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Happy are the Forgiven

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, M0., on March 13, 2011.
Psalm 32  

When we get to the season of Lent, what we don’t expect is to hear a word of good news. So let me frontload this Lenten sermon with good news, really good news:  We come to God not by our perfection but by our imperfection.[1] For those of you who’ve come to the assumption that you’re not worth much as you stand here today … take heart, for God doesn’t need your goodness as an excuse to love you.

Frederick Buechner held these two truths in balance in his Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale. In his lectures, he advises those must look out over the people and the silence to tell a truth beyond telling. So he says to those of who are called, “Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him (or her) preach this overcoming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary, as the tale that is too good not to be true…”[2]

For most Lenten sermons, that’s a perfectly lousy place to begin because Lent’s focus is upon our sin and our mortality, but so be it. Like it or not, the Bible comes to two truthful realities about us. First, we are utterly ruined by our sin. We have “missed the mark” as most definitions of sin go. Second, God is at work in redeeming us from our sin with God’s love, a love beyond our comprehension and of which we do not deserve but receive despite our utter failure to deserve it. Amen! “Let the preacher tell the truth,” Buechner advises.

This past Wednesday we shared in a service of ashes that was a powerful experience of introspection and renewal. We Baptists are latecomers to celebrating this poignant moment together because the church has shared this simple service for centuries as the first step to a pathway that leads to the cross where Jesus suffered and died. But the cross is not the ultimate destination as the journey continues all the way to the resurrection. Such journeys are not taken lightly and the traveler must prepare for it. As in the season of Advent, we see the need for preparation. We take note of our mortality and recognize that sin has invaded our lives and separated us from God.

It seems to me that we have become all too accustomed to our sin and the separation and think it might be “just the way things are.” But the Bible tells us otherwise. Jesus shows us another way. The stories the church has told throughout the years tells us that God has been busy making newness out of old, broken and fouled lives. Nevertheless some of us have become accustomed to the nature of our brokenness and have a difficult time seeing that God wants to rid us of the shame the guilt we experience and call “normal.” All of us live under the shadow of our culpability that’s wrapped in our denial of the true state of things. We live in an illusion about those things we’ve done. Maturity is the process by which we shed these illusions and move toward a more realistic view of ourselves. And no illusion is more persistent than the illusion of our innocence.

Someone once asked Baptist pastor Carlyle Marney, “Where is the Garden of Eden?” Marney replied simply and without hesitation, “215 Elm Street, Knoxville, Tennessee.” “You’re kidding,” the person said incredulously. “Don’t you mean to say it’s somewhere in the Middle East?” “You couldn’t prove it by me,” he said, “for there on Elm Street when I was a boy, I stole a quarter out of Mama’s purse and went to the store and bought some candy and ate it. I was so ashamed that I came home and hid in the closet. It was there she found me and asked, ‘Where are? Why are you hiding? What have you done?’”

Our feigned illusion of innocence is what derails our attempts to find home and community. Those of us who live this side of our own Edens must surrender our claims to innocence so we can find our way home where we discover the community of the broken and healed.

I read this past week that Augustine had taken this Psalm and had it written above his bed so it was the first thing he saw every morning.

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,

and in whose spirit there is no deceit …

(Psalm 32:1-2, NRSV)

Before Saint Augustine was a saint, he was a moral mess.[3] When we think of Augustine’s rampant sexual promiscuity as a young man growing up in North Africa, we realize his sexual history was a “headlong rush toward carnal oblivion” as William Styron would call it.[4] So one reads Augustine’s Confessions as a testimony to his shame and guilt.

Augustine agonized over his remorse for his wasted years that scarred his soul with guilt. And as he struggled with these things and longed to know himself as truthfully as possible, he reported, “I was admonished to return to my own self…” Shame and guilt can be a spiritual disease that eats away at the core of our being and so God finds a way of dealing with our sin that maintains God’s purity even as God absolves us from our guilt through grace.

Richard Rohr, a native Kansan who has become a well-known Franciscan writer on spirituality and formation, says ultimately there is no knowledge of self that doesn’t lead to knowledge of God. Likewise, there is no knowledge of God that doesn’t lead to knowledge of self. Likely Rohr read Thomas Merton who said:  “If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.” When Augustine said, “I was admonished to return to my own self…” maybe what he was suggesting to us was that God is closer to me than I am to myself.

I stood before you Wednesday evening and as I marked your foreheads with the ashes from last year’s palm fronds, I quoted from Genesis 3:19, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I looked you in the eyes when I said it as I was making the sign of the cross and yet I came to feel something was wrong in those moments. I quoted the words rightly (and they are truthful about us to the core). But I still felt something was missing and later it dawned on me that I was pronouncing the words of Scripture correctly but should have said, “we are dust and to dust we shall return,” as I have no claim to exemption from this truth.

Psalm 32 is known to be a part of the traditional listing of the seven penitent psalms. It’s a prayer of thanksgiving offered by individuals after the forgiveness of sin and the experience of healing.

Walter Brueggemann is perhaps the most widely known Old Testament scholar living today. In Brueggemann’s study of the Psalms, he has constructed a three-part pattern of how God works in the world. First there is a time of orientation. The psalms sing the songs of creation and of God’s glory and power in making the world. These orientation psalms speak grandly of God’s world and of wonder about the making of human beings, male and female.

But there’s a second group of psalms that describe a time of disorientation. These are the songs that are sung in sadness and disarray. They are mournful as they describe the days of lament of personal wrongdoing or of those days when the people of God were disobedient to God’s laws.

Finally there is the time of re-orientation. These are the songs of surprise and celebration at the restoration God has brought to the unfaithfulness of the man or woman of God. These are hymns and songs of thanksgiving offered up to God for doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

The season of Lent is a haunting reminder to us from Genesis to “remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” We’ve entered a 40-day season that began on Ash Wednesday and counts down to Easter (not counting Sundays) as a season dedicated to devotion and discipline. To do that properly, we must take care to pause long enough to let it all sink in.

Wayne Oates once told the story of the South American tribe that after traveling on a long journey consisting of several long days of strenuous travel would stop, sit down to rest for a while, and then make camp for a couple of days before going further. They said they were letting their selves catch up with their bodies. Doesn’t that describe it for us? We get out of step with our selves and our bodies and our habits of being and need a season to let our selves catch up with the rest of us.[5]

These are the days of re-orientation when David the psalmist can see what a mess he has made of himself and how he has gone before God confessing his sin. After his contrition has been offered, to his utter surprise he discovers he has been granted a reprieve by forgiveness. In that great and boundless joy, he can say:

 

Thou art my hiding place;

Thou dost preserve me from trouble;

Thou dost surround me with glad songs of deliverance.

[1] Fr. Richard Rohr, Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, 276, Day 287

[2] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, New York: Harper and Row, 1977

[3] Thanks to Burt Burleson, Chaplain at Baylor University for the insights of his sermon, “We’re a Mess,” preached at DaySpring Baptist Church, Waco TX, 7/22/07

[4] Styron’s phrase to describe Sophie’s disintegration into guilt and shame that led her to return to her abusive lover Nathan in his novel, Sophie’s Choice, New York:  Random House, 1979,

[5] Wayne Oates, unknown source for this document