Monday, March 23, 2015

March 22 Sermon

Psalm 51
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.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
As a professional religious person, I have the opportunity to be in conversation with all kinds of people, and I'm not just talking church people. I didn't really grow up in church so this dynamic is a pretty new one for me, but it is amazing what people who have never darkened the door of a church will share with a member of the clergy. And I will tell you, it is a high honor to be the steward of those stories. But it's still a little weird.
In fact, I’ve shared with some of you that my wife Stacey and I have a game we play at cocktail parties when we want to find a way to exit a particularly dull conversation. We'll ask the person we're talking to what they do for a living, and they'll tell us and then inevitably ask us we do for a living. When I tell them I am a United Methodist pastor, they'll do one of two things. Either they will start sharing things that nobody ought to share with a stranger in a public place, because they feel so bad about things they’ve done, or they’ll let out this sort of guttural groan and walk away slowly, as if they feel like they’re about to be judged and they just can’t handle it.
And so it is that I have come to discover something pretty profound about modern people. I think it's profound anyway. And it has to do with sin. Sin, of course, is a theological concept, which makes it complicated, but in a few words, it is the stuff that separates us from God. To be human is to have sin. Sin is what happens when we don't do the loving thing, when we break God's law, when we turn against God and God’s people.
What I have discovered about sin is this. Generally speaking, there are two kinds of people, and I can just about pick them out based on their response to learning I’m a pastor at a party. There are people who are so overwhelmed with their sin that they don't know what to do, who realize that they are sinful and get so stuck on that fact that they spend their lives being miserable, feeling like they are never good enough, like they are fundamentally flawed, sort of Eeyore sometimes. That's the first kind of person.
The second kind of person says, maybe I sin, but it doesn't really matter. It's really not that bad. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not like I’m committing genocide or anything, and God’s going to forgive me so why worry? In fact, I'm pretty great. I'm smart, I'm good at what I do, and I'm right about more things than I’m wrong about. If I do sin, it's just little piddly stuff, because I'm too great a person to sin very much. It’s the kind of Homer Simpson character who says, eh, I’ll just confess on my deathbed and everything will work out all right.
Those are the two kinds of people. People who get bogged down in sin and people who ignore it. They may be caricatures, but there's truth there. And what's fascinating about this is that it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between these kinds of people, because they act out in similar ways. I should say, we act out in similar ways, because we all have sin. Those of us who get bogged down in sin act out in unhealthy ways because there’s no hope in that kind of focus. There’s no positive anything. We get stuck. And when you’re stuck, you wallow, and you don’t end up doing the loving thing. You can get focused on yourself instead of focusing on all of God’s children, which is, of course, where our focus ought to be.
But those of us who don’t really pay attention to sin, who kind of write it off, we act out in the same ways! We start thinking we’re great, and so we focus on ourselves, and again, we forget everyone else. This is the cyclical nature of sin. Sin begets sin.
And don’t be surprised if you find yourself today somewhere between those two poles. I will tell you that there are two people sitting in your seat today. There is the person who gets bogged down in sin and brokenness, and there is the person who does not pay it any mind. It is part of the human condition that each of us vacillates between these two poles. Each of us.
This is part of what it means to be human, to have sin, to bounce around between being overwhelmed by it and ignoring it. And it’s what makes sin so complicated, so hard to pin down, because one day we’re stuck and we think we’re terrible, and the next day, we think we’re the best thing since sliced bread. Neither is true! But sin is real. And when we don’t pay it attention, when we don’t talk about what it is, how it functions and how it separates us from God, we don’t engage sin as it actually is, and as the Bible tells us about it, we can get into real trouble. We’re liable to think of ourselves as simultaneously too broken for redemption and too put together to bother to care.
And that works until it doesn’t. It works until it doesn’t. It’ll pull you in two different directions until you are split in two. I’ll tell you, this is the very position that the writer of the Psalm finds himself in. This feeling that I thought I had it figured out and yet, somehow, everything is falling apart around me. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt like you’d hit rock bottom only to discover that you’ve landed on a false floor? I think we all have moments like that. And it’s miserable. It is. But for everything else, it is a reminder that we cannot do this on our own. We are not built to be self-sustaining. We are built to be held up by God and by others.
It takes being at that point, I think, to pray the kind of prayer that the writer of Psalm 51 writes. He says,
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.
These are not words of someone who’s feeling great about himself. In fact, this is what the Psalms are. They are some of the most human writings in the whole Bible, because they express things like hopelessness, anger at God, frustration, thanksgiving, confusion. Are these things you’ve felt? And in this psalm, the writer has reached that point, where he realizes that he can’t do it alone. He’s not capable of doing it alone, because he has sin.
And in this psalm, sin isn’t just about having God tell you not to do something and then doing it. It isn’t just about eating from that one tree that God says not to eat from. It’s not about God testing at all. It’s about being born with it, being born with the inability to do it all on your own. It’s being born with the need for God but the predilection to ignore that need. It’s not to say we’re fundamentally terrible. It’s to say we’re fundamentally in need of God’s grace, fundamentally in need of being washed in the waters of grace.
This image of being washed is so important, because you do need to respond to the reality of your sin, but not by being demoralized by it. The psalm ends this way: “restore me to the joy of your salvation, and sustain me in a willing spirit.” You don’t respond to God’s love by wallowing in your sin, by saying, oh, I’m so terrible, and moping around the house. You respond to God’s love by acknowledging your sin, asking for forgiveness, and being joyful. This isn’t the kind of false joy that we think would come if we were able to do whatever we want. I think many of us carry within us the idea that if we could just do everything we wanted, if we were in charge, we’d find joy in it. But that’s a fantasy, because it presumes that I know best, that all of my ideas are the best ideas
The joy of salvation is completely different. It’s really the opposite of being in charge, because it comes from the realization that we can’t do it on our own but that we don’t have to, because we have a God who loves us too much to let us go, who will sustain us in a willing spirit so that even though we sin, even though we don’t have it together, we can move towards repentance. We can be made more perfect in love. This forgiveness is not about no longer acknowledging sin at all. It is about taking seriously the reality of sin in our lives and working, with God’s help to move past being bound by it and move toward fuller relationship with Jesus Christ, the God who declares that we are his Children.
In fact, this is what the prophet Jeremiah is talking about when he talks about the new covenant. God has made an agreement with us, and yes, we break it again and again, despite our best intentions and sometimes, our worst. But the new covenant is stronger than our own foolishness. It is so strong, Jeremiah says, that if we will take it seriously we will grow into people who do not even have to say, “know the Lord” because it is a covenant which carries within it the power to change hearts and minds. It is a covenant that is so strong that if we will just take it seriously, we’d put all the preachers in the world out of business, including the ones who apparently need $65 million dollar airplanes, and while I guess I would have to find something else to do, I’d be ok with it, because the love that comes from that kind of devotion is powerful. This isn’t to say that this kind of love makes our sin disappear. It certainly does not. But it is to say that we have the power to grow, the power to move closer towards the heart of God, so that we may experience God’s grace in a way that isn’t simply about grace merely washing over our sin, but in a way that becomes about grace washing over our lives.
This new covenant, in our understanding, is made manifest in Jesus. It is seen in his birth, in his life and teachings, and most visibly, in his death. You have heard, I am sure, that “Jesus died for our sins,” and this is true, but it does not mean, as some have said, that somehow God demanded a sacrifice because he is angry at is and was willing to accept the blood of his own son in order to be satisfied. That’s cruel, and it isn’t who God is. The idea that Jesus died for our sins is that he fulfilled the new covenant, that he suffered as we suffer, that he died as we will die, so that he understands the things we go through, but that because of his great work and love for humanity, death was not the final word.
This, this is the new covenant: whether you are feeling like Eeyore or Homer Simpson today, sin does not rule. Death is not the final word. If you are here today wallowing in your sin, hear this important message: in the name of Jesus Christ, you, even you, are forgiven. Nothing you have ever done, nothing you could ever do, is beyond the potential for forgiveness. Nothing. For you are God’s beloved child.
And if you are here today thinking your sin doesn’t matter, hear this message: yes, you are forgiven, but it is in the name of Jesus Christ. It is not that you are forgiven because God doesn’t care. Neither does your forgiveness give you license to eat, drink, and be merry at the expense of noticing the suffering of the world. You are forgiven, in the name of Jesus Christ, because Christ has suffered and died, because Christ defeated death. Your forgiveness comes at a cost, and every time you ignore that call to try to be better, to try to sin less, to move deeper into the heart of God, every time you ignore that call, you cheapen that gift.
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. You are forgiven in the name of Jesus Christ. Each of us vascillates between the two poles, but neither pole is sufficient, for the true answer is not found here, or here, but here, for we are promised in scripture that I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

This does not mean sin disappears. It just means that God loves us more than we can ever imagine. It is by this love, by this grace, that we are able to make the promise, in our baptismal vows, to remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representative in the world. Let us share this great love in appropriate ways. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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