The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s100p06 Lent 3 19/3/2006
"Who can know their own unwitting sins?: O cleanse me from my secret faults." Psalm 19.12
This is the first time I have preached on the psalms, so I suppose that this is a good Lenten discipline for me. I confess I have always found Lent a difficult time -- and I supposed the answer to this is -- well of course -- Lent is meant to be difficult. No pain, no gain!
For me the problem is that Lent becomes so very "personal". It is about me and my relationship with God. It seems a time when we put aside anything about others and concentrate on me and "my" God. We do things like "prayer", "fasting" and "almsgiving" and we engage in some personal introspection; trying to discern our "own unwitting sins".
But I have some problems with this particular phrase, for if I do something unwittingly, then it is not technically a sin. A sin is something I deliberately do. I know the commandments like "you shall not bear false witness" -- but someone else irks me, and I decide that I can get rid of this person by speaking ill of them to someone else. I do this deliberately. Most likely I can convince myself that the person is evil or wicked or even has done the thing for which I accuse him before the other person. But it is not unwitting.
The Roman soldiers who actually crucified Jesus didn't know what they were doing, and Jesus forgives them. But the religious authorities that conspired to have Jesus crucified knew what they were doing all right, and they are not forgiven. One might care to read Matthew 23 to realize this. Their fault was not secret to themselves, their fault was meant to be secret to others, and they went to some considerable lengths to make sure it remained so.
I was grateful to read in Molly Wolf's "Sabbath Blessing" a while back these words: "If Mr. Horsenbach's hereditary parcel tells him that people who pay their bills and their taxes, keep their lawns mowed, go to church regularly, and don't get in trouble with the law are good people, then Mr. Horsenbach *knows* that he's a good person. Calls to repentance are going to sail right past him because he's met a defined standard for goodness, and the calls are to sinners, of which he is not one. The fact that he's slandering the parish priest to the bishop is not on his "no-go" list and is therefore not sinful; it is, in fact, righteous behaviour because the priest isn't looking after the rectory lawn and *that's* sin."
Just recently I was sent something via e-mail that was couched in "satire". Perhaps it was, but in doing so I wonder if it was making fun of a fairly high profile person in the Church who has publicly admitted to be struggling with alcoholism. This high profile person happens also to be in an openly gay committed relationship. Pointing out someone else's disabilities in a deliberate way, on the grounds of religion, is something I think we could well avoid. Criticism of his life choices and derision of the things in his life over which he has no choice could well have contributed to his problem with alcohol.
And I suppose it is here that I do have some concerns about free speech verses racial vilification. I recognise the huge good that comedians do for our society in that they help us laugh at ourselves, but that freedom should be tempered with an eye to possible consequences for the person concerned. So even as I type these words I have a concern for the person who drafted the e-mail as well -- I do not know if it was the same person as the one who sent it to me.
Just because someone else is high-profile, someone who earns lots of money, doesn't make them "fair game" for attacks. Politicians for example -- in the end criticising them doesn't help anyone at all, and can well contribute to, if not our own depression and despair, certainly to others.
On my door of my old Rectory I had a sign that (in part) read: "Under no circumstances is money given to callers at the door". It is not that I am uncharitable, but my charity is well organised. If I began giving out money at the door, I would soon have had people line up down the street for a hand-out. Similarly, I have been beginning to realize that I must stop listening to people who denigrate others, for again there will be no end of people wanting to talk with me about someone else!
Nine years ago I preached on the Ten Commandments and I said "that the only commandment without caveat I have found to be the ninth: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour" which, curiously, is the commandment said to be most frequently broken at the trial of Jesus. The Church can make an idol even of the ten commandments as a tool to keep people away from God."
Do we in our Christian proclamation reason that Jesus died for me because I at least measure up to some of the commandments? For instance, I've had no reason to kill anyone else, and I wouldn't be game enough to anyway. Whereas others are exempt from this atonement wrought by God on the basis of with whom they find they can relate with mutuality and intimacy?
But of course this high profile person is an openly gay person, he does suffer from alcoholism -- the person who sent me the e-mail cannot be charge with being a "false witness". Here perhaps some words from the prophet Jonah might be useful -- "this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing." Jonah 4.1
So this Lent, let us not worry too much about the unwitting sins, and about my relationship with God, but remember the things we have done deliberately to others, things for which we assume we are justified, things we have done on religious grounds in the name of God, the things that have alienated or marginalized others who are different to us -- and ask ourselves -- are we absolutely certain that this was what God wanted?
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