Those are the words of Brendan O’Byrne, a sergeant who served with the United States Army in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan...
February 10th, 2016
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b--6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
His words strike true, not just for him, but for most anyone who has lived—anyone who knows they have sinned knows about this desperate desire to assuage the guilt of sin by saying that there wasn’t really anything that could be done, or that we are mostly good anyway, to somehow elide and evade our deeds or our lack of them. And there’s that bitter recognition at the end—is God going to judge us like our friends do, like our fellow conspirators in evil? You did what you had to do, good job, punch on the shoulder, welcome to heaven? I don’t think so.
Most of us, thank God, have no idea about the moral quagmire of combat, of the thrill of a military operation and the adrenaline of a firefight. Most of us don’t have to live our lives remembering horrible things we have done to stay alive. I had a friend whose grandfather was a paratrooper in the Second World War, who attacked Germany during D-Day. Like many paratroopers that day he landed far from his target, and began to gather intelligence. But to stay alive behind enemy lines, he had to steal and murder farmers who found him in their barns. There was no honor in what he did, and when he came home he was a ruined man. He was another who was pretty sure that God hated him, or perhaps he hated God for letting him do what he had to do, and that if he had to do it over again, he would probably do the same thing.
In a way, and perhaps only in this way, Brendan and my friend’s grandfather are lucky. They know that sin is something that you have to do. Brendan O’Byrne tells us the heart of tragedy: you do what you have to do, even when you know it’s wrong, and if you had to do it again, you would do it. But then, you know just as well, that you didn’t have to do it at all, any of it—what seemed like necessity was only desire, a trap, and when you did what you had to do, it was because you had already made the wrong choice, somewhere down the line. It is the necessary consequence of a contingency.
When I was young, I really wanted to be a soldier. I wanted to be a hero, truth be told, to be admired for my bravery and my ability to kill the evil enemy. I didn’t quite get that evil enemy lurked in my own heart, too. I had to grow into that realization, when the necessary consequences of my choices came to visit, and brought with them their gifts of pain and their sorrows. The taste of those choices is like bitter dust. The rewards of sin taste like what the wages of sin can obtain. They taste like death. They taste like ash.
Why do we do these things? I’m lucky that I had a father who was a pacifist, who continually confronted my ideas of glory with cross. I remember the day when he told me he wasn’t free because of a flag, but a cross. Now I get to think about more often, and I know how deeply that’s true. Glory is so seductive—the machine of war grinds on because it’s wonderful and beautiful, it gives life meaning, it binds strangers together with bonds of blood, bonds that only soldiers can understand, that makes them brothers. This machine is so beautiful, so in tune with our world, that even today the best interpreters of the Greek tragedies are combat veterans and the men and women serving time in prison for violent crimes—the ones who know what it means to do what you have to do, to turn and see the blood of their choices. What can be said to men like Brendan O’Byrne? What can be said to men and women like us, whose sins are less stark, but nevertheless as perduring.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We could start there. We could make start by saying that God also made a choice. I would someday to tell someone this. I would like someday to have the courage to tell a person this—that Jesus Christ became sin so that we might become God’s righteousness. Not because we are not sinners, but because we are sinners. We think that sin drives us away from God, separates us from God, that it causes God to hate us. And of course, sin is abhorrent to God, just as it is to all of us in our right minds. But the one who was without sin became sin for our sake. God reconciles the world to himself in the body of his Son, Jesus Christ, who endured all the consequences of sin, including drinking and tasting sin’s bitter reward, death.
I want to say these words, so that anyone who needs to hear can hear: Your sins are forgiven. Your sin, your choices, and their necessary consequences—all of it is transformed, when God reconciles himself to you in Christ Jesus.
Baptism, which the disfigurement of our ashy cross prefigures in some, and refigures in others, is a death—a death to the war machine, a death to our sin, a death even to death itself. And it is life—the life offered for us on the cross, the life that came walking out of the empty tomb, the life of the one who has nothing but possesses everything. Ash Wednesday is about this reality, the refigured, remade, reconciled reality—that nothing is beyond the reach of God’s saving embrace in Christ Jesus, not even our lives, not even you, not even us. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack