And You Are Very Good
March 5, 2013 – Ash Wednesday
Pastor Monte Stevens – North Riverdale Lutheran Church – Dayton, Ohio
Ash Wednesday, begins the penitential season of Lent. A season where we acknowledge that we are sinful and turn to God for mercy and forgiveness.
It’s a good season for reflecting on how we have fallen short of God’s intent for how we should live. And when we fall short, we turn to God and each other and ask for forgiveness. And the God of compassion and love forgives us, and a fresh start is granted.
We begin almost every service with some sort of Confession and forgiveness. We do this because it’s an important acknowledgement…right? An acknowledgement that on that continuum of sinner and saint we’re a little more sinner than saint…at least on most Sundays.
In our Ash Wednesday Liturgy we usually recite Psalm 51, one of the penitential Psalms. We are told that this is a confession of King David to God. We join King David in confessing just what a miserable sinner we are. Listen to a few verses.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
This acknowledgment of sin is important to the Christian life. We can’t talk about our human condition without talking about sin. But over the course of Christian history, this acknowledgement that we can and do sin – turn in selfish ways away from God – has become the dominant way we see and understand ourselves.
We are sinful and unclean and we put this dominant thought into our dogma and created a doctrine of “Original Sin.” Did you ever think about how Penitential and Penitentiary have the same root word. Are we really in prison for life?
The doctrine of original sin states that we are born fallen and with a defect. It is a doctrine that says we are born broken and bad. It’s so deep in our DNA that we can’t escape it. We can only be rescued from it. Every person born hence – from Adam and Eve – has been born fallen and broken.
For the first 400 years of Christianity we did not think like this. It wasn’t until, around year 400 that St. Augustine matured and popularized various understandings of our human condition into this formal doctrine. He called it “The Doctrine of Original Sin.” It has been a favorite of the church since then.
But what about Jesus. You know – the guy that we all follow. We are Christ followers – Christians – not Augustinians. Jesus never talked about original sin. Jesus didn’t seem to have doctrines at all really. The Eastern orthodox church never excepted Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. And I think it has outlived any value it might have had.
Does that mean I don’t believe in what we call sin? No. You and I know that we sin. We can turn from God and turn on each other. We sin on a daily basis and we confess that sin each Sunday.
But I don’t believe that God created us with a defect. I don’t believe God created junk. I don’t think God created us to be bad. But, that’s the way the Augustine and others have interpreted the Adam and Eve story of Genesis 2.
However, as I have said before, these creation texts are not to be taken literally. They are stories to teach us about ourselves and the world.
While I think Genesis 2 has a lot to teach us, I am more a Genesis 1 person when it comes to our human condition.
Remember what Genesis 1 says? Genesis 1 says God created us male and female, simultaneously and equally, and he saw what he had created and called it good. Very Good.
I believe we are born Good. We are born in the image of God. We are born of God and imprinted with God.
Just look at any baby. They radiate goodness and holiness and their families say they are a blessing. That’s our human condition; that’s our anthropology.
We are born a blessing to be a blessing!
Let that language sink in. We are born a blessing to be a blessing! I know that many of you believe this too. I believe that people “at their core” are good. That’s my experience of people anyway.
There is inherent goodness in all of us. I think that’s the way God created us. Sure all of us can get off track and do some stupid or selfish things that God never intended. We can all miss the mark of God’s intent …
That’s the biblical definition of sin – to miss the mark – as in shooting an arrow and you miss the bulls-eye. But we are not born flawed and broken in need of salvific repair. We are born immature and not fully developed, in need of good parents and mentors and spiritual community. We are born needing to grow and mature into our deepest humanity and spirituality.
We are born a blessing to be a blessing to the world.
Imagine growing up your entire religious life, from your first Sunday school class on understanding yourself as being created a blessing to be a blessing. That makes sense to me and feels pretty good.
Now imagine growing up your entire religious life, from your first Sunday school class on understanding yourself as being created sinful and unclean, flawed, and needing to be fixed or rescued from this condition.
Psychology has taught us that we often become what we are told we are. I think it’s time for Christianity to move away from fundamentally understanding our human condition as flawed and broken, to one of being born blessed to be a blessing.
Today we will remind ourselves with ash on our forehead that we have missed the mark of fully living as God would have us live. It’s good to recognize our sin and turn back to the ways and will of God. We join our brother King David and do that today.
The ash on our foreheads also reminds us that we are mortal. Our life will one day end. But that life – from the very beginning – was declared by God to be Good – to be Very Good. And in this life, we have the opportunity to be a blessing. That is a high and holy calling.
That ash reminds us that life is short – remember that you are dust – and we better use our time wisely to be that blessing to others. To be a blessing to our families. To be a blessing to our community. To be a blessing to God’s creation.
Remember this, you are precious in God’s sight, beloved by the Creator of all things…born in the image of God…born a blessing…to be a blessing to the world.
And God saw what he had made, YOU.
And said, “It’s very good.”