As Lent begins, I’d like to give you a small window into the sinful consciousness of the Dean. Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, and it featured services at which we imposed ashes on parishioners’ foreheads accompanied by the phrase, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We impose these ashes by making the sign of the cross.
About halfway through the service, I felt my eyes wandering over to the side of the church where I had made the ash crosses on people’s foreheads, and I began to admire my own handiwork. My, I thought to myself, those crosses are pretty good looking and symmetrical at that. Then I looked over to the side where Gina had made the crosses, and my pride turned to envy. Gosh, I observed, Gina’s crosses are better looking than mine. How did she get so good at this? Then I looked over at Elizabeth Gardner’s ash crosses, and hers were even better still. How did this happen? I’ve been a priest for 36 years, and Elizabeth has been ordained for about 15 minutes. It just isn’t fair.
So here I was in the middle of a Lenten liturgy focused on sin, and I found my own mental processes descending irretrievably into my own sinful, self-involved musings. It all began with a plausible moment of self-congratulation and turned into a self-flagellating spectacle of envy and despair.
Well, not really. Actually, I was more amused at my own folly than depressed by the state of my ash crosses. But you get the point. How easily these bad ideas can grow, without our noticing, from fleeting thoughts into all-engrossing obsessions. And that leads me to something that dominated last week’s news.
The dramatic story of Christopher Dorner—the former Los Angeles policeman who went on a murderous rampage against his former colleagues and was finally killed in a firefight in the San Bernardino mountains last week—is a compelling one. What intrigues me most about this story is the way Dorner was able to go through an interior process by which he could justify, to himself, outrageous and hateful actions. How does a person who has served both in the military and the police get themselves to a place where they can contemplate and carry out killings in such a calculated way? The process must have started, surely, with the real grievance he had against a department known to be still troubled by personal and institutional racism. From the real grievance, Dorner went on to write a manifesto outlining the department’s patterns of racism and abuse. And then he found a way to use his own manifesto as a warrant to begin killing police officers and, potentially, their families. As we all know, the story ended last Tuesday when Dorner was cornered and finally killed in a cabin near Big Bear.
How does someone move from being a pillar of society to its sworn enemy? I think the process involves our innate, human ability to believe what New Testament scholar N.T. Wright calls the “plausible lie.” Just as I momentarily got myself to believing that the quality of the ash crosses was what Wednesday’s liturgy was about, so Christopher Dorner got himself to a place where he could justify his rampage as a “necessary evil” that he must perform both to eliminate racism in the Police Department and to clear his own name.
As we all begin to engage the Lenten season of self-examination, it is good to remember how many “plausible lies” we have each told ourselves over the course of our moral lives. One way to understand the Gospel for today, Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness by Satan, is to see it as a meditation on the plausible lie. Jesus goes alone into the desert, and a voice there—from Luke’s account, it could be an external or an internal voice—asks him to consider three things. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” “If you, then, will worship me, [all the kingdoms of the world] will be yours.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from [the pinnacle of the temple].”
To you and me, these may sound like exotic temptations, enticements not very likely to sway us. But to Jesus, who has just been baptized and told by a voice from above that he was “God’s Son, the beloved,” they are extremely dangerous. And they’re dangerous precisely because they’re so plausible. Surely God would not want his Son, the beloved, to suffer hunger. Surely God wants the entire world to know and love God’s Son, the beloved. Surely the quickest way to prove he was God’s Son, the beloved, would be by means of a spectacular, death-defying miracle. [Luke 4:1-14]
Because you and I inhabit a culture that continually overstimulates us, we tend to think of “sin” as the kind of high voltage excess you would see in a red-light district or an adult video. But the Bible understands sin as something much more subtle than a weekend in Las Vegas. We human beings are wonderfully made, created in God’s own image. But we have free minds that can imagine things as other than as they actually are. The problem with sin isn’t that it’s so lurid. The problem with sin is that it seems so plausible.
My friend Harvey Guthrie tells the story of hearing Desmond Tutu interviewed once by a rather plain-minded journalist during the days of the South African struggle against apartheid. The journalist asked Tutu if he was afraid of being killed, and the Archbishop responded by saying that there are things worse than death. The journalist was stunned by this answer, and asked, “What, possibly, could be worse than death?” Desmond Tutu responded, “If I were to get up some morning and say to myself, you know, Desmond, apartheid really isn’t so bad: that would be worse than death.”
Here, turn this rock into a loaf of bread. Throw yourself off the top of the temple. Apartheid isn’t so bad. It is these plausible lies, and not the more obvious temptations we face, that are the root causes of our problem. And just as Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days to consider and reject the plausible lies in his life, so you and I have this forty-day Lenten season in which to examine the plausible lies in ours.
As we begin this shared walk toward Easter, the question for each of us is this: what are the plausible lies that can claim and direct your life? One big plausible lie in our culture is that we will never have enough and so must keep everything we get to ourselves. Another plausible lie is that we are somehow more special than others. Still another plausible lie is that we should give over the entirety of our waking lives to our work. Yet another is that I will be truly happy once I have X. (Fill in the blank.) A big plausible lie for us religious people is that we should hand over our intellects to some magisterial system that will tell us what to think and how to live. Each of us receives hundreds, perhaps thousands, of messages packed with plausible lies every day. That’s the curse of expanding information technology. Jesus only had to wrestle with three plausible lies. Now, thanks to your iPhone, you can battle 60 per hour.
Jesus could say “No” to the plausible lies because he knew who he was: God’s Son, the beloved. You and I will never be able to say “No” to those lies until we know who we are, too. Lent is not about feeling guilty or sinful. Lent is about coming to terms with who you really, finally are. You too are God’s child. You too are beloved. We have this forty day season as a time to turn our attention away from the world’s plausible lies and to fix our eyes on Jesus, the one who models for us what authentic, meaningful, joyous human life can be. We have Lent as a time live into our authentic selves. It doesn’t matter who makes the most perfect ash crosses. There really still are some things worse than death. Not living is one of them. Not living as who you are is another. Let us use these 40 precious days to clear our heads, open our hearts, and say “Yes” to who God really calls us to be. Amen.