For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
(Psalms 51:3 NRSV)
People of the Bible grappled with the concept of individual sin as well as that of corporate sin. Sometimes their prayers were for individual sin(s); and at other times, they all stood and confessed that their country had sinned. When their spiritual leaders stood and confessed the sins of their nation before God, we read nothing of individuals offering vigorous protests that they were not to blame. The people of Israel understood that they, as a group, took part in both the blessings that came to the nation for wise decisions and in the consequences that came from bad decisions made by their leaders. Rise or fall, they would experience life together as a nation.
This is a difficult concept for us to wrap our Western minds around. We have been conditioned by culture to think of ourselves as sole beneficiaries of the benefits or consequences of our actions. Newscasters, however, remind us that, today, both the rich and the poor sit in anxiety together over matters too great for any one of us to remedy alone. We are seeing our country at its worst since the Great Depression. The economy is in such a state that any one of us could find ourselves homeless or jobless overnight. A more frightening thought, without intervention, any one of us could become suicidal or criminal in response. The present economic crisis reminds us that we are all in this together -- in spite of our individualism. If ever there were a time for us to consider corporate responsibility and corporate culpability, it is now.
The good news in this tome is that God has always been willing to forgive anytime a person or a nation repents. Think of the story of Jonah or of countless other Old Testament narratives where nations repented and turned their hearts to God anew. God forgave the people of Nineveh; God forgave Israel, countless times. This same God is willing to hear our prayers and to forgive us for any way that we as individuals have contributed to our country's present state. God is also willing to guide our corporate solutions as we look at the long uphill climb to restoration.
Every year, the Ash Wednesday texts call us to be alarmed about ourselves, to tremble, to tear our clothes, to pray. Each year, we walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before us in prayer and piety. And each year, many of us preachers find ourselves more exhausted than changed at the end of the 40 days! Would that this year would be different!