Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ashes and Ketchup

Psalm 51, Ash Wednesday A, March 5, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

When you consider confessing your sins, what sort of emotions arise? Discomfort? Sadness? Powerlessness? Despair? Do you enjoy recalling all of the ways that you have wronged yourself, your neighbors, and your God? Probably not. 

Confessing our sins before God in the presence of our fellow church members may not be a fun thing to do, yet it is important. In fact, admitting our wrongdoing is a critical way that God puts us in our place. Today we will hear that we are dust and to dust we shall return. That is quite a downer.

Confessing our sins doesn’t always have to be so depressing, though. Recently, the confirmation class experimented with a new way to confess our sins. We gathered around a table. Each confirmand had a piece of clean white fabric. I invited them to confess their sins out loud. They then squirted ketchup onto their piece of fabric, symbolizing the blood of a sacrificial lamb. 

The first student boldly grabbed the ketchup bottle and exclaimed, “I lied to my parents!” and then sprayed a line of ketchup right down the middle of his piece. Then he passed the bottle to his friend who said, “I hit my brother.” He squeezed a large dollop of ketchup onto his no-longer-clean fabric. 

As the bottle of ketchup was passed around the table, I heard exclamations like, “I slept in instead of going to worship!” and “I am always on Twitter!” and “I stole chips from my best friend!” As they confessed their sins before God and each other, their clean white pieces of fabric became smothered with ketchup piled high. They took pictures of those laden pieces of cloth to remind them of the blood that Jesus spilt for their sins. 

I wish confessing our sins always could be this fun, but it often isn’t. When we come before God to admit our faults, it isn’t always easy. On days like this, we are reminded how often we stray from the path that God has set before us. So often, we do not take up our crosses and follow Jesus. We often are much more like the authors of the Lament psalms than we are like the authors of the Penitential psalms. 

The average author of a lament psalm is self-confident if not outright cocky. He is certain that he is not to blame for whatever is going wrong in his life, so he curses his enemies and blames God. This person will not praise God until God fixes all of his problems. The average psalmist is not repentant.

The author of Psalm 51 has an alternative approach to his relationship with God. In his penitential prayer to the Lord, he does not say, “fix my situation so that I can praise you.” Instead, his message is, “fix me because I am sinful.” God, our enemies, and the situations that we encounter do not create the stumbling blocks in our lives. We put those there by ourselves. 

The issue is not, “fix my problem,” but “fix me because I am the problem.” Admitting our own faults is no simple task. We need infinite amounts of courage and self-esteem to be able to divulge our darkest secrets to God. Like the psalmist, we do not lightly say, “I have sinned, O Lord, against you. Condemn me to death. I have not earned the right to live!” Indeed, we do deserve death. 

We are a broken people, broken from the sin and suffering all around us. When we humbly fall before the Lord pleading to be forgiven, the Lord sees how our whole being is repentant. Through our confession, we also are committing ourselves to God. Surely, we deserve the worst punishment, but the Lord won’t have us suffer anymore. Certainly, when we come before God’s presence with a repentant heart, the Lord cleans us of our sins. The Lord washes away all that is wrong, like how the confirmands cleaned their ketchup-y fabric.

The confirmation students enjoyed squirting their pieces of cloth with ketchup, and they didn’t mind sharing their sins with their classmates and their pastor. Then it was time to clean their fabric. The first student dipped their ketchup-laden piece of cloth into a small bucket of water with powdered Clorox. The water washed away most of the ketchup, and the Clorox did the rest. 

Each student took their turn washing the mock-blood out of their fabric. By the end, that water was disgusting. The ketchup wasn’t fully dissolved, so there were red bits floating and sinking in the water. There were still white specs of the Clorox mixed in, too. That murky water was full of their sins. The kids certainly felt satisfied pouring that mess down the drain! They also rinsed their fabric in the sink so that it looked clean as new. 

As Robert Alter writes, “It is a person’s remorse over past actions, or perhaps simply his authentic grief over his desperate plight, that God accepts instead of sacrifice.” Our deep need for forgiveness is what God requests of us. We don’t have to spill blood to be forgiven of our sins. Jesus’ blood spilt from the cross is enough for God. Every time that we confess our sins, the Lord restores us to wholeness and refreshes our livelihood so that we can be the good in the world. 

Throughout this Lent, may the Lord restore to you the joy of salvation and fill you with the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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