which often may be quite apparent to others. Here I find the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to be especially helpful, for they apply to our common experience of life as well as to the specific problem of addiction which they address.
Those steps talk about believing that there is indeed a Power greater than ourselves, of turning our will and our lives over to the care of God. They advise us to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, admit the nature of our wrongs, be ready to have God remove these defects of character, then ask God to heal us of our shortcomings. It's just what Jesus says, "Repent and believe." They go together, linked intrinsically.
There was a mule once that fell into an old dry well. It was so dark and deep that its owner naturally assumed that the unfortunate animal had been killed in the fall. So he decided to dump dirt down the hole to bury the mule and to prevent another such accident from happening. The farmer proceeded to pour cartload after cartload of soil into the well. What he didn't know was that the animal was still alive.
Each time a shower of dirt came down, the mule shook it off and trampled it underfoot. With each load the mule was raised a few inches until, in time, its head was visible in the hole and the astounded farmer was able to complete its rescue.
In many ways that's how guilt can actually work in our favor. The more we recognize it for what it is and can put it beneath us through repentance, the more it has the capacity to elevate us. Guilt makes us aware of our imperfections, not so that they might bury us but so that we are motivated to be changed until we can once again stand on solid ground. Guilt pricks our souls until we do what we must do to move ahead.
Ash Wednesday, today, begins the season of Lent which we set aside as a special time of annual reflection. This period starts with an awareness of who we are for good or bad, but holds up the promise of the person we can yet become. It challenges us to be open to the changes that are necessary in our lives, then encourages us to accept the grace of God's healing action. It brings us to a spiritual awakening that makes each day new.
"Repent and believe," Jesus said. It's as hard and as simple as that.
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