Wednesday, February 10, 2016


On Ash Wednesday we talk about sin and death.
We prefer not to think about such things.
The word for that is denial.
Ernest Becker’s 1974 book, The Denial of Death,
            won the Pulitzer Prize for showing how
            most of our human nuttiness can be traced
                        to our efforts to pretend we will never die.

We start by denying death, then get in the habit of denying
            all sorts of things.
Last week I ran across several people furiously denying
they were racist though no one had hinted that they were.
Back in Georgia we used to say, “A hit dog hollers.”

I am not a racist.
I am not an alcoholic.
I am not anti-Muslim. I am not homophobic.
I am not this. I am not that. I am not mortal.

Some people accuse religion of existing precisely for denial.
They say religion is escapist.
It’s a pie in the sky fantasy for hiding our eyes from hard truths.

Sometimes they are right.
A lot of our clergy say “We are an Easter People”
            and so violate the rubrics to add parts of the Easter service
                        all year long.
Many an Ash Wednesday sermon will be reassurance
            that we don’t mean you should think about anything unpleasant.
All sorts of cute variations on the imposition ashes will be done
            to hide the message.
I fully expect some priest somewhere to change the words to:
            “Remember that you may get an occasional virus
             but with Occicillium and Thera-flu you will feel better soon.”

There is a lot of escapist religion.
But the most formative theologian in history, St. Augustine,
defined sin as precisely this kind of escape.
Sin is disengagement, he said. Sin is denial.
Sin is hiding our eyes from the truth. Religion can be sin.
In our Old Testament lesson,
Isaiah listed the religious pieties and self-mortifications
of ancient Judaism.
They were jumping through the religious hoops
            to get God on their side so they could bypass the hard stuff.
But Isaiah said God was not impressed. According to Isaiah,
God says, “On the day of your fasting . .  . you exploit your workers.
            Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife. . .
             Is this what you call a fast? . . . .
             Is this not the fast I have chosen:
                        to loose the chains of injustice
                        and untie the cords of the yoke,
                        to set the oppressed free. . .  .?”

Isaiah wouldn’t stand for a religion that ignored our part in social injustice.
He had no use for escapist petty pieties like giving up
coffee, candy, or Face Book for 40 days
                        and pretending that makes it all ok.
He thought we had some real issues to deal with.

Escapist religion is just smoke and mirrors
            to distract us from the violence and injustice of our lives.
Isaiah’s God won’t stand for it.
His God says “Let’s get real.”

This is what I believe is real.
We are awash in unspoken repressed grief
            that life is not living up to our expectations.
In a fragmented, alienating society, we are lonely.
The state orders us; the market manipulates us,
and we are angry.
When things seem to be skidding out of control, we are afraid.
We are not who we want to be, so we are ashamed.
That adds up to a load of grief and anger,
            none of which we dare to express.

Episcopal theologian Luke Bretherton says grief and repentance
are not respectable in our society,
            so we avoid them with a clever two-part strategy
            of denial and projection.

The denial piece includes escapist religion.
But there’s more. Upbeat psychologies, pop philosophies,
 chemical mood enhancers, and various entertainments
                        all help us escape our situation.

These escapist strategies take us farther and farther away
            from each other and shrivel the social skills we need
                        to connect with care and appreciation.
Escapism flees from the common life
            of family, church, and civic engagement where hard things
like sacrifice and compromise are essential.  

Escapism alone, however, isn’t enough to anesthetize our unhappiness
with the world and with ourselves.
We need to project all that negative feeling out somewhere,
so we practice denunciation.
We find scapegoats for all that is wrong with life.
Bretherton calls it the politics of denunciation.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls it theological dualism. Same thing.
It means finding someone to blame for our grief,
            someone to serve as a screen on which to project
            the parts of ourselves we don’t want to admit.

I am not a racist. I am not Islamophobic.
I am not angry and I’ll fight the man who says I am.
I am not violent or lustful.
I do not have any of the psychological baggage
            that Freud and Gerard say afflicts everyone else.
No not me.
It’s the Syrians, the Mexicans, the gays,
            the homophobes, the bigots, or the banks.

We are like the Pharisee in Luke 18 verse 11.
Jesus said,
            “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed,
            ‘God I thank you that I am not like other people –
             robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
   I fast twice a week (and tithe).”
The Pharisee stood /by himself. // Escapism and projection.
But the tax collector he was condemning prayed,
            “God have mercy on me a sinner.”
Jesus said it was the tax collector who went home justified.
He didn’t escape. He didn’t project.
He owned his grief, his disappointment with himself, and repented.

So if you want a spiritual discipline for Lent, try this one:
Lower your weapons, by which I mean withdraw your projections.
Many psychotherapists tell us that the road to personal wholeness
            begins when we withdraw our projections.

So, whoever you are demonizing, stop it – at least for 40 days.
In an election year, maybe you are demonizing Barak Obama
            or Donald Trump or some public figure.
A cool rational disagreement is good sense.
But a passionate personal animosity is probably fueled by projection.
Maybe it’s someone in your family or church or neighborhood
            who is supposedly the reason
for your anger or unhappiness.
Lower your weapons and withdraw your projections.

Maybe it’s Syrians you fear may be terrorists
            or Mexicans you think are after your job.
Maybe it’s gay people redefining your marriage
or homophobes curtailing your freedom.
Lower your weapons and withdraw your projections.

Then we’ll be ready to spend the coming 40 days
            doing some serious soul-searching,
            cultivating a healthy self-awareness.
We may find stuff in ourselves that isn’t pretty.
But we may also find the capacity to forgive ourselves
            for the shameful sin of being human.

If we practice the gentle art of forgiving ourselves,
            we will find it a lot easier to forgive someone else.
Eventually we may even forgive life itself for disappointing us,
            and set ourselves free to actually live it.  
Wouldn’t that be an Easter!

Wouldn’t that be a Resurrection! Amen.