In gratitude for our sins

  ©Suzanne Grimmett              ASH WEDNESDAY

Joel 2.1-2, 12-17

Psalm 51.1-17

2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

17 February 2021


“Sin is behovely, but all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” So said Julian of Norwich in 1343

Or we hear from Martin Luther in 1521;

“Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly”

Such sentiments about sin are different to the usual associations. Sin is not a word we use very commonly and “Sinner” is a desperately uncomfortable way of describing ourselves. It has also become a difficult word for many even in the church who would equate the judgement of “sinful” with the pulpit pounding, hell fire and brimstone style preaching.

And yet sin and death, brokenness and mortality, are ideas central to Ash Wednesday. It is a day when we remind ourselves that whatever we work to build and sustain, death is always lurking in the background. We confront here today our own mortality, but also our own solidarity with one another as we hold together the beauty and the imperfections of this transient human experience. 

As human beings we should be used to holding together beauty and ugliness. Even the least self-aware person will acknowledge that their own motivations for actions, even kindly actions, are less than pure. In the world of spirit, ‘why’ we do things seems to matter as much as ‘what’ we do and ‘how’ we do them. This is at the heart of Jesus’ words in the reading from Matthew’s Gospel;

“Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”

Which of us has never had a secret hope that our good works will be seen by others and they will think better of us? Who has not had days of self-doubt when the praise of others might be an agreeable reward to bolster our self-worth?

Our motivations can be slippery. We can become experts at even hiding them from ourselves, making the task of self-examination challenging and ever so slowly keeping us from the freedom we were born to claim.

Jesus words to us in the Gospel today remind us that we cannot even set out on this Lenten penitential journey without confronting the contradictions of such a quest. We are to give, but try to keep it hidden, even from ourselves. We are to be known in our community as people of prayer- and yet do it secretly. We are to fast, but be careful not to look miserable about it.

What is really driving us? Are we holding together the opposites in tender acceptance of our own brokenness and mixed motivations or are we striving to impress others (perhaps in ways we hide even from ourselves) and thereby burdening our spirits with expectations of perfectionism and an unhealthy focus on the self?

There is an emphasis in the text about the hiddenness of good works- about some kind of secret life within us which is able to be free to think and act and feel and be… in a place where motivations are not tainted by self-interest. How do we gain access to this liberated interior life where we are better than the selves we encounter day after day? How do you find a place to go when you are fed up with yourself and tired out with your own self-justifications?

Cyprian Smith reminds us that..

God cannot be found or grasped in the external world, but only in the inner world. If we seek him outside we will find him nowhere; if we seek him within, we shall find him everywhere……Having discovered God within, we can discover him without, but never the other way round.”

So the lesson of Ash Wednesday is about not trying to amend our exterior behaviour but to go within, allowing the Spirit to guide us from that inner place where God is to be found in us all, touching every part of our deepest self with mercy and grace. This is what can be understood by Jesus’ statement, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” This is an exhortation to interiority. Lent, above all other concerns, is about a deep recommitment to prayer.

There are still many who come to church often and believe that Christianity is about trying to lead a good life, asking forgiveness when we occasionally make a mistake and then hoping for heaven. Lent comes along every year to remind us of our helplessness to complete such a program. We must go in for the entire treatment; the utter surrender to the love of God which leaves no part of us untouched, allows nothing to remain hidden in darkness. It is for freedom that Christ set us free.

The great Jesuit teacher, Anthony De Mello understood sin and repentance in terms of the love of God setting us free to become ourselves. Perfect love drives out all fear, and it is fear that keeps us trapped in behaviours that seek to impress others or bolster our social capital. De Mello asserts: “Repentance would be better defined not by saying ‘O My God, I am sorry for my sins’ but rather by this: ‘O my God, I love you with all my heart and all my mind and all my soul.’” Repentance is about our slow but steady movement to love God who is active in all things. So we pray, not trying to appease God, but seeking to know God in Christ and in ourselves.

We can get Ash Wednesday wrong. We can become self-generators of false guilt, striving for a sense of dismal self-abnegation. We get it wrong when we focus on sin and repentance as trying to wipe clean our slate in an effort to placate a displeased deity as we think our sins are an obstacle to God’s love. Here we need to hear St Paul’s words clearly- nothing, not even our sins, can keep us from the love of God.

And here is where we need to return to the unusual words about sin with which I began. Sin is behovely, or useful, says Saint Julian. What could she mean? And “sin boldly”? Surely this runs in the face of everything we have ever thought about repentance. St Paul alluded to something similar in the letter to the Romans, saying, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” Paul of course followed that with its corrective, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” So without our sin there is no grace, and yet we are called to be a holy people. This is a strange paradox, yet it is at the heart of our faith.

Herein lies the usefulness of sin- in its unleashing of the torrent of grace whereby sinners are made saints whose inner life is reoriented around the will of God. Across a lifetime heavy burdens can accumulate that take us away from ourselves and our own loving nature:  the need to live up to the expectations of others, the need to maintain a certain appearance, the need to hide a secret failure, the need to perform. To have the courage to walk further into surrender- to give up on all our restless striving- can be the highest and holiest call on our lives if we are to find the way home.

I once heard saints described as “grace merry people”. They are people who have come to the ends of themselves and can only throw up their hands and laugh at their own ridiculous self-centred strivings and self-justification, putting themselves entirely, with great trust, into the hands of a loving God whom they love with all their heart, soul, mind and strength because they have daily experienced forgiveness. Anthony de Mello has a final word about sin and repentance;

Repentance reaches fullness when you are brought to gratitude for your sins.

Without our sins and our awareness of them, we cannot know grace. We are trapped in a harsh world and separated from God, one another and our deepest selves. Repentance reaches fullness when we have opened ourselves to the grace made possible by our awareness of ourselves as a sinner, realising it is only through those sins that we have entered into the life of God.

So may your hearts be full of that gratitude. May you know yourself as a sinner- a knowledge that is behovely- and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. And may we all set out together, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, that we may make a holy Lent.