Tuesday, July 07, 2009


Ps 51:1-12[1]

We Americans have a funny relationship with privacy. We insist that our right to privacy—especially in our own homes—be protected. And yet, as a culture we have rushed to the phenomenon of “social networking,” where people—admittedly mostly younger people but not exclusively—spill the most intimate details of their “private” lives. The latest development is called “Twitter,” where you “Tweet,” or post a message that must be 140 characters or less—which is about the length of a sentence. In my humble opinion, it seems to me that inevitably means a “Tweet” is going to contain some “mundane” matters from your private life.

We have a funny way of thinking about privacy. Even our definition of “personal space”—the space between you and another person that you need to be comfortable—is at least twice that of most of the rest of the world. But if you put a camera in front of us, we’ll bare our most private details. I find it ironic that one of the most outrageous crimes these days is to expose someone against their will. At the same time, we find some strange satisfaction when we learn that someone has been exposed in wrongdoing!

And yet we stubbornly insist that no one and nothing should expose what we don’t want exposed. But when it comes to our relationship with God, the Bible says over and over again that all our secrets—our thoughts, our feelings, our lies, our sins—are exposed to God. Jesus said—and I’m paraphrasing here—that what is done in darkness will be exposed for what it is in the light and what is whispered in secret will be shouted from the rooftops (Luke 12:3)![2]

Our psalm for today expresses the remorse and penitence of those who acknowledge their sin before God. We don’t like that at all, do we? For some reason we find it extremely difficult to really acknowledge that we are sinners, that we are sinful, and that we have indeed sinned.[3] Nevertheless, every Sunday we go through the ritual of confessing our sins together. Many of the prayers come from our Book of Common Worship, or from Scripture, or from both. I wonder if we ever really pay attention to what we’re saying. Do we really mean to acknowledge that we have sinned so specifically? Do we really mean to make that acknowledgment so publicly?

I have no problem reading the words—even reading them out loud. But I have to admit that I have a hard time seeing myself in these ways. Take these excerpts from the Litany for Lent:

We have not forgiven others as we have been forgiven. We have not listened to your call to serve as Christ served us. We have grieved your Holy Spirit. We confess to you, O God, our unfaithfulness and our self-indulgence. We confess to you, O God, our anger and our envy toward others. We confess to you, O God, our dishonesty and our neglect. Accept our repentance, O God, for our indifference, our selfishness, and our prejudice.

Now, I have been a minister of the Gospel for more than 20 years, and yet I have to confess that there are times when I have been slow to forgive. In fact, there are some people in this world who have done things against me that I still have not forgiven, even if it pains me to say so. I pride myself [funny words for a confession!] on being faithful and honest and responsible and hard-working. In fact, they are core values by which I define my character. Yet, if I’m really honest with myself and with God, I have to admit that there have been times when I have not been faithful, when I have been dishonest, when I have been negligent, even if it pains me to say so. I grew up in a family where I was not taught racial or ethnic prejudice. In fact, they encouraged a tolerance by sending me to Scandinavia for the World Scout Jamboree in 1975. And yet, I have to recognize that I harbor other prejudices, even if it pains me to say so.

The reality is that we are not the righteous people we think we are.[4] It’s always easier for us to pay attention to the sins of others rather than our own sins. And yet, God’s new covenant of forgiveness makes it clear that we are all sinful.[5] As our Confession of 1967 puts it, “The reconciling act of God in Jesus Christ exposes our sin in the sight of God.”[6] That’s right—it is God’s love that exposes our sin. It is God’s “abundant mercy,” that calls forth the recognition “I know my transgressions.”[7]

Such exposure is a painful thing to undergo. And yet, we must remember that it is God’s love that does this.[8] And the promise of the Gospel is that confession and repentance opens the door of our hearts to receive God’s gift of forgiveness, new life, reconciliation.[9] The psalm assures every one of us that when we acknowledge our sin in the brokenness, God’s Holy Spirit is “the presence and power of God acting already to create the clean heart that the prayer seeks.”[10] May God grant us courage to undergo the painful exposure of our sins that we may open our hearts to God’s gift of new life.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/29/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX

[2] Cf. Matthew 10:26; Mark 4:22; Luke 12:2

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms, 201, reminds us that the Psalmist is not just confessing a particular transgression, but “a whole life conditioned by sin.” Cf. Also H.-J. Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, 156-57.

[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1.576: “The divine pardon does not burst into man’s willingness but his unwillingness.” Cf. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 145, who suggests that we have difficulty making confession for the opposite reason—we feel shame over our failures and shortcomings.

[5] Mays, Psalms, 200, says, “Sin is essentially a theological category. It is God and God alone whose way and will as criteria for human acts reveal them as sin.”

[6] The Confession of 1967, inclusive language version, 9.12.

[7] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1.591, where he reminds us that God’ s “Yes” to us cannot properly be heard unless the “No” is heard.

[8] H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 507: “The sola gratia shines forth from every verse” of this Psalm.

[9] Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 507: “Only by God’s creative, renewing power can the heart be cleansed and led to a new obedience.”

[10] Mays, Psalms, 203.

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