Friday, February 13, 2015

We All Fall Down...

The season of Lent is looming before us; Ash Wednesday begins the "process" of walking through the Gospel stories of Jesus and his turn toward Jerusalem, the trial, and the cross. When I was a kid, the Methodist Church (and yes, I'm old enough that it was just the "Methodist Church" then!) did not impose ashes on Ash Wednesday. In fact, when I was appointed to serve my first church almost 30 years ago, imposing ashes was still a fairly "radical" thing for protestants to do. However, it turned out to be a very meaningful thing to my parishioners back in 1986, and we never looked back. So, in this first year of my sixth appointment, we will impose ashes again.

Remember the childhood song "Ring Around the Rosey," which had the lyric, "Ashes, Ashes, we all fall DOWN!"? Maybe the little ditty had a theological truth attached to it. We impose ashes because of the proclivity for us humans to "sin," as the ashes are a sign of our desire to "repent." I'm putting those two words in quotes, as they have become firmly ensconced as "church words," and ones not used much in the culture, unless you are talking about Congress. Could the "we all fall down" line have something to do with what theologians call "the fall of humanity," as in the mythical Garden of Eden story when Adam and Eve disobey the one rule they were given? Theologians through the centuries point to this "original sin" as the "fall." At the risk of sounding a bit like humorist and skeptic Bill Maher, do we still believe in the concept of "original sin," and that some duo of proto-humans broke a rule and got us all condemned as a race?

I'm going to explore this a bit in my meditation on Ash Wednesday here at St. Paul's, but here's my thesis in short: Regardless of what "got into us" as humans that make it so hard for us to love one another (especially if those "one anothers" are very different from us), one of the key roles of our faith is to give us the teachings, the tools, and the spiritual encouragement to do this--love one another. "Sins" are those self-centered things we do that cut us off from the human community and from God, because God has chosen to exist within the hearts of those who make up that community. To "repent" literally means to stop, turn, and go in the opposite direction. So when we "repent" of sinning, we should be turning our lives Godward, and right back into the center of God's call to love our neighbors and build a peaceful and affirming human society.

Was there a single event in human history that brought about "the fall"? I guess to me it doesn't matter. But the weirdness in our DNA that causes us to behave sometimes like members of the animal kingdom (self preservation, "survival of the fittest", etc.) can be short-circuited by the teachings of Jesus, and the presence of God's Spirit as the Spirit leads us, again, toward love as a God-given, human core value. That somehow Jesus' death on the cross took away the "automatic" nature of human sin, granted pardon for it, and empowered us to NOT have to live in captivity to this selfish state, is central to the Christian message.

When the Beatles sang, "All you need is love..." they were partly right, although is not so much the "nutrient" as the goal of redemption--Love, God; love neighbor as ourselves. Ashes, repentance, yielding to the leading and power of the Spirit--these things keep us from trying to just personally "gut out" the transition from self-centered "sinning" and true, healthy life in community where the welfare of all is at least as important as the welfare of ME. Jesus message to us, therefore might be, "We've fallen, but we CAN get up! Here, take my hand..." Shalom, Yinz.

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