As a child I think my favorite fairy tale was the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” You all remember the story don’t you?
Jack lives alone with his mother – this boy is a child and not terribly responsible and trades his families only possession – an old and sad cow for a handful of magic beans. Jack’s mother is furious and takes the beans and throws them outside in anger, but over night the beans grow over night into a huge stalk that stretches to the heavens. Jack climbs and there he comes face to face with a giant – actually two giants – a giant couple. Ultimately Jack overcomes the giants and is able to ultimately provide for his mother.
I don’t want to ruin the story for you, and there are a variety of themes we can pull out of this story – but the one I want to focus on tonight is this: What happens to Jack when he comes face to face with this giant couple? Being face to face with the giants forces Jack to realize and to finally accept the fact that he is no longer a child, he is now facing adulthood and he must take responsibility for himself, and for his mother. In short, he is face to face with the end of his childhood and the beginning of adulthood and all that brings with it. By the end of the story he has left childhood behind and entered successfully into the world of adulthood. This transition was not easy, and we could argue with some of Jack’s choices – but by the end of the story he is an adult, and no longer a child – that is the point.
The theme for Lent this year is “Facing the Cross” and today we focus on “Facing Our Sins.” In the weeks to come we will come face to face with temptation, fear, worldliness, one another and suffering – but tonight we come face to face with the biggest giant of them all: human sinfulness, of which we are all guilty and which affects how we live our lives and how we are in relationships with God and others.
So what does that mean? First, what does it mean to come face to face? Well for Jack it meant, looking at himself honestly – determining who he was and the kind of man he had the potential to become. Was he going to remain a selfish, irresponsible brat all his life that thought only of himself? Or would he overcome his fears, step up to the task at hand and take responsibility? All the while recognizing that there would be implications and consequences no matter which way he chose. The theme then is coming face to face. Coming face to face is a very important and popular literary theme – we can find it in a whole host of great literary masterpieces: Homer’s Odyessus, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Lewis Caroll’s Alice, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim or Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean in the very popular “Les Miserables.” “Who am I” Valjean asks in one of his songs from the musical version of the novel. Is he a man who can allow another to suffer unjustly in his place; Is he a man that will be ruled by anger and vengeance and fear and hatred? Or will he respond to the incredible gift of God’s grace that he experienced through the unexpected act of kindness and compassion of the Bishop of Digne? Will he turn his back on anger and hate and self-centeredness and “return to the Lord?” Will he live a life of grace, even in a world where he is pursued by the power of judgment and law?
The bible also constantly confronts us with the same issues and questions. “Return to the Lord” commands the prophet Joel in our Old Testament lesson and throughout the prophets we see Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others holding up the mirror to Israel, and to us, demanding that we look as see ourselves as we really are; demanding that we come face to face with our sinfulness and our self-centeredness that not only hurts others but ultimately will destroy us. Jesus ministry follows right along with this – think of Jesus’ response to the Rich Young Ruler, or to the Tax Collector Zacheaus. “Who are you” Jesus asks in those encounters.
For me one of the most profound is the story of the Conversion of St. Paul from Acts 9. “Who are you?” Cries Paul when he is confronted and blinded – Jesus turns the question back on him – “No, who are you?” Are you the man who is blinded by hate and rage and self-righteousness so that you would destroy those whom I have called to be vessels of my love and grace in this world? Or… are you a man who can return to the Lord and live a life of unconditional grace?
Through all of these stories God confronts us lovingly as well. “Who are you?” Jesus lifts the mirror of the Gospel for us to see ourselves as we really are – The prophet calls for us to return to the way of the Lord and St. Paul encourages us to be reconciled with God in Christ Jesus.
What is it that stands in the way of our following Christ, of our living lives that reflect the grace and love of Christ? The theological answer is “our sinfulness.” Ok so, let’s talk a minute about what that is, for if there is a biblical/Christian word that has been and continues to be misunderstood it is the word “Sin.” It is very easy for us, when we hear that word to immediately think of all the things we have done wrong. The word has almost become synonymous with behavior and misconduct. But that is not at all what is meant by the word “Sin” in the bible. Human sinfulness – according to the bible – is our natural tendency to put ourselves in the center of our own universe – pushing out God and everyone else in the process. In other words, the disease is “Sin” (with a capital “S”) – and this is putting me, myself and I along with my wants, my needs, my happiness, my priorities, my opinions my view of the world in the center of our world. “Sin” is always asserting my own rightness and righteousness, over and against everyone else. The symptoms of the disease are the acts of misconduct, the things we do to hurt others and those things that we do that break the 10 commandments.
Ash Wednesday brings us face to face with our self-centeredness – the self-dependence that will in time destroy us. Ash Wednesday holds up a mirror before us and asks us the question “who are you?” Are you to be defined by your own needs and wants, your greed, your fear, your self-righteousness, your anger, the need to get even, the attitude of give me mine – I don’t care about you? Is that who you are? Or does the cross on your forehead cause you to pause and recognize that while the pull of self-centeredness is strong – it is the cross of Christ that defines me – it is God’s unconditional grace and love that gives me strength and purpose and direction – it is the way of Christ leads us forward.
“Return to the Lord our God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love;” “On behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” “Who are you?”