As Far as the East is From the West

Sermon for Wednesday, March 2, 2022 || Ash Wednesday || Psalm 103

The Rev. Adam Thomas

The Book of Psalms includes some of the most wonderful poetry ever written. And today’s Psalm includes arguably the most beautifully poetic verse in all the psalms. The verse is this:

As far as the east is from the west,
so far has [God] removed our sins from us.

Dwell with those words for a moment.

As far as the east is from the west,
so far has [God] removed our sins from us.

How far is the east from the west? If we got into a boat in the Long Island Sound and started rowing eastward, we’d eventually hit Portugal. We’d backpack through Spain, then it’s back in the boat to cross the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, with a quick romp through southern Italy. Still traveling eastward, we head through Greece and Turkey, a few of the “Stan” countries, all the way across northern China, passing through Beijing. We skirt around North Korea, then stop over in Japan before the long boat ride eastward across the Pacific Ocean. We leave our boat on the coast of central California, hop on Interstate-80 for a three thousand mile drive. And we’re back in Connecticut. And we went east the whole way. 

So how far is the east from the west? Infinitely far. That’s how far God has removed our sins from us. That’s the reality that God ushers us into, a reality in which sin has no power to twist or distort us and our relationships.

The Book of Common Prayer tells us that “sin” is a distortion of our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. This distortion happens when we seek our own wills regardless of how closely our wills conform to God’s wondrous dream for existence. This dream is one in which all creatures are woven into the tapestry of God’s creative and loving purposes, so that each may flourish within the web of interconnected relationships that God made. Thus, an ecosystem that is in perfect balance between predator and prey, between life and death, between growth and decay, is an ecosystem free of sin. But when humans disrupt that ecosystem with our ignorance, our desperation, or our need to consume, we twist the system with our sin. We put ourselves at the center of whatever web of life we inhabit and justify our resource hoarding by our sinful selfishness. We live sinfully when we distort our relationships, when we oppress or dehumanize others, when we elevate our comfort over others’ subsistence.

We are all too aware of such sin in this world, our own complicity in it, our own complacency about it. And still, we believe in a God who sends our sins farther away from us than the east is from the west. What does this mean in any practical, non-poetic kind of way?

God removing our sins from us means there is hope that we might actually choose the path of healing and reconciliation, that we might actually step out of the cave of our societal sins and embrace a new world of justice, equity, and peace. Sin is sticky, and it has a way of tricking us into thinking we could never free ourselves from its influence. We let it cling to us because it always has, and we can’t possibly imagine a world free from the greatest of all sins: the desire to dominate and subjugate other people and the fragile earth around us. But the stickiness is a lie because God has already removed from us the power of sin to control us indefinitely. Sin clings to us only as long as we persist in the belief that we can’t do anything about it. But with God’s help, we can. As far as the east is from the west so far has [God] removed our sins from us.

On this day, Ash Wednesday, we step into this reality through the Litany of Penitence, which we will pray together in a little bit. The litany is the Book of Common Prayer’s best accounting of the ways we allow sin to cling to us despite God’s grace-filled work of removal. When we confess our sins, we acknowledge the ways we have twisted and distorted ourselves by believing the lies of the world. We confess that we have not loved God and neighbor with our whole. We confess our pride, hypocrisy, and exploitation of other people. We confess our blindness to human suffering and our lack of concern for future generations. And then, miraculously, we ask for God to restore us to the image and likeness of God that each of us own, but that we’ve allowed our sin to bury deep inside us. We ask for forgiveness, and we hear that, no matter what, God does forgive us. Forgiveness sets us on the path away from our sin and towards embracing a life that does not believe sin is the inevitable outcome of human existence.

As far as the east is from the west so far has [God] removed our sins from us.

The ancient Israelites ritualized this reality by selecting a goat from the flock and placing all their sins upon the goat. Then they released the goat into the wilderness. The goat took their sins away from them, as far as the east is from the west. This was the scapegoat, a sign of God’s love for a wayward people, a sign that God’s love would not abandon them no matter how wayward they became.

As far as the east is from the west so far has [God] removed our sins from us. This is the reality we celebrate today. God invites us to embrace this reality through forgiveness, repentance, and changing our hearts and our lives so they more fully reflect that image of God within us.

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