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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Thoughts in Solitude conf17 w poem

a new hymn

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Chicken Citizens of Heaven

sermon for 2nd Sunday in Lent
(Philippians3:17-4:1; Luke13:31-35; Genesis15:1-12,17-18)

For three of the required merit badges to become an Eagle Scout, I had to do tasks like learning about types of government and organizations like Unicef and Amnesty International, reading the Constitution and a newspaper, examining how security, climate, and economy affect current events, reading historic speeches and writing to elected officials, discussing the importance of taxes and volunteering for a charity, attending a school board meeting or court session and multicultural events celebrating various heritages. These were aspects, then, of Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, and Citizenship in the World.

That’s a good list, and we might go far to continue engaging such practices. However, besides community, nation, and world, today we have an additional “citizenship” in front of us: the reading from Philippians declared that we share Citizenship in Heaven. It’s a great phrase that Paul uses, and beneficial for us to spend some time examining and pondering what it means and—in the words of the Scout merit badges—“what it takes, the rights, duties, and obligations of a responsible and active good citizen.”

Perhaps one of the first important things to note is that your citizenship in heaven is not about location exclusively. Just as you simultaneously serve as a citizen of the community, nation, and world, your citizenship in heaven is also an overlapping category. That’s worth saying to counter a belief that would claim faith is mainly about going someplace else. When that becomes the case, then how you live here doesn’t really matter, much less what happens to others. Why bother to care for the earth if you’re destined to fly away to heaven?

So if this being a citizen of heaven isn’t about ending up elsewhere, not just for after you die, but is about engaging life here and now, rather than location maybe we think about it in terms of loyalty or values or practice. Along those lines, we might well say that heavenly citizenship is exactly what leads our children to be guiding us with “change for change” and concern for water resources around here, and in Michigan, and internationally. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

That also highlights another factor. If heaven were mostly about where you went when you died, then that’s a fairly inactive enterprise. If it’s about later, for the time being, you can just passively wait for it to happen. Perhaps it’s possible to be uninvolved, a citizen without laboring at it; indeed from voter turnouts and factual awareness of issues and time spent working on our democracy, we know there is all too much apathy and lack of involvement for our more typical types of citizenship.

Yet this citizenship of heaven as Paul envisions it is entirely active and engaged. It’s not just for later but for now, and it makes a difference for your life. In fact, this is so dynamically involved that it’s got the “energy of dynamite.” That is the actual Greek phrase in our text; our words energy and dynamite come from these words that are more blandly translated in our version as “power that enables.” Sure, that’s already saying something pretty great, that Jesus is enabling your citizenship, that he activates your capabilities and triggers your powers. But it conveys the whole experience for us so much more dramatically with those explosive original words: Jesus is changing you to be an active heavenly citizen. To live into this role, he’s not just recommending concern or repeating obligations. No, he is filling you with the energy of dynamite. Wow!

You might wonder just how thunderously grand or motivationally invigorating this could be, though, if in our first reading Abraham was brought into his role of citizenship by sleeping through it. Well, we’ll explain some of that with the peculiarities and mysteries of faith, with the paradox of Jesus.

But it doesn’t need to be a category unto itself. If you consider yourself a citizen of Madison, you have to trust a sign that would tell you you’re crossing into Middleton. You’d trust flags hanging around to convey that you are in your nation of the United States. You may consider yourself an engaged citizen of this world though you haven’t tasted the water of Flint or traveled to villages receiving wells or maybe even know the source that delivers to your own tap.

So it was with Abraham. Even asleep he came into his role as a heavenly citizen because of trust. In language that resonates throughout scripture but nevertheless may sound antiquated in our ears, he reckoned it was right. There wasn’t proof. In fact, just the opposite: he was asking about an heir, about having a child. God promised that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars overhead and the sands of the beach. But no proof. Not even a downpayment or head start on that solution. Even if they’d had ultrasounds, Sarah wouldn’t’ve had anything to show. All they could do was trust, even in spite of the evidence. They reckoned it was right.

This is, perhaps, among the difficult things about this heavenly citizenship, that it is somehow not dependent on the statistical quantifications or factual evaluations to which we’re accustomed. It turns out—just the reverse—that this is more usually found under the sign of its opposite. We may glimpse some of that with Abraham, that his deliberation and acceptance came while he was unconscious and unaware, and that Sarah encountered this serious matter with a laugh which she came to embody and birth. We could see it in this declaration of a mighty and multitudinous nation which was for generations unpopulated, in slavery, and without a homeland.

Yet, as always, the center of this faithful understanding comes to us in Jesus. The energy of dynamite that is unleashing transformative change on our world is embodied in Jesus whose way of life is so much about dying. It’s even striking in the imagery he uses for us today, of fox and hen. A couple weeks ago a red fox had trotted through the parking lot here and I posted on Facebook, excited about it, thinking how it had habitat in our prairie. But Emily Wixson was quick to reply in concern for our chickens. We know in a fight who is going to win. Yet in contrast with typical images of control and power and what it takes to be in charge, Jesus picks the wrong part. He claims to be a chicken.

And he calls King Herod a fox. Now, the first impression would be that the fox is going to kill the chicken, that if there’s a competition between them, between this political ruler and Jesus, that Jesus is going to lose every time. And, indeed, we know that’s exactly what’s going to happen: Jesus is going to die at the hands of the authorities.

Yet there’s also maybe a hidden twist in Jesus calling Herod foxy, so to speak. In our Old Testament portrayals, foxes show up when places are deserted or abandoned. Their realm is amid desolation. So maybe when Herod thinks he’s so in charge, Jesus is playfully suggesting that this rule is not so grandiose or powerful as he may think, and that indeed the chicken’s time has come home to roost.

This is the question or the challenge for those of us who trust Jesus, who trust his vision for the world and trust our lives under his caring wings, those of us who seek to live faithfully as citizens of his heaven. The way of love that Jesus revealed and embodied does not seem to be the winning way. It sure seems that the violent and ruthless and powerful and deceptive are able to win control. Even if you are held under the protective wings of this chicken Jesus, that may seem of little value if foxes can show up and again rip you to shreds.

But Jesus’ words to the fox Herod are not to give into to those appearances, not so quickly to try to claim glory and triumph and victory. “On the third day,” Jesus says. That third day makes all the difference for this chicken way of love, this heavenly citizenship that is dedicated in giving itself for the life of this world. “On the third day,” Jesus says, “I finish my work.” As we say again today in words of the ancient creed, it is on that third day that he rose again. On that day, Easter. On that day, resurrection. On that day, death is invalidated—it has lost its strength. The energy of dynamite is no longer with the foxes with the fiercest gnashing teeth. The energy of dynamite, the fullness of God’s investment and power is in our abilities to love, to gather under warm wings and to cradling bosoms and to nurturing hearts. It is not in taking life away but in giving life for each other.

Two last words from Philippians. One is “conformed.” On Transfiguration two weeks ago, we mentioned the Greek word “metamorphosis,” on taking on a different form. This word is “symmorph,” just like “conformed” meaning to take on the same form. This sort of conformity is good news as you are being transformed to be the same shape as Jesus. Look at his pierced hands as he gave up his life on a cross, but also those hands that bleed no more, where the injury cannot hurt, where death has no power because life reigns. As he gives you the energy of dynamite, it is so that your life may be given away for the sake of this world he so loves, and that his work may be finished, complete in you.

That is a word of hope. The other is a word of challenge for us in these days. Jesus laments over Jerusalem, over the capital city, the seats of power, the place of the foxes. He laments knowing it deals in death. And it is that place of foxes that he loves and wants to gather under his wing like the mother hen. In our own environment, the culture much too malicious in these days, it is vital to know that Paul’s word for citizenship is exactly what becomes our word “politics.” When politics is embodied only as a bad word, an ugly thing, you are called and invited to trust and live into the politics of heaven.

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