"International League of the Guilty": An Ash Wednesday Sermon

Blessed be the God of our salvation who bears our burdens and forgives our sins. Amen.

Today is the beginning of Lent. Like the Israelites before him, who wandered in the desert for forty years in hopes of solidifying their identity in God and settling in their homeland, Jesus embarks on his own journey today. Ash Wednesday is the day that begins the forty days of Christ’s fasting and prayer in the desert and we mimic that by engaging our own reflection process. That process is called Lent, the six weeks before Easter every spring. It is depicted with somber themes of penitence and purple vestments, avoiding saying the jubilant “alleluia” and culminating in Christ’s passion and death during Holy Week. Christians observe a Holy Lent through engaging “prayer, doing penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, and self-denial.”

Why do we need Lent?

It is uncomfortable to have a season of penance foisted upon us. Some say it is downright morose and maddening to heave guilt upon ourselves (just wait for the litany of penitence we’re about to pray together on page 267). Some use this as the best reason to avoid the whole affair: enjoy Carnival and Mardi Gras, but skip the fasting and prayer.

We observe Lent because, truth be told, there’s a crack in everything. We observe Lent as the Holy Time when we admit and deal with the historic and ongoing "human propensity to [screw] things up". Life isn’t one big joyous Mardi Gras all the time. Peace is elusive and the world is not as it could be, neither is our health, our spirituality, our generosity, our relationships, our church, our city, our neighborhood, our country or our world. There’s a crack in everything and humans have proved, time and again, their propensity to screw things up. In other words, Lent is a very important, uncomfortable time where we look at the crack in everything -- including ourselves.

Remember John Newton’s, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me…” Why does he call himself a wretch? Why do all of us, whenever we sing the song? It’s always grinded in my ears. And yet, it was the truth. John Newton wasn’t just a wretch, he was a horrific slave trader, making his living capturing and transporting humans in squalor and suffering to places where they and their great grandchildren would be brutalized and traded like commodities. And he started to realize his sinfulness in his boozy, licentious living, but wrote the song before he gave up slaving. It would be like a death camp guard in the Holocaust repenting for cheating his colleague, vowing to improve his deeds, and yet continually showing up for work at the camp. “Yet Newton’s guilt, once found, wouldn’t leave him alone. It went on gradually showing him dark, accurate visions of himself; it went on changing him, until eventually he could not bear the darkness of what he did daily, and gave up the trade, and ended his life as a penitent campaigner against [slavery]. At every stage, it had been the same patient guilt that led him on.” And so Amazing Grace depicts his beginning, his middle and his end of his struggle. “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,” and his “guilty fear is the absolutely appropriate response” and the first step toward healing and rescue. If John Newton can make peace with his extreme propensity to mess things up, so can we, usually in much milder cases.

As Francis Spufford puts it, Christianity is centered on the act of knowing ourselves bathed in the naked truth of our sinfulness precisely in order to be healed of it, alongside our neighbors and world. Realizing the dark truth about our faults, we can begin the healing we need. The truth is our medicine, no matter how bitter it may be. And the crazy part is that the more we allow ourselves to take it, the more we see that our self-righteousness is unfounded and that we are kin to all the other “bad” people, the better our lives become. We may begin to see the Church as the “International League of the Guilty” whose sole purpose is the healing of the world and ourselves. We may, like John Newton, wake up to a new calling as a result of our healthy guilt. But it’s easy to pick on him. Newton is our kin and kind, our sorry brother just like us.

The other good news is that we take this truthful, bitter reflection alongside Christ, the human Maker of Everything. He, knowing how sordidly we’ve fallen short, journeys with us, like a sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous. God won’t let us down, even when we relapse. He steps down into the dark, naked truth that embarasses us all, makes it through to the other side of healing and holds out his hand for us to take this day.

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