meditative reflections on Psalm 25:1-10

7God, do not remember the sins of my youth and my transgressions;
Graciously remember me according to your steadfast love
and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.

The sins of my youth.

Does this Psalm remember when I stole the spray paint from my dad’s work bench, tested it out on the back of the garage door, then lied in trying to deny that I was familiar with a certain culprit who’d put that paint there?

Maybe it’s the namecalling I used to do in playground competitions or the fierce figuring of identities in middle school, taunts now deemed both culturally inappropriate and individually harmful.

Or perhaps the Psalm’s sins of my youth relate to difficulties of having parented me, that I was a little jerk, obstinate, unkind, selfish.

I had a professor at seminary. I think he was about 80, but was still the sharpest guy around. Discussing whether we can actually improve our behavior and become less sinful, he said in older age some sins just weren’t as interesting to him anymore. So are those what this Psalm means by sins of my youth?

What about more serious ones that come later? What if I’d just as soon forget some of these things ever happened?

Even though this Psalm prays for forgetting, that those are not remembered, still some of that setting aside begins as we call them to mind. We realize these things can be detrimental, harm the relationship, have lasting damage. They aren’t just bygones. They are relevant. So we admit. We confess. We recognize that we don’t stand blameless and self-confident. We ask for mercy: Kyrie eleison.

 

7God, do not remember the sins of my youth and my transgressions;
Graciously remember me according to your steadfast love
and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.

So what to do about those sins of my youth that don’t go away?

The Psalm doesn’t say Give me another crack at it and I’ll be a better boy. It’s no claim I used to be a stinker but am a pretty nice guy right now. It’s not asking God to consider my good in comparison and hope it outweighs the bad.

For judicial or legal interpretations, if the sins of my youth are a crime, if I transgress or trespass against God, then God is both the prosecution and the judge, and I can’t offer much in defense. In a courtroom, the mitigating factors trying to divert and look at a bigger picture may try to ask for some leniency, some mercy. But they are never enough to cancel the offense. And we live with a reality where convictions don’t really ever go away; in our society, functionally you can never be an ex-con. It always defines and limits you.

Yet in this Psalm and the vast biblical understanding of this relationship, the sins of my youth are not definitive. The transgression does not define you. You are much more than the worst thing you’ve done or the sum of all the little bad things. You are not limited.

You are actually more than the sum of all your parts. It’s not only about being critical when you look in the mirror versus overly generous, nor even about complete honesty. It’s not just you. As the Psalm recognizes, this is about how God chooses to see you, how God considers you. And that’s not just knowing everything about you, God knowing you more than you know yourself. This is knowing God, who God is, and what that means. Your sin doesn’t define you because God won’t let it. God doesn’t operate with those definitions. You are remembered not on account of yourself, but on God’s account, with steadfast love and goodness.

This doesn’t fit a courtroom setting. It’s as if a case were decided not with a verdict of innocence or guilt, not with charges dropped, not even with a leniency of punishment, but decided based on the integrity of the judge.

When God looks at you, God doesn’t see good person or bad person, doesn’t see somebody struggling to do right. Of course, God knows all those things and is operating within them. But primarily God looks at you and remembers God’s own goodness. You are not being evaluated and judged. You, rather, are being loved.

The voice of this God, choosing and claiming you, persists in the assurance, “Do not be afraid; I am with you…I love you and you are mine.” (ELW 581)

 

7God, do not remember the sins of my youth and my transgressions;
Graciously remember me according to your steadfast love
and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.

At this point, you’ve remembered the sins of your youth plus more recent ones, maybe up to when you walked through the doors this morning. You’ve remembered them in order to have them not remembered by God. You are remembered as beloved, according to God’s goodness. You are defined not by your worst, nor even portrayed in the kindest light. Your identity instead is summarized in relationship with God whose love is steadfast and whose goodness will never fail.

So now what?

One approach might come through the word “shame,” which we read three times and comes up once more later toward the end of the Psalm’s alphabet. Joyce Anderson asked about the word at Beer & Bible on Tuesday, so I did some looking through the 115 Old Testament verses where it is used.

Joyce wondered if it related to how others perceive your faith, your relationship with God. Those verses do have a lot of that. You may have concerns about being identified as a Christian, about how that’s perceived. For most of us, it isn’t physically risky, but may be seen as offensive, as if people like us are the powerful problem causers in this country. Or it may just seem weird, unreasonable, a little foolish. That may fit with shame.

Aside from other’s opinions, though this is mainly whether you can trust this relationship as you interact with the world.

A major way this shame term is used is about those who worship other gods, and instead of shame it can be translated as “confounded.” For us it’s probably less useful to picture graven images and bowing down to carved idols. But we certainly can understand it as worldview. If your whole mentality and project and what you termed “success” were to get rich, to make lots of money, but then you discovered that didn’t make you happy and didn’t really matter or was even harmful, you’d have to reevaluate your whole life. You would be confounded. You’d be kind of lost. Your efforts would be pointless.

We could say the same if you put all your eggs in the basket of your career or striving for a cause or of parenting or sports or doing new things or maintaining traditions or whatever. Pursuing those paths stand to be frustrated, confounded, perhaps pointless in some degree for your efforts.

Which must prompt the question of why your relationship with God might be the thing that wouldn’t be frustrating or would seem so entirely worthwhile. When it seems to have so little direct payoff, why put so high of trust in this?

It may not measure up against those former categories of success. It may not increase your paycheck or your popularity. It may not help you win. Maybe the definition is because this is life, this is the way to live, this is the most in tune. Because this is who you’re supposed to be, who you are.

The very first place the shame term is used is in the Garden of Eden. God creates the earthlings, and it says they were wandering around naked, and they were not ashamed (Genesis 2:25). They were who they were supposed to be.

Picture that as your degree of confidence in this relationship with God. It means the sins of your youth, those marks that would seem to besmirch or scar you, what would be labeled as faults are not held against you. You are held in the love and goodness of God. That frees you to live. You are freed to encounter life unadorned, not putting make-up to cover those old blemishes. You, without shame, could walk down 5th Avenue or Old Sauk Road naked as the day you were created (at least metaphorically). You’ve got nothing that you need to hide, because all that matters in the end is God’s goodness. That is how you may live, shameless, confident in understanding yourself and encountering the world. With God, this is who you are.

Psalm 25:1-10

1Arising to you, O LORD, I lift my soul.
2Before all else, I put trust in you, O God;
         Bring me not to shame, and bring not my enemies to their triumph.
3Collapse none to shame who look to you;
         Condemn, rather, the treacherous to their shame.
4Display your ways for me, O LORD.
         Direct me in your paths.
5Educate me in your truth and teach me,
         Especially since you are the God of my salvation,
                  and in you have I trusted all the day long.
6Forget not, O LORD, your compassion and love,
         For they are forever and ever.
7God, do not remember the sins of my youth and my transgressions;
        Graciously remember me according to your steadfast love
                  and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.
8Honest and kind are your ways, O LORD;
         Hence, you help sinners.
9Into justice you lead the lowly,
         Instructing the humble in your way,
10Just as all your paths are steadfast love and faithfulness
Joining those who keep your covenant and your testimonies.

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One Nation Under

sermon on Psalm 66:1-9 plus 10 & 12

“O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!” (ELW 888, st2)

Maybe some of our Psalm is in there, with God’s national concern and trials by fire. This Psalm has a verse about purifying silver; the song ups the ante with gold. I’d highlight the distinction that it singles out heroes and may end up misplacing the glory and adoration and worship, where the Psalm will attribute the good only from God, and for the common good.

We probably don’t need an exclusivist view that says we’re better than everyone else or that imagines we’re closer to God. When we read the Psalm in our more honest moments, we may even see not just others—other nations, other religions, other people—as the rebels and enemies of God, but see where our own country rebels against God’s will and we ourselves go astray.

Maybe to move closer to our Psalm’s theology, and for speaking of our nation, here’s a new verse I heard last week on WPR’s Simply Folk, written by Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary:

“Oh, nation of the immigrant
The slave and native son
Whose loyal families labor still
That we may live as one
America, America
Renew thy founder’s call
Let liberty and justice be
The right of one and all”

That may feel more like us here, that it’s about justice and we’re working toward some sort of equity and equality, working to right former wrongs.

Still, compared with the faith of our Psalm, in that new verse God has disappeared from the scene. The focus is on us and on what we do.

As we’re considering this, we should notice that this Psalm is very, very specific. It specifies that God is the one doing it and specifies that God did it for someone else, one nation. You may have picked up hints of the Exodus story. We can’t claim special privilege or place. The specificity is not transposable to our own country. If we hear this as glorifying God’s connection to and work in a chosen people, it’s not appropriate for us to appropriate that biblical narrative and shoehorn in the United States of America.

While this may not be about the U.S. (nor is it about modern Israel), neither do we need to feel left out. We may hear echoes of our stories, echoes that resound in the hymn text, “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far on the way…keep us forever in the path, we pray” (ELW 841).

Further, this specificity is precisely meant to draw us all in. It portrays freedom from slavery in Egypt and going through the Red Sea, being brought into the Promised Land. But those details within the Psalm aren’t isolationist history or restrictive in favoritism. They certainly aren’t for gloating, either in solitary contentment or against the misfortune of others. The added verse reminds us that this isn’t about everything going great all the time or being singled out in God’s blessing when curses fall on others.

Rather than glorying in heroes of war or military might or economic clout or alleged moral superiority or bluer skies than other countries, as if we should or could claim credit in those things, this Psalm instead invites the praise of all nations, not a single national anthem but songs of praise, and indeed for all the world to shout with some kind of joyful noise. The end of the previous Psalm envisions the expanse we also witness in gardens and prairies here and farm fields around us. It says: “The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.” That leads straight in to our start: “Make a joyful noise to God, all earth.”

Through a specific lens, all are invited into the praise. And that seems what the Psalm wants us to know.

Plenty is not explained. It doesn’t say how God’s blessings are allotted or doled out, or even maybe what those blessings are or aren’t. It doesn’t say how God chooses or why. It doesn’t elaborate why bad things happen or how to rectify and reconcile when it feels you’re on the losing end. Maybe most troubling for us, it doesn’t offer any other agency. It doesn’t tell us what our responsibilities are or what we’re responsible for, versus what is dumb luck or what science might explain. The only credit the Psalm is willing to attribute is to God.

And our response still now, even for old stories that were far removed from us or our ancestors, is to join in making joyful noise.

Maybe we can think of the Psalm as an invitation to a party. When you’re invited to a party, it doesn’t involve explanations. It’s not suggesting alternatives. It’s not primarily about what you need to bring or do. It’s not really how you feel about it or how much you would’ve planned it that way. Instead, it’s graciously including you, asking you to share in the celebration.

Now, we could obviously see our response of praise and joyful noise as singing here in church. All are welcome in worship because from here God’s invitation extends without bounds. And the joyful noises don’t presume musical ability. I’ll say again I’m glad you came today to join in the celebration, you RSVP’d “yes.” Thank you.

But this is far, far from the only way. Beyond this, we might ponder how our whole lives sing and shout praise first to God, not seeking credit for ourselves, not gloating in our nation, not consumed by explanations, not lost in the negatives. How do we gird ourselves with overflowing joy? How do your days embody a reminder of God’s goodness?

There are zillions of possibilities. It might be that fireworks are a joyful noise, celebrating God’s blessings of life. It might be that splashing in water does it, or conversations that seek understanding. It might be as we turn our eyes to spacious skies. It might be in barbecues or brunch. As it says in the New Testament, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1Cor10:31).

Since this is about nations and our nation, it also quickly gets political. Praise and politics may be an unusual pairing of words these days. Since we’re recognizing the gift Ellen Lindgren has been to us in so many ways through the years, we can also celebrate how she’s come to the party, and how she’s brought us along with her. Ellen is certainly political, on her shirtsleeve and in signs she carries and through so many hours of her day. As we praise God, we can also give thanks for Ellen, who has worked so diligently for justice, for a politics that is about how life is enhanced and welcome is extended, so that more people may receive this invitation for an opportunity of abundant life, when living is itself praise of God.

Thank you, Ellen. Thank you all for being here. Thank you for the ways you expand praise and let your lives sing. And finally, thanks be to God.

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