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July 15, 2012
Genesis 3:1-7; Deuteronomy 28:1-6, 15-20, 23-24, 58-62; Hosea 11:1-4, 8-9, 14:7-8; Ephesians 2:4-7
Genesis 3:1-7; Deuteronomy 28:1-6, 15-20, 23-24, 58-62; Hosea 11:1-4, 8-9, 14:7-8; Ephesians 2:4-7
O my people, O my church, what have I done to you, or in what have I offended you? Answer me. I led you forth from the land of Egypt, and delivered you by the waters of baptism, but you have prepared a cross for your savior.
I led you through the desert forty years, and fed you with manna: I brought you through tribulation and penitence, and gave you my body, the bread of heaven, but you have prepared a cross for your savior.
What more could I have done for you that I have not done? I planted you, my chosen and fairest vineyard, I made you branches of my vine; but when I was thirsty, you gave me vinegar to drink and pierced with a spear the side of your Savior, and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
I went before you in a pillar of cloud, and you have led me to the judgment hall of Pilate. I scourged your enemies and brought you to a land of freedom, but you have scourged, mocked, and beaten me. I gave you the water of salvation from the rock, but you have given me gall and left me to thirst, and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
I gave you a royal scepter, and bestowed the keys of the kingdom, but you have given me a crown of thorns. I offered you my body and blood, but you scatter and deny and abandon me, and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
I came to you as the least of your brothers and sisters; I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me, and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and immortal one, have mercy upon us.
The Solemn Reproaches of the Cross is an ancient liturgy that is sung and said on Good Friday in churches across the world. I first learned about this text in a seminary class devoted to the study of the liturgy surrounding the Three Great Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. I consulted this text in a beautifully illuminated Roman Catholic Missal and, no doubt like many of you, were shocked at the language. My good friend Father Larry Covington, who serves as the senior priest of the St. Louis King of France Catholic Church here in Austin, likens this ancient text to God taking a congregation over God’s knee and giving it a good and thorough spanking. As I reviewed this text, I found myself giving thanks that such a guilt inducing text was nowhere to be found anywhere near my grace-filled Reformed Presbyterian liturgy. Not so fast Leedy. This text not only appears in Roman Catholic Missals, but yes, can also be found on page 288 of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.
Well friends, today is the day. We have seen this day coming toward us for the past few weeks. As we have scanned the lines of the Brief Statement of Faith, our eyes have lighted over today’s text, but quickly moved on. Yes my Presbyterian friends, today we are talking about our great collective and individual rebellion against God, our sin. The topic of sin is something that is not often directly preached about in our modern Reformed pulpits. Sure it is mentioned as the trouble in the world and we confess our sins on a weekly basis in our liturgy. But today, we are called to face the subject head on. Now, let’s all take a moment and do that collective squirm in our pews, take a moment and glance toward the back door wondering if we can slip out to Starbucks unnoticed, or close our eyes and think happy thoughts.
After all, the concept of sin is something that presents a bit of an internal difficulty for us Presbyterians. After all, wasn’t it Martin Luther who wrote that “God does not save imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” The Calvinist expression of TULIP proclaims that we are “totally depraved” and at the same time we are granted unconditional election and irresistible grace. Our New Testament text today proclaims that “out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, by grace you have been saved.” We understand grace as the free gift of God’s redeeming love granted to us undeserving creatures who apart from Christ can do nothing to gain our salvation by our own merit.
So here in lies the difficulty: we regularly acknowledge our sin, but it is immediately swept away by the grace an forgiveness of Christ. Sin becomes an afterthought, an issue already addressed. Sure we sin, but there is no real need to dwell on it.
Lines 33 – 39 of our Brief Statement of Faith tell us differently. We rebel against God, we hide from our creator. We ignore God’s commandments, violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted in our care. Then comes the confessional sucker punch, we deserve God’s condemnation. We deserve God’s condemnation? Such language is often foreign to us. We are taught to feel good about ourselves. We are taught not to feel the weight of guilt. Our Western culture has no collective system of shame as do many other world cultures. In fact, we often shy away from dwelling on our experience of sin all together.
In his book “ Whatever became of Sin?”, Karl Menninger notes that the very word “sin” seems to have disappeared from our nation’s vocabulary. He relates the story of a congressional vote years ago to require the President to proclaim each year a national day of prayer, and President Truman began it in 1952. The following year, President Eisenhower borrowed these words for his proclamation from Abraham Lincoln “It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.” An article in Theology Today later commented on Eisenhower’s use of the word “sin” in his address saying “None of Eisenhower’s subsequent calls to prayer mentioned sin again. The word was not compatible with the Commander-in-Chief’s vision of a proud and confident people… since 1953, no President has mentioned sin as a national failing. To be sure they have skirted the word.
The Republicans referred to problems of “pride” and “self-righteousness.” The Democrats referred to “short-comings.” But none used the grand old sweeping concept of sin. I cannot image a modern President beating his breast on behalf of the nation and praying “God be merciful to us sinners.” Our collective avoidance of sin is pervasive. We are a permissive, mind your own business culture. Judge not lest you be judged. But once again, the text of our confession and Scripture speaks of a different, counter-cultural reality.
We sin. We rebel. We fail each other and ourselves. But most profoundly, we fail our God who time and time again has created, provided, protected, sustained, redeemed, loved, and cared for us. We are forced to be accountable for our failure. We are made to confront the harsh reality of our actions or inaction. We are made to feel guilty.
Guilty. That word is a confusing one. When we confess our sin, light is cast upon the dark places of our lives, exposing our secrets, airing out our closets.
We feel the weight of what we have done and left undone. But when we confront our sin, we don’t just feel guilty, we feel ashamed. There is a monumental difference between guilt and shame. Brene Brown explains this difference between guilt and shame like this: guilt says I’ve done something wrong – shame says there is something wrong with me. I think that this is where our confusion stems from. When we feel guilty, we understand that we do things that are sinful. When we feel ashamed, we feel that we, ourselves, are sinful. Shame centers upon our identity, who we are as people. Shame denies the image of God imprinted upon us and replaces it with a condemned identity. Shame cripples us and makes us feel unforgiveable.
But our text today is not one that imparts shame, in fact, just the opposite. Last week, we heard proclaimed the previous lines of the Brief Statement reading “In sovereign love, God created the world good and makes everyone equally in God’s image, male and female, of every race and people, to live as one community.”
As with many such complex confessions, it is often the little words that make the biggest difference. After reading that God created the world good and all people in God’s own image, we encounter the word, “But”. But we rebel against God. The pairing of the story of our creation and the reality of our failure helps us see that the image of God is alive and well within us and that we are not evil creatures unaware of our sin. This is not a shaming text. Our identity is not based upon our sin but upon the God who created us.
So what are we to make of the feelings of guilt our text produces within us? Let me say that feeling guilty is not a bad thing. Feeling guilty will not kill you. Feeling guilty is the natural reaction when we realize we have done wrong. Without a consciousness of guilt there can be no consciousness of redemption. Without true repentance there cannot be the true experience of being forgiven? Never living into the feeling of guilt cheapens grace and relegates it to a nice platitude that helps us get through a bad day. This text of the brief Statement of Faith helps us wrap language around our feeling of guilt, all the while reminding us that we are not a shamed people.
Okay preacher, we hear you. You want us to feel guilty for our sins. Good job, point made, day ruined. We are going to go home in a stinky mood after a bummer of a sermon that was a quart low on grace from the beginning. At least, that is what I would be feeling at this point if I were listening to all this. So let me close with this. Yes we sin, yes we rebel, yes we fail, and yes – feeling the guilt of our sins is a natural, normal experience that helps us realize where we went wrong. Lines 33-39 do a really good job of helping us see that.
But our text today does not stop at line 39. It stops at line 40. “Yet, God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.” There it is, another little word that makes all the difference. “Yet” It is that word that helps us put our guilt in perspective. It is the “yet” that reminds us that we are not captive to our experience of guilt, that God is bigger than any of our individual shortcomings or collective failures. It is not in our own goodness that we put our hope, but it is in God’s that we find our good news. Using the words of John Newton, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
It is only by acknowledging our wretchedness that grace becomes amazing. It is only by experiencing guilt that the overwhelming flood of God’s forgiveness become real and remarkable. We cannot fully understand the power of warmth and light until we have experienced the chill of cold and darkness.
The grace of Jesus Christ holds no significance for those who float through life without the understanding of their own sin. Rather the gospel of Jesus Christ speaks most profoundly to those in the gutters of life, who have hit rock bottom, whose only hope is to look to God in heaven and cry out, save me. If you have ever been in that place, as I have, then you know that feeling. If you have ever confronted sins so dark in your life that you wonder “who could forgive the wretched things I’ve done,” then you know that feeling. If you have ever looked into the eyes of a person you have done wrong and uttered the words “I’m sorry, please forgive me” and been met with an embrace, you know that feeling.
Friends, hear the good news of the Gospel: God has not and will not abandon us. Our sin does not define who we are. Our guilt is not the last word in the story. It is by the amazing grace of God that we are made whole, and there is nothing in heaven or hell, or any realm of the universe that can separate us from the jaw dropping, heart pounding, knee weakening, praise inspiring, world redeeming love of God. Alleluia! Amen.