My text this morning on the first Sunday of Lent is the classic distillation of the gospel found in our reading from 1 Peter. The scripture will occasionally give us a cogent definition of the very center of our faith; we have one this morning. We read that, “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” In this sermon, I hope to help us discover anew, or perhaps for the first time, the astounding good news of the gospel.
Christie and I derive an odd pleasure each Thursday when city workers come and pick up our trash each week. And the pleasure doubles every other week when the recycling goes too. Hearing the crash of the wine bottles breaking in the recycling truck, the tuna cans, the daily papers, the junk mail, the empty plastic shampoo containers, the vestry agendas toted home from the Tuesday earlier in the week, the vessels and materials of everyday, every week life brings a kind of deep satisfaction.
Then there are the things that I put in the bin when Christie’s not looking that I’m not sure are recyclable, and I’m too lazy to see what the symbol means, but I want to get rid of anyway, because there is enough clutter in the house. Or the things that got into the trash but should have been in the recycling, but who wants to dig through the trash to transfer them to the recycling? All you want is to dispose of the detritus of the past week or two. When you go out to the street after the Thursday trucks have come and find an empty recycling bin and an empty trash can, there is a measure of relief – all the garbage as been borne away.
This may seem like a bizarre source of satisfaction, and perhaps it is, but I think there is something deeper at work. Think about your laundry for a moment, specifically your dirty laundry. William Faulkner, in his short story called “That Evening Sun” talks about how people’s dirty laundry was borne away each Monday to be cleansed – “the soiled wearing of a whole week….fleeing apparition like.” Dirty laundry, of course, is a metaphor for those things in our lives that we’d like to hide, or we regret, things done and left undone, things we’d rather not let others see. Like actual dirty laundry, that which needs to be borne off and cleansed.
No one wants one’s dirty laundry aired. But, the truth is that your dirty laundry will one day be aired. This is inevitable because secrets can’t stay hidden forever. I’m thinking of Jesus’ quote, “For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all.” Pretty terrifying prospect, isn’t it? That’s the moment when all the “deleted history” becomes restored history.
Well, while we’re waiting to have our whole load revealed at the final judgment, we sometimes have a garment or two of our dirty laundry exposed in the here and now. Obviously, there is a lot of that going on now in our culture. What do we need when this happens? Carrie Underwood’s song “Dirty Laundry” is exactly what we do not need.
“That lipstick on your collar, well, it ain’t my shade of pink/ And I can tell by the smell of that perfume, it’s like forty dollars too cheap…Found it over in the corner/Wadded up on the bedroom floor/You shoulda hid it in the closet/You shoulda burned it, you shoulda lost it/Now I’ma have to hang you out to dry, dry, dry/Clothespin all your secrets to the line, line, line.”
What we do need when our dirty laundry is aired is what I discovered in an article I read last week about Tim Keller, who is one of our nation’s best preachers. He retired from pastoral ministry last summer and a man who worked on his staff reflected on Tim’s life in ministry. He said,
“In five years of serving under his leadership, never once did I see him tear another person down to their face, on the Internet, or through gossip. Instead, he seemed to always assume the good in people. Occasionally, he would talk about how having the forgiveness and affirmation of Jesus frees us to “catch people doing good” instead of looking for things to criticize or be offended by. Even when someone had truly done wrong or been in error, Tim would respond with humble restraint and self-reflection instead of venting negativity and criticism.
Sure would be nice to be like Tim, or have someone like Tim be there when your dirty laundry is aired. The thing about dirty laundry, however, or weekly trash, or biweekly recycling is that washing clean and the hauling away is only temporary. There is always more where that came from. Just a few days into a new week, the recycling bin is nearly overflowing, the laundry basket is full, and the trashcan starts smelling.
This is all an obvious metaphor for our human hearts. These are the very hearts, which on Ash Wednesday we confessed were characterized by “wretchedness.” Again, I’m thinking about another quote from Jesus, particularly apt as we begin Lent, which is described by our prayer book as a season of “self-examination and repentance.” Jesus says, “For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.”
Recently I’ve been particularly saddened by our current hook-up culture, which constitutes at least 3 of the ingredients on Jesus’ list that defile a person. That which used to be considered dirty laundry is now proudly flapping in the wind. Of course, I’m not one to point a finger at others, as the dirty laundry basket of my heart is as full as anyone else’s. Indeed, if we are to believe Jesus’ appraisal of the human conditions, as full as everyone else’s.
Because of this unifying reality, we turn our attention once again to our passage for today: “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” Note the “once for all” part. Thomas Cranmer, architect of our Prayer Book, had this verse and others like it in mind when he penned our communion liturgy. “Almighty God…of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer upon the cross for our redemption; who made there by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.”
This means that your dirty laundry has been permanently cleansed by the blood of Christ. This means the garbage of your heart has been taken away and removed from you as “far as the east is from the west,” as the bible says in another place. Because “Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous” your bins and your baskets are forever empty in the eyes of God. Such is the transaction of the cross.
Back to the Tim Keller piece to help illumine what this means for us.
“Like the grace of God does, Tim covered people’s flaws and sins, including mine on more than one occasion. He did this because that’s what grace does—it reminds us that in Jesus we are shielded and protected from the worst things about ourselves…Tim is one of the best examples I have seen of covering shame with the gospel.”
The good news of the gospel is that we are shielded and protected from the worst things about ourselves. And God’s promise is that even when the whole load of our dirty laundry is aired, we, the unrighteous, will be covered in the righteousness of Christ.