Ash Wednesday February 17, 2010

2 Corinthians 5:20b-21, 6:1-10                                       

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21                                                       

 Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

 We celebrate today two things that are difficult for us: sin and mortality. I remember being on the search committee for a new priest, back before I was ordained myself. We were going through resumes the bishop had sent us and we got to Fr. So-and-So’s. “Discard!” announced a woman on the committee immediately. “I went to a service at his church and he preached on sin.” Moral: don’t talk about sin if you want to get ahead, even in the Church, certainly not in the rest of life.

Mortality, too: who wants to talk about death, particularly their own? Obituaries always note how someone died after a “long struggle” or a “long battle” with whatever disease carried them off. Death is the enemy. Hospitals and hospices are partly places where we hide away the dying so they won’t spoil things for the living. We’ve come a long ways from our ancestors, who prayed in the Great Litany to be delivered from “dying suddenly and unprepared” and saw this life in terms of preparation for death.

I hope you will all try out our on-line Lenten study series, available on our Website. Timothy Keller, around whose book The Reason for God the series is built, makes an interesting observation. In our secular society, he says, our worth is weighed by our performance. This can be a matter of how much money we make, what positions we hold, what honors we amass over our lifetimes, our intellectual or athletic abilities and so on. But we also look on morality as a matter of performance: how “good” are we, how close to “perfection” do we manage to come? Like a bunch of people on moral Step Master machines. We make even virtue a matter of competition, winning and losing.

 Now the trouble with that way of looking at life – and let’s be honest, it’s the default mode for all of us – is that it turns salvation itself into another matter of performance. Can I save myself if I only try harder? So sin and death become failures to perform and we try to deny or minimize them to others and even to ourselves. “Oh, I’m not really very sinful,” we say to ourselves – “and if I’ve made mistakes, well, they’re no worse than anyone else’s.” And, “oh, maybe I’m going to die someday, but let’s not be morbid and think about it. After all, when it comes God’s going to recognize that I’ve tried hard to be good – well, most of the time – and he’s not a judgmental God, so he’ll let me into heaven.”

Now what Tim Keller points out is that such a view robs life of its moral seriousness. “In the Christian understanding, Jesus does not tell us how to live so we can merit salvation. Rather, he comes to forgive and save us through his life and death in our place. God’s grace does not come to people who morally outperform others, but to those who admit their failure to perform and who acknowledge their need for a Savior.”*

Something interesting happens when we embrace this understanding of salvation. It allows us to be honest and realistic about ourselves. We can reflect on our lives, “take a moral inventory” as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, and look ourselves in the face, stains of sin and all. And we can truly confess that this is who we are. It’s very freeing. The burden of performance is suddenly lifted from our shoulders – a burden we could never discharge anyway, because we’re mere human beings, not gods.

The lifting of that burden brings a lightness and happiness to our lives. Think of people you know: who is the better friend to spend time with, the one who is always boasting of his achievements and justifying himself, or the one who is gentle and accepting of her imperfections and failures – and of yours?

But beyond that joy – and joy is exactly what this feeling is –shedding that burden of performance also paradoxically frees us to lead a more moral life. Think about the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus taught us as the template for all prayer, indeed for all life. Do we pray anywhere in it for greater moral performance and perfection? I don’t think so! Indeed, in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee Jesus condemns just such prayer. No, in the Lord’s Prayer the only real reference to morality is in our request that we may forgive others as we are forgiven. Forgiveness is the moral perfection that Jesus urges on us – not a matter of performance at all, but of dealing with nonperformance. Freed of the burden of performing like gods, we can become forgiving, giving, loving, hoping and trusting human beings. And as such, we can begin to regard death not as the ultimate enemy, but as a mysterious friend.

So, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Not a terrible thing, but a blessing. Yes, we are sinners. Yes, we are mortal. But yes and yes again, Jesus Christ came to save us where we cannot save ourselves. Jesus Christ came to triumph over death, that we might no longer fear its sting.


*Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), pp. 19-20.

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