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This sermon was the final sermon in a Lenten series on spiritual practices, preached today, Sunday, March 22nd, at the First Presbyterian Church of Elkhart, IN.

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We have arrived at the last week of our Lenten sermon series on spiritual practices. Thus far, in worship, we have tried on self-examination and confession, slowing or simplicity, taming the tongue, and hospitality. And this week we pick up the practice of compassion. Compassion— the word is compiled from two Latin words for suffering and with— Suffering with. And attending to the roots of this word goes a long way towards helping us to understand what the practice of compassion involves— whenever we attend to the suffering in the world around us, and stand in solidarity with those who suffer, seeking to enter into the pain of our neighbors and work with them towards the passing through of that pain— we are practicing compassion.

Our scriptures tell us repeatedly that Jesus’ life and ministry was marked by compassion— even when he sought to get away from the crowds, to get some rest, when the crowds would find him he would look on them with compassion and teach them, heal them, feed them… again and again he reached out and touched the untouchables of his day; he changed circumstances which had made people outcast in their society, reintegrating them into society; he met people where they were and helped them pass from death to life.

Next week in worship we will focus on the last week of Jesus’ life— we will work our way through a remembrance of the story of his passion— his suffering and death— from the high point of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the low point of his death on the cross and burial in the tomb. Many would say that, in fact, Jesus’ death on the cross is the high point of the story. For on the cross Jesus, our compassionate savior, the manifestation of a God who suffers with us, is lifted high for all to see. If the various instances of Jesus’ life and ministry showed Jesus engaged in compassionate acts for individuals and even for crowds… on the cross we see Jesus’ compassion for all of humanity. Jesus suffers with us… that he might open a way to life beyond suffering.

I realize that I run a risk by jumping straight to no less than Jesus Christ, son of God, God with us— as chief exemplar of the practice of the week. Many of us may be inclined to say “Ah well, it must be too much for me… he is perfect. I am imperfect. Maybe I can take a pass on this practice…”   But… by virtue of our baptism, we have been made one with Christ— we have been incorporated into the earthly body of Christ— his ministry is now our ministry. Ours together— mind you— no one of us alone can carry on the ministry of Christ. All of us together, with all the baptized Christians across time and space, together we share this work.

Our scripture reading this morning is from a portion of the letter to the Colossians that focuses on the Christian life— both what it is not, and what it is. We read today just the positive teachings about what Christian life should look like. Or, to use the metaphor of the passage, about the clothes that Christians should wear. A striking outfit of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience… an outer coat of love. Before we take a closer look at these clothes, however, I’d like to zero in on the first few words of the passage— “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved”— before telling the Christians of Colossae what they are to do, this letter reminds them who they are. They are chosen, by God; they are set apart in this world as vessels of the divine; they are loved. This is who they are. Chosen, Holy, Beloved. And that’s who we are too.

I spent some time this week thinking about being chosen. The first image that came to mind is of a shy infant or toddler taking a shining to me— perhaps playing peek a boo with me, or flashing a smile at me, or reaching out for me— this is an incredible feeling. You can’t MAKE a baby pick you. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, ah the warm feeling. Maybe babies don’t do it for you… maybe you’d be happiest if a baby never picks you… maybe for you you remember being asked to dance, or play on a team, or serve in leadership, or get married… Each of us has some experience of being chosen in this life and can tap into the special feeling that comes with being chosen. But always when I think about being chosen, I remember times when I have not been chosen… and how lousy that feels. Last one picked in gym class, standing on the wall all night at the school dance, rejected for this or that school or job… surely we’ve all had that experience too. Some time when we were passed over… and it hurt. A lot.

Yes, being chosen— it’s a powerful… and somewhat fraught human experience. I think sometimes when we’re chosen we can get a bit puffed up— we can begin to feel better than— we can become cocky or smug. I think it is not an accident that the list of Christian virtues that follows on this statement of Christian identity directly challenges this very possibility. We are chosen not so that we might be lords over others, but rather so that we might suffer with others, be kind to others, be humble, meek, patient… like Christ, who, as another letter in scripture reminds us, though he was in the form of God did not regard his equality with God as something to be exploited, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…

We are chosen. We are holy. We are beloved. Therefore… we will humble ourselves; we will seek to grow in compassion and mercy right here in our own church family; bearing with one another even when we have legitimate complaints against one another— forgiving as we have been forgiven. I think, actually, forgiveness itself is a great act of compassion. Often we are able to forgive when we realize that the one who has hurt us is him or herself a hurting person.

After I drafted this sermon on Thursday afternoon, late that night when I was getting ready for bed, an old friend reached out via Facebook messenger. She had had one of those days that rocks you to your core, that leaves you doubled over with tears— days when it’s easier to type than to talk. Her abusive father, from whom she has been estranged for years, is now dying. He has sent messages to her through her siblings that he wants her to come see him. But until Thursday she could not. Prior to Thursday, for weeks, months, years… she has been praying for her father, lighting candles for her father… she noticed that she had moved from wishing that he would hurt as badly as he had made her hurt, to realizing that he must have already been hurting as badly as he had made her hurt, and that certainly, now, in a very painful dying process he is suffering profoundly. And she prayed for the peace of his soul, prayed that he would rest with Jesus. But she just couldn’t bring herself to go see him. What if he hurt her again?

But on Thursday, after the long, faithful process of lifting her enemy, her father, to Christ, she found the strength— she is certain it came directly from the Holy Spirit— the strength to drop her guard and go to his bedside. When she arrived he was in and out of consciousness. But when he realized she was there, he told her that he was sorry, so very sorry, and he hugged her, and he cried. She hugged him back and told him that she knew he had had a hard life and that she has been praying for his soul. Her sister later told her that when later in the day he said that he had a dream that my friend had visited, and then heard that it wasn’t a dream, a look came over his face that she had never seen before. Her sister saw a peace in her father she never thought she’d see. My friend heard words she’d never thought she’d hear. She felt love she never thought she’d feel. And she found that at last her bitter resentment that led her to wish her father ill was gone— she was weeping at the end of the day because he was suffering, not because he had caused her to suffer.

The Holy Spirit, the spirit of Christ, gave my friend, and her father, a new wardrobe on Thursday—   dressed them in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience… and above all else love… It’s not like that encounter happened in an instant, well, it did… but it grew from years of practice that preceded it— years of formation in Christian faithfulness, within the body of Christ, the church… years of compassionate praying for her enemy… years of stripping off the old clothes and being fitted for new.

I am confident that the Holy Spirit dwells among us. I have had so many confirmations of that in recent weeks. I sense that the Spirit of Christ is moving among us, flitting about like a personal stylist in a fine boutique, assembling Easter outfits for each of us— pulling compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, gratitude off the racks and passing them to us to try on for size. I’m certain that the Spirit is wrapping each of us in love. We are, afterall, God’s chosen ones… holy, and beloved. The Spirit of God is joyfully re-clothing us, making us into new creations. O friends, what good news, how can we keep from singing?

The story shared near the end was shared with the permission of the woman who told it to me. I promised to maintain confidentiality when sharing it.

Image from here.

Oh, most holy God,

we confess today how difficult it is to tame our tongues.

We lay before you…

words that we wish we could unspeak,

silence kept when it would have been better to speak,

 our double speak and inconsistency,

all the talk behind backs,

all the chatter that tears down,

every confidence broken,

every wound that words have inflicted.

We pray that you would bridle our tongues…

help us to think before we speak,

guide us to use our words to build up rather than to tear down,

help our tongues to lead us to maturity in faithfulness.

Here now our silent prayers of confession…

This sermon was preached today, 3.8.15 in the first and third services at First Presbyterian Church, Elkhart.  It is third in a series on spiritual practices. 

James 3:2-12, Common English Bible

We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.

Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.

Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.

People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!

11 Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives? Can a grapevine produce figs? Of course not, and fresh water doesn’t flow from a saltwater spring either.

tamingthetongue

“We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity.” Those who don’t make mistakes with their words? Who are these mythological creatures? Do we have any in the room?

Words spoken. Words left unspoken. It its so easy to err in this regard. Sharing a secret that is not ours to share. Cutting others off or down. Failing to speak when injustice is unfolding before us. Spreading rumors. Attacking. Making commitments we can’t honor. Misconstruing events. Changing our story depending to whom we’re speaking. Missing the opportunity to speak encouraging words of love and support. And sometimes it is just our tone that’s a problem— our words themselves might be fine, but as C puts it… we can sound snappish. Or worse.

And right now many of us speak without ever opening our mouths as we e-mail, text, update Facebook, tweet, blog, or comment on myriad on-line postings. Have you noticed… It is often observed how absolutely cruel speech on-line can be. Reading comment threads can be horrifying. There’s even a name for people who regularly post anonymous, hateful comments on-line— they’re called trolls.

One of my favorite radio shows, This American Life, examined this phenomenon in a recent episode titled “If you don’t have anything nice to say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS.” That’s how you shout in text, in all caps. The first story in this episode was about a blogger who weighed in on an internet debate between comedians and feminists about rape jokes. She herself is a comedy writer and a feminist, so she thought her perspective might add something to the conversation. She suggested that she thinks a lot of male comedians are careless with the subject of rape. Not all that radical a statement. In response to this, some of the most hateful speech imaginable filled her comment threads. I won’t repeat it. Violent speech directed at her. Truly awful stuff. But the focus of the radio story was on the worst comment she ever received from a troll— it was a message on twitter from her dead father. And it was mean. And her dad was never mean. So she knew that even if someone could communicate from the grave, this wasn’t him. Whoever posted this went to great lengths to find out about her family, create a fake account using her father’s name, and use her father’s name to say something to hurt her.

She usually tries not to respond to trolls because it only feeds them and it usually makes things worse, but this was so terrible, she wrote an article about the pain it had caused her. And it turns out that for this troll, this was his lowest blow, and it haunted him, and when he read of her pain, he chose to apologize and began to change his behavior. She interviewed him and learned that when he was actively trolling he was deep in a pit of self-loathing and the way in which she presented herself as a confident, even proud person, at peace with her body and her life, infuriated him. So she became a target.

I share this story because it illustrates how much power words have, and how powerless people can be over their use of words. This troll was spewing hatred in the form of words because of how much he hated himself and his life. Somehow he forgot that he was communicating to living, breathing people. Or didn’t care. He is responsible for the words he screeched throughout the world wide web, but I truly believe he was powerless over them. His words were guiding him to destruction and they took on a life of their own.

This is an extreme example, but I think all of us can relate to the way that words can carry us to places we never intended to go. Liz Phair sings about this in her song “The Divorce Song.” As she sings through the demise of an intimate relationship she suggests both that her words wounded her spouse and that her spouse’s words had wounded her. The song begins “When I asked for a separate room it was late at night and we’d be driving since noon. But if I had known how that would sound to you, I would have stayed in your bed for the rest of my life.” And later she sings “But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to, I had to take your word on that. But if you had known how that would sound to me, you would have taken it back, and boxed it up and buried it in the ground.” Words can carry us to awful places. And frequently they spill out so quickly that we’re transported before we even realize what we’ve said.

So when James says “those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity,” if you scoff a bit, I understand. Many of us, most of us? All of us? make mistakes with our words all the time. But James acknowledges this, doesn’t he? Though humans have tamed virtually every animal, we cannot tame our own tongues. We can’t. We’re powerless.

But yet James wants us to try. Here’s something we need to realize about the letter of James— it was an inside document. It was written for those who had already come to faith in Jesus Christ and put their trust in the saving power of God in Christ, and now were seeking to live transformed Christian lives. The whole letter is answering the question “How therefore should we live?” And James has two main foci in his efforts to answer this question— relation to the poor and quality of speech. Our passage today focuses on the latter— but a concern for right speech is peppered all throughout the short letter.

What James seems to be saying is that what we say matters in our journey to union with Christ. He is particularly concerned with inconsistency among Christians— about confessing belief, but failing to put that belief into practice, and about double speak. We heard that in today’s passage, right? After admitting we can’t tame the tongue he says with the same tongue we bless God and curse our neighbors. Remember the greatest commandment that Jesus identified? Love of God and Love of Neighbor— together as one. James actually seems to believe that we love God BY loving our neighbor and that what say, or fail to say, is a crucial way we enact or betray love of neighbor. And he’s right, isn’t he? Don’t we know that with our words we bless God and curse one another? Don’t we know that words are significant vehicle of both love and hate?

Because this is an inside document, James expresses a particular concern for speech that unfolds among Christians, in the Christian community. How do we speak to and of one another? I’ve noticed that my tongue is often least controlled among the people I know best… and that I have the greatest potential for damage in this sphere. This is true in families. And it is true in churches— our extended family in Christ. Even church participation carries with it the danger of fires set by unbridled tongues. We know this is true.

And I think few of us would disagree that ideally we would have greater control of our tongues so that we might thereby use our words to further love of God and neighbor in all times and places— but we need to start somewhere. And I want to suggest today that we take a cue from Alcoholics Anonymous and apply the first three of the twelve steps to this struggle. Most simply put the first three steps are I can’t. God can. I think I’ll let God try.

We are powerless over our tongues.

God has power.

We ask God to bridle our tongues and guide us thereby into life.

It starts by admitting that we have a problem, that we need God’s help, and trusting God to help us. And while it might seem like admitting we’re powerless is an admission of defeat, it is actually the first step to victory. And I’m here to tell you that God has given you and me the church as a primary tool to help us live transformed lives and grow in faithfulness. God speaks to us through the ministry of the church and uses our relationships in the church to nurture our growth. If we let God, God can use our church participation to invite us into different patterns of speech right in our our own faith community. God can change the way we speak to and of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. God can guide us into patterns of speech that build up rather than tear down. And when we practice our faith in this way, by letting the way we speak in church and about church and about fellow church members be transformed… I suspect we will find our speech transformed beyond the church as well.

 

Resources in addition to Scripture, which significantly influenced, or were cited in this sermon:

Gench, Frances Taylor. Hebrews and James, Westminster Bible Commentary Series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

The Liz Phair song is found on her album Exile in Guyville. This is quite an explicit album and may be offensive to some listeners.

Image found here.

This sermon was preached on 3.1.15 in the Bridge, the emergent service at First Presbyterian, Elkhart, Indiana. The second in a series on spiritual practices. 

“Be still and know that I am God.” (NRSV)
“That’s enough!  Now know that I am God.” (CEB)
“Desist,  and learn that I am God.”  (CJB)

This is the word of the Lord.  In three translations.  Thanks be to God.

We’re focusing this season on spiritual practices, last week on the practice of self-examination and confession, this week on the practice of slowing.  I’m prepared to offer you a bit of a testimony today— reflections derived from my own experience of and need for this practice of slowing.  I hope that by speaking personally this will give you permission to honestly reflect on your own experiences and needs.  As we continue to reflect on practices one after another, not each will connect with every one of us. Not everyone here likely needs to slow down.  But we hope you will find something in this series that you do need, something that helps you to connect, or re-connect, or deepen your spiritual life.

I not only studied this practice this week, I tried to live into it because goodness knows I need it.  Just a week ago a colleague told me repeatedly that I am fast.  On the one hand, this is almost comical— you should see me run!  My pace is barely more than a fast walk!  And I think of myself as a slow reader— not that I struggle to read, but reading takes time for me.  And gosh… as I am reminded every time I play Nertz, the favorite card game in our household (perhaps you know it as Dutch Blitz or Pounce or Racing Demon) my reflexes, compared to those of my beloved are downright sluggish. And then there’s that Ph.D…. That has taken me seven years to complete.  But on the other hand… my brain… and my work patterns… um, yeah… fast.  Mentally moving on to the next thing while in the midst of the current thing and always, always moving, moving, moving…  And I rarely let myself do just one thing at a time.  Even something as simple as eating— I frequently overlap with other activities.  I reach for my phone, or a book, or even my computer— while I’m eating… I’m a big practitioner of the working lunch.  Or at least I have been.

It was with the working lunch, actually, that I tried to make an incremental move in the direction of slowing this week.  Actually, it was God, I believe, nudging me to do so.  Did I have a leisurely week that meant I felt I could afford to take a true lunch break every day?  Far from it.  In fact, on three out of four work days I didn’t manage to get to lunch until almost 2 p.m. It all started on Monday when I had intended to go home at noon, have lunch, and then spend the afternoon immersed in sermon study. Monday morning was crazy.  Every time I tried to leave the office I realized there was one. more. thing to do.  So when I did get home, at almost two o’clock, I was frustrated and famished.  I heated up some soup and then sat down to eat it.

Unconsciously I reached into my pocket for my phone in order to be able to facilitate yet another working lunch… only to find it wasn’t there.  Searched all my pockets, my bag… nowhere to be found.  I knew what I had done.  I could see it in my mind’s eye— lying on the table in my office.  I had one hour before I had to leave to pick up C and then K.  I had yet to START my study or even eat my lunch.  After my futile search, I surrendered and just ate my soup.  That’s all I did for the next 10-15 minutes or so.  I ate my soup, and a few handfuls of tortilla chips.

Well, actually, my brain stayed busy while I ate… I was racing on to the next thing… wondering what I’d eat tomorrow for lunch at presbytery. Thinking about tomorrow’s lunch while eating today’s. I opened up my spiritual disciplines handbook while eating my apple (the habit of the working lunch can be a hard one to break) and read about the practice of slowing.  And I started to laugh.  By forgetting my phone I was a) realizing how desperately I need to slow down, and b) being led to slow down.  And then, after an almost lunch break, I realized that the text we picked for this week is a total of a half a verse of scripture— I could, in fact, study it in the short time available after lunch.  And I could just write it on my heart and let my life teach me about it; what better to do with a  practice.  And so I did.

And when a few hours later Caroline and I got stopped by a long, slow train, I took deep breaths and thanked God instead of cursing.  Thanked God for another nudge to slowing down. And on every day that followed, though each was JAM PACKED, I made a point of slowing or stopping completely at some point in it— and in each still point of calm, self-nurture, undivided attention, I found myself connecting with gratitude and tapping into energy for what was yet to come.  Friends, I think I’ve found my Lenten practice… I think this is what I need to keep attending to consciously for the rest of this month.  I want to reflect on this practice and the scripture a bit more, but I’d like to accompany these reflections with music.  This is a slowed down version of a piece by the minimalist composer Steve Reich— slowed down 800%.  Let’s let the ambient sounds of this slowed music wash over us as we reflect.


Slowing down.  Slowing down.
Be still.  That’s enough!  Desist…  Interesting how just a few words can be translated so drastically differently.  What the latter two translations remind us of is the context of the verse… Verse 10- These are words from God that emerge in the midst of a prayer that is reflecting on wars in the holy city of Jerusalem, chaos, the sense among God’s people that everything around them is crumbling.  Things falling apart— that’s what this prayer is contemplating. Just before these words we hear that God is allowing the devastation of war to reveal its futility— that God is working to bring an end to all war in this way.  And so the language of the Jewish translation of this Psalm “Desist!” makes a lot of sense. So does the Common English Bible translation “That’s enough!”  God is calling out to war torn humans to put down their arms, to cease their striving, to STOP!  Desist! That is enough!  Be still!  Let go!

And what’s the second half of this half of a verse?  “Know that I am God.”  Or “Learn that I am God.”  These two parts do fit together.  Whether human beings are striving with one another for control over land or resources, or striving within themselves to get ahead, or simply to not fall behind… to maintain control over the chaos of our personal lives… when we’re pressing, pressing, pressing, addicted to work and busyness, refusing to slow down… we’re likely to get a bit confused, on some level, about just who is God, who is ultimately responsible. I don’t know about you, but me… the more I incessantly work, the more it begins to feel like the world is on my shoulders, and everything depends on me, and it all feels like just. too. much. Because it is. … If it’s too big for me, it belongs to God.  That’s sort of become my mantra.  But when I overwork, I start to put myself in God’s place, and get overwhelmed.

I have often taken offense at people telling me to chill or slow down… there’s so much that needs to be done, things are such a mess, so many people are hurting, I have so many commitments… how could I slow down?  Have any of you ever felt like this?

But here’s the truth.  There’s always too much for me— or for any human— whether I take my day off or not, whether I take vacation or not, whether I stop working at some hour or not… if I worked every hour of every day… if I fought every battle… I still would not come to the end. I am FINITE.  The needs of the world— infinite.  I have limits.  The work to be done— limitless. I’m not God.  And, in fact, when I stop and rest regularly, when I slow down at regular intervals, I’m more able to be productive when I am engaged in activity.

God spoke these words “Be still and know that I am God!”  “That’s enough!  Now know that I am God.”  “Desist, and learn that I am God.” God spoke these words in the midst of Israel’s chaos and destruction.  God still speaks this word into times of chaos and destruction.  In 2001, on September 11th, Psalm 46 was the appointed Psalm in the daily lectionary.  This is what we read in my seminary chapel… hours after the twin towers crumbled to the ground.  At a moment when so many were rushing to the rescue.  At a moment when suffering seemed immense and unending… and the need for intervention limitless.  At this moment we heard God speak again- “Be still and know that I am God.”  “That’s enough!  Know now that I am God.”  “Desist and learn that I am God.”  So if we are tempted to say “Life is just too overwhelming for me to slow down right now…”  we are missing the message completely.  WHEN LIFE IS TOO OVERWHELMING, that is precisely when we need to slow down.

This may not be your issue.  You may naturally move at a slow and steady pace, in every aspect of your lives.  You may.  You may take things one at a time… and take rest regularly… and breathe deeply… your life may embody this practice already.  If it does I hope to learn from you. But if it doesn’t.  If, like me, you tend to be a bit addicted to work or busyness— if, like me, you can get a bit confused about where you stop and God takes over… perhaps you’ll want to take on this practice too.

I’ve placed on your tables copies of the few pages from the spiritual disciplines handbook on the practice of slowing— the same pages that made me laugh on Monday… I encourage you to read through them if you think this practice might be helpful to you.  Perhaps you might even want to do some writing in response to the reflection questions on the handout during the song that follows… or later today.

And if this practice isn’t what you need… pray for those of us who do need it, please. Pray that I might continue to abstain from the working lunch. And hang in there… perhaps one of the other practices will be just right for you.

1 Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
purify me from my sin!
Because I know my wrongdoings,
my sin is always right in front of me.
I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
completely correct when you issue your judgment.
Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
from the moment my mother conceived me.
And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.[a]

Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and celebration again;
let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
Hide your face from my sins;
wipe away all my guilty deeds!
10 Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
11 Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
12 Return the joy of your salvation to me
and sustain me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
and sinners will come back to you.

14 Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
15 Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
16 You don’t want sacrifices.
If I gave an entirely burned offering,
you wouldn’t be pleased.
17 A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.[b]
You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.

(Common English Bible)

child-ashes

If there’s one aspect of Presbyterian worship I did not understand and did not appreciate as a child and adolescent it was the weekly prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. This was partly because I was a good kid—a diligent student, a pleaser… I was not overtly rebellious. Never have smoked a cigarette. Didn’t like doing ANYTHING that might upset the authority figures in my life. So in the too short moment of silence in every worship service I’d rack my brain trying to find something to confess… and I usually couldn’t. So I didn’t see the point. And besides… EVERY week we’re told our sins are forgiven already… so why bother? This practice of self-examination and confession, embedded in our weekly worship, seemed useless, redundant… When a friend in college told me her favorite season of the church year was Lent… those 40 days and nights often dedicated to the practice of self-examination and confession… that season which we have just entered once more— when she suggested that Lent was her favorite season I thought she was crazy. If a few minutes of it every week was too much for me… a whole season seemed absurd.

My how things change. Now I engage in this practice of self-examination and confession almost daily. And it just might be my favorite part of weekly worship. I’m still not an overtly rebellious person. I’m still, apparently, basically good. I still don’t like upsetting authority figures… or anyone really. But I know that I fall short of the glory of God, as do we all, daily. I know that if I examine my life through the lens of the 10 commandments, I have ample room for growth. Heck this is obvious even if I attend only to the greatest commandment— actually two commandments— that Jesus identified— “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. Some days are better than others, but my love is frail, complicated, dis-ordered… I have endless room for growth in love. I am a sinner.

There it is. The most basic practice of confession. Saying those words– right out loud. I am a sinner. I have sinned. I sin. Our scripture reading today is one of the most developed explorations of that basic confession in the whole of the Bible. Psalm 51 is what scholars call a prayer for help. All the prayers for help in the Bible contain complaints of trouble, petitions for help, expressions of trust and praise. And we’ve got all of this in this Psalm… and yet it is different than many of the other prayers for help. While the Psalmist frequently complains of troubling circumstances, saying things like “change my situation, so I may praise you.” What this Psalm says, repeatedly is “Change me; I am the problem.”[i]

The first two verses of this Psalm use every Hebrew word for sin. There are three Hebrew words for sin, just three, and all of them are in these two verses. The most common Hebrew word for sin is chatah, which most literally means “to miss the mark,” “to go astray.” The second is avah, meaning literally “to act wrongly,” and the third word is pasha, “to rebel.” Now this third word is actually used a lot in this Psalm.[ii]The translation of scripture from which I read renders pasha as “wrongdoings,” the Bibles in your pews say “transgressions,” another scholar suggests the rebellion should be made more obvious in the translation— and he says “rebellious acts” is a better way to translate pasha. For example, where the translation I read says “Wipe out my wrongdoings” he writes “Delete my rebellious acts.”[iii]

I rarely use Hebrew in the pulpit… It’s not our language. I’m mentioning it today only because in the FIRST verses, in practically one breath the Psalmist uses every word for sin available to him. So this is a comprehensive confession. It speaks of concrete, bold rebellion (the heading on it suggests it is David’s prayer after he has claimed Bathsheba as his own and arranged the death of her husband—and act in which he boldly violated so much of God’s moral law in the 10 commandments). So this Psalm speaks about overt rebellion. But it also speaks of a sinful condition, a baseline experience of being, to some degree, estranged from God throughout the course of one’s life. Frankly, I think this is all verse five is trying to express when it speaks of being sinful from one’s mother’s womb. Theologians across Christian history have gotten lots more out of that verse, but all that is is a basic confession of the human condition. From the beginning of time, and from the beginning of each of our individual lives, we have missed the mark; we have gone astray; we have rebelled; we have acted wrongly.

This Psalm speaks of both sins (lowercase s, and plural) and Sin (capital S, singular)— sins being the individual acts or failures to act which fall short of God’s glory; Sin the distorted condition that generates these particular acts. I love how T.S. Eliot expresses this distinction in his play The Cocktail Party. There’s this scene in which the character Celia Copplestone is trying to explain to a counselor her sense of guilt. This sense of guilt, it didn’t come from committing immoral acts, “sin in the ordinary sense” as she understands it. She says:

It’s not the feeling of anything I’ve ever done,

Which I might get away from, or of anything in me

I could get rid of— but of emptiness, of failure

Towards someone, or something, outside myself.

And I feel I must… atone— is that the word?

Can you treat a patient for such a state of mind?[iv]

The Psalmist in Psalm 51 is confessing both this general condition, of which Celia speaks, and particular, concrete acts of rebellion. He’s confessing all of it. I am a sinner, through and through, he’s saying.

But that’s not all that he’s saying. In fact, even if from the outset he’s offering a comprehensive confession of his sin, he’s making an even more powerful statement about God’s character— the God he knows, the God he worships, the God to whom he is now appealing is a God of mercy, steadfast love, compassion. The first words of this Psalm are what? “Have mercy on me, O God.” The presumption is that God is merciful. One of the most basic confessions of God’s identity cherished by the Israelites is found in Exodus 34:6 “The Lord! The Lord! God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness.”[v] What is the rest of the first verse? “1 Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love! Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!” Mercy, Faithful love, Compassion… it all echoes this verse from Exodus. So while in two verses we hear the ENTIRE Hebrew vocabulary for human sinfulness, in just ONE verse, we have nearly complete reflection of the most basic Hebrew understanding of God’s goodness.

And later in the Psalm, much later, the Psalmist begs God to stay with him, to remain in him by God’s Holy Spirit. Here’s the remarkable thing… The psalmist is saying, basically, “Please don’t leave me. Please don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.” Which means that God is still there. The Holy Spirit is still within him. Even after horrible deeds have been done. Even in the midst of an underlying, distorted condition. The Psalmist even suggests that the most horrific rebellion he has carried out has been carried out in God’s sight… God was right there all along. God’s presence is steadfast. This is what we sing about when we sing of amazing grace— a love the precedes our wrongdoing, and survives our wrongdoing, and transforms our wrongdoing. This is the God we worship. And this is the ground of the practice of self-examination and confession.

We don’t search our souls in order to feel badly about ourselves, but rather so that we might honor and nurture a relationship with the God who never abandons nor forsakes us. It is because the Psalmist knew God to be a God of mercy, loving kindness, compassion— that the Psalmist could be totally honest, and humble with God. When we engage in self-examination and surrender to a loving God an honest confession of wherever we have missed the mark in a given day, or a given life— we are affirming that there is one who forgives us, who loves us, and who can and will help us to grow and to change. The Psalmist says “Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!” Change me!

I engage in self-examination and confession when I believe that there is a loving power who will help me to change and to grow. This is why we’re assured of God’s pardon every week… and why we say prayers of confession every week. Because in the mirror of God’s grace, we realize our brokenness; in the face of God’s faithful love, we realize the fickleness of our love; in the light of God’s mercy, we realize our need. And as we engage this practice again and again, whether in worship or in our own acts of reflection and devotion, we begin to experience the power of God’s steadfast presence and love to change us, to help us to grow, to restore us to joy…

Pastor Rebecca and I have decided to focus on spiritual practices all throughout this season of Lent, for the whole of March, both in worship and in Adult Ed (starting next week). But it doesn’t seem sufficient to just talk about practice… better to actually engage the practices we’re teaching. Of course we’ve already prayed prayers of confession today, but I’d like to invite you to practice self-examination and confession once more in this hour of worship.

And I have a twofold exercise in mind for us to engage. Our Ash Wednesday service was cancelled due to weather— what a month it has been—so we missed our worship together on the first day of Lent. But this is the first Sunday of Lent— and it seems appropriate to impose ashes today. This is an embodied enactment of humility and repentance. When a cross is smudged on our forehead and we hear the words about our origin and destiny in dust, we realize how fully our lives depend on God’s mercy.

Further, you all got a small piece of paper from an usher earlier in the service. I hope you’ve kept track of that. I invite you to take a few minutes in silence, honestly admitting your need for God’s mercy, and, if you’re willing—I invite you to write on this paper an expression of the sin that you need to release to God’s mercy; a burden you’re carrying that you need to let go; a wound in you that needs healing.

And after you have taken this silence, and written down what you need to release, I invite you to come forward, receive the sign of the cross on your forehead from Pastor Rebecca, and then release your paper to the candle flame in the candle I will be holding. LET IT GO and watch it disappear in flame.[vi] And see in that flame how brighly God’s love burns for you.

flash_paper

NOTES ON WORKS REFERENCED IN THIS SERMON

[i] This paragraph was particularly influenced by the notes in The CEB Study Bible, published by the Common English Bible Editorial Board in 2013, general editor Joel B. Green. Another key influence was: James L. Mays, Psalms, in the series: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching , (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 199, 202.

[ii] I am grateful for Barbara Brown Taylor’s lucid discussion of these terms in her short work Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2000), 48-49.

[iii] I am referencing here Mitchell Dahood’s commentary Psalm 51-100 in the series: The Anchor Bible, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company), 1-3.

[iv] This scene was brought to my attention by Bernhard W. Anderson and Steven Bishop, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today, 3rd Edition, Revised and Expanded, (Lousville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 77.

[v] Again, I’m indebted to The CEB Study Bible for this insight. And I am citing the CEB translation of this verse from Exodus.

[vi] I am grateful to the Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Larissa Kwong-Abazia, for introducing me to flash paper and this use of it in the context of worship.

IMAGE SOURCES

Image 1- http://theprayinglife.com/tag/ash-wednesday/

Image 2- http://internationalmagicseller.com/en/products/accessories/flash-paper-50×20-html.html

A sermon on Ps. 139, Common English Bible, in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached in the Bridge at First Presbyterian Church Elkhart this morning, Sunday, January 18, 2015.

There’s a certain theme that’s popular in Christian music. I want to say that it’s particularly a trait of contemporary Christian music, but… it goes way back. I can sum up this theme by singing a line from a song I am confident we ALL know, an oldie, but goodie—

“Jesus loves me this I know…”

jargueso.blogspot.com/2012/09/jesus-loves-me.html

jargueso.blogspot.com/2012/09/jesus-loves-me.html

Jesus loves ME. That’s the theme. The particularity of God’s love for me. I think this is easier to sing, sometimes, than to believe. A lot of things can make it hard to believe that the creator of the universe, the savior of the universe, the sustainer of the universe— LOVES me.

I would imagine this might be especially true for historically or currently oppressed people. I don’t have to imagine it really— I’ve heard African American brothers and sisters in Christ speak of the self-hatred that comes from growing up in a racist society—the loathing of the darkness of their skin, the texture of their hair… the sense that there is a real limit to what they can accomplish in a lifetime because of the prejudice they encounter on a daily basis…

and then there is the violence within African American communities— an acting out of self-hatred surely. For generations African Americans were told that they were a cursed people; that they weren’t even fully people. Though those messages have died down, African Americans are still suspect in our society— more likely to be accused and convicted of crimes, or even killed because they appear threatening. Yes, sometimes African Americans break laws and commit crimes, as do all people, but people of color are disproportionately suspect for criminal activity in our society.

With this kind of baggage, I think it could be hard for people who have experienced this sort of marginalization to say “Jesus loves me. God loves me.”

do-you-love-me-image

It can be hard for far lesser reasons. But tomorrow night at 7 p.m. at Canaan Baptist Church a community choir that is almost entirely African American (save for about five of us) will sing in honor of the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and do you know what will be the main theme of the songs this choir will sing? JESUS LOVES ME. Every song, really, is about the exquisite particularity of God’s love for each person. And oh my goodness, I hope you’ll come tomorrow night, you will be blown away by the singing. There’s no hesitation or doubt in the affirmation of the love of God in Jesus Christ for me on the part of this choir. It’s breathtaking, really.

I spent Monday studying Psalm 139 and then I went to this choir rehearsal and sang these songs and I was bowled over by the resonance between the ancient song captured in Psalm 139 and the contemporary singing of this choir. The first thing that struck me as I slowly read each verse of this Psalm is the back and forth of the you and me. You have examined me, You know me. You and me, me and you, again and again. All sorts of pop love songs kept jumping to mind as I sat with this Psalm- you and me and me and you… two of us riding nowhere… I will always love you. 

For the first 18 verses the Psalmist speaks of being absolutely, fully known by God, and this knowing, though it exceeds human capacities for knowing, it’s not ultimately a distant knowledge, but rather a deeply intimate knowledge. The word love never appears in this Psalm, but this knowing that takes the form of relentless, inescapable presence, of the careful intricate weaving of our very being, this has always suggested love to me. Nothing I can do, nowhere I can go, nothing about me will every put me out of God’s reach. This is unconditional love. This is steadfast love. This is amazing love. Love for me. (And you.) This message of love is worthy of prayerful meditation. I think, actually, the classic children’s book “The Runaway Bunny” is an excellent invitation to meditation on this message. I’ve put it over at the prayer station and encourage you to spend some time with it.

Often times when this Psalm is read in worship we stop at vs. 18 or sooner. Or we jump from vs. 18 to vs. 23. Verses 19-22 with their talk of enemies, and hatred, and violence… they seem to disrupt the glorious praise of this intimately knowing and loving God. They are jarring. But these verses reveal the painful circumstances of the Psalmist’s life. Being known and accompanied by God has not protected the Psalmist from experiences of conflict. Most scholars think that the Psalmist has been accused of unfaithfulness or idolatry and composes this Psalm to affirm his close relationship with God. And when he appeals at the end for God to examine and know him… after already affirming that God has done that and does that all the time… it does seem quite likely that he is asking the only one who does truly and completely know him to vindicate him, to restore him, to establish justice for him— in the face of what he believes to be false accusations against him by people who don’t and can’t truly know him.

That’s the thing about being human. There are real limits on our knowing. It is particularly difficult to know other people, and to be confident in our knowledge of other people. We read people through our particular lenses. It is hard to know people on their terms. It can be very difficult to know whether someone is being genuine or deceitful. We cannot see into one anothers’ hearts and grasp fully our multiple, complex motivations. Sometimes by listening deeply and carefully to one another for a number of years, we overcome some barriers to interpersonal knowledge. But as those who have been married for number of years can attest, sometimes the longer one is in relationship with another, the more mysterious that other becomes.

Because of the limits on our knowledge we often operate on assumptions. We fill in gaps, sometimes in an educated, careful way, often impulsively and unconsciously. And often we don’t examine our assumptions and we can be rather protective of them. They are ways that we make sense of what often seems like a senseless life. But sometimes accumulated assumptions cause real trouble between human beings. Often, I think, negative assumptions ground our experience of having enemies in this life— we assume ill will, poor character, hypocrisy, ineptitude… and we act out of these assumptions. And those we have assumed these things about defensively assume a host of negative things about us… and for them too, behaviors follow assumptions… and conflict erupts.

Right now, in America, when it comes, particularly, to white-black relations, I think a whole lot of people are feeling falsely accused, and threatened, and estranged from one another.

Peaceful demonstrators march on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., earlier this month, Aug. 2014 (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Peaceful demonstrators march on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., earlier this month, Aug. 2014 (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Though we have officially overcome segregation; though we have elected an African-American president; the racial divide in this country has not been overcome. Many often point to participation in Sunday morning worship services to make this point— the most segregated hours in America.

I think it is empowering, in the face of all this discord and unrest, for each person to affirm the very real, very present, very particular love that God has for him or her— for me.  For you. I think this is why the singing of the community choir for the service tomorrow night is so powerful. I think it’s why whenever Christians sing this old, old theme it is so powerful. I think the fragile nature of human life and human community explains why this has been a beloved Psalm for generations.

But I think that we’ve only done half the work we need to do if we stop with the affirmation that Jesus loves me, that God loves me… There’s another great children’s book called “Old Turtle and the Broken Truth”—that’s over at the prayer station too. 0-439-56638-XIn that book it is suggested that a great truth fell from the sky and when it fell it broke. Human beings found the shimmering fragment of the truth which communicated “You are loved” and the possession of this truth led to great conflict and destruction among humans— everyone vying to possess this truth. By the end of the book the other half of the truth is found… that finishes what the first part started you are loved and so are they image “You are loved, and so are they.” And this whole truth— of the particularity and universality of love– was healing for the planet.

This is what I hope we’ll hear today as we mediate on this Psalm. The God who has examined me, and known me, who has knit ME together in my mother’s womb, who loves ME… examines every me, knows every me, knits together every me. Human life is infinitely precious in God’s sight. Every human life. Every me. This is too much for us to comprehend. Other translations of this Psalm say things like “This knowledge is too great for me. I can scarcely take it in.” But in a life of faith we can seek every day, more and more, to trust in God’s love for us— and to realize that this love is for the world, for the cosmos— every person we meet is as much an object of God’s love as we are. No matter how irritating he is. No matter how infuriating she is. No matter how ignorant he is. No matter how mean she is. No matter how broken he is. No matter how lost she is. No matter what accusations he or she makes against us. Every human life is a gift from God, sustained by God, held in God’s presence. If only we could let this awareness be our first assumption about our fellow human beings. If only we could let it be the assumption that corrects all our other assumptions, that shapes our interactions. I am loved, and so are they. Let’s start there.

I’d like to close today by sharing a snippet of a sermon the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  in 1968—

I wish I had a recording of it in his voice… but I draw what I share from sermon notes archived on-line. After affirming that God IS love in eternity… contrasting human beings who love with the God who IS love he goes on to say…

“Notice secondly that God so loved the world. In other words, God’s love has brea[d]th. It is all inclusive. It’s a big love, it’s a broad love… Jesus came on the scene saying “Our Father” meaning that he is everybodies Father. God’s love is to[o] broad to be limited to a particular race. It is to[o] big to be wrapped in a particular garment. It is to[o] great to be encompassed by any single nation. God is a universal God. This fact has been a ray of hope and has given a sense of belonging to hundreds of disinherited people…

“All of the hate in the world cannot destroy the universal effect of God’s love. Along with its brea[d]th, it is personal and indi[vidu]al. God loves infinitessimal Me.”

I was charged to remember this and to write it down.  Because some days I will seriously wonder…

And, in fact, if I remember why I said yes… it might help me to grumble a little bit less when I am getting EXACTLY what I signed up for.

I ultimately accepted this call because it seemed more challenging, stimulating, and invigorating that the other opportunity available to me.  I accepted this call because energy coursed through me every time I talked with members of the committee.  I accepted this call because the people on the search committee shared bits of their hearts with me– their pain and their faith– and I fell in love with them.  I accepted this call because it puts me in a good location for future pursuits in bi-vocationality. I accepted this call because I was promised a co-pastor.  I accepted this call because it seemed WAY riskier than my alternative– and somehow, it seemed, God’s call was on the side of risk rather than stability or comfort.

Two months in I have to say that it is immensely challenging.

But that’s exactly what I wanted.

And I am still falling in love with the people.

And that’s exactly what I need.

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