Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 15, 2019
Psalm 51:1-10 Commentary
Some years ago a psychologist who works in Britain’s penal system described the startlingly loopy ways by which criminals attempt to sneak out from under their own crimes. He opened his article by reminding readers that in his pseudo-suicide note years ago, O.J. Simpson had the audacity to write, “Sometimes I feel like a battered husband.” Whether or not O.J. killed his former wife, one fact that is nowhere in dispute is that while they were married, he beat the living daylights out of her on more than one occasion.
But, according to this British doctor, O.J.’s reversal of who was the battered one is typical. He recounts a time when a man who had just been sentenced to life in prison for murder emerged from the courtroom red-faced with rage. “That wasn’t justice, it was a kangaroo court,” he fumed. “They didn’t even call no medical evidence!” “Oh,” the psychologist replied, “what kind of evidence should they have mentioned?” “What she died of,” the man snapped. “And what did she die of?” “Hemorrhage.” “How did she get the hemorrhage?” the doctor asked. “They pulled the knife out,” was the murderer’s reply.
Denial becomes amnesia, amnesia transmutes into innocence. Yet another man, convicted of raping a woman, complained that a combination of whiskey and marijuana had reduced the night in question to a fog in his mind. “How can I defend myself when I can’t remember nothing?” he complained. “But if you cannot remember anything, you can’t deny the charges either, can you?” the doctor shot back. The rapist was wholly unmoved by that line of logic. This psychologist concludes, “In amnesia’s house there are many mansions, one of which is distortion of memory in the service of self-esteem.”
The art of self-deception is one we each know well, though few would care to admit that. In fact, the better you are at self-deception, the less you are aware of it. First we deceive ourselves and then we further deceive ourselves that we have not, after all, deceived ourselves. Mind and memory can play such fanciful tricks on us, resulting in sometimes silly consequences and sometimes dire ones.
On the silly side is something that happened to Ronald Reagan. During a 1980 campaign stop Reagan, with trembling lips and obvious conviction, told a World War II story about a pilot and his bombardier. Their plane had been hit but while the pilot could have ejected, the bombardier was too wounded, and his ejection seat too damaged, to get out of the spiraling plane. So the pilot reached over, took the man’s hand and said, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” It was a very moving story, until one reporter realized that if both men had died in the crash, there would have been no one to report these final words. Turned out Reagan was just remembering a scene from a movie.
On the more dire side of the ledger is the defense Nazi Adolf Eichmann offered at Nuremberg. Eichmann had been in charge of the massive transportation system that efficiently moved Europe’s Jews from one destination to another, ultimately winding most of them up at one of the Third Reich’s many death camps. But Eichmann claimed his innocence in it all, saying that he was only in charge of transport and had no knowledge of where the Jews were going or what might happen to them once they got there.
But these examples have to do with forgetfulness about specific incidents. The larger self-deception in which we are involved has to do with issues of who we are. Most people are loathe to admit that they are just generally bent toward the bad, inclined to do it wrong. So when the Christian tradition declares to any and all, “You are a sinner,” most people these days reply, “What did I do?” If sin exists at all, it is merely episodic, an occasional (and inexplicable) “lapse” from our better nature, which is at bottom “pretty good.”
How foreign is the notion articulated by theologian Emil Brunner. Brunner once noted that we can, in principle, avoid any particular sin. And we often do. Few if any people give in to every dark impulse. The average person, whether or not he is particularly religious, resists many temptations that come his way on the average day. He does not slip the Snickers bar into his coat instead of paying for it, does not exceed the speed limit, does not shove the person ahead of him in line for the subway, does not grab and grope at the co-worker whose sexy dress just flat out is turning him on that day.
In principle the sinner can, and often does, avoid any particular sin, Brunner noted. But what we cannot do is avoid every sin. We cannot not be sinners. We cannot claim that we have never done it wrong. We cannot promise that we will never do another wrong thing, speak another cross word, or think another angry thought in the future. Even if the alcoholic promises never to take another drink or the adulterer vows never again to wake up in the wrong bed–and even if they keep those promises–what they cannot promise is that in addition to staying sober or chaste they will also remain just overall sinless.
Christians are often accused of being rather neurotic when it comes to sin. We leap from one wrong deed to the catastrophic conclusion that we are just generally depraved. Like the poet of Psalm 51 we claim that we’ve been sinful from the moment sperm met egg in our conception. And much of our world sees that and cries out, “Good grief! Aren’t you taking this guilt trip just a little bit far!?” We prefer to trace the reason for any given sin not clear back to some defect with which we were born but to more immediate surroundings.
It is in this sense that Psalm 51 can serve as a bracing tonic. Here is a showcase display window of the elements that go into a well-rounded doctrine of sin. Two elements take center stage: one is the fact that it is the psalmist himself who is the problem, and the other is the notion that not only is God our judge, he’s right when he renders a harsh verdict. We properly stand before God, and God properly stands over against the shape of our lives.
The psalmist is unstinting in saying, “I am the one in need of repair! It’s my heart that needs fixing. No, it needs replacing.” So the psalmist begs for a new creation, for a radical re-wiring on the inside. There is in Psalm 51 virtually no hint of outward circumstances that contributed to this sin. The psalmist claims that he has been sinful since conception but he does not blame his mother or father for that, it’s just the way things are. Nor does he say that since he came into the world already bent, he’s just a victim of nature.
Instead he says that because he came into the world already corrupt, that is all the more reason to beg for new creation. Because he is willing to fess up in this psalm he feels the sting of God’s judgment, the crushing of his bones. He really feels bad. In fact, he’s downright miserable. He is very much, to borrow a contemporary phrase, “down on himself.” It is unrelenting.
Nevertheless, Psalm 51 is not finally bleak. Therein lies the mystery of faith. In the alchemy of grace words that are darker than dark lead to a brightness that cannot be quelled. The psalm begins drenched with grace. The first verse could be translated literally as, “Grace me in your grace, O God!” In the original Hebrew the first line is just three words, two of which drip with divine mercy. (A really literal rendering would be something like, “Grace, God, Grace!”) The last of those three words is a term I can never get enough of: the Hebrew word chesed. It’s the Old Testament’s favorite way of characterizing God. It is a word so redolent of good stuff, so fragrant of fresh starts, so freighted with joy, that no one has ever come up with an adequate translation. “Unfailing love,” “lovingkindness,” “abiding mercy” are a few of the attempts.
But what chesed is finally all about is the ineffable desire God has to forgive. Grace is the oxygen of heaven–there’s always more of it than there is of sin. Psalm 51 banks on this hyper-abundant grace, but not cheaply. God is not some ineffectual figure who is too much of a wimp to generate any anger. Sometimes we see this: perhaps a father is just too tender-hearted (or maybe just too much of a moral limp noodle) ever to get very upset. So a smart-aleck son may recklessly smash up the car only to have his father say, “That’s OK. We’ll get it fixed and forget about it.” To such a father the flippant son may reply, “Yeah, I figured you’d say that! That’s why I wasn’t terribly careful in the first place!” Sometimes a person’s easy forgiveness becomes something others bank on in self-serving ways.
But not here. The fierce rightness of God’s judgment, the utter dread with which the psalmist faces the possibility of being cast out of the light, make it clear that God’s penchant for grace is not being invoked in a manipulative way. But that is because a genuine awareness of God’s grace emerges only from a knowledge of sin’s seriousness. Here is a central wonder of the faith: the more soberly serious we are about sin and the reality of God’s judgment, the more joyfully exuberant we are about the shining splendor of grace and the way it drenches our lives with monsoons of forgiveness. We stand constantly under Jesus’ cross as the most stunning reminder of just how fierce God’s judgment on sin is. And yet we find joy emerging from the darkness, even because of the darkness!
We’re born bent. We’ve got a problem that goes well beyond this or that isolated instance of sinful behavior. We need to face these dark facts. We need to tremble at the prospect of being cast out of God’s holy light. And if you think that sounds like a dark, morose way to live, if that all sounds like a “bummer” and a “downer” and just flat out no fun at all, that’s because you are forgetting the alchemy, the magic, of grace.
Theologian Miroslav Volf has pondered the shape and nature of life with God in what we often call “heaven.” Volf speculated that even in our renewed state, the memory of what was bad in this world may still be there. Perhaps our conscious awareness of the good will require our being able to contrast good with evil. In other words, we will know what evil is, but we will never choose to do it because, as Volf writes, the love of God will so continually flood into our hearts that we will never have time or desire for anything else.
Our explorations of God’s New Creation, our sheer, unalloyed delight in one another, will provide a rich kaleidoscope of multi-layered and ever-changing patterns of joy. This will be a life so interesting, so filled with abiding curiosity to see what is around the next corner of God’s universe, that the thought of spoiling this will not occur to us.
Such a vision, such a hope, is possible because the grace of God abides forever. It’s what allows us to take the risk of honesty and confession. It is what lets a few shafts of light from the New Creation pierce the darkness of our hearts already now. Attempting to skirt our own sin, ducking this way and that to avoid the truth about ourselves is a never-ending process that brings no peace. “Let me hear joy” the psalmist cries out in verse 8. In the end he does hear this joy. Through the mystery and riddle of grace that joy somehow emerges out of a reflection on death and sin and judgment. From that joy comes something else: the peace of God that surpasses all understanding; the peace of God that leads the way home.
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