Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
Many years ago Karl Menninger, founder of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, wrote a book titled, “Whatever Became of Sin”. Menninger, you may recall, was a leading psychiatric doctor in the United States at the time.
Menninger wrote his book at a time when the United States went through great social and political upheaval related to the Vietnam War, the Civil Right Movement and the so-called sexual revolution.
He noticed the word sin disappearing from the national vocabulary. He offered this definition of sin: “Sin is transgression of the law of God; disobedience to the divine will; moral failure. Sin is the failure to realize in conduct and character the moral ideal, at least as fully as possible under existing circumstances; failure to do as one ought toward one’s fellow man.” He describes sin as ruthlessness, a hurting, a breaking away from God and the rest of humanity, as act of rebellion.
On Ash Wednesday we are challenged to struggle against sin. Listen to these words from the Lenten exhortation: “As disciples of Christ we are called to struggle against everything that leads us away from love of God and neighbor. Repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love-the discipline of Lent-help us wage our spiritual warfare.” This exhortation takes the definition of sin a step further. Menninger described sin as a transgression of the law of God, but a better description of sin is that it a failure to love to love God and our neighbor. Sin means putting ourselves ahead at the expense of our neighbor. Sin implies that we want to become a little god in the place of the Almighty God.
The word sin may have different shades of meaning, but a common thread runs through each definition. That common thread has to do with our own self-destructiveness and willfulness. Sin occurs when we cast the word of God is tossed aside. Sin occurs we substitute our own prejudices and wants and hates for what God commands of us.
Today talking about sin sounds out of tune with the times. The disappearance of sin from the national vocabulary and its loss of definition within the church has been going on for a long time. A hundred years ago psychology and medical science began studying human behavior in depth. The conclusion was reached that much of human behavior was determined by external forces and events or biological processes over which we have little control. Pretty soon almost any evil act could be explained away.
For example, over the last year we have read some very gruesome articles in the newspaper about individuals murdered in our nation. As part of the reporting of that story, we will learn a great deal about the background of people who participated in the crime. By the time the investigation are complete many competing explanations will be offered for why a death occurred. The family background will be scrutinized. The intelligence of the individuals will be scrutinized. The age of those who committed these acts will be raised up. And ultimately, an argument will be made why this evil act can be explained away.
The truth is that the human mind is a very creative human organ, especially when it comes to justifying itself for its actions. Remember the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. When God confronts Adam about eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, what does Adam immediately do: he blames it on Eve. And then what does eve do? She blames it on the serpent and the serpent argues there was nothing wrong with disobeying God in the first place. In fact, it is positively beneficial. Anyone who eats of the fruit will be able to know good and evil and be like God. What a sweet argument that is. Who wouldn’t want to be like God and have his powers?
The truth is this. The disappearance of sin is nothing new. Humanity has been trying to bury sin for a long, long time. The only difference is that people of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are more adept at using scientific language to accomplish the same thing which Adam and Eve wanted to achieve, that is, get rid of sin and justify our own willfulness and self-destructive ways.
This morning at the early service we placed a smudge of ashes on the forehead of those who came to that worship service. As the mark was made, these words are spoken. From dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return. Dust and ashes remind of our own mortality, but they also do something else. Dust and ashes recall our human destructiveness.
Recently the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was commemorated. The death of six million people in concentrations camps during World War II is the very personification of evil. That event is represented to us in the ashes of victims taken from the crematory ovens. We need to make a direct connection between the ashes of Auschwitz and the ashes of Ash Wednesday. Both speak to the human failure to love God and our neighbor. They speak to our desire to be little gods and ignore God’s will for us.
The message of any Ash Wednesday sermon is always two-fold. First, we confront ourselves with our own sinfulness. We call a spade a spade. We acknowledge that we are heirs to Adam and Eve. We are very bit as cunning in explaining our sinfulness as they were.
But Ash Wednesday is more than an acknowledgment of sin. It is also about setting a new direction for ourselves. We are called upon to wage a spiritual warfare through works of love. Two weeks ago was Valentine’s Day. People sent each other Valentine’s Cards and gifts of candy. I think of Lent as an extended Valentine. I don’t suggest sending candy and cards, but I do believe we ought to use the season of the year to express the love God commands to show.
I think it is so special that last Saturday we offer food baskets to needy families. What a wonderful expression of our Lenten discipline. It is equally important that members of our church provide clothing through the clothes closet. That too is our discipline of Lent. That is also part of our Lenten discipline. Today you are challenged not only to confess your sin on this Ash Wednesday, but engage yourself in works of love, as Christ commands us to do. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.