Ash Wednesday is 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.
No long ago, 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,
It’s the hit dog that 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 call religion escapist,
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 a sermon today will reassure congregations
that we don’t want you to 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 from
Remember that you are dust
Remember that you may get an occasional virus
but with Tamiflu and Tylenol you will feel better soon.
Escapist religion is on the rise.
It is more pleasant and more marketable.
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 his day.
They were jumping through the religious hoops
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 injustice.
He had no use for escapist petty pieties like giving up
coffee, candy, or Face Book for 40 days.
He thought we had real issues to deal with.
Escapist religion is just smoke and mirrors
to distract us from the violence and injustice
of our lives.
But Isaiah’s God says, Let’s get real.
This is what’s 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 anger, fear, and shame
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.
Escapist strategies take us farther and farther away
from each other and shrivel our capacity
to connect with care and appreciation.
Escapism flees from the common life of family, church,
and civic engagement that require hard things
like sacrifice and compromise.
Escapism alone, however, isn’t enough
to anesthetize our unhappiness
with the world and with ourselves.
We need part two: projection.
We blame all that negative feeling on someone else
and denounce them.
We find scapegoats for all that is wrong with life.
Bretherton calls it the politics of denunciation.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls it theological dualism.
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 Salvadorans, the gays,
the homophobes, the bigots, or the billionaires.
We are apt to be like the Pharisee in Luke.
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,
So if you want a spiritual discipline for Lent, try this one:
Lower your weapons, by which I mean
withdraw your projections.
Psychotherapists tell us that the road
to personal wholeness
begins when we withdraw our projections.
So, whoever you are demonizing, give it up
– at least for 40 days.
In an election year, maybe you are demonizing
a political candidate.
A cool rational disagreement is good sense.
A vote is our civic duty.
But a passionate personal animosity is probably fueled
Maybe you are blaming someone in your family
or church or neighborhood
for your anger or unhappiness.
Lower your weapons and withdraw your projections.
Maybe it’s Syrians you fear may be terrorists
or Salvadoran refugees 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, if not always comfortable,
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 a Resurrection!
Wouldn’t that be an Easter!