Ash Wednesday – Forgiveness

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Ash Wednesday
March 1, 2017

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


In ancient times, the gods were not to be trifled with. The gods were to be appeased, pleased, cajoled. If you wanted the gods to help you in a battle, if you wanted a good yield of crops, if you wanted help having children, you could simply make an offering. A goat here. A cow there. And then hope that these fickle gods would listen.

And woe to you, if you displeased the gods. You remember reading Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad, right? If you upset the gods they would turn on you, punish you, cause all sorts of problems for you. And if you wanted to get back in the good graces of that particular god, you could make some more offerings. You could throw them a party, give them some wine, and they would be your friends. Turn on them, and the retribution would be fierce.

The gods of modernity are not so different. The gods of wealth, of security, they are fickle to the core. And they demand everything of us. They demand our savings, our souls, our happiness. But when we worship those gods – the gods of wealth, of security – we will always feel totally inadequate. Like we can never convince those gods to love us enough.

See, the other gods, there is no way to please them. But we keep acting as if there is. We try to accumulate more and more to prove ourselves to them. To make those other gods love us. We give in to our self-indulgent appetites, we exploit others, we are jealous of those who are more fortunate – all in hopes that we’ll appease the gods of wealth. We judge falsely, we have uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, we hold in contempt those different from us – all in hopes of pleasing the gods of security. We lust after the new phone, the new car, the new toy, feeling miserable when we haven’t quite obtained it. Those other gods, they want us to feel ashamed. They want us to look at our 401(k) and feel worthless. They want us to look our iPhone 6 and crave the iPhone 7. They want us to store up our treasures in all the meaningless things.Those other gods want us to feel terrible about ourselves. They want us to feel ashamed.

And then, those other gods, they use that shame to extract even more life from our souls. Those other gods will, eventually, kill you. Because even if you give your life for wealth, and security; you will end up dying. Because those other gods do not give life, they only take life away.

On Ash Wednesday, we turn back toward the living God. To the loving God whose only demand is to love in return. On Ash Wednesday, we all kneel together to confess our sins to this merciful God. We confess our desire for these other gods. We come clean, we acknowledge exactly what it is that is standing between us and God. And more often than not – what’s standing between us and God is our unholy greed for money and for security. And so we confess.

But, to be clear, we don’t confess to the true God in order to convince God to love us. We must not treat the living God like we treat the other gods. It’s not like we’re just trading in for a newer model of a god. No, we are seeking the one true God, a God wholly different from all other gods. We should not kneel on this Ash Wednesday in order to beat ourselves with shame, because shame will only drive us further away. Do not treat the living God like you treat the dead gods of our world. We should not confess our sins in order to make ourselves feel miserable in hopes that this will convince God to love us.

Sin is not something that makes God love us any less – sin is the barrier we put up, a barrier that prevents us from loving God and our neighbors with our whole hearts. We say confession, and on this day we say the Litany of Penitence, not to convince God to love us. No, we confess our sins to clear our sins out of the way. To clear them out of the way so that we can open our hearts to the loving God that is already in our midst. God does not need to be cajoled, or pleased, or appeased. God already loves us with a love deeper than we ever know.

Confession is more like peeling back the layers of our own life. And as we peel those layers of sin and hardness, we come to find God is already here, in our hearts. Waiting for us. Take these forty days of Lent, not as forty days to get God to love you. No, take them as your chance to clean out the junk in your life, so that you can fully see the God is already in your midst.

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