Sermon preached for the Fourth Sunday of Lent for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
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.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
When I was fifteen or so, dance was my world. And so when PBS aired one of their cultural specials that no cool teenager watches, I set our TIVO to record. President and Mrs. Bush had welcomed the Dance Theatre of Harlem to the White House, and I was enthralled.
Halfway through the program, the spotlight rose on a single figure on a bench. Off to the side, a soprano began to sing unaccompanied: there is a balm in gilead to make the wounded whole. I didn’t recognize the name Audra McDonald at the time, but I knew I had goosebumps. She sang in a slow, rich voice, while the solo dancer danced around—and often with—the bench, as if she wanted to be free of it but needed its solidity. The dancer’s body went through a series of contractions and expansions, folding in on herself and then stretching back out again. It looked like pain. It looked like hope.
Some pieces of art stay with you.
I can see that dancer now as I read the 32nd Psalm. The painful contractions, the weight of sin and fear and grief heavy and constricting. The strength it takes to open ourselves up, to admit our sin, to stretch our hands out to God for forgiveness. The freedom and release in receiving it.
Psalm 32 talks about sin as a sickness, a wasting disease. It’s a metaphor, and like all metaphors, it has its limits, but I think it’s worth considering. So many of us do feel our guilt in our bodies, as pits in our stomach or headaches or anxious energy. A wise friend reminded me once that feelings are not something you think about, but something you feel, inside your body. And guilt can hurt, and the more we try to push it away, the deeper it burrows into our souls, until we move from I did a bad thing to I am bad, defying the God who loves us and calls us good. Guilt twists every divine promise into a weapon, where God becomes someone to be afraid of.
I was in college, in an Intro to Religion course, when I first read St. Augustine’s famous argument for Original Sin. Augustine argued that our sinfulness is like a genetic disease, passed down from parent to child, going all the way back to Adam and Eve. We don’t start with a blank slate, he says. We start with a festering wound that only God can salve.
I don’t generally agree with a lot of Augustine’s theology, and I don’t wholly agree with this doctrine either, especially when he puts so much faith in the power of sin to damn us, and so little in the power of God to save us. But I was captivated by that image, of sin as a sickness, as something that is not fully our fault, as something we do not always fully choose, but that is ours to deal with. And I found the converse image, that forgiveness could be a form of healing, to be even more powerful. Because it does feel that way.
Confession sets us free. It heals us, by getting the poison out of our system, by giving us a chance to recover.
For three verses, the psalmist’s sin causes them to writhe and groans in pain and fear, struggling under the weight of their guilt. But when they finally confess, God forgives them in just a single phrase. As if God was just waiting to forgive all along. You silly human, I can almost hear God say. Of course I forgive you. What took you so long to ask?
Writer and pastor Katherine Willis Pershey tells the story of the first time guilt came calling in her life. She writes, “ I don’t remember the physical act of stealing Edward’s wallet. I remember wanting it, and then I remember my heart racing and my cheeks burning as my first-grade teacher queried the class about the missing item… I can’t even remember what I desired more—the bright yellow plastic Charmkins wallet or the dollar. It’s possible that I didn’t truly want either. It’s possible that I was simply curious to find out what it would be like to take something that wasn’t mine.
What I discovered about theft is that I don’t have the conscience for it. My initial physical reaction gave way to a chronic ache that settled into my soul. I know this sounds melodramatic. But I would forget about what happened for a week or even a month, and then something would remind me and I would remember again with a shudder: Oh, right. I did that. And having done that makes me a bad girl.
For two years I wrestled with this shame, until one night I couldn’t bear it anymore. I went to my mother, who was surely bewildered to see me there weeping not ten minutes after she’d tucked me in for the night. Between hiccupping sobs, I confessed what I’d done. Wisely recognizing that I’d punished myself sufficiently, she declined to dole out additional consequences for my misdeed. Instead she suggested reparations: I’d long since lost the wallet, but we could send Edward a dollar in the mail, anonymously.”
Katherine’s mother was wise. She didn’t tell her daughter that her sin was no big deal, or not to worry about it. She let the confession stand. But she also introduced her daughter to a second step: reconciliation.
Confession is a kind of freedom for the one who is guilty. But to indulge in freedom without indulging in responsibility is its own kind of sin.
A friend of mine grew up with two working parents who navigated the summer break from school by sending her and her two brothers to any local Vacation Bible School they could find. Growing up where I did, most of those were evangelical Baptist churches, and Friday meant altar calls. “Fridays were great,” she told me. “We’d all confess every sin we could think of, and if we couldn’t think of any we’d start making them up from stuff our favorite characters of TV did wrong. Then you’d get saved and forgiven and everyone would cry and cheer and it was the best feeling ever. The next week we’d go to another church and get to be heroes all over again, just for sinning.”
It went on that way for the best part of two months, until one night when the family was grocery shopping. My friend’s younger brother grabbed a bag of M&Ms from the little stand by the cash register and stuffed it into his cargo pants pocket. Right in front of their mom, who was horrified.
“That’s stealing, Jake,” she hissed. “You put that right back.”
But Jake just rolled his eyes, and then, with all the confidence in the world, replied. “Don’t worry, mom. We get forgiven every Friday.”
After that, my friend said, they went to the YMCA instead of VBS.
Scripture promises us that God forgives. Forgives when we don’t deserve it, when we haven’t earned it, sometimes when we haven’t even asked. We can live our lives as blissful dirty rotten sinners and still, God is in the business of grace.
But that’s not what God wants for us. God calls us to more than just confessing our sins, but doing something about them. God calls us to reconciliation.
Paul says it plainly in the letter to the Corinthians.
“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ.”
We are not just saved from our sin. We are saved for the reconciling of the world.
That word, reconciliation, is a mouthful. Hard to know what it means, exactly. But it goes back to something so prosaic—the equal exchange of two people at market. I give you twenty dollars, you give me twenty dollars with of food. It’s like reconciling a checkbook—making sure everything is even.
Reconciliation is the evening up of what has become out of whack. It is restoring equality to what was been unequal. It is patching back together what sin has torn apart.
When Katherine’s mother had her mail that dollar back to poor Edward, it was a step towards evening up what had gone lopsided. It wasn’t a full reconciliation—Edward was still out a wallet, and he would never get the chance to hear an apology—but it was a start. A step in the right direction.
Confession first. Then reconciliation. The unglamorous work of making things right.
Sometimes are sins are trivial things, like the theft of the wallet. These petty sins make great training grounds for practicing confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Because eventually, everyone one of us finds ourselves mired in a doozy of a sin.
I find it funny that for so long, “modern” people dismissed Augustine’s doctrine of original sin as outdated and embarrassing. We love the idea that we are each born with clean slates, and that any sins we commit were fully within our own choosing. That we are the masters of our own fate, and our own folly.
But in recent years, more theologians have taken up this idea of inherited sin. Not with the literalism Augustine did, with his chain of genetic disease, but with the idea that if our lives influence each other, than our sins do too. The academic term for this is structural sin—the idea that sin is baked into the structures we live in—ecclesiastical, political, economic, social, the whole nine yards. We walk around in a field full of land mines we didn’t bury, but we still do harm when we set them off.
The war being fought as we gather in Ukraine is not a brand new war. It is spurred by the anger and greed and conflict of dozens of generations.
This church never had a pastoral abuse scandal, but the word Christian still gives some people flashbacks.
I didn’t ask for 3 times as many Native people to die of COVID because of inadequate access to healthcare, but I benefit from the system that caused the inequality.
Structural sin isn’t a lot of fun to talk about, because it can make us feel helpless, and even angry. It’s not my fault, we want to scream! I didn’t want it to happen. I have no choice.
Except, in Christ, we do have a choice. If we see something that is not right, that is uneven, that is out of whack, we are tasked with the ministry of reconciliation, to be Christ’s ambassador to the world. After all, our sin was not Christ’s fault, but he still made a choice to do something about it. To go first, with self-sacrifice and words of love so fierce they turned the whole world upside down.
“Sin is our only hope,” claims Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. There is no help for those who admit no need of help. There is no repair for those who insist nothing is broken, and there is no hope of transformation for a world whose inhabitants accept that it is sadly but irreversibly wrecked.”
We live in a sin-sick world. It’s inside us, and around us, and some days I just want to contract with the pain. But the beauty of the Christian life is that we are not alone in the work of reconciliation. We are only the clean up crew. Jesus has gone ahead of us, lifting the biggest boulders, marking out the path. He is our strength and our hope as we follow along behind him, setting things to rights where we can and trusting in his grace when we fail.
Our souls cannot heal while they are festering with guilt. And so I think I understand the reticence to talking about hard things: partisan division, racial histories, religious differences. But I firmly believe that the only way out is through. Wounds do not heal unattended. We will only find our healing in confessing our sins to God—both the ones we intended to commit and the ones we did not—and then in taking our part in setting things right.
So release your tightened muscles, and unclench your fists, and stretch out to the sunlight one more time, and listen to the age-old song:
There is a balm in Gilead
to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead
to heal the sin-sick soul.
 Taylor, Barbara B. Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation. , 2015, p. 41.