Psalmic Therapy: A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year 3 (2012)

[Texts: Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19:7-14, Romans 7:13-25, John 2:13-22]

[The Collect:  Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.]

”Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

I don’t know about you,
But I have fallen deeply in love with the Psalter.
When we recite together ancient words of wisdom,
And praise,
I tend to find myself wrapped up in the human experience
That is laid out so plainly in the psalms:
I find myself,
Even if I don’t identify with the particular situation of the psalmist,
Realizing and remembering
That millions of people who have come before me
Have looked to these words as the heartbeat of their faith.
They’ve discovered,
And I’m starting to discover,
That the psalms allow us to see what it means to be a person of faith.
They allow us to announce to ourselves
And to one another,
The reality of our existence,
And all of the emotions that we might feel.
From fury to grief,
Worry to lament:
All aspects of life get reflected in the psalms.

And today’s psalm is no different.
It suggests that part of being a person of faith
Is loving God’s law
For its righteousness,
And fruitfulness.
We are to love God’s law…
Because it shows us how to keep from doing wrong,
And how to live in the way of peace.
Yet praise is not the end of the psalm this morning.
Verse 12 reads like this:

12 *But who can detect their [own] errors?*
*Clear me from hidden faults*.

The experience of the psalmist,
In the context of knowing and loving God’s law,
Includes both praise
And contrition.

But why?
What changes for the psalmist
Between seeing God’s law as “drippings of the honeycomb”
And distancing himself from his own “hidden faults” two verses later?

The answer?


Knowing God’s law to be good,
And recognizing that there will be times where we just fail:
Both of these are part of what it means to be a person of faith.
St. Paul,
In today’s Epistle,
Puts this in even more personal terms.
He says:

*For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?*

This isn’t something
That the Church in the modern era likes to discuss.
Or if we do,
We tend to focus on systemic issues of violence and oppression,
And shy away from personal responsibility.
And sometimes for good reason.
Personal sin,
Or inherent, internal sin,
Has been used as a tool of manipulation,
And exclusion.

Yet systems isn’t what St. Paul means
When he says that he does not understand his own actions.
That the good he wants to do, he does not do.
And that the evil he does not want to do-
This he keeps on doing.
He’s talking about something more existential,
And more personal.
He’s being open,
And brutally honest,
About what it means to be human.
There are things, he says,
That we feel compelled to do and wish we didn’t,
And other things which we want to do,
Yet cannot bring ourselves to do them.

And here’s the enormously important part:
The sort of sin St. Paul is describing
Isn’t simply something which conversion takes care of.
This is St. Paul speaking in the present.
This is something that he,
An apostle of Jesus Christ,
Isn’t finished with.
Paul isn’t talking about a demonic attack.
This sin isn’t a case of the devil keeping us from doing good,
Or forcing us to do bad things.
There’s nothing supernatural about it.
It’s just us.
Without the ability to help ourselves out of this situation.

So, while it remains true,
As St. Paul would absolutely affirm,
That the struggle of the Christian is
To overcome the selfish desires of the flesh,
And to be obedient to the law of God,
There are times,
Despite our desire to see justice done,
Or our love for our families,
Or the people of Christ that we try to become…
There are times when we just fail.
We’re unjust,
We’re unloving,
We’re unChristian.
We fall flat on our faces.
And we’re reminded,
Again and again,
That we’re human.

Even as we cry out,
Perhaps like St. Paul:
“Who will save me from this body of death?”
Even as we acknowledge our inability to do what we ought to do,
Or to stop doing what we ought not to do,
Even as we fall and stumble,
We are met with the promise-
In the verses after today’s Epistle
That many of us read in Morning Prayer this morning:

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

In the midst of missing the mark,
Rather than hearing words of scorn or castigation,
We are offered freedom from repeating the cycle.
Even as we remember that,
Despite being Christians,
We are not Christ,
Yet his mercy and grace is offered to us.

This should,
I pray,
Give us the confidence to be able to sit with today’s psalm.
With the psalmist,
To rejoice in God’s law
Which calls us to be whole and complete,
Honest and good human beings.
And with the psalmist,
To be reminded,
Without fear of condemnation,
Of where we don’t measure up.

This sense of honest judgment,
Without condemnation,
This is what Jesus offers to us.
And this is what the Church has to offer to the world.
Grace for sinners.
Because that’s what we all are.
Made in the image of God?
Yes, absolutely,
But St. Paul reminds us that even despite our baptism,
Our commitment to turn from sin,
There will be times where we
Cannot seem to do anything right,
And are sinners in need of transformative grace.

This transformation is something that we desperately need now.

As I was talking to a priest the other day,
And we were envisioning what the Church would look like
When I was his age,
He asked me this question:

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the rest of the country,
When faced with division,
Were to look to the Church and say,
“Let’s ask them.
They know about forgiveness.
They know how to live reconciled lives.”?

His point was that the ability that we have
As the Church
To know ourselves and each other
Well enough to recognize and accept
Our human frailties and faults,
To know our need for grace
And to receive it
On a continual basis-
This ability ought to shape how we engage with the world.

His vision was of a Church so reconciled with itself,
With its Lord,
That the rest of the world would take note,
And turn to the Church for the means to overcome
Division and strife.

The same grace that this priest would have the
Church live into,
Is the grace that is offered to us this morning.

As we move from the ministry of the Word
To the ministry of the Table,
Let us confess our sins,
Receive our absolution,
And come again,
As we do each week,
To receive the same Christ
Who has and will continue to
Set us free from our bodies of death.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!