Luke 10: 38 The Lord and his disciples were traveling along and came to a village. When they got there, a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat down in front of the Lord and was listening to what he said. 40 Martha was worried about all that had to be done. Finally, she went to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it bother you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!” 41 The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, 42 but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.”A wonderful supper was served every Wednesday night. Crews of women (it’s always women) took turns preparing a hearty meal. It was not unlike the feeding of the 5,000, in that many ate for very little cost. In this case, it was all-you-can-eat for $2.00. All you can eat meat, bread, veggie, salad, dessert, milk, coffee. The meals were carefully planned, groceries were purchased, food was prepared, tables set, not by professional chefs or restaurant entrepreneurs, but by sisters of the congregation. This meant hours, not minutes, of time away from other responsibilities. Once the meal was served, the diners remained in their seats for worship. The crew stayed in the kitchen, first eating their meal, then washing dishes, putting away food, leaving the kitchen ready for the next food event. Meanwhile, the diners continued their meal with spiritual food. The kitchen crew ignored the spiritual meal. They had done the important part.
I look to the hills!
Where will I find help?
It will come from the Lord, who created the heavens and the earth.
The Lord is your protector, and he won’t go to sleep or let you stumble.
The protector of Israel doesn’t doze or ever get drowsy.
The Lord is your protector, there at your right side to shade you from the sun.
You won’t be harmed by the sun during the day or by the moon at night.
The Lord will protect you and keep you safe from all dangers.
The Lord will protect you now and always wherever you go.
Name the hills and valleys in your life. What is the biggest mountain you have to climb right now? Your health? Your finances? Your family? What valley holds you prisoner? What bumpy roads slow you down?
This Psalm is traditionally considered a dialogue between people about to set out on a journey and their rabbi or priest. Perhaps they were leaving for or returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. That would have been one of the few reasons people would leave their villages for an extended journey. Food is packed; perhaps an extra cloak and pair of sandals are packed. Some of the travelers have a walking stick. This is a big deal. A scary time…leaving the familiar is frightening, especially to those who have little power, little experience outside their own homes and fields. The leader says to the priest: “I’m looking at those hills. Who knows what’s hiding up there. Where will I find help?”
Imagine walking hour after hour, day after day, among rough country. Around any bend, in any valley could be bandits waiting to rob pilgrims.I look to the hills…I’m scared of what could be lurking there. I look to the hills and I imagine all sorts of bad guys waiting to attack me.
The priest reassures the travelers:
Here’s the good news: the God who made the hills, who is bigger than the hills, is by your side. That God never sleeps. That God will never leave your side. You’ll always be surrounded by something bigger than the hills and that something will protect you from all kinds of danger.
What does it mean to have God by my side? I can’t see God. I can’t touch God; I can’t feel an arm around me. GPS does not stand for God Provides Security. Or does it?
From what exactly does God protect us? God does not swoop down like Batman and pull us out of a sticky situation. God does not provide us with armored vehicles as we travel Interstate 80. God does not install security systems in our homes. As far as I know, God hasn’t placed a hand gun in my glove compartment…which is another testimony to God’s wisdom. Neither does God slap my hand when I choose to eat a cream puff in the middle of the day nor does God stock my refrigerator with green leafy vegetables. As far as I know, God has not marked a sign on my head that scares germs away. As far as I know, I am lucky.
Because my theology is the kind that is called progressive, I may struggle more with this than someone who has never questioned God’s love or presence. On the other hand, knowing that each of you has suffered, with no visible interference from God, I am guessing that God’s presence has been a little on the scarce side at certain points in your life. Take a walk through your cemetery, take a look at your doctor bills, your repair bills….has The Church, have your Sunday School teachers, your pastors…have I?—made God into an all-purpose, never-fail solution for the evil and the heartbreak of this world?
When we sing, “Precious Lord, take my Hand” or “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” what are we professing?
This is a struggle for me. I hear our prayers, I lead our prayers, and then I spend the week praying for hospital patients, comforting a friend whose child has died, praying for siblings who have lost a sister, praying for positive diagnoses, praying for a child who is bullied, and whoever doesn’t make it on to my prayer list is still on my worry list… The whole time I’m totally ignoring anything beyond the fifty mile radius of my prayer relationships. I have ignored disappearing airplanes and bombings and droughts and political corruption.
What I struggle against is my desire for God to fix everything. I want a God who will swoop down like Batman. I want a God who spends his spare time rearranging clouds so that everybody gets just the right amount of rain. I want a God who spends several hours a week in the lab perfecting a cure for cancer and MS. I want a God who will make me enjoy working out on exercise machines. I want a God who makes cream puffs without calories. I want a God who will interfere when it’s convenient for me.
Fortunately, our God is NOT that kind of God. Our God is bigger, better, wiser, broader. Our God does not skip from person to person, project to project. Our God is. Just is. Our God is beyond anything our human minds can conceive. The closest we can come to understanding God is to think of God as our parent.
Like our own parents’ hopes and love for us, God’s hopes for us, God’s love for us, is always present. When, as a teenager, you tried on your adult wings, you knew that no matter where you flew, you could land back in that nest, if not physically, at least emotionally. Our parents’ love for us did not stop when we left home nor when they died. Everything your parents ever felt for you is still a part of you. You act the way you do because of their influence. The same can be said of God. We act the way we do because of God’s influence.
So, how do we react to that influence? How do we USE that influence in our lives?
God gave human beings the gift of hope. It comes in many forms. It comes in prayer before surgery. It comes in the form of looking for a new job after being laid off. It comes in the form of losing an old friend and making a new friend. It comes in the form of waking up and getting out of bed and facing a new day. And, best of all, hope comes in the form of a God who was willing to become like us and take away the very thing that tries to destroy hope. God takes a way sin, that thing that scares us, that limits us, that stops us.
Another way to understand God is to think of what our lives would be like without God. Who could we turn to in the middle of the night? Who could we count on to be with us 24/7? Who would offer us a reason to wake up each day, no matter what we feared or faced. The Psalmist says it this way.
It will come from the Lord, who created the heavens and the earth.
No matter what, where, when, God is right there. God is not there with a gun or a pill or an umbrella. God is there in a much greater sense. God knows and cares about us, just as we are. You can forget to tell your doctor something, but you can’t forget to tell God something. You can leave your umbrella at home, but God is unforgettable. You can eat four cream puffs a day, knowing full well that God will be with you in your foolishness and at your side when you’re sitting in your wheelchair, unable to walk or talk, thanks to your cream puff-filled arteries. God cannot be taken away from you; God cannot be hidden from you. Someday, someone will take away your car keys. No one can take God away. God is a living presence. God is not a prescription on a piece of paper or a contract drawn up and kept in your safety deposit box.
God will be there as the first resort, as the last resort. When you can’t talk to anybody else, you can talk to God. When you can’t yell at anybody else, you can yell at God. When you can’t complain to anybody else, you can complain to God. And when you have joy so great you have to tell somebody, you can share it with God.
The Psalmist says that God is our shelter, that God protects. Perhaps the greatest protection we receive from God is protection from our own fear. No matter what hills we climb, no matter what valleys engulf us, because of God’s presence, we can put one foot in front of another. We can get out of bed each day, not held back by the regrets of the past, not held back by the uncertainty of the future. We are never alone. We always have someone who listens to us and who is present with us.
Where will I find help?
It will come from the Lord, who created the heavens and the earth, who is more than the heavens and the earth. Help is on the way. Amen.
Have you sinned lately?
I have. I thought unkind thoughts about a couple politicians. I said bad things about a couple politicians. And that was just between 9:45 and 10:00 yesterday morning. I was impatient with my husband–every day. I felt sorry for myself when I had to go to church by myself, which morphed into being jealous of all the wives who were at church with their husbands.
I was cold to a friend who had said something unkind to another friend and then I nursed that into blaming the first friend for making the second friend cause me trouble. To make it worse, I never discussed my feelings with either one; I let it simmer. I shared gossip with colleagues over breakfast. I complained about someone else’s work without telling her how I felt. I went over the speed limit 95% of the time I was in the car. The other 5% was when I was riding with Bim.
I did not bother to sweep the floors…which is not a sin, until it annoys the people who have to walk on them.
I wasted food. I didn’t follow through on errands I had promised to run. I doubted God. More often, I completely forgot about God and made important decisions based solely on my intelligence and experience. I avoided people who could have used a kind word because I knew they would talk too much. I stole time from the hours God gave me by staying in bed way past a reasonable time to arise. I stole food from others by not dropping some groceries off at the Referral Center. I blind-copied an email to a friend so that he could see how stupid someone else was and so we could have a good laugh over it later.
I’m really good at sinning. I practice a lot. My biggest sin: I think I’m better than the people who steal money, who bully people, who torture puppies, who shoot people to solve problems, who take money for votes…I think I’m better than those people.
Furthermore, it is remarkably easy for me to point out the sins of other people. I know selfishness when I see it. I can point out guilt in any number of situations. In fact, I can hardly understand how some people can be so ignorant or naive or blind. And you know what happens when you point a finger at someone? There are three pointing back at you.
So what’s a Christian to do?
After all, we are supposed to live righteous lives. We’re supposed to be good examples. We’re supposed to be walking, talking love-God-love-your-neighbor prototypes.
But we fail. We sin.
Can we find any help in the Bible? Of course.
Psalm 32 says it all in a song, in a poem about forgiveness.
First, the Psalmist tells us the benefits of forgiveness–the good news first.
Psalm 32 begins with two beatitudes
Our God, you bless everyone whose sins you forgive and wipe away.
You bless them by saying, “You told me your sins, without trying to hide them, and now I forgive you.”
But how do we get to that blessedness?
So I confessed my sins and told them all to you. Complete honesty. (CEV)
5Then 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 (NIV)
Perhaps we need to define sin before we can confess it.
In this Psalm there are three different words for sin
sin—to miss the mark
transgression–willful rebellion, sinning on purpose.
iniquity–destructive effects of disobedience
sin—to miss the mark
This is the sin that results from forgetfulness, from forgetting to whom we belong, why we were baptized. These are the actions that just happen, without being intentionally sinful or selfish or mean or unkind. The Ten Commandments give us some ideas: don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t be envious–they’re pretty obvious.
We do know what is right. Which bring us to….
transgression–willful rebellion, sinning on purpose.
How often we do something wrong because we think nobody will notice, because we think it’s not that important, because it will help us or someone we love. How often do we make excuses for sin?
This is tricky, because there are reasons/excuses for sin. Sinning on purpose can become a habit that is hard to break.
But we get caught up in routine, we get caught up in the status quo actions of others, we get caught up and imitate what we see on television or in the workplace or at the local cafe. Sometimes we even repeat family drama, not for pleasure, but we just don’t try to stand on our own feet and do what we know is right.
That brings us to another category of sin:
iniquity–destructive effects of disobedience
I’m thinking of the addict, whether it be the smoker who hurts himself or the drug addict who neglects her children.
What about the priest who was abused as an altar boy and replays that abuse in his adult life with the next generation of altar boys? What about the parent who beats his kids because he was beaten by his parents?
So, we sin, we experience the consequences of sin. But the Psalmist goes on to explain that we have hope.
So I confessed my sins and told them all to you. I said, “I’ll tell the Lord each one of my sins.” Then you forgave me and took away my guilt.
First…I confess my sins. Then what. God forgives me and takes away my guilt. So. No guilt? My Roman Catholic friends joke about having a monopoly on guilt. They claim, half-humorously that guilt is a major component of their code of behavior, that guilt is what motivates their daily lives.
Guilt is not a bad thing, unless we hang onto it. It should be a temporary thing for us Christians, because, WHEN WE CONFESS, God takes away the guilt, the part of our sin that hangs over our heads like a dark cloud, the part of our sin that distorts our relationships, the part of sin that cripples us and holds us back form loving and acting with pure thoughts and motives.
But how often do we feel like we need to hang on to our guilt, how often do we refuse to forgive ourselves for some wrongful, hurtful act? We think, in our human logic, that we deserve to be punished. Well, yes, we do. But that is not the end of the story. The punishment is not God’s purpose or God’s plan. God is always willing to forgive. But God cannot forgive until the sin is turned over to God. Only when we turn to God and honestly admit our wrong doing can God forgive us. Let me repeat that: Only when we turn to God and honestly admit our wrong doing can God forgive us
Our guilt, the destructive consequences of sin, are not God’s fault. God is ready, any time, to take away that sin. If we are to be right with God, yes, first, we make every effort to Love God and Love our Neighbor, but we know we can’t keep a perfect score, we know that our righteousness cannot depend solely on our own imperfect behavior. Clint McCann puts it this way: “To be righteous is to be forgiven. To be righteous is to be a witness to God’s grace.” That means that we ACCEPT God’s grace. To hang on to our sin, to hang on to our guilt, is to deny God’s grace.
What does that grace feel like, look like, sound like?
The Psalmist gives us three examples:
You are my hiding place!
You protect me from trouble,and
you put songs in my heart because you have saved me.
We have a place to run to, we have protection, and we have joy!
The psalmist is forgiven and now witnesses to us the “joy of salvation.” Likewise, when we confess and are forgiven, we experience the “joy of salvation.”
Psalm 32 is a well-known Psalm to those who are intimate with scripture.
Legend has it that St. Augustine had the words of Psalm 32 inscribed above his bed so that they would be the first thing he saw upon awakening.1 Not a bad idea.
Paul quotes the Psalm in Rom 4: 6-8 “In the Scriptures David talks about the blessings that come to people who are acceptable to God, even though they don’t do anything to deserve these blessings. David says,
“God blesses people whose sins are forgiven and whose evil deeds are forgotten. The Lord blesses people whose sins are erased from his book.”
In today’s Epistle lesson, Paul explains how Jesus plays into this scene:
Romans 518-19– Everyone was going to be punished because Adam sinned. But because of the good thing that Christ has done, God accepts us and gives us the gift of life. Adam disobeyed God and caused many others to be sinners. But Jesus obeyed him and will make many people acceptable to God.2
I don’t preach on sin very often. It seems kind of old-fashioned, like tent-revival preaching or shouting from the pulpit or praying about our sins instead of our troubles. Some churches have done away with the prayer of confession in the regular church service. How many pastors insert a brief reference during the service of Holy Communion and leave it at that? How many people don’t want to confess their sins, don’t want to be reminded of their sins?
In his book, Whatever Became of Sin?, author Karl Menninger offers a proposal “for the revival or reassertion of personal responsibility in all human acts, good and bad. Not total responsibility, but not zero either. I believe that all the evil-doing in which we become involved to any degree tends to evoke guilt feelings and depression. These may or may not be clearly perceived, but they affect us. They may be raced to and covered up by all kinds of escapism, rationalization, and reaction or symptom formation. To revive the half-submerged idea of personal responsibility and to seek appropriate measures of reparation might turn the tide of our aggressions and of the moral struggle in which most of the world populations is engaged.”
McCann: Menninger recognizes what Ps 32:3-4 also recognizes: the devastating physical, emotional, and spiritual effects of failing to acknowledge our sinfulness.
Karl Menninger says that “Clergy especially have a special responsibility to study sin. “It is their special prerogative to study sin–or whatever they call it–to identify it, to define it, to warn us about it, and to spur measures for combating it and rectifying it.”
So, I will continue to remind you of your sins. But that is not the Good News. Walking around with a crown of thorns or denying yourself something because of your sins is not part of God’s plan. What is God’s plan? God’s plan is not for us to handle our sin and guilt by ourselves. We do not ignore the great commandments, but neither do we ignore God’s grace.
No, we can’t be perfect. Yes, we can be right with God.
We practice three things:
acceptance of the grace of God,
and humble dependence on God’s steadfast love.3
During this season of Lent, we remember that God took a drastic step toward our access to righteousness. When simple teaching wouldn’t do it, God did the most impressive thing God could think of it. God sent a walking, talking version of Godself to demonstrate once and for all that God is in the forgiveness business. We are not. We are on the forgiven end of the transaction. Always. Always and forever, God forgives.