Ash Wednesday: What’s the Problem?

(Note: I preached this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, 2016)

Sisters and brothers grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

After all of that unpleasantness in the garden, God tells Adam about his life:

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

A lot of folks are hard on God, especially God as the Old Testament depicts him. God is blamed for this or that sorrow that we experience, or God is blamed for not showing up when we need him, or in the way we think we need him. God is mean, God likes to punish people for things, and so on.

So it’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing unjust or vindictive in what God says to Adam. You were taken from the earth, you were given the breath of life, and you will return that breath of life and go back to the earth. You came from dust and will go back to dust and between the dust and the dust you’ll have to work. Adam wanted knowledge and he got it. Then he learned that the knowledge he gained isn’t interested in helping him.

We remember these words every Ash Wednesday. It is the one day that without fail we recall that each of us is mortal and that our journey from earth to earth is happening right now and will be over, sooner or later. And it is also the day that we remember that we are sinners. We cry out with the Psalmist, “Indeed I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me,” and pray that God would “blot out my transgressions.”

And if you’ll indulge me for a moment, this day, Ash Wednesday, takes us way back into a very old, very deep debate on a big question: What’s the Problem with Humanity?

On one hand, people have argued, the problem with humanity is that we are limited. We have these bodies that get sick and broken, we have these finite lifetimes, we have eyes that only see so much and brains that only know so much. We need food and we need protection and we are just so fragile and finite. We come from earth and go back to earth and our earthiness is our problem.

According to this view, all of our problems spring from this fact that we are limited. If we knew more, if we didn’t break down, if our bodies didn’t betray us, if we didn’t get old and sick and die, we’d be fine. We would be kind, we would be generous, we would make smart choices.

It’s a compelling idea.

On the other hand, some people have argued that the problem with humanity is that we are faulty or sinful. These people point out that we don’t just get sick, or hungry, which is bad enough, but we do destructive things to protect our health or fill our bellies. Our brains don’t know everything but even when we know the good we choose the bad. We’re fragile and we’re finite and yet we still hurt each other, as if time won’t take care of our grudges soon enough. We come from earth and go back to earth, but the problem is not our earthiness. The problem is that no matter what we do, we end up crying out, “wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”

According to this view, we could know everything there is to know and live forever and still be selfish, proud, greedy, and harsh with each other.

So what’s the problem? Is it mortality, limitedness, ignorance, earth and dust?

Or is it willfulness, malice, pridefulness, self-centeredness, sin and guilt?

It’s worth thinking about a little bit. When we say, for example, that someone is “only human” or that “everyone makes mistakes,” do we mean that after all no one can know everything and do everything in the best possible way? Or do we mean that human beings are just sort of bent, warped, and inclined to screw things up because on some level we want to screw them up?

Christians have typically adopted the second view, that our problem is ultimately a moral problem.

But honestly I don’t know. The more we learn about ourselves, the more we see that the limits of our bodies really do shape our moral lives. 

To take a relatively harmless example: Did I eat so many paczki yesterday because I am a glutton who lacks self-control? Or was it a stressful day and our bodies process stress by urging us to eat more?

Or to take a less harmless example: Are we fearful of people who are not like us in some way because our hearts are hard and we lack human sympathy for them? Or is it that our brains are wired to sense threats even where threats don’t exist?

And this brings us to the question many of us want to ask when we’re confronted with the problems of our existence: Is this normal? Or is this my fault?

Ash Wednesday is the day when we face the reality that it may be both. Dust returning to dust, sin crying out for forgiveness—it’s all part of who we are. I find myself reminding people over and over that our frailties of whatever kind are baked into the cake. They are us—our fears, our lusts, our willingness to enact or tolerate cruelty, our need to like ourselves and be liked by others, our crumbling bodies, our unreliable minds.

That’s the problem. And it’s not something we can fix. We can’t fix it by fasting or by praying or by giving alms. We don’t do these things to cure ourselves. We do them to remember that we want to be cured. We don’t do them to earn God’s favor. We do them so that we may want God’s favor.

And despite the hard words and haunting silence of this day, that’s what comes to us—even in the symbol of a cross on our foreheads, and the remembrance that dust will be dust. Christ’s dust for our dust, his broken body for our broken bodies, his patience for our wandering minds, his fearlessness for our fears, his righteousness for our sins. Amen.

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