A Clean Slate


Mk 13

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Few of us will have experience of actual slates. These were small blackboards, about the size of an iPad; a couple of generations ago, they were used by students to calculate sums in arithmetic.

In those days, paper was expensive, so the students wrote with chalk; when they had finished with one exercise, they could erase it and go on to another one. Slates could also be found in shops in the days before cash registers. Clerks used them to compute customers’ bills.

Today, the phrase, “a clean slate” is a metaphor. A couple with difficulties in their relationship have a heart-to-heart conversation, and they resolve their differences, and they say that they can move forward with “a clean slate.”

But the expression can also be useful in referring to the soul. The Church teaches that when we confess our faults to God, the faults disappear. All is forgiven. The slate has been wiped clean; and we can begin life anew.

That’s a very positive message. It couldn’t be more upbeat!

And it couldn’t be more welcome.

For most of us feel at some time or another that we have black marks that need to be removed from our souls. We remember occasions when we were short-tempered or judgmental. We think of some blunder we made that led to a lost job or the end of a relationship.

So we feel regret and sadness and shame. We sense marks against us on our souls–marks that seem to be painted on, marks that we can’t erase.

The Bible of course connects these feelings to a state of the soul known as sin. For example, in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about misfortune that befalls people, and he notes that bad luck is sometimes viewed as a punishment. According to the text, some people in the city of Siloam died when a tower collapsed upon them. Their misfortune was believed to be a consequence of their sins.

While Jesus doesn’t exactly agree that bad things happen only because of one’s previous mistakes, he does warn his listeners that what they do in life counts. So all sinners need to acknowledge their faults. “Unless you repent,” Christ tells his listeners, “you will all perish.”

The “perishing” that Jesus refers to has been understood by many Christians to refer to eternal suffering after death. Unless we repent, we will go to Hell.

Modern Christians, though, have found this doctrine hard to reconcile with their belief in a loving God. They have claimed that God can save whomever he wants to save. At the end of time, maybe even the worst sinners will be redeemed. Recently an evangelical pastor published a book in which he unexpectedly argued against eternal punishment and in favor of universal salvation; the writer gave his book the memorable title, Love Wins.

Yet even if all people will ultimately be saved and therefore our personal sins will one day be forgiven—still, we need to contend with the little matter of the condition of our souls right now.

We may find that we aren’t able to cast off the guilt we feel about mistakes that we have made in the past. We feel the sting of Christ’s parable of the fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit and must be cut down.

“Unless you repent, you will perish.” Whatever we believe about our chances in eternity, most of us have dark memories lurking in our hearts today.

And, notice this suffering isn’t caused by a punishing God. No, we punish ourselves. We feel guilty about our sins, offenses, and negligences—about the things we’ve done or left undone.

I realize that there is a wider dimension to the punishment Christ is referring to. For instance, one commentator on the story of the fig tree says that “the prophetic teaching of Jesus” declared “that the crisis of Israel is at hand.”

Our Assistant Minister gave a vivid description last week of this crisis. The corruption of the Hebrew leaders had led to a stagnant national religion. The traditional faith of Israel wasn’t bearing fruit, and if it continued along the path it was going, it would need to be replaced.

This larger focus of Christ’s teaching is also relevant to us today. We should be concerned, for example, about the declining churches in Western Europe that Pope Benedict sought to revive.

Yet we still need to reflect on the lack of fruitfulness in our own individual lives. And since we’re now nearly halfway through the season of Lent, it can be useful to ask ourselves, how have we been done with our Lenten vows?

Have we kept them as we planned at the beginning of Lent? Have we given up what we planned to give up? Have we taken on what we planned to take on? Has the process of keeping the vows given us a renewed sense of spiritual control?

Have we learned new ways to be productive to do the work of God’s kingdom?

I spoke before Lent of my own vows, which often include something related to food. This Lent, I gave up desserts and sweets—and, as predicted, the vow has made me miserable on a daily basis!

Yet I hope that as I struggled, I have learned to take food a little less seriously. I hope I have freed up some time to think about the greater problems in my soul and, not least, to seek penance and forgiveness from the God who wants all our lives to be productive. If my slate still has marks on it–at least, I have been reminded where I need to go to have the marks erased.

Today, we are holding two baptisms of infants. In the Middle Ages, babies weren’t always baptized. In fact, people sometimes waited until late in life, when they were on their deathbeds, before they asked for the sacrament.

Their reasoning was that they could avoid having any sins on their record when they died, and they could then escape eternal punishment.

Today, thankfully, we are less fearful of hell. But we can still remember the essential truth that baptism clears the soul. All of us had a clean slate at one time, and so we can be free once again.


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