The myth of sinfulness is a problem.
The notion that there is such a thing as “original sin”
is rooted in the idea that there was a time
when human beings were different than we are now
AND that we have an option to be different again.
Both of those ideas,
from a 21st century perspective,
For Christians to continue talking and theologizing
as if the Garden of Eden story,
or more particularly Augustine’s version of it,
was factual and historic
is simply weird.
But that is what we do when we talk about sin and salvation.
That language imagines a time when human beings
were constitutionally different than we are now
and that we can somehow be transformed
into a different nature than the one we were born with.
I understand that Paul saw Jesus through this lens
and believed that somehow Jesus dying on a cross
and our believing in resurrection
meant that we could be saved from our sinful natures,
but human beings have traveled a lot of miles
and changed a great many lenses
since Paul walked the earth.
For the Christian conversation
to be stuck in Paul’s language and ideas,
or those of Augustine,
is a religion-killer.
If we want to make a place
for Christian faith and believing in the 21st century
we need to reflect
what we know from our experience about being human
in how we talk and what we say.
The idea that we are born sinful
and that the spiritual task is to spend our lives
has been and is
crushing to the human need for healing.
So let’s think about Ash Wednesday and Lent
a little differently from the implications
of the language we find in the prayer book –
which, by they way, I have altered slightly.
Let’s talk about the gap
between what we say we believe and value
and how we actually live out our lives.
We can do this on a personal level –
as in our lifestyle choices,
or economic behavior,
or voting booth selections,
and how we embody love in our relationships.
And we can do this on a corporate level –
as a nation
comparing our actual behavior in the world
with our revolutionary ideals;
or as a church
by comparing are raison d’etre
of sharing the gospel
with how well we are actually
passing it along to the next generation.
The distance between what we say we cherish and value
and how we actually practice those principles
is the gap we can aim to narrow,
and we can use all we know from
to close the gaps knowing that we will never be perfect.
We can even talk about it
with a great sense of urgency and consequence
knowing that God will not save us
from the effects of our actions.
Global warming is a concrete, practical illustration
of how we are actually and truly damned as a species
if we do not narrow the gaps in our integrity
when it comes to use and abuse of the earth.
It is far more powerful and more fully embodied
to speak of sin and salvation
in those terms –
of our abuse of the earth
and the damnation or salvation coming our way
depending upon how we change the way we live –
than talking about it in moralistic church-language.
Talking about sin and salvation
is so far removed from our daily experience
of what it means to be human in the 21st century
that our theological language confuses and obfuscates
rather than enlightens and reveals.
Jesus’ language is far better than Paul’s
or the liturgical language of our Church.
Jesus hit the nail on the head when he said:
“Where your treasure is,
there will your heart be also.”
What could be clearer?
What we actually value,
the things we spend our time, money and emotions on are the things we actually treasure
no matter what we tell people we believe and value.
So I am inviting us for Lent to practice
applying what we know
in our secular language and culture
to the body of our sacred wisdom,
so that we can begin talking about the gospel
in terms that enlighten and reveal
rather than confuse and obfuscate.
We know, for example,
that there is no possibility of perfection.
We know that there will always be a distance
between what we say we believe and how we live.
We are not condemned for that imperfection
but we condemn ourselves
when we do not recognize it;
and if we do not seek to address and reconcile
the problems we create because of the gaps.
The nature of being human
is that our reach exceeds our grasp,
not because of Adam and Eve
but because we have wonderful imaginations
that grant us vision, desire, and hope
beyond our capacity to create them in the moment.
Sometimes with experience, effort, and time,
we can actually get to the place we are reaching for –
but often it will always only be a reach.
So Lent is a season we set aside each year
to mull over and reflect upon
the distance between what we say we cherish and value
and our actual choices.
It is not a time to chastise ourselves
or burn in shame
because we are imperfect;
rather, it is a time to wonder about how
we might close the gap a little.
There are all kinds of ways to bring these gaps into focus
so that we might see them more clearly
and work on bridging them more nearly.
Ash Wednesday is one of those ways.
Nothing brings life into focus like death,
and the ashes of Ash Wednesday
are a confrontation with our mortality –
our own death.
On Ash Wednesday
we pull out our own deathbed from the hideaway couch
and try it on for size.
I am going to die, we say to ourselves,
I only have so much time left to live.
To acknowledge our mortality in this way
can help us bring into focus
that gap between what we say and what we do,
and that gives us an opportunity
to figure out some ways to close the gap a pinch more.
That is how I would prefer to talk about sin and salvation
because I think theological reflection
should undress and unveil instead of cloak and costume
God and the human experience.
As the ashes smear the flesh of your forehead
and crumble down your face,
a reminder of your death nailed
into your skull like a notice from management,
consider the gaps
between what we claim to value and cherish
and how we actually live.