Dean Lloyd: “Spring Cleaning”
It’s the middle of February now, but it feels like it’s already March. When I step out the backdoor of my house, I see grass and trees now brown and grey. If I look closely here and there where the wood is piled or the garbage cans are stored, I see some areas that need some cleaning up. Leaves that blew in after the fall raking are matted in the corners, and scraps of paper and trash have drifted in over the past few months. It’s time for spring cleaning.
About this time every year I get out with rake and broom, make a futile attempt to recruit some help around the house, and then go to work on the trouble spots.
It’s spring cleaning time now in the Church, too. Our word for that is Lent. It is intended to be a season of clearing away the dirt and mire that have accumulated in our lives in recent months, so that we can be more of who we are meant to be. “Make a full and thorough moral inventory,” the Alcoholics Anonymous tradition says. All of us need to take stock of the unhealthy and destructive patterns in our lives. Christian faith has traditionally talked about the need to come to terms with the sin that mars our lives and blocks our relationship to God and to each other. We call Lent a season of penitence, of taking a hard look at what’s going on in our lives and our world, and of repentance, which means making a hard turn to move in a new direction.
But spring cleaning seems to be harder for us these days. Most people I know have a sense that they aren’t living the lives that they could or should, but they have a hard time attaching a word like sin to that. Now granted, part of that is because we are pretty easy on ourselves. Even if I think hard about it, I may have a tough time coming up with more than one or two minor flaws in my character or actions. But ask my spouse, my children, my colleagues at work, or an objective outsider to my life living in Anacostia, and my guess is that they could come up with a laundry list of blind spots and character flaws.
But the problem runs deeper than that. I remember Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, saying that we live in a time in which “everything is permitted, and nothing is forgiven.” We’ve lost any common vision of good and bad, right or wrong. We can do just about anything we want and convince ourselves that if it makes us feel better about ourselves than surely it is all right.
You may have seen that cartoon from The New Yorker some years ago that shows a new person being introduced to Hell, with fire and devils with pitchforks on every side, and a friendly devil saying to him, “You’ll find that down here, there is no right and wrong. It’s just what works for you.” It is a kind of Hell finally, when we give up all our moorings and guideposts and are left to stew in our private wishes and desires.
And our own hearts contain contradictory impulses. George Ross was a beloved Episcopal priest who struggled with his own darkness. He once wrote of seeing a telephone booth in London with a sticker in it that said, “If you’re tired of sin, read John 3:16,” and beneath it was a message from a different kind of evangelist who wrote, “If you’re not tired of sin, call 721-2211.” Our hearts contain both impulses.
How do we name the clutter we need to clear away? The church’s old word “sin” is maybe the most loaded word in our Christian vocabulary. Many of us in our early years were pummeled with talk of sinfulness, pummeled right out of the church in many cases. And in many cases the dreaded word “sin” was really being spelled s-e-x or in other cases f-u-n. If it was fun, it was probably a sin.
We Christians use the word sin to say that there is something wrong with the human condition, something wrong at the heart of everything. And it is something that needs to be acknowledged, faced, confessed, and ultimately it needs to be forgiven, redeemed, put right, atoned, reconciled.
And this something isn’t just our private peccadilloes, our personal sins, our failures to forgive, to be honest, to care for our families. It is corporate as well as personal. If we are all so good and mean so well, what do we make of our polluting the planet and heating up the environment, even when we now know the consequences, and the way we in the West carry on our lives as a billion of our fellow human beings are dying around the globe, or the way we in America are arms merchants to the world, and permit our own society to be flooded with semi-automatic and military weapons? Of course we aren’t personally responsible for all of this, but we are part of structures and systems that pollute and perpetuate suffering.
Something is wrong, and we need this word sin for it. Our two lessons today explore why it is that we human beings seem incapable of living the full, good lives for which we were made. The Old Testament story of the Garden of Eden declares that we were originally created to trust in our creator and live in harmony with the world around us. But a clever serpent does something very simple: he sows the seed of distrust between Adam and Eve and God. The serpent only speaks twice, but his words are loaded: “Did God say, you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” And in response to God’s threat that if they eat the fruit they will perish, the serpent says, “You will not die.”
With those clever lines the serpent sabotages the relationship of trust between the creatures and their creator. Adam and Eve begin to think that they can’t fully trust God, and so in the throes of this new anxiety and self-protection they eat the fruit, and from that point on things begin to unravel. With the loss of childlike trust comes shame (they are embarrassed by their nakedness), suspicion, fear, jealousy, hatred, and soon violence. Before they know it, one of their sons will kill the other.
It’s a mythic story of how our sin and selfishness emerge from our fear and anxiety. Do you see? Sin is not a crime to be punished, but a wound, the wound of our own fear and anxiety, that needs to be healed, and the destructive things we do to ourselves and others to stake out and protect our place in a frightening world. The secular psychologist Karen Horney put it this way: “Underneath we are all frightened people, not sure of ourselves, of our worth, of our place.” It is this doubt of oneself, this inadequacy and inferiority, that drives our clutching and self-absorption.
In fact, when Satan tempts Jesus in the gospel, that’s what he’s trying to do—convince Jesus to seize power, to show off, to put himself at the center. “If you are the Son of God…” he says, sowing doubt. “Did God really say…?” “Turn stones to bread, jump off the temple, bow down and I’ll let you rule the world.”
The devil is up to the same tricks as the serpent—shaking Jesus’ trust in God and his dependence on God for his life. It’s what is wrong with the human condition. We can’t trust God, and because of that we are determined to protect and defend, to promote ourselves, to push aside those who are in the way of our securing our own place in a frightening world.
I have to say that I used to see the language of devils and Satan in scripture as good, old-fashioned metaphors or images for the evil tendencies in us human beings. But I’ve changed my mind. I now think we need this strange language to say that we are in over our heads, that there is something inside us and around us, the turmoil within and the systems we are part of without, that are opposed to human flourishing and want to destroy us.
This power infects whole societies such as Nazi Germany or the American South in the grip of slavery and its aftermath, it can attack corporations such as Enron and cigarette companies hiding their knowledge that their product produces cancer, or a town where ugly racist behavior breaks out, or even in a family where violence erupts behind closed doors. And here’s what’s strange… It is often seemingly good, decent people who participate in these structures of evil.
It took C.S. Lewis until he was in his thirties to face his sin. “For the first time I examined myself,” he recalled, “and there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.” It is good to name what’s going on inside us. We don’t do that to feel bad about ourselves, but to name the sickness so that we can seek the medicine we need, and to get well.
Isn’t it good to know that the restlessness and sadness, maybe even the despair we feel, are because something is keeping us from the lives we are meant to live? They tell us we are made for more than this, and there is a way for us to become healthier and more alive.
Lent was never intended to be a dark, heavy season of guilt. In fact, confession assumes that we are steeped in God’s love. We need to name what is wrong, not to feel bad about ourselves, but to lay it all out in the presence of God’s love so that we can be cleansed and healed.
Do you remember how Jesus fended off the devil? By quoting scripture to him. With every temptation he responded, “As it is written….” Then he goes on to say, “One does not live by bread alone… do not put the Lord God to the test… worship only the Lord your God.” Jesus clings to his faith, his scriptures, his teachings, to fend off the temptation to clutch his own life and make it work.
And Jesus stayed faithful all the way to a Cross, where he stretched out his arms to free us from our sin.
Lent is a time to reclaim this faith that will free you. I hope you’ll use the silences in our services to open yourself to God’s forgiving love. I hope you will conduct a full moral inventory and make some decisions about how to live a life more real and true. And I hope that when you are fed by Christ’s Body and Blood, you will sense Christ’s forgiveness washing over you.
You see, it’s spring cleaning time. We have leaves and mud and trash to clear. But underneath all the clutter there is something strong and sure and ready to come to life. Underneath is something Christ died for, and he will set us free from our sin.