190331 – Lighten Up

Yr C ~ Psalm 32 ~ Lent 4

Sin, confession, and forgiveness. It’s a big, heavy topic today (yes, that means the sermon is long!), and it’s a topic that we tend to avoid in our church tradition (which is kind of ironic, considering Psalm 32), so let’s dive in.

What does it mean to say that God forgives? Forgiveness indicates an “offence” has occurred. In Hebrew the word for offence is sin. It’s not a word we like to talk about in United Churches but today we’re going to! Sin means offence, so in order to offend there must have been something that said that somehow this action, thought, intention, omission etc. did not meet some standard that must exist. A judgment had to have happened. How do we know we’ve offended? How do we know we’ve sinned? One way to think about sin is to say it is a falling short. Falling short of what? Falling short of that “standard”.

Ok, now we’re into it. What is God’s standard?
Love! Light. Holiness. Kindness. Mutuality. Harmony. Relationship. Shalom.

God is not just a highly evolved, spiritually mature person who practices those things at a supremely high level.
No, God IS those things – entirely, substantively, unchangingly.
So think that through.

God IS harmony.
If I do something that causes disharmony in any way, I have fallen short of God’s way, God’s standard.
I have sinned.
But God doesn’t desire punishment, or recompense, or vengeance, or even shame or guilt!
God only desires harmony, because God IS harmony. So the only way to make things “right” with God is to regain harmony!
Are you with me?

How do I do that? How do I regain harmony?
Well, let me tell you how NOT to do it, but how we usually choose to do it, and how it always causes more trouble than doing it right.

Psalm 32:3-4 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.

While I kept silence, while I kept everything to myself, while I kept pushing down my short-fallings and letting them stew and fester and eat me up inside my body wasted away through all my groaning. It literally says that it makes our bones grow old, or turn to dust.
Swallowing all that trouble, keeping it all locked away and not facing it, wears us out and kills us inside.
This psalmist knows a lot about the human condition!
Have you ever been worn out by situations you couldn’t, or wouldn’t speak about? I bet you have.

And when we do then it feels like day and night God’s hand is heavy on us – we can feel the burden of our un-faced failings. It says “my strength was dried up” but it literally means my “juice” or my “vitality” is like a drought.
That’s what not owning up to things does to us. It robs us of our juice! It sucks the life out of us.

So, how do I make things right? How do I work to regain the harmony?
If holding it in is killing me then obviously I need to do the opposite.

I recognize somehow that I have caused or contributed to disharmony.
Doesn’t matter if I meant to or not.
Doesn’t matter if I did something or neglected to do something (commission or omission).
I recognize that I’ve brought about disharmony.

Then, instead of denying it I admit my part. I “acknowledge” my part – which in Hebrew means to “say it out loud.” There’s something about saying things out loud that make them more real and make us own them more!
In other words, I confess, which literally means that I lay it all out in the open.
This all carries the assumption that in doing all these things I have every intention to do better in the future, that I resolve to try not to sin (fall short) in this way again. And that in doing so I’ll be moving forward in a new, healthier, deeper, more spiritually mature way.

That’s confession. When we’ve realized we’ve fallen short, we lay it all out and seek forgiveness. That’s our side of it.

What’s God’s side?
What does God want or desire in all this?

Again, God is harmony (in this example). God “wants” harmony restored – because God IS harmony and therefore only by being in harmony can we commune with God.

So in order to restore harmony God sends us on a quest to find the magic feather from the rare bird that lives on a high mountain that is covered in thorny plants in the heat of summer. No?
Well then God sends us on a missionary trip where we have to help 17 people in need and bring back proof of their gratitude. No?
Well then God requires us to say 4 prayers and swear off chocolate chip cookies for a month and put an extra $500 in the offering plate. No?

Well, what then?
What does God require of us to earn God’s forgiveness?


Psalm 32:5 Then I acknowledged (out loud) my sin to you, and I did not hide (from it); I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

We don’t have to earn God’s forgiveness!
It’s a theologically nonsensical thing to say.
One cannot earn something one already has!
One cannot earn something that is freely given before the fact.

So, am I saying that anything goes because God’s already forgiven us for everything? Absolutely not! That is also a theologically nonsensical thing to say! (This is tough stuff!)

God is harmony.
We’ve caused disharmony somehow. We’ve sinned. We’ve fallen short somehow.

The simple fact of our realizing it, admitting it, acknowledging it (saying it out loud), confessing it (throwing it out in the open), and authentically desiring harmony again…recreates the harmony!

The harmony is waiting for you to realize that you’re not in harmony at a given moment, and in your awakening to that disharmony and desire to be in harmony again, you become in harmony again!
Yes, it really is that easy!

God’s love is not something you earn – it’s something you return to!
It’s waiting for you to receive it.

Psalm 32:5 Then I acknowledged (out loud) my sin to you, and I did not hide (from it); I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Now, what does forgiveness actually mean? What exactly is God offering us here?

To forgive, in Hebrew, literally means to lighten, as in lightening the load. It means to have someone make your load lighter by carrying it for you, bearing it with you.
Does this all seem too good to be true?

The first big theological mistake we make is to limit God to acting like a human.
We know how we feel when someone offends us on some level, or does wrong by us in some way – it hurts.
We humans hold grudges, and keep score, and need time to consider whether we’ll allow the relationship to continue depending on how egregious the offense was.

But God is not human! God does not react and respond like we do.
Our great mistake is to limit God’s loving ways by thinking we couldn’t do that so God wouldn’t either.

The second big theological mistake we make is to not accept God’s gifts when they’re freely given to us!

And here’s the most destructive part of it all.
Theologically we end up with a warped view of who God is – because we refuse to believe this wonderful gift of forgiveness and lightening the load could possibly be so generously and readily offered, so we recreate God in our own image and decide that God couldn’t possibly love me that much, so God mustn’t really love me at all, and all of a sudden God is a horrible, despotic, judgmental, thunderbolt chucker who’s out to get us! – when the exact opposite is true!

And instead of our burden being lifted by our loving God we continue to bear it, and it continues to eat us up inside.
We might be able to fathom that God could forgive us but then in practice we can’t seem to forgive ourselves and we suffer and suffer for it. Forgiving ourselves seems to be hard to do.

Please know that I’m focusing all of this on our spiritual relationship with God and how sin and confession and forgiveness works between us and God. I’m not directly referring to the pain we can cause one another and how confession and forgiveness might work between humans. That’s a huge, important, and tender topic, and it needs its own sermon. Today I’m just about us and God.

When we don’t forgive ourselves for the ways we’ve fallen short in our relationship with God then we are actually, in a weird way, continuing to sin, because we’re continuing to cause brokenness to our harmony with God.
Part of the problem may be some of the theology we’ve inherited and have embedded within us.

There’s a whole thing that’s jokingly called “worm theology” that’s actually no joke at all.
The idea is that we’re so utterly sinful it’s like we’re no better than a vile, dirty worm crawling around on the ground – so obviously our sinfulness makes us “unlovable”.
I honestly cannot understand where such theology comes from, because scripture plainly and constantly says otherwise.

“God is love!” – “Oh, you don’t mean me, I’m a worm.”
It’s enough to make your hair turn grey!

Maybe that comes from the idea of “original sin”? Saint Augustine gave us that concept.
He looked at the Adam and Eve story and theologized that their choice “stained” all of humanity for all time and put us all under judgment and conviction – made us all into worms.
It’s curious that Augustine didn’t spend more time flipping back a couple of pages in Genesis to chapter one – where it says over and over again that God created everything and that God judged everything, including us, to be GOOD!

Now, is it true that our human nature seems to invariably choose poor things, and falls short of God’s best desire for us, and is therefore often in a state of sinfulness in relation to God’s standard of Love, Light, Holiness, Kindness, Mutuality, Harmony, Relationship, and Shalom? Absolutely!

BUT, and here’s the really important part, scripture says our core state of being is intended to be harmony with God – so whenever we fall short, whenever we sin, our confession turns us back and restores us to our natural state, which is blessedness.
We aren’t worms – we’re God’s beloved, who frequently fall down and scrape our knees!
Maybe if we could let go of that original sin, worm theology stuff we could embrace God’s forgiveness, and our belovedness, more easily!

But until we do we are forcing ourselves to carry a heavy burden that we are not required to bear. The old saying is that “confession is good for the soul”. Yes it is! – And not because we’re in God’s bad books and need to avoid punishment.
Confession doesn’t change God’s opinion of us.
Confession wakes us up and allows us to receive God’s love that’s already there waiting for us to accept.
Confession doesn’t change God – it changes us! It opens the way for us to be restored to harmony with God. And it lifts the burden that’s eating us up and weighing us down.

The gospel lesson that the lectionary offers to accompany this Psalm 32 is the story of the Prodigal Sons. Notice I said sons, plural!
We all know the story so well. The father figure is usually thought of as representing God. The younger son is the obvious sinner who turns his back on the father, and lives foolishly. He comes to his senses (just like in the psalm) and confesses his falling short, but before he can get a word out his father has already embraced him and forgiven him, lifting his burden, and restoring the relationship to harmony.

The other prodigal is the older son. He also had created disharmony by holding grudges and acting out of spite – and he hadn’t awakened to it or confessed it yet. He was still in full blown pushing it down mode – letting it eat him up and suck the life out of him. The father actually comes out to him, explains what God’s love looks like, and reminds him he’s actually beloved and blessed – but it never says whether the older son awakens and receives that blessing. For all we know, he continued to be burdened by his own spitefulness, and if so, even though it seemed like he was already with the father, there was disharmony.
Confession eluded him, and so did the peace of forgiveness. A peace that was waiting to gush out and cover him in steadfast love, and lift his burden. If only he’d let it.

Friends, I know that many of us are carrying all sorts of different burdens. I have no magic wand, and some of the things we carry aren’t about our relationship with God. But for those things that are – for those things you may be carrying that make you think that God doesn’t love you – couldn’t love you – please know that you do not have to carry them.
God’s love is absolute.
Confession, facing our short-comings and laying them out before God in prayer, is the sure route to restoring harmony between you and God.

You are not a worm. You are beloved. And you are forgiven.

Harmony awaits. You don’t have to carry it all on your shoulders.

For God’s sake, and for your own sake, “Lighten up!”