(Message given February 22, 2015 at Newberg Friends Church)
I love the fact that I’ve lived 23 out of the last 29 years in Newberg.
There’s something beautiful about getting to be a part of a smaller community for that long, to build relationships, to pastor with people that I’ve gotten to know over a lot of years. There are some difficulties to it, though, and one of the biggest is in regard to speaking regularly.
I always want to be able to share things that will be practical and not just theoretical. I want to share in a way that makes it easy to grasp how the part of the bible we are looking at could be applied to your life this week. The best way to do that is to share examples and stories, to see the ways these things are lived out. But…most of my life is lived with YOU. Or with people you know.
Today one of the things we are tackling is how to deal with sin. It’s tricky finding practical examples that are ok to share. I see people dealing with stuff in healthy and some unhealthy ways; but I don’t think people would appreciate it if I made their challenging moments as sermon illustrations.
Even using my own life isn’t always an option. I might, for example, want to share about a time I realized how angry and bitter I was at someone else, and how I had to ask God to change my heart. But that someone might be a part of our church or someone you know in our little community of Newberg.
What this means is that I often tell stories from a long time ago, as I’m going to do in just a moment. But I want you to know that you shouldn’t assume that God only worked in my life a long time ago, or that I am not struggling with some of these things now. I still live this stuff now! I just can’t always share the current examples.
So once again, I go back to my beloved baseball for an example.
My high school coach had a part of practice that I hated my first couple of years. From time to time, he would focus everyone’s attention on one player. I played 3rd base, so when it was my turn to be on the hot seat, he would hit ground ball after ground ball at me. I had to field them and throw them to first, while the coach dissected everything in front of the whole team. “Don’t cross your feet! Charge it when it’s that slow! Guard the line! Get your body in front, don’t stab your glove at it!”
Even when I made the play, it seemed like there was something he yelled about. Freshman and sophomore me hated going through it. My coach was always critical, hardly ever encouraging. I ended up feeling worthless and uncared for almost every time we did that drill.
Interesting fact as I look back: those first two years, I was never sure of my place on the team. I was bumping around from JV to Varsity and back, and it never felt like things were secure. I didn’t want to be put on the spot, because I thought my place on the team was always on the line.
My senior year, things were completely different. I was the starter two years running and I knew I wasn’t going to get benched. The drill changed-he didn’t yell as much, but he really pushed me. A ball to my left, and as I was throwing it to first he had already hit another one to my right. I missed more, actually, because he was stretching me.
I remember one time early in the season before any games started, I actually got brave and asked him what was something I needed to do better or differently. He came and showed me how, on balls to my right along the baseline, I was fielding the ball and then taking a hop-step to throw it to first. But he showed me how you could, with practice, transfer your weight to the right as you fielded the ball, and then you were loaded up and ready to throw without taking an extra step.
We worked on that for a week or so, and it drastically sped up the time between catching and throwing the ball…which meant getting more people out.
This is about the only time you will ever hear me make an analogy between my cranky baseball coach and God.
When I’m unsure of where I stand with God…when I’m not confident that I have a place or a standing before God, when I don’t know if God is accepting me or not…when I’m in that place, the last thing I want to do is place myself in God’s full view, under God’s microscope. Just like when I hated being in that drill early in high school, we’re afraid to let God put us on the spot. We’re afraid that little flaws we don’t even see are going to get shouted out to shame us, and we’ll get kicked out.
But when we are sure of our position; when we know we belong, we’re accepted, we have a place; well, then we can welcome and invite God in to show us how to live differently. We trust that, like my coach, God knows more than we do. We trust that if we open our lives up for examination and if we ask for what should change, then the suggestions that are made will be worth it. They will make us better. Probably they will require a lot of my effort and attention; but we can trust that when God asks us to change, it will make us a better person.
Trusting God, trusting anyone, requires a huge amount of risk.
Today, during Lent, and always…I’m asking us to take that risk and abandon ourselves to God’s care and to God’s conviction. I’ve spent a lot of time since returning from my sabbatical a year and a half ago focusing on God’s love and our solid identity that is based on that love and grace of God. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a good part of my speaking over my whole time of being pastor has been to restore our view in a God who is loving and trustworthy, not critical and demanding and angry.
So much of Psalm 25 speaks of that trustworthy, guiding, teaching God. “No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame…Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love…for you, Lord, are good. Good and upright is the Lord…All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful.”
And yet that’s not all of what is in Psalm 25. Psalm 25 also talks about the universal human experience of “the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways”. It talks about sinners. It talks about the need for God to “forgive my iniquity, though it is great.” God’s great mercy and love are held hand in hand with frank statements about how we rebel and we sin.
These are not always held together.
In some circles, people who talk often and directly about sin speak about God in ways that sound like God is the great judge, even angry. In other circles, people who talk often about a merciful and loving and good God speak about people as if they are good, as if sin isn’t much of an issue. Psalm 25 shakes that up and puts people who sin alongside a merciful and loving God.
I’m going to be blunt: sin is not a concept that we should do away with. There’s a truth at work in Psalm 25 that is alive throughout the bible, that is woven into the fabric of human existence. Just like the baseball example, when we aren’t sure of our place with God, we don’t want to look at the flaws in our life. We think it will cause us to get kicked out. We think the only possible result is to be shamed in front of others and to feel terrible about who we are.
But that isn’t the truth that the Psalmist has discovered. Rather, when we abandon ourselves to God, when we risk trusting, we can throw open the doors of our lives and ask God to challenge, correct and forgive. We can have sin dealt with, rather than deny it exists.
With that said, can you see how the Psalmist is able to embrace a loving God without ignoring human sin? Can you see how this psalm of David is honest about rebellion and wrong, without making God harsh and angry?
This is where we can live! This is where peace and growth and health are found!
“In you, Lord my God, I put my trust. I trust in you: do not let me be put to shame.” One of the reasons we do go our own way, one of the reasons we sin is a lack of trust that God’s way is for our own good. Another reason is that we place our fear of others, our fear of being shamed for not doing what everyone else does… we put that ahead of our trust in God.
Sometimes we haven’t taken the time to find out from God’s community and from God’s living or written word what the right course of action is. Sometimes we are so full of self-doubt and even self-loathing that we sin by looking to numb our doubt or fill the void of love in our lives with things that are harmful and destructive.
In many ways, the opposite of sin is to take the risk of putting our trust in God.
Instead of strength or money or others things we desire, we trust that God as our Creator will best show us how to find security. A bishop named Arnobius, writing around the year 460, wrote this about Psalm 25:1:
“From all earthly profit, from all the things of this world that seem good, raising my spirit, let me come to you, Lord. I have been lifted up, now not trusting in money, or house, or business, or military might, or in my abilities, but I search while trusting in you, so that I will not be ashamed when I depart from this body.”
Trust requires the leap of faith that God IS good and upright, merciful and loving. It also involves action steps and effort, it involves as Arnobius says, not putting our trust in or our energy towards other things.
“Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.” All day long, we actively look for what God would do and where God would go.We invite God to show us a better way to live than what we choose on our own. Hope is not just a feeling, but something we put into action as we look for God’s direction and guidance.
Because God is good and upright (v. 8), “therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”
I’m challenging myself and I’m challenging you to seek God’s instruction, correction, and forgiveness.
This is an essential action step in that somewhat “fuzzy” concept of putting our trust in God. For me, beginning in high school, where people modeled daily obedience to God; continuing in college, where I faced for the first time my places of deepest shame, admitting them to God and saying with Psalm 25:11 “Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great”; continuing through my 30 year old crisis, where I faced my own selfishness and unwillingness to be honest about difficult things in my relationship with Elaine; through all of this and to this very day, I’ve seen the truth of this.
I’ve found God’s healing and forgiveness, as well as God’s acceptance of me even as I was being corrected and challenged. Looking at my life, admitting my failures and sins and faults, asking God’s forgiveness…this is the way to freedom and growth! Ignoring it or stubbornly holding on to it or denying it has led me to places of shame and depression.
It’s precisely because of this truth we are looking at today that I regularly choose to share my own struggles and failures when I speak.
I haven’t found it helpful or biblical to deny that I can’t live as I would wish, and I definitely cannot live as God intends. What’s helpful is facing it and inviting God’s correction and forgiveness.
It’s precisely because of this truth we are looking at today that I have made it a practice as a parent to admit to my kids when I have done something wrong to them. Because I trust the truth described in Psalm 25, I make it a practice when I am in conflict or frustrated with someone to ask God to show me where I have done wrong, to admit it and ask forgiveness for it and ask God to guide me to a better path.
I’m much better at blame. I’m much better at comparison, as in, what I did certainly isn’t as bad as what YOU did. I’m much better at numbing myself with busyness or an external focus instead of the hard work of inviting God to look with me over my day and show me where I failed.
But I strive to open my life to God and, to use 12 step language, “take a fearless moral inventory of my life.” Because God is good! Because my life and my relationships can be healthier as I ask God to “show me your ways” and “teach me your paths” and “guide me in your truth and teach me.”
This way of life takes practice and discipline.
Lent is a good time to practice. During these days, use these verses in Psalm 25 as a guide to your prayers…and then listen for what God show and teaches, listen for how God guides. Consciously work to avoid blaming others, putting others down to justify your own actions. Stop numbing yourself with busyness or escapes through pleasure or substances.
As your failures and sins show up front and center, resist the tendency to have that change how you see God. Jesus Christ, the gospel teaches, showed his love for us. He died to make up for and bring forgiveness for those failures and sins. As you examine your life and face the places of wrongdoing and sin, ask for forgiveness and find healing…experience God’s goodness for yourself.
May we, with this Psalm of David, hold on to the goodness of God and be honest about our failures and sins, turning away from them and towards God.
May we risk trusting God with tangible actions, learning what God teaches and asking God’s Holy Spirit to guide us each day.
May we discover how God is shaping us and changing us into the beautiful beings we were created to be.