sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015
“Oh, where do we begin: the rubble, or our sins?” That’s a lyric from one of my favorite popular songs of the past couple years: “Pompeii,” by the band Bastille. “Oh, where do we begin: the rubble, or our sins?” And that’s a really great question at the beginning of Lent. We live in a beautiful world, but we’ve made a mess of it. So now what do we do? Do we start by sifting through the rubble and making repairs? Or do we first need to fix ourselves so that we don’t cause further damage?
It seems to me that this question—“Where do we begin?”—is the source of some of the great theological and political divides in our nation. Is it up to our governments, businesses, religions, schools, and other organizations to clear away the rubble and start constructing a better world? Certainly large groups of people are capable of effecting good change if they can act somewhat in tandem—God help us! Or must we depend on each individual to reform and to stop sinning? Again, God help us, because individuals will always mess things up. So how will we ever make any progress towards a healthier, less self-destructive society?
Let’s ask the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah urged the nation of Judea, as a political entity, to shape up and to begin to work for justice. We can hear within this Isaiah reading the roots of the popular protest slogan, “No Justice, No Peace.” He taught that the exile in Babylon came as a result of the nation’s sins. When we project Isaiah forward into our context, it strikes me that the prophet would likely be very concerned about many things: predatory lenders, labor contracts, the military industrial complex. He would be shocked at our cruelty to immigrants. He would marvel at our stubborn refusal to address climate change with any sort of urgency. Isaiah rails against hypocrites who make a show of doing something religious—maybe printing slogans on their merchandise that seem to honor God—while at the same time engaging in business practices that oppress fellow human beings. Look at the income inequity in our country, and the poverty and misery that result. These would be of special concern to Isaiah.
But then Isaiah prescribes, as a remedy for our corporate sin, practices that any individual can do on any day: “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.” He speaks of removing the heavy yoke from workers, of no longer pointing fingers and speaking evil. Oh, where does Isaiah begin: the rubble, or our sins? Isaiah makes no distinction. When our organizations change and our individual hearts change, preaches Isaiah: “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Certainly our nation is at its best when it is known as one that repairs breaches and restores streets. And we are at our best when this is work we all do together—not work that we count on other people to accomplish for us.
Isaiah makes no distinction between individual and national behavior because our modern concept of individual rights and responsibilities has developed over millennia. Not nearly as many people today would affirm that God punishes nations for corporate sins. Do you remember when Pat Robertson insisted that God allowed 9/11 to happen in order to punish America for secularizing our public schools? Naturally, most of us were deeply offended. And we would be just as offended if someone were to suggest that God has sent ISIS to punish the West. This doesn’t fly for us, because we know too many innocent people. We have absorbed the later biblical principle that asserts that innocent people do not suffer divine punishment on behalf of the guilty. (Well, maybe once!) Laying aside the question of what is sinful in the first place, we’re more likely to say that individuals sin, and that those sins working together cause bigger and bigger problems, and so we bring our doom upon ourselves.
If that’s the case, then how exactly does God relate to nations on the world stage? When we turn to the Gospels, we find that Jesus doesn’t seem to care much one way or the other about the Roman Empire. It is his context, but it need not stand in the way of us loving God and loving each other. Borders and principalities are human constructions, and they will continue to change, but God does not. Oh, where does Jesus begin: the rubble, or our sins? Jesus’ answer to us today is very quiet and patient. We are to choose carefully where to put our attention and our energy. We are to be God’s people wherever we are, and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.
Do good things, says Jesus, but see if you can get away with doing them secretly. Don’t do good things in the hope of a reward. Jesus also rails against hypocrites who make a show of doing something religious—maybe wearing a sandwich board on a street corner and screaming at sinners—as if they could strong-arm God into dispensing some sort of vending machine blessing. I can’t tell whether Jesus is being tongue-in-cheek, or sincere, when he tells us that those hypocrites who make a show of their good deeds will receive their reward. It may be that he’s saying their efforts are not futile. But Jesus calls his followers to a higher standard. Feasts can be public, but fasting is private. Worship can be corporate, but our deepest prayerful longings are personal. Our faith proceeds from our one-on-one relationship with God and spreads outward to our community and the world.
But above all, says Jesus, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What do we value most, and why do we value it? We need look no further than our check registers or credit card statements to find our hearts. (A priest I know once commented, “I guess my heart is in lunch.”) If Lent is a time for self-examination, then we could do worse than to examine our finances—and Isaiah would certainly say the same, whether we are individuals, churches, or nations! How much do we insist on maintaining control of our material wealth? When we give a gift, do we really give a gift, or is it more like a contract? If even in giving gifts we want to control what happens to them, then that may suggest that our possessions own us.
Instead, says Jesus, “store up for yourselves treasure in heaven.” Do good deeds because they’re good. And in the meantime, above all, stay in relationship with God.
One year when I was a youth group leader, I told the high school kids, “You know, Lent is a great time to work on things about yourself that need to change.”
“Or,” added a 14-year-old named Adam, “you could let God work on changing you.”
I was totally undone. Adam schooled me that day, and I will always be grateful. “Oh, where do we begin: the rubble, or our sins?” Maybe that turns out to be a false dichotomy. Maybe it wasn’t that great a sermon illustration! We see the rubble of our world all around us. We see the rubble within us as we examine ourselves and find ourselves to be sinful people. These things are painfully real. But “where do we begin”? We don’t. God does.
So here we are, about to receive the mark of ashes on our foreheads. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Our lives and our world are rubble and dust, yet God looks at it all and sees beauty. God sees us healthy and whole, and God holds out Jesus to us—an image of what we may yet become. In the Garden of Eden, we made the ill-advised decision to become like God. And God said, “Well, if you insist. This is going to be harder than you think, but nevertheless, let’s get started.”
So whatever you do with your Lent, don’t make it depend completely on your willpower versus some bad habit. Sure, you can go on a diet, or stop biting your nails, or give up chocolate or alcohol. These are good things to do, because it’s always good to come to a deeper understanding of what outside forces have control over us. The best thing I ever gave up for Lent was complaining, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t complained since!
So if and when your willpower fails, don’t believe for a second that you have failed God. God loves you infinitely. Do you believe that? As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “God has begun a good work in you.” And no matter how much rubble piles up in us or in the world around us, God will see that work through to completion. This is the Christian story: that God has acted in the world and will continue to act in the world. It’s not all up to us to get it right, because Jesus took care of that part. Now our job is simply to relax into Jesus, to be grateful for the gift of eternal life, and in response to it, to love more and more deeply. Amen.