Atonement, Lenten Series II

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Philippians 3:17-4:1
Psalm 27
Luke 13:31-end

Well, dear friends, here we are, once again, plodding through the liturgical season of Lent. The weather has decided, this year, to cooperate with the penitential feel of the Lenten season. Here in Boston, unseasonably warm temperatures have yielded a series of rainy, dreary days instead of the usual snow. Snow, of course, is too beautiful to be penitential, although New York and Washington, DC may wish to point out that they have been experiencing penitential snowfall by sheer quantity.

Now, it must be said, and at the outset, that natural occurrences and calamities, be they rainfall and snowstorms or the earthquakes that rocked Haiti last month and Chile yesterday, are simply not a result of divine malign. In theology, like in statistics, correlation is not causation. The facts that rain and snow fall from the skies and that human beings are sinful do not mean that human sinfulness causes rain and snowstorms. The facts that the earth shifts and shakes and that human beings are sinful do not mean that human sinfulness causes earthquakes, any more than rainfall, snowstorms, or earthquakes are excuses for human sinfulness. While natural events may provide an emotional canvas on which to paint our spiritual journey, it is both a spiritual and a theological mistake to confuse the painting for reality.

Having set aside the temptation to equate natural events with divine intent, it is our task in considering the theme of atonement to investigate the equation of human sinfulness and divine grace. Temptation and addiction are two central figures in the drama of human sinfulness. Here at Marsh Chapel we may be prone to an addiction to excellent preaching. This is why it is important for me to step into the pulpit occasionally, to break the habit and remind everyone not to take for granted the homiletical extravaganza they are blessed to hear every other week.

It is no easy task we have set ourselves, to speak of atonement. Not that we at Marsh Chapel are prone to taking the easy road. Last summer we tackled the theme of Darwin and Faith, one of the greatest sources of tension in contemporary religious life. Now we delve into one of the greatest controversies in the history of Christian doctrine: how is it that the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth almost two thousand years ago effects a transformation from sin by grace in you and in me today and every day?

Rehearsing the myriad theological treatments of this central question in Christian faith and life would consume our time together and almost certainly result in even more snoring than is already emanating from the congregation. Alas, I am afraid that the vast majority of atonement theologies would not touch on the lived experience of so many of us in the second decade of the 21st century. In our question of the atonement we are not looking for the correlation between sin and Jesus, but for a causal relationship. We expect God in the person and work of Jesus Christ to actually do something to or for us on account of our sinfulness. But I wonder if the way we pose the relationship is not the source of our trouble in understanding atonement in light of our lived experience.

You see, in our posing the question, we expect something of God; that our sinfulness causes God to do something. Our Gospel lesson today sets things up differently. Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Paul too understands the discrepancy when in our reading from his letter to the Philippians he says “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” What Jesus and Paul explain is that we understand very well what God does for us; what we do not understand is ourselves and our sinfulness. We are not willing. Our minds are set on earthly things.

There are four movements of atonement: confession, repentance, mercy, forgiveness. Atonement theologies have historically been arguments about the relationships among these movements. But our lived experience, and the breakdown in the atonement process, that Jesus and Paul knew and that we live daily, is not in the process itself but before and between its movements. In my admittedly brief time in ministry, my own experience is that people are often in one of two places with regard to their lived experience.

The first place many of us find ourselves is stuck in the starting gate; the atonement process never even gets going. As anyone who has ever moved from addiction to recovery can tell you, the first step in overcoming the addiction is admitting that you have a problem. Yes, dear friends, many of us are in denial, and I do not mean a river in Egypt. (Clearly, that for which I most need to atone is a predilection to bad puns).

The most obvious form of denial is the excuse. The most thoroughgoing excuse conceived in human history is the strict determinism of scientific materialism, resulting in the statement, “the universe made me do it!” Indeed, many of us cannot identify the exact cause of our failures of responsibility, but the sense that something beyond our control must have impinged upon our actions is prevalent. And the conclusion is that whatever it was that intervened should be held responsible for our failure.

If you are wondering if you have ever actually had an experience that matches up with this abstract musing, just ask yourself this question. Have you ever found yourself saying, or at least thinking, “Oops! I forgot…”? “Oops! I forgot to turn off the stove!” “Oops! I forgot to make my rent payment!” “Oops! I forgot to fill the car with gas.” Really, it works with just about anything. “Oops! I slept through class.” “Oops! I cheated on my girlfriend.” “Oops! I pressed the wrong button.” The word “oops” serves a dual function in our experience. It signals that we know something is wrong, and that we should not be held entirely responsible. After all, how can I possibly be expected to remember everything? I forgot to turn off the stove, but I remembered to lock the front door. I forgot to pay my rent but I paid the cable and electricity bills. I slept through class but I work so hard and for so many hours that I get exhausted. I cheated on my girlfriend but I was drunk.

Another form of denial takes the form of “it’s not that big a deal.” This is the recognition that something is not quite right, but also the concomitant belief that the not-quite-rightness does not rise to the level of a real problem; certainly not to the level of sin. The “no big deal” form of denial is less verbal than the impingement form, mostly because we tend not to acknowledge such events since they are of supposedly negligible importance. Nevertheless, there is a sense that things could have been better. “I could have said that better.” “The sauce could use more oregano.” “The prelude would
have been better if I’d hit the F# instead of the F-natural.” Of course, Justin never hits a wrong note so he wouldn’t know.

As one great theologian, who is no stranger to this pulpit, has said, to be human is to be obligated. We are all responsible to fulfill all of our obligations. But, alas, our obligations are so many and various as to mutually exclude each other and overwhelm us. It is this condition that gives rise to the coping mechanism of denial. It is easier to simply say that fulfilling all of my obligations is impossible so I cannot possibly be responsible. Such coping mechanisms are reinforced when they are successful in getting us out of the consequences for our failures. Unfortunately, this coping mechanism is not entirely true, and thus not entirely helpful. The fact of the matter is that we do feel our obligations and resulting responsibility deeply. Even if it is the case that our obligations overlap and conflict, we still must choose which we will fulfill responsibly, and we are still responsible for the ones we choose not to fulfill. We are responsible. We ourselves. Not someone else. Not the situation. We are responsible and we have failed in our responsibility, despite any intervening agents and situational complexity. We have failed. We have sinned. We are responsible and culpable and in need of repentance, mercy and forgiveness.

The other place that many of us find ourselves is stuck in the middle. Of course, the truth is that in some sense we are all stuck in the middle. It is always the case that we have sinned again before the sin we just confessed and repented of can be forgiven. But this is a different kind of being stuck in the middle. This is the kind of stuck in the middle that gets depicted in the 1998 dramatic film, What Dreams May Come. The character Annie, wracked by guilt over the death of her husband Chris, commits suicide and is damned to hell, not by God, but by the psychological pain that brought her to commit the act in the first place. This middle place, which for many is a hell of their own making, is marked by an overwhelming sense of guilt.

The place of guilt is in many respects the opposite end of the pendulum swing from the place of denial. In guilt it is not that our obligations are overwhelming and therefore we cannot be held responsible, but that our obligations are overwhelming and we are so responsible that we can never escape. There is not enough mercy in the world to overcome our failures. To be stuck in the middle is to be stuck constantly repeating Hagrid: “I should not have said that. I should not have said that. I should not have said that.”

The problem here, once again, is not really a lack of confidence in God, but a lack of self-confidence that we are really worthy of forgiveness. God could not possibly forgive me, not because God is not capable, but because I am not worthy. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The agony of the place of guilt is only partly our own agony in the face of our own sinfulness; it is also the agony of God who longs for relationship but we are unwilling. It is not God who counts us unworthy; it is we ourselves.

How, then, might we bring the pendulum back to the balance point? And what might life look like once it is there? Let’s take the second question first, shall we?

We, in the spirit of Lent, seek to live in the space between denial and guilt. If we are to avoid denial, we must be honest, first and foremost with ourselves, about our own failures and thus our own sinfulness. And yet, to avoid extreme guilt, we must learn humility. We must humbly acknowledge our faults and enter a place of deep contrition out of which those we have faulted may offer forgiveness. So too, we must humbly recognize that the mercy of God is far greater than any sin we might possibly commit. When I was last on silent retreat with the Community of Taizé, Br. Sebastian led our daily reflections. He pointed out that the only possible way to withstand humiliation is to cultivate humility. Denial and guilt are both defense responses that attempt to fend off humiliation. But at the end of the day, neither are successful coping mechanisms. Br. Sebastian is correct. The only possible way to withstand humiliation is to cultivate humility.

I often find myself saying to faculty and administrators that if students at Boston University learn nothing in the classroom, but during their time here learn to fail and recover gracefully, then we will have succeeded in our mission as an institution of higher education. To fail in our responsibilities is indeed inevitable in life. This inevitability does not absolve us of our responsibility. Only God can do that. But neither does it doom us to live guilt-wracked existences. We can, in fact, recover.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that there is more love in God than sin in us. “But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3: 21-25).

From the perspectives of denial and guilt, it may appear as the saying goes, “you just can’t get there from here.” In the Protestant traditions there is a hesitation here, because justification is by faith, not by works. Indeed, it is God who delivers mercy and offers forgiveness of sins, and yet it is we ourselves who must make the spiritual journey of Lent from denial and guilt to humility. This journey largely consists in ritual.

There are two theories of ritual at Boston University. The first is that of the former Dean of Marsh Chapel, the Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville, who points out that ritual is the cultivation of habits that allow us to live well in the world. The second is that of anthropology and religion professors, respectively, Rob Weller and Adam Seligman. For them, ritual is the creation of subjunctive, “as if” spaces in which our own brokenness and the world’s brokenness can be held together as if they were whole. In neither perspective is ritual identified solely with religious rites such as the one we are in the midst of now. Both understand that ritual consists in such mundane patterns of behavior as walking down the street and driving the car, all the way up to the patterns of ceremony involved in religion and civil society.

So who is right? Is ritual a set of patterned behaviors that allow us to live well, or the creation of “as if” spaces that help us cope with our own and the world’s brokenness? The mistake would be in assuming that the two views are mutually exclusive, and the Lenten spiritual journey is the perfect case for demonstrating that the correct answer is a resounding, “both!”

On the one hand, the rituals of discipline in Lent really are better ways of living in the world. To reject temptations, begin to recover from addictions, and honestly and humbly recognize our own sinfulness makes us better able to see ourselves and our world as they truly are. Furthermore, the ritual movements from confession and repentance through mercy and forgiveness help us keep balance between denial and guilt and to cultivate humility. When we do so we are better able to relate to friends, family, neighbors, the world and, above all, God.

But in order to have that effect on our lives, ritual must first pull us out of our world and then stuff us right back in. The rituals of Lent pull us out of our normal daily existence and confront us with that fact that human sinfulness is world destroying. According to the Christian narr
ative, it was human sinfulness that lead to the death of Jesus on the cross, not the sinfulness of some humans, but the sinfulness of all humanity. Jesus Christ, who in our ritual context was in the beginning with God and through whom God created the world, is destroyed by our sin. But just as surely as our sinfulness is world destroying, so too is the grace of God world founding. Sin is not the final answer, but is overcome by the victory of resurrection life by the grace and mercy of God. And so the ritual places us back in the world in the middle, not stuck but moving more fluidly through the process of confession, repentance, mercy and forgiveness.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” In the Lenten journey let us participate in the drama of atonement, the movements of confession, repentance, mercy and forgiveness that we might become willing participants in the realm of justice and peace that resurrection ordains. To do so we must in all humility reject the extremes of denial and guilt by allowing the ritual discipline of Lent to do its work. The ability to fail and recover gracefully is the greatest learning we might hope for, and then give thanks that the love and mercy of God indeed triumph over sin and death.

Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

-Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+

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