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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DR. STUART R. GORDON MARCH 10, 2019 A Strange Gratitude Psalm 32; Matthew 3:1-12 Katharine Wills Pershey confesses to being a “grade school pickpocket.” 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, which contained exactly one dollar – the cost of a hot lunch in our elementary school cafeteria. 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” (The Christian Century, 07-04-18). Some people seem to be charmed like that, don’t they? Some people were born with a conscience as sensitive as the hearing of a newborn baby’s mother, on their first night home from the hospital. Mama hears every breath you take better than Sting ever heard the object of his obsession. And some people have a conscience so strong that it won’t let them forget the time they took the unused shampoo sampler from the hotel. I guess they’re just charmed like that. How about you? Happy is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy is the one to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit is no deceit. James Mays said, over twenty years ago, that this Psalm contradicted current opinions on what made for happiness. If he were alive today, I wonder if he would still say that. Do you think that most people would agree? Is the way to happiness found by speaking up, saying what’s true, acknowledging what you did? Or are you better off keeping it to yourself? Katharine Pershey, she of the sensitive conscience, probably would agree with Mays when he writes, “In silence every affliction and problem takes the form of God’s judgment. Silence is the rejection of grace” (Interpretation commentary on Psalm 32). I want you to think about confession today from one particular angle. I want you to think about it from the angle of relationship, instead of conscience. Think about confession’s impact on your relationships. Think about the impact when you keep silence with others or with God. The reason I ask you to think that way is that not all of us have sensitive consciences. Not all of us feel searing guilt when we do something wrong. Some of us can live with secrets our whole lives and sleep like babies who have no idea that mama is across the hall, holding her breath to hear us. I suppose I’m saying that a person is lucky to have a sensitive conscience, but that doesn’t make such a person more virtuous than someone whose conscience needs a scalpel in order to be pierced. Katherine Pershey was too young, in first grade, to have consciously developed a strong sense of right and wrong. She was born that way. And the person who sleeps like a baby after robbing a bank didn’t necessarily practice for years the art of insensitivity, but that person needs to confess just as badly. So, I suppose what I’m saying is, let’s not settle for a workshop on peace of mind. Some people just don’t need that, so we’re not in the business of taking your seventy-five dollars and sharing the secret of a clean conscience so that you can go on your way, sleeping without the aid of Ambien and living in ways that are fine for you but not necessarily salutary for the people around you. We’re not trying to accomplish what some people try to accomplish in the act of confession – simply an inner peace of mind. I found this statement by someone, whose name I won’t quote because I’m disagreeing with her: “My forgiveness … is my act of self-healing, self-liberation, and self-empowerment” (05-24-15, “It’s for You to Know that You Forgive,” from WWW). What I’m talking about today, in confession and forgiveness, is relational. It is always the self in relation to another, both other people and God. John Leith, in one of his Christmas letters to friends, cited this from Jesus and John the Baptist, “The kingdom of God is ‘at hand.’ Repent and believe this ‘good news.’” Leith added, “It is not an easy gospel to believe, and our repentance comes hard” (Christmas 1985 letter). Repentance comes hard, even for people for whose insides burn when they keep secrets. Repentance comes hard even for people who are quick to admit their wrongs and ask forgiveness. That’s because repentance is about more than our own emotional need to have a clean conscience. Repentance comes hard because it means change. It means we have to take the other into account. We have to get outside ourselves and our own need for peace of mind. We have to seek peace with the other. It may seem strange to say it, but welcome to Lent. Welcome to the desert. Welcome to six weeks of overhearing the temptation of Jesus, as he entered into human experience and identified with us in our weaknesses. The pastors will preach with the aid of Craig Barnes’ study guide, which Communities of Belonging will read and discuss together. Today, we start with John the Baptist summoning people out of their bubbles and into the desert, inviting them to remove their Airbuds and pay attention to what’s going on inside instead of drowning it out. We start where the ministry of Jesus starts, with that summons to repent and believe the gospel. That’s two things: repent and believe, and they’re both hard. Repent, which you may know means a little more than saying “my bad” and more than promising to try harder next time. Repent, as Martin Luther discovered as he read his Greek New Testament, means to “do a 180.” It means to go in the other direction. That includes saying, “I was wrong and I have no excuse” but also “I’m not asking for you to set me free to go my own way.” It means “I was wrong and now I want to be right – with you. I was working against our relationship but now I want to work for our relationship.” Or, as Dr. Mays put it, “Confession of sin to God is confession of faith in God. God is for us. God will not reject us when we speak the truth.” Happy is the one to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity. Happy is the one for whom the impediment to relationship with God has been removed. Happy is the one who does not carry around the secret that God knows already, that God is eager for us to admit for our own good. Happy is the one who can bring his or her full self to God, because there is nothing to hide. C.S. Lewis said once, “We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin.” It doesn’t, any more than mere time cleans out your closets or gets your tax information together. Happy is the one who gets the closet cleaned out, and happy is the one who doesn’t keep silence, but confesses and finds forgiveness. Happy is the one who finds God already right with us, glad that we responded with our confession. Lewis said another wise thing: “One doesn’t realize in early life that the price of freedom is loneliness. To be happy is to be tied.” Those who break their silence and confess their sin to God are happy not to go their own way, but to be tied to God. They’re happy that they aren’t their own judge and jury, but are accountable to the One who thought of them before they existed and planned for them to be born and made them for Himself. They’re happy that they weren’t rejected, and they’re also happy that they weren’t sent on their own way. They’re happy that they were brought back. We may not all have sensitive consciences, but we all are made for life with God. Have you seen that T.V. show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? It’s hilarious. It’s about a Jewish American Princess who lives in New York in the 1950’s, who wears beautiful clothes and marries the perfect man and lives the perfect life, until he cheats on her and it all starts to unravel. She becomes a stand-up comic. (I must warn you: the language is not for the faint of heart. Nor is the subject matter. Nor are other elements. In short, this illustration does not constitute a recommendation that you watch the show. I warned you.) Anyway, her husband Joel proves to have a sensitive conscience, and deeply regrets his sin, though he manages to call it only a “mistake.” One night at a resort, while sharing a smoke, he has a powerful conversation with a stranger, who may as well be his confessor, though the confessor is a bad one. Joel says, “Do you think…” “What?” “Do you think we’re ever really forgiven, for the mistakes we’ve made?” “Who do you want to do the forgiving? God?” “People. “People never forgive, not in my experience. They say they do, but they don’t… I’m not even sure forgiveness really matters.” “Why wouldn’t it matter?” “Well, what is it – forgiveness? It doesn’t mean anything, right? You still did what you did. Nothing’s changed. Forgiveness is a mindset, synapses firing in the brain telling you to think differently about something that’s already happened that’s amorphous, it’s not really there and if it’s not really there … what is it?” And Joel says, “God, I hope that’s not true… Every day I feel like I’m getting kicked in the head a little. I know I deserve it, but ... I sure would like it to end someday.” And Ben says, “Just do what I do: stay away from people. If you’re not around them, there are no mistakes to be made.” To which Joel replies: “That’s not the answer. You know that. You need people.” And Ben says, “To bum a light. You need people to bum a light for your cigarette. That’s about it.” Joel says, “Nah. You’ll change your mind someday. Just wait. You’ll see.” Here’s the thing. The truth applies whether it’s other people or God. You need people in your life for more than just bumming a light. You can’t go through life presuming upon other people to provide what you need, without entering into relationship. You know that. You need people. You can’t take people for granted. It is the same with God. When John the Baptist upbraids the Pharisees and Sadducees, he says, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones.” God doesn’t want to be taken for granted any more than the people in your life do. God didn’t think of you and plan for you and bring you into the world simply for the purpose of you doing with your life what you want and occasionally offering a little word of thanks or a modest offering. God brought you into the world for relationship with himself. That is why John comes into our life and says, “Repent. Do a 180.” Today, listen to that summons in a new way. When you turn around, not only do you go in the other direction, you also see from the other direction. You adopt the perspective of the other side. Someone told me in our small group this week of doing that very thing: of receiving the gift of seeing a situation from the other person’s perspective, for the first time, and realizing how wrong she was. After years of not getting it, of seeing it from only her side, somehow she saw it from the other person’s side, and she was pierced. I must say that I have had a very similar experience myself, in the last year. And both of us can declare a strange gratitude for the experience. It is the most painful, damning, life-saving realization about yourself that you can have. You were wrong. You were self-centered. You were blind. But then a gift. A 180. A different perspective. To confess your sin to God is to confess your faith in God. It is to embrace relationship with instead of freedom from. God is for you. God will not reject you. Thank the Lord for the gift of repentance.
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