Sunday, March 14, 2010

Paths to Happiness

Paths to Happiness

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 14, 2010

Psalm 32

Happy are those
whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered. NRSV

Psalm 32 begins with a beatitude, as does the most famous teaching in the New Testament, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful...”[1] The heading the translators picked for this psalm in my deskside Bible is “The Joy of Forgiveness.” “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven...” It’s important to realize that this joy comes not from being the one to offer forgiveness, but the one on the receiving end. It’s a hard truth for most self-made, I-did-it-my-way, never-complain-never-explain people in the world.

Psalm 32 is a perfect spiritual accompaniment for our Lenten pilgrimage toward the prize of Easter, inasmuch as it begins not with groveling, guilt, and gloom, but begins with a conclusion toward which the rest of the psalm moves:
  • It begins, in a way, with the triumphant result to come, and then explains how we get there.
  • It begins at the end, with a beatitude, with the consequence of confession and forgiveness, in the same way we begin almost every service of worship, with a prayer of confession, then a word of pardon, before we get to the business of celebrating how we got there by means of the gospel.
  • It begins in assurance, so we need not fear the journey through recognition of our sin, our need to confess it, and the release from bondage that is provided in forgiveness. The prize is ever before us, as it were.

I love the fact that the psalm begins, not with a rehearsal of human failures and shortcomings, but with assurance, with a promise of better things to come than what we may have known. Those with overblown confidence in their own moral rectitude, who do not realize from the outset that we all stand in need of the prevenient grace of God to make our paths straight, those who believe against all the human evidence to the contrary that by sheer force of moral will we can be self-perfecting, are invariably on a collision course with the reality that it simply isn’t so. We cannot save ourselves from our own immersion in human failing, no matter how hard we endeavor to rise above. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we wander among the trees, hiding from God, hoping God won’t notice.

In Leonard Bernstein’s quixotic 1970s theater rendition of the Catholic Mass, the confession contains this exceptionally accurate portrayal of the human predicament of sin:

If I could I’d confess
Good and loud, nice and slow
Get this load off my chest
Yes, but how, Lord — I don’t know.
What I say I don’t feel
What I feel I don’t show
What I show isn’t real
What is real, Lord, I don’t know
No, no, no — I don’t know....[2]

Yet in the face of this, Psalm 32 opens with this primary assurance; before the psalmist can even move to confession comes the assurance of God’s grace to come:

Happy are those
to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit. NRSV

Isn’t this the central theme of Lent? Often we see it as a season of penitence, of “giving things up,” of dust and ashes. We are tempted to think of confession and penitence as a way we can earn our way back into God’s favor. Yet in reality, God stands by, ready to impute no iniquity, to relieve us of the move to deceit to cover ourselves. Lent is, in reality, the season of God’s making possible the steadfast, surrounding love that we cannot create for ourselves.

Psalm 32 makes three central claims about what is true in human life.

Sin is real. Make no mistake, the Bible never suggests that sin does not exist. It is entirely aware of the reality of sin, and of every human being’s participation in it. We may try to scapegoat, to cast the real blame for sin somewhere outside ourselves, outside our group, our country, our faith. But the reality that confronts us is that sin is real, and we are up to our necks in it, and that is just how it is. Sin is real.

And if sin is real, confession of sin is necessary. “While I kept silence,” the psalmist declared, “my body wasted away... then I acknowledged my sin to you ... I did not hide my iniquity.” No matter that God’s desire to forgive and make whole is prevenient, stands outside our own willingness to ask, still the asking is necessary. This is as true in human relations as it is in our relationship to God. I recall in my seminary days, being asked by an intelligent and well-spoken woman in a church I served, why we needed a prayer of confession every Sunday, “after all,” she said, “I don’t feel I have done anything wrong.” To this, the psalmist would reply “While I kept silence ... your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up.” I simply replied to this well-meaning but self-deceived person, “If you don’t think you have done anything wrong in the past week, you probably need to think some more.”

We all know the special misery of an offense against someone else that goes unconfessed: the burden of broken friendship, alienation, the estrangement which takes so much energy to remember. It takes a lot of work. We avoid eye-contact. We have to remember not to find ourselves in the company of that person. We have to remember and rehearse over and over again the source and cause of our estrangement, our non-reconciliation, non-confession, which takes a tremendous amount of psychic energy. Confession can erase the need for this complicated dance of avoidance and pain. Confession allows us to put a name on the problem, making healing and recovery possible.

And if confession is necessary, the psalmist makes clear that forgiveness of sin is not only also real, but also it is a source of surpassing joy. And here is a way to look at it that I had not thought of before reading it in an article by Peter Gomes, chaplain at Harvard University, who said “It is the Christian’s duty, as well as privilege, to be joyful.”[3]

Joy is not an option of the faith. It is a requirement. And we arrive at joy, according to the wisdom of the psalm, by way of acknowledging the reality of sin, confessing our own part in it, and receiving what God is already so prepared to give, the blessing of forgiveness which grants us a joy beyond measure. The psalmist, after declaring the assurance of God’s forgiveness, throws in that exclamatory word that often appears in the psalms: “Selah!” which means something like “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Amen!” all rolled into one.

About the sheer necessity of joy for Christian life, Dr. Gomes also declared to his Harvard congregation one Sunday, “Now you would not know that to look at the faces of most Christians. You don’t have the benefit as I do of the view from up here.”[4] Psalm 32 functions as a reminder that the joy of life in God is real, is imminently and presently available to us. While sin is real and confession is necessary, forgiveness and the joy it brings is also real.

It is said that St. Augustine was so convinced of this that he had Psalm 32 in its entirety written above his head as he lay on his deathbed, so that its message would be the very last conscious thought he would carry with him from this world into the next. Martin Luther regarded Psalm 32 as among the passages of the Old Testament closest to the very essence of the gospel.

Temptation and failure, of course, return to us again and again. Even so, we are never left alone in the wilderness of our struggles. Before there is failure, before there is shortcoming, before Cain even thought of laying a knife to Abel’s throat, there was the covering willingness and desire of God to forgive, to move toward error-prone humanity with the sweet song of forgiveness. God sends angels to us, heavenly messengers — sometimes in clothes of flesh and blood — who bring sustenance and restore strength. They will come to us suddenly, when we are exhausted and vulnerable. When we most need them, they will come and lift us up. In the second century, a desert father wrote: “The devil cannot lord it over those who serve God with their whole heart and who put their hope in him. The devil can wrestle with them, but cannot overcome them.”[5]

Notorious sin, public and private, can be forgiven. So can the sins that are so pedestrian, so everyday that we hardly recognize them even as we are committing them, sins of daily, clumsy, character assassination, gossip, self-excusing. In our commitment to the service of God, we do not languish forever in a place of condemnation. From the soot of Ash Wednesday we move forward into a Christ-saved world, toward Galilee, toward Jerusalem, toward our neighbor, toward our enemy, toward both the ends of the earth and deepest recesses of our hearts.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Matthew 5:3 ff.
[2] "Trope: I Don't Know," Mass, Leonard Bernstein.
[3] “Confessions and Consequences,” by Peter Gomes, Pulpit Digest, January-February 1994, pp. 23-29. I am indebted to Dr. Gomes in this sermon for his threefold interpretation of the psalm.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Referenced in “Bedrock Truths,” by Patricia Farris, Christian Century, 2/17/02, p. 18