Ash Wednesday, 2014
The following sermon was preached by Raymond Pickett, Professor of New Testament, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, March 5, 2014.
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
“I'm friends with the monster that's under my bed
Get along with the voices inside of my head
You're trying to save me, stop holding your breath
And you think I'm crazy, yeah, you think I'm crazy.”
I don’t always listen to the radio, but when I do NPR is not the only station on my dial. I am intrigued by the lyrics and drawn in by the catchy tunes of some popular songs, especially the ones that pick up on religious or spiritual themes. I don’t want to ascribe more significance or depth to lyrics from popular songs than they deserve, but it strikes me that this song sounds a lot like what we would call confession.
A little later in the song “Monsters” Eminem says:
Cause I need an interventionist to intervene between me and this monster
And save me from myself and all this conflict
Cause the very thing that I love's killing me and I can't conquer it
My OCD is conking me in the head, keep knockin'
Nobody's home, I'm sleepwalkin’
Evidently Eminem is referring to his alter ego (Slim Shady) which represents rebellion, drug use and violence. He expresses his need for someone to step in and separate him from his monsters. There are two things that interest me about this confession, if we can call it that. First is the relation between the monster which is external and the internal voices. For Eminem fame and media attention is the very thing that he loves that’s killing him and that he can’t conquer. That particular struggle may seem fairly remote to people like us, but isn’t it true that what we desire tends to become our master to the extent that we find ourselves guided by yearnings and aspirations rather than the good. This is how addiction works, and of course I am not just talking about substance abuse. There is addiction to money, power, oil, knowledge, and a popular one around LSTC, addiction to work.
The second interesting revelation in this confession is the notion that we make friends with the monsters that taunt and torment us. Presumably since we are powerless over them, we may as well befriend them, make peace with, incorporate them into our identity. Juxtaposed with this uncanny ability we have to make friends with or reconcile ourselves to dysfunction inside and out, Paul announces that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Godself and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. And it is jarring precisely because the self has replaced God as its own ground of being, and alienated us not only from God and one another but from out very selves. Hence the split characterized by the monster that is the other within that must befriended.
Paul’s gospel of God reconciling the world to Godself through the self-giving love of the one who “died for all so that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who died and was raised for them” is a strange word indeed in a self-referential world where sin has been displaced by interior struggle, the voices in our head, and confession a private matter reserved for the therapists couch. One reason we must make friends with monsters, adjust to dysfunction, and do it alone, is that we are left to our own devices to manufacture a self that will be appealing to others.
My bedtime reading lately is Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, and he poignantly describes the effect of what he calls the bourgeois myth of self-origination: “Self-authorship is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence. Denying that our freedom thrives only within the context of a more fundamental dependency lies at the root of a good deal of historical disaster. It is certainly one of the driving forces of Western neo-imperialism today.”
So here we are on Ash Wednesday, that most introspective and self-analyzing of Holy Days where we are invited to confess our sins and reflect on our relationship with God, and Paul confronts us with God’s desire to reconcile the world. It’s been a couple of months now since we have made new year’s resolutions to make improvements to our bodies and our lives. Most of us have already fallen short, and now we express our resolve regarding our spiritual lives. And Paul has the audacity to turn our attention away from us to God’s call: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making God’s appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the justice of God. ”
Even as we are about to turn inward because we have nowhere else to turn, in this passage from 2 Corinthians Paul urges us to focus our attention on new creation, which will invariably involve us in God’s work of reconciliation and justice. There is a line in another popular song about the destruction of Pompeii that asks “Oh where do we begin? The rubble or our sins?” Paul says that God has passed over our transgressions so that out of the rubble we might participate in new creation: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
The interesting thing about the word “reconciliation” in ordinary Greek usage is that it is not a “religious” term. Rather, it is a word drawn from the sphere of politics; it refers to dispute resolution. So one could speak of the diplomatic reconciliation of warring nations or, in the sphere of personal relationships. When Paul uses the verb “reconcile” with God as its subject he is speaking about overcoming alienation and establishing new and peaceful relationships. According to Paul, this is possible because “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the justice of God.”
While this is an enigmatic as a theological statement, when interpreted pragmatically it is an expression of solidarity. One of my new friends is Brant Rosen, who is rabbi and spiritual leader of a Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston. Rabbi Rosen is also an activist for peace and human rights. I first met him at a meeting of clergy organizing for social and economic justice, but he was at St. Luke’s a couple of weeks ago talking to a group of Lutherans about his new book Wrestling in the Daylight: A Rabbi’s Path to Palestinian Solidarity. The book is a collection of his blog posts that chronicles how he as a faithful Jew who loves his homeland began to see things from the Palestinian perspective. With remarkable courage, humility and insight he bears public witness to the plight of the Palestinian people and advocates a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that affords full citizenship, civil rights and human rights to Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants alike.
Rabbi Rosen understands that God’s justice comes through solidarity with those with whom we need to be reconciled. Reorienting life before God often necessitates a radical call outside of oneself to be reconciled to others. Being reconciled to God is not just another individualistic resolution or self-improvement step. Instead, it means being messengers of reconciliation, working together in a cooperative grace, and participating in God's reconciling activity to make the world right/just.
The question this Lent is not what can you do to repair your relationship with God. God has already done that. You need only receive the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness and be reconciled to God. Rather the question is: are you going to “accept the grace of God in vain”. In his sermon on this passage Luther says: “To receive the grace of God in vain can be nothing else than to hear the pure word of God which presents and offers grace, and yet to remain listless and irresponsive, undergoing no change at all.”
What matters is the new creation and whether we choose to be a part of the world God is creating? Make no make mistake about it, this is not our doing. A more peaceful and just world is brought into being by the One “who calls into existence the things that do not exist, and “chooses what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in God’s presence.”
With the imposition of ashes we are confronted with our mortality, our limits, our finitude so that we can be delivered from the monsters under the bed and the voices in our head, from the prison that is the “self” to partake of the glorious liberty of the children of God who are entrusted with the message of reconciliation and called to embody God’s justice in the world through practices that show unity, love, mercy, forgiveness and a self-giving grace that the world could not even dream of apart from Jesus.