March 13, 2011

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Luke 15:11-32

The liturgical season of Lent is typically a time set aside for penitence. On Ash Wednesday, a group of us gathered here at the church, just as Christians gathered around the world, and we were invited to enter a period of self-examination, repentance, prayer, and fasting. Indeed, we are called to use these forty days (between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday) as a time of particular reflection on our sins, the ways that we separate ourselves from God and from one another. Thus, it is easy to characterize Lent as the sombre, solemn period of the church year.

The fact that Psalm 32 is set for the first Sunday of Lent in our lectionary suggests that there seems to be more to this season than solemnity. The title given to this psalm in the NRSV translation says a lot. It’s titled, “The Joy of Forgiveness.” The psalmist offers a “before” and an “after” picture of his experience of confessing his sins to God.

Here’s what things were like BEFORE he made his confession. He laments: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” But then he acknowledges his sins to God: “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” he says. And AFTER the confession, he comes to know God’s forgiveness, an experience of relief and joy. He writes: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”

If you want an even more vivid “before” and “after” picture to keep in your mind, just think of the story of the prodigal son that we already heard this morning. The son has made a terrible mistake. He has abandoned his family, cut off relationship with his father, and taken his share of the inheritance and spent it frivolously on all kinds of selfish and wasteful ventures.

When he finally comes to his senses and realizes the mess that he has made of his life and relationships, he finds himself with the wretched job of feeding someone else’s pigs. And he’s so desperate and hungry that he’s eating from the scraps that he’s supposed to be feeding to the pigs.

But once he finally acknowledges to himself that he’s made a mistake… and once he decides that he must return home to his father and admit to the mistakes that he has made… that’s when he goes from sitting in the mud with the stinky pigs to being dressed with a fine robe, a ring on his finger, and shoes on his feet… that’s when he experiences the forgiveness and grace of his loving father, so much so that the father throws a lavish party to celebrate the fact that the son has come home.

For us, as Christians at the beginning of Lent, Psalm 32 emphasizes the power of sin, but also the promise of joy. It lays out the journey of the forty days that are ahead. We are called to acknowledge our sins, to confess them to God, to receive God’s forgiveness, and finally to experience the joy and relief that comes from that new life.

A deeper look at Psalm 32 raises interesting questions about who is most affected when we acknowledge and confess our sins. The psalmist experiences God’s forgiveness only after he has acknowledged his sins. Presumably God knows our sins before we confess them. Jesus says that God knows us so intimately that “even the hairs of your head are all counted.” According to the psalmist, then, the purpose of our confession is in large part for our sake.

So often, our failure to acknowledge our sins to God is a result of our failure to acknowledge them to ourselves. This denial may be rooted in shame, defiance, or perhaps just plain thoughtlessness. The self-reflection that happens during Lent allows us to “come clean” to God AND to ourselves. As C.S. Lewis noted, “A man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.” In other words, while God’s forgiveness is not contingent on our confession, it seems that our experience of it is.

The psalmist does not say anything about the actual process of acknowledging his sins to God. One gets the impression that he simply made the decision to “fess up” and then all was well. In reality, the process of coming to terms with the ways that we have not loved God with our whole heart nor loved our neighbours can be very difficult. It means admitting things about ourselves that we would rather ignore. Sometimes it also includes the difficult tasks of putting aside our pride, seeking the forgiveness of other individuals, and, in some cases, seeking the forgiveness of our community.

Though the psalmist does not describe his process of confession, he does give us insight into his experience of receiving God’s forgiveness. Acknowledging his sins before God brings the psalmist great relief. Likewise for us as Christians, the process of ‘full disclosure” that begins when we share our sins with God has the effect of taking the ownership of them away from us. We release our sins to God; and in turn, as we receive God’s forgiveness, we are released from the burden of them.

And according to Psalm 32, knowing God’s forgiveness brings joy as well as relief. This aspect of Lent is often overlooked. In our Lenten focus on the process of self-examination and repentance, we fail to remember the outcome of that process: the joy of knowing the forgiveness and grace of God that free us from all of our sins. In coming to know and confess the ways that we separate ourselves from God and one another, we will also come to know the joy of forgiveness that comes from God alone. Then, as the psalmist says, we will “be glad in the Lord and rejoice… and shout for joy.”

There’s another really interesting part in today’s psalm. After the psalmist has confessed and been forgiven by God, God says to him, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.”

I don’t know if many of you have done any horseback riding. I took a horseback riding class one year when I was about 11 years old, and I’ve gone riding maybe 4 or 5 times since then. But I know that when you’re riding you put a bridle on the horse’s head which includes a “bit” that’s in the horse’s mouth. Then you hold on to the reigns, and when you pull on those reigns you can give direction to the horse… to turn, to slow down, or to stop. It’s the rider’s way of controlling the horse… of making it do what the rider wants it to do.

But I’ve been picking up a little more about horseback riding from watching the new Canadian television show “Heartland.” It’s set in Alberta, and the main character, Amy, is a young horse trainer. There was a story line recently in which Amy is trying to help a young girl to adjust to riding a rather large and powerful horse, so that she can get ready for an upcoming show jumping competition.

The strategy that the girl has been using so far is to use a rather large and painful bit in the horse’s mouth. With her small size and lack of experience, she has difficulty getting the horse to do what she wants it to do. So by using the large, painful bit, she can quickly pull on the reigns and MAKE that horse do what she wants. And it works to a certain degree.

But Amy soon realizes that the girl and her horse will never be a great jumping team with that kind of relationship… a relationship based on fear and punishment. And so she has the girl switch to a regular, smaller, smoother bit. The girl can no longer MAKE the horse do what she wants. But they go back to the basics, and learn step-by-step to communicate with each other and to work together to accomplish the jumps.

It’s a risk to get rid of that large, punishing bit. And at one point, the girl does get thrown off the horse when the horse doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. But in the end, they become a strong team, working together to accomplish much more than they could have with the original method of fear and punishment.

In this metaphor, you are the horse and God is the rider. And God has taken the huge risk of deciding not to use a large and punishing bit. God has taken the huge risk of deciding not to use a bit and bridle at all. God says, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” But God doesn’t want us to be like horses that God is simply controlling with bits in our mouths.

Just as God gave freedom to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden… just as the loving father gave freedom to his younger son to go out into the world and make his own decisions… God gives us a great deal of freedom to choose how to live, whom to love, and what to worship. God does not yank us back into obedience with harsh reprimands or threats of punishment. But God wants to develop such a relationship with us that there is no need for a bit or a bridle, because we are a team… constantly in communication, constantly working together to accomplish God’s purposes of love and justice and peace in the world.

As the loving father went out to watch for his son’s return, and as he ran out to meet him and to embrace him, our God is waiting expectantly for our return as well. And as the father welcomed him home with a wonderful celebration and a feast for all to share, our Lord Jesus is inviting us to come to the table of Communion to share in the feast that he has prepared.

Happy are we whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are we who are called to the table of the Lord. Amen.