A Sermon Preached by Rev. Julie Emery
At the Larchmont Avenue Church
March 4, 2012
(This sermon is the second in a Lenten series titled “Confessions of Faith and Doubt,” looking at the different confessions we make as Christians during this time of Lent.)
To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
It’s a story for the ages: one we’ve heard told again and again. One that has been rearranged and re-fashioned, updated to be culturally relevant and modern. The names change, but the characters remain the same:
A man who has it all, everything he could ever want in the world, now sees one more thing and has to have it. In this case, the thing happens to be a woman, and she happens to be married. No problem, thinks the man, my power and position affords me the luxury of taking what I want regardless of the consequences. The man rearranges the pieces on the board, takes the woman for his own, and dispenses of her husband as if he is nothing.
It’s the story of King David, but I’m certain I just saw the movie a few weeks ago. And perhaps last year, and the year before that. Maybe we keep telling this story because it’s a story that seems to repeat itself over and over again. Maybe we are fascinated with watching over and over the self-destruction of a man or woman of power. It’s a bit like driving slowly past a terrible wreck on the highway – we can’t help but eye the destruction.
While we may recognize the story, it’s more likely that few of us truly relate to the story. That kind of crash and burn drama is the stuff of movies, but not of our lives. Can we even imagine being so brazen? Certainly we do not live in a culture where we might order the death of our mistress’s husband. That’s the stuff of the Sopranos, but not us.
Our emotional distance from David’s act makes it all the more difficult to relate to our text for this morning: Psalm 51, which is attributed to David as his prayer of penitence after the rape of Bethsheba and murder of Uriah. The story tells us that David’s prayer comes only after the prophet Nathan comes to him and reveals the truth about his actions. His sin has been discovered, and David’s response is one of grief and shame, as he tears his clothes and prays for forgiveness:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”
Sin. There’s the word. Sometimes in worship we use the word “brokenness.” Theologian Paul Tillich used the word “estrangement.” Calvin talked about what he called “total depravity.” No matter what you call it, theologically and scripturally we cannot get around it. The word is used throughout our holy texts, and there is no way to escape the basic understanding of our faith that we are sinners.
Adam and Eve disobey, Cain kills Abel, Abraham casts out Hagar, the Israelites make the golden calf, the disciples don’t have a clue and Jesus is crucified. Sin is splashed all over the pages of our scriptures, like a Pollack painting.
It is a word that we are called to contemplate in these days of lent: the forty days before Easter that are to be marked with penitence and reflection. And yet, it comes with a fair amount of baggage, this word. Some of our hesitance in this day and age is due to the fact that we often exchange the word “sin” for the word “sins,” which are not the same thing. When we begin talking about “sins,” we slip into describing specific acts, for example, David’s faults as his betrayal, his covetousness, his lying or adultery. But David’s own words present his predicament differently…
He prays to God, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone have I sinned…”
This can’t be true, really. David surely sinned against Bethsheba, against Uriah, against the Israelites who put their trust in him. His actions clearly hurt many more than God, and yet the effect of his actions is to taint the most fundamental aspect of his being, distancing himself from that which is the ground of his being, even as it separates him from his community.
Sin, rather that sins, is what David prays about in this psalm. That incomprehensible way we slip and slide and tend toward that which is broken, destructive or evil and away from God’s hope and light. Tillich’s word is accurate – it is the thing that causes us to be estranged from our neighbors, our selves, our God. “Sin is whatever we do, or fail to do, that pushes those beloved parts of our lives away, that widens the gap between us and them and also the gaps within ourselves.”i
Frederick Buechner writes that Sin is “original” in the sense that “we all come out of the same sinful and broken world which taints us from the word go. We all tend to make ourselves at the center of the universe, pushing away centrifugally from that center everything that seems to impede its freewheeling. More even than hunger, poverty, or disease, it is what Jesus said he came to save the world from.”ii
Now, perhaps you are one of those who find “original sin,” a hard concept to swallow. That part in our text this morning that says, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me;” Maybe we should just skip over that line. I mean, really, how could you look at a new-born and imagine that they are anything but perfect? How could you imagine that beautiful blessing of God’s creation could be anything but unbroken?
For that matter, perhaps you are one who is suspicious of this whole concept of sin. I mean, do we really believe in sin anyway? The whole world is “broken”? Doesn’t that seem a bit extreme? If we just focus our minds and bodies on the good, if we are disciplined and diligent, if we think positive thoughts – we can live joyfully. Right? I mean, certainly there are bad people, but at the core aren’t all people good?
This word, sin, is one of those ideas we all need to reckon with as we make our way in the Christian faith. My own reckoning came during a time when I began to volunteer at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. I met woman after woman who had fallen madly in love with the greatest guy, only to have everything change on their wedding night, or after they became pregnant, or that day they said they were going to visit their family in Georgia. I sat with these women in court, and listened to their husbands and boyfriends, who seemed perfectly fine and respectable men on the outside, and yet I knew the dark underbelly of their personalities with terribly clarity.
Now, you might think, Oh well, Julie – those were batterers – that’s different. Those people were bad people. Or maybe you might not say bad people, maybe you would say: those are people who made some very bad choices.
You might be right. But then I might tell you about that moment, I can remember it clear as day, when I was sitting in my car at a red light in downtown Ann Arbor and watched one of those men cross the street in front of me. There he was: seemingly carefree, walking to grab lunch or meet a friend, and I had work desperately to control the deep urge that welled up inside me to step on the gas and run him over.
Perhaps you have had a moment like that?
A moment when you have every held a screaming baby for five hours, and exhausted and hopeless, through tears and exasperation looked at theat precious child whom you love, that suddenly you have thoughts of shaking that child or muffling her screams, or doing something, anything to simply stop the crying and you don’t know what to do and you just want to smash something on the floor, just want to break something or someone and you can seem to control it and your anger rushes forth and
And from this, we cannot heal ourselves
“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
There is a story about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was one the greatest religious leaders of the twentieth century. When he died in 1972, the only thing that prevented the Vatican from beatifying him was that he was Jewish. The man was profoundly good and saintly, I think the term our Jewish brothers and sisters would use is – he was a ‘real mensch.’
Rabbi Heschel once gave a lecture at UCLA on the relationship between religion and ethics and when he concluded his remarks a UCLA professor stood up and asked, “Why do I need religion? I’m a good person. I treat others decently. I lead an honest and ethical life. What does religion have to offer me?”
And Rabbi Heschel replied, “Ah, that’s the difference between you and me. You’re a good person and I’m not.”
There is this correlation between our belief in sin and our belief in the God who “blots out our transgressions according to God’s great and abundant mercy.”
It is only when we truly grasp what it means to be human, that we can understand the fullness of God’s mercy and grace. Only when we have a really good and real grip on all the ways we mess up this life, can we feel and understand the power of Christ to transform us through forgiveness, to reconcile us, to renew and re-create us.
This is what is so profound about this word “confession” and the dual meanings which it holds. On the one hand – confession is about asking forgiveness, it is about admitting wrongs and being open and honest about who we are and what we are capable of. On the other hand – confession is a testimony. It is a witness to who God is, as the redeemer of our lives and the benefactor of our hope. When we confess our faith in God we are making a statement about God’s steadfast and abiding love for us in the face of our humanness.
Psalm 51 captures this duality – it is both one of the most penitiental psalms and one of the most convicting: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me…O Lord, open my lipes and my mouth will declare your praise…”
The painful news is that only God has the power to transform us out of our worst selves and into our best ones.
The good news is that God has the power to transform us out of our worst selves and into our best ones.
The good news is that God does not despise our brokenness, that God accepts our broken spirits and holds the fragile pieces of our lives and makes us whole.
The good news is that none of those moments, none of those ways we participate in the brokenness of the world, none of our warring, none of our betrayals, none of our apathy…
nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God.
And this is good news, indeed. Amen.
i Buechner, Frederick Wishful Thinking, A Seeker’s ABC pg 108
ii Buechner, Frederick Wishful Thinking, A Seeker’s ABC pg 109