Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 11, 2022
Psalm 51:1-10 Commentary
Every once in a while in a movie or on a TV show—and often used for comedic effect—there will be a character whose self-esteem is so low and so fragile that those who know this person are loathe ever to criticize him. If you point out even one little mistake to Larry, Larry will immediately begin banging his head against the wall, hitting himself with his hands, and declaring, “I am NO good! No good! I am a lousy, terrible person! I hardly deserve to live!” This, in turn, will prompt those around Larry to say things like, “Dude, calm down! Don’t catastrophize things! You are not some horrible person. Give yourself a break!”
Even short of such an extreme example, when we encounter someone who turns a mistake into a cause to degrade herself or despair over her worthiness as a human being, we tend to want to engage in a bit of redirection. We want to point out that good people makes goofs too. You can be a fine person and still mess up. Don’t chalk up your whole existence as a failure on account of even a truly bad thing you did once.
In short, there are plenty of people in life who ought to be penitent for a long history of abusive behavior and never are. But there are also plenty of other people who sink into deep pits of guilt over trivial matters. What we all wish to see is some balance.
Psalm 51 may be the Bible’s best known example of confession of and contrition for sin. But if you look at it from a certain angle, the psalmist might be one of those people we might counsel to throttle back a bit on the whole guilt and evil thing. The poet here does all but bang his head against the wall repeatedly. It’s not just that he did something bad but he did it because he’s sick to the core. “I was sinful at birth!” he cries out. “I was rotten even when I was fresh as a newborn baby” he screams. “Go ahead, God, and point your finger at me in dire judgment because you’re right! I am pond scum. I am excrement. I deserve whatever judgment you pass on me.”
Whoa, dude! Take it easy on yourself.
That is what we would say to someone like this today and we would do it in the service of better mental health, of having better self-esteem, of not wanting to see someone pile drive themselves deep into the earth. But when it comes to dealing honestly with human sinfulness, would throwing out mitigating advice to lift someone’s spirits be good theology in action?
Yes and No. On the no side, the church as far back as its earliest days and its earliest and most influential theologians like St. Augustine has long taught one version or another of the doctrine of Original Sin. Whenever and however human sin came onto the scene, at some point there was an original disobedience by people—we call them Adam and Eve—who had been equipped with the chance to do things better. But they didn’t and ever since, the poison of that has flowed down to everyone.
Pick your image: A bad tree yields bad fruit. Poison poured into the water at the head of a river carries it forever downstream. The spiritual DNA of the human race got kinked and we’ve been passing along these bad genes ever since. The idea has been that we do not become sinners when we sin, we sin because we were born with a proclivity to sin already. We don’t learn sin by imitation (think Pelagius) but by inheritance. “We come by it honestly,” as we sometimes say about some trait we clearly got from our parents.
Thus what is reflected in Psalm 51 is, in that sense, correct theologically according to the church from time immemorial. However, the grim sentiments in Psalm 51 are not in the Bible in the service of head-banging self-flagellation and personal degradation. They are in service of seeking forgiveness and renewal. And both of those things are meant to move a person beyond self-loathing to a sense of gratitude and renewal in the mercy of God. We are never negative for negativity’s sake. We don’t acknowledge our innate sinfulness to lead a life of despair. We use it as the bridge to something better in the face of a God who is eager to create in people pure hearts and steadfast spirits.
In this sense then we would be right, especially when dealing with a fellow believer, to tell such a person to throttle back on the head-banging self-judgment in case that was preventing a proper embrace of the divine grace that is abundantly ready to be applied. If it is wrong never to acknowledge our sinfulness, it is just as wrong biblically and theologically to insist on wallowing in it. Maybe that is why in the rest of Psalm 51, just beyond the bounds of this particular lection, the sinner with a renewed heart promises to sally forth in order to instruct other sinners not just in the proper paths of confession and penitence but in the proper celebration of the mercy received.
Too often the church is criticized as being too hung up on sin. The truth is that we are totally hung up on the precious grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The sin part is what gets us to the good part and that good part is the only reality that will be forever and ever.
One final note: it will escape no one’s notice that this psalm is being assigned in 2022 on the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. I am not certain how that might figure into preaching on Psalm 51, although among other things 9/11 has stood for two decades now as a clear vignette of the craven evil of which broken human beings are capable. That attack on innocent people is the kind of event that can make anyone want to scream for justice against such perpetrators of evil. But like some other psalms in which the psalmist gets all worked up about the evil that is “out there” among his enemies, so we also need at some point to pause, take a deep breath, and with a sigh say to God, “But I know the same sinfulness runs through me too. So even as I condemn those ‘others,’ please, O God, create that right spirit in also me.”
Some years ago my colleague Stan Mast used this as an apt illustration of one of the dynamics of Psalm 51. Mast reminded us that in her book Glittering Images, Susan Howatch tells the story of an Anglican priest who has such a complete moral and emotional breakdown that he has to seek counseling. Early in his recovery he wants to confess his sins, so he can partake of Holy Communion. But his counselor won’t let him make confession. “You can’t really confess your sins,” says his counselor, “until you know them, and you really don’t know yours at this stage in your recovery.”
In Psalm 51, David says, “I know my sins….” In what follows, he shows us that he really does. We cannot confess our sins in the abstract. And although none of us knows our every sin—only God possesses that terrifying knowledge about each one of us—we cannot seek the kind of renewed spirit for which the psalmist pleads if we are content to cruise along in life without altering those practices that most need our attention. Again, this seems like a grim message but it is actually part of the path to renewal that we have pondered in this sermon commentary.
Alternate Psalm for this week: Psalm 14
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