“See, that’s your problem. You’ve turned this around and made it about you.” So, for no doubt many appropriate and accurate reasons, I’ve been reminded more than once recently about my “privilege talking.” Yep. Guilty. Let’s start there. And, as we know from our own Lutheran heritage, making it about me or “curving in on self” is the definition of sin.
On the other hand, presumably my privilege in specific and my sin in general have taken me a lifetime to construct, both consciously and subconsciously. There, I did it again. ME. But what other filter do I have, other than finally me, with which to perceive, interact, or yes, even attempt to control myself and/or the world around me? Which of course can be either for my sinful purposes or for justice and righteousness, or maybe I’m pursuing justice so that I’m good with God, which ultimately, once again, makes it about me! The last shall be first? Ooh, then let me be last! (So I can be first!) Does non-sinful motivation exist?
It’s the sort of dilemma, I’m imagining, that led St. Paul to blurt out, “Wretched man that I am!” And again, “Who will rescue me from this life dominated by sin and death?” So…If getting too deep inside myself, making it about me, is the essence of my sin and the evidence of my privilege, then the solution is to focus outward. Be about justice for others, about the least of these, and in losing myself in and for them, I’ll find myself in living for neighbor. That’s very prophet-y. Very Jesus-y. Very 21st-century ELCA-y.
Maybe that’s why three out of four seminarians in their approval interviews for ordination, when I ask them, “What is the essence of the gospel?” answer, “It’s about reaching out to the poor and the oppressed and working for justice in the world.” With this grand therefore proclamation I cannot argue and will even ultimately resonate. But. But…the gospel is NOT the therefore. Not for Lutherans anyway. The gospel is the BECAUSE. The therefore always has I or you as the subject—what we do, must do.
The gospel, on the other hand, always has God (Christ, Holy Spirit) as subject—what God has done, is doing, will do. Otherwise, even my or your most noble justice efforts end up, ironically, all about ME. What WE do. The 16th-century Reformers labeled this works righteousness. Not gospel. In other words, from my (admittedly privileged) perspective, we are perilously close as both culture and church to making the essence of who we are the should and musts of our doing. Said another way, the WHY of our pursuit of justice matters, especially if it to be sustainable and not the church flavor of the decade, like the Social Gospel of the early 20th-century or political party platform or secular service organization.
And then Lent calls us to repentance. Sure, institutions, systems, need repentance; the call to turn around and go the other way. With repentance it’s always so much easier for me to see the speck in your eye than the log in my own. I can tell you all kinds of reasons you need to repent! But I can’t repent for you. At the end of the day, our call as Lutheran Gospel Christians is spiritual transformation. While that issues forth corporately and communally, such action finds its freedom and sustainability in personal transformation. Ironically, I’m telling you that even though my all about me is my sin, it’s also where true repentance starts. In repentance terms, you and I DO have some all about me work to do.
Lent is intentionally a season of introspection which begins not with an announcement that “We are dust” but with the much more personal, “You are dust.” To each individual. Communion distribution is intentionally not just, “The body of Christ for all y’all.” It is to each individual. For you. Lent invites us into ourselves, and yes, in there we will find the truth of our selfish sinfulness, our all-about-me-ness, our mortality, and that judgment will drive us to the gospel of Christ who forgives sin and promises us resurrection and frees us from the need to justify ourselves through our work. This freedom empowers our very ability to serve! This is Lutheran Confessional theology, Lutheran Systematic Theology, Lutheran Practical Theology 101. It’s even basic teenage confirmation curriculum—or should be.
How will my necessary repentance emerge? Only from the deep and ongoing introspection, prayer, wrestling with, and surrender of me can I find a sustainable freedom and energy to serve, to do, even to BE for someone other than myself. And please, for all your good intentions, stop telling me that “You are enough.” You know that I am not, nor are you. “We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Christ is enough. Period. Enough even to free me from ME. Luke Skywalker being trained as a Jedi on Dagobah has to go into the cave to face his own demons. Before it can be about The Force, he has to come to terms with his ultimate enemy being himself. Jesus faces wilderness temptation in all three synoptic Gospels and then regularly escapes the pressing and endlessly needy crowds to pray and be re-energized (see Mk. 1:35). You and I need to find the rhythm and balance of serving with justice and introspectively renewing spiritually. One day, one person, one me, one repentance at a time.