The Beauty of Being Broken
Sunday, August 5, 2018
Psalm 51: 7-12
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard about the importance of stories. The stories that hide beneath layers and layers of data and numbers, and illustrate the essential truths and beauty of the world.
So, in that spirit, I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a story about me. It’s not a story that makes me look particularly good. But that makes it all the more important a story to tell.
A few years ago, I found myself sitting in a subway car. I was listening to music, almost lulled to sleep by the steady, familiar rhythm of the tracks below. The car was quiet, with most of the riders seemingly occupying the same predictable, relatively comfortable space I was in.
That picture of everyday urban contentment and tranquility quickly changed as a disheveled woman stepped into the car and began to speak. The homeless population in our cities is distressingly large, and it isn’t uncommon to see people walking through subway cars asking for food or money. Often these individuals are quiet, unassuming, and even apologetic as they do so.
This woman was different. Perhaps something had happened that day to bring her to a breaking point. Perhaps the world had pushed her down just one too many times. But she was not quiet. She cried out in full voice to the silent car, begging for someone, anyone, to give her anything. Each sentenced was punctuated by gasping, anguished sobs. More than once, she screamed into the silence, “Don’t ignore me, please!”
And yet. After about five minutes, she left the car to move onto the next one. And in those agonizingly slow five minutes, I never looked up. I offered nothing. I didn’t say a word. No one in the car did.
Since that moment, I’ve asked myself why we all just froze and did nothing. I had a few dollars to spare her. For goodness sake, I once worked for a nonprofit that engaged in direct service to the homeless, and I did nothing.
Reflection on these moments requires some brutal honesty. I know why I did nothing, I just don’t like the answer. I did nothing because no one else moved, and I didn’t want any extra attention. And, perhaps even worse, I did nothing because she caused a scene and it made me uncomfortable.
That’s the truth. It’s cold. It’s harsh. It’s unflattering. But it is the truth.
I’m sorry to begin with that downer of a story, and I will return to expand upon it at the end. But for now, we need to turn to the scripture. Our reading this morning involves another person confronted with the cold, hard truth of his actions. Like many of the psalms, 51 is attributed to David. In these verses, we see the aftermath of events described in 2 Samuel. Many of us are familiar with this old story: standing on the roof of his palace, King David caught a glimpse of the beautiful Bathsheba. The sight of her bathing filled him with lust, and he eventually sent for her, committed adultery, and impregnated her. In a desperate attempt to cover up this transgression, David sent Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah of Hittite, to the front lines of battle to die. Confronted by the prophet Nathan, David confesses his actions and begs forgiveness.
Why am I retelling this rather violent and explicit tale? Because it is essential for establishing this psalm’s context. Psalm 51 is popular in Christian and Jewish liturgy at least partially because of its very direct emphasis on sin, confession, repentance, and grace. In fact, there are many out there who would consider these things as some the essential elements of the Christian faith: the reality of humanity’s sinfulness, our need to confess when we give into that sinful nature, and the incredible willingness and ability of God to forgive.
Now, at this point, I’m going to say something that I’m a little nervous to say. I’ve been coming to this church a long time, nearly twenty years at this point. And I’ve noticed something. It’s something we have in common with many other progressive, socially conscious religious communities I’ve encountered. To my recollection, we don’t often talk about sin, confession, and repentance. We talk about many others things—the vast, welcoming nature of God’s kingdom, the value of every individual in the eyes of God, and our faith’s call to care for the vulnerable. I treasure these lessons. We need these lessons. But they’re not the only lessons that are important.
To be clear, there are very valid reasons that religious communities may tone down the “sin” talk. It’s a word that carries a lot of baggage. There are numerous people who grew up haunted and tormented by warnings that they were being constantly watched, and would go to Hell after the slightest missteps. Too often, “sin” has been used as a battering ram against people of minority experience. Excessive and narrow-minded sin talk can have devastating effects on our understandings of gender and gender roles, sexuality, science, education, family, and so many other things. And it can even lead to nasty health outcomes. In a September 2014 article for the Atlantic called The Health Effects of Leaving Religion, author Jon Fortenbury cited some genuinely disturbing psychological research:
“Dr. Marlene Winell, a California psychologist and author of Leaving the Fold, compares leaving religion to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She even created a term for it: religious trauma syndrome (RTS), which she defines in an article for British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies as, ‘struggling with leaving an authoritarian, dogmatic religion and coping with the damage of indoctrination.’”
Yikes. We certainly do not want to cause this kind of damage.
If I may be so bold, I don’t think fearing discussion of sin is the answer here. I still want to talk about sin. I think it’s essential that we talk about sin. In fact, I worry that the things we want to talk about—like the welcoming community and unconditional love I mentioned earlier—are rendered much less meaningful if we refuse to talk about sin.
So how do we do it? How do we, as progressive-minded folks who want to have an open door, talk about something as potentially frightening and divisive as sin?
The first step, I think, is to be clear on definitions. What do we mean when we say “sin”? In David’s case, it was pretty easy to call his actions sinful, and his remorse seems appropriate. Lust, deceit, murder. In that case, pretty clear cut. But it isn’t always. I’m sure many of us are used to rolling our eyes at hearing simple, fun things we enjoy denounced as “sinful”. Dancing is sin. Driving your car on a Sunday is sin. Wearing a dress that exposes your knees or shoulders is sin.
I balk at the idea that sin is this…simple. This easy to identify. It’s easy to classify people under a system such as this. She’s wearing a revealing dress, I don’t own any like that. Therefore, she’s a sinner, I’m not. Such distinctions could be drawn by anyone in a matter of minutes. It requires very little nuance, very little effort to get to know the other person, and very little looking inward at ourselves. Is it that easy? Should it be that easy?
Now let’s dig a little deeper. Merriam-Webster gives several definitions of the word “sin”. Many of them are pretty straightforward; mostly variations of “an offense against religious or moral law”. But this one was a little different, and immediately caught my eye:
“A vitiated state of human nature in which the self is estranged from God”.
Admittedly, I had to look up another word in that definition. “Vitiated”, meaning impaired, faulty, or defective. So, this definition implies that sin is tied to some sort very deep flaw in all of humanity. Now, this might seem a little insulting at first. I certainly don’t want to think of myself as faulty or impaired. But hear me out. We all know the feeling of sabotaging ourselves; of knowing the right, kind, or moral thing to do, and doing the wrong thing anyway. It’s clearly an impulse that lives very, very deep within us.
What interests me most about this definition is that it implies a real depth to sin. Some of the behavioral transgressions I described above just seem a little shallow in comparison. We have some sort of deep, fundamental spiritual impairment embedded in our very souls, and the worst it makes us do is dance, or swear a little too much, or hold hands a little too early in the relationship? No. Sin has to be worse than that. More consequential than that.
So, we look to the second half of that definition. Sin involves a flawed, faulty nature that leads to estrangement from God. Well, we’re back to another definition challenge. What does estrangement from God look like? What would the opposite, a true union with God, look like?
We often hear references in Church to “the body of Christ”. Thoughts first jump to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, but the phrase has a second meaning. In Protestant circles, it generally refers to the wider Christian community, or perhaps even the larger human family.
Perhaps to be estranged from the body of Christ is to be estranged from God. To be estranged from one’s fellow man is to be estranged from God. By my understanding, any action that pushes our friends, families, or communities away is a sin.
Now I can loop back to the story I told at the beginning. My silence in the face of that woman’s anguish and need. That is my sin. That, to me, is what sin really looks like. Separation, denial, selfishness. I sin when my own comfort and desires dominate my choices, to the detriment of others.
The difference between these actions and the ones from earlier is stark. You can’t easily classify and condemn under a system like this. These are things we all do. Every day. Silently, without anyone knowing. It’s much harder to angrily accuse someone of doing these things, because we’d all squirm remembering how often we do them too. These aren’t just “bad” actions. They’re actions that we can twist and justify. They’re actions driven by things much deeper within us: our pride, our denial, our preference for the comfortable and familiar, our fear of those different from us, our desire for our people to win even if it means that others lose.
That’s the sin I believe in. That’s the sin I recognize in myself. That’s the sin I want us to talk about; the sin I want us to identify and call what it is.
But, the process isn’t over yet. I’ve found a definition of sin that feels right, but there’s still potential issues. If you accept that sin really is caused by an innate, human impulse, and that sin is contained in things we all do pretty regularly, it’s easy to fall into destructive patterns. On the one hand, if we’re all messed up and sin is inevitable, you might conclude that there’s just no point in trying to change. Or, on the other hand, a deep shame can set in. Shame leads to paralysis, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to denial and isolation. Obviously, these are not the outcomes we want. So, what do we do?
Let’s not forget the second half of the definition from before. Sin is that which separates us from God. Sin is not that which makes us totally unlovable, unforgiveable, or uniquely terrible. Sin is not a final destination in which you’re tossed into the trash heap, never to be heard from again. The tragedy of sin is that we are capable of better. We’re capable of being the honest, loving, kind, generous community, dedicated to God and one another, and we keep getting in our own way. But there’s a great thing about bad choices. There’s always chances to be accountable and to make a better choice the next time.
I may never be able to find that woman and ask her for forgiveness. But I can acknowledge the wrongness of that action, confess it, and change. I can commit to giving to the needy when I can, or at least look them in the eye, treat them with dignity, and apologize when I can’t. If I believed that this one sin was enough to tarnish me forever, I would go to any lengths to hide it. I wouldn’t learn from it. But there’s a better way.
Back to the beautiful psalm. 51 has a lot of references to cleanliness. “Create in me a clean heart.” “Blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”
A lot of people, understandably, cringe at these cleanliness metaphors. No one wants to be seen as dirty. Dirty is less valuable, undesirable, unwanted. But let’s reexamine some other words: dirty and clean. In my experience, we don’t clean things because there’s anything truly wrong with dirt, dust, or whatever else. Dirt is perfectly natural. It’s part of the world. There are places where we inevitably find it. But the problem is that it obscures the beauty of the thing beneath it. We don’t clean things as a way to punish the object for being dirty. We clean them because the natural state has been obscured. Outside of specific circumstances, getting a little dirty doesn’t fundamentally devalue an object. It’s simply an inevitability that can be confronted as it occurs.
Obviously, this is not a perfect metaphor. As I highlighted above, our sins are typically caused by our own choices, not just the passage of time and natural accumulation of dust and mold. But I still think it’s a valuable symbol. Confession of sin, our human version of cleansing and cleaning, should not be a source of humiliation or sadness. Yes, feel an appropriate amount of remorse for specific actions that caused harm, and do your best to mend the harm if you can. Accountability and responsibility still matter. But don’t despair that you are a terrible person with no hope. To confess your sin is to announce that you remember who you are, where you’ve been, and where you want to go. That you remember the fundamental beauty of your life and soul. That you desire to face the future armed with lessons learned, and less weighed down by fear.
After all, we’re quick to say that we learn best by growing and making mistakes. Why do we cease to believe that the moment we call those mistakes “sins”?
We baptized Charlie today. In doing so, we did not cover her in some sort of security blanket that will magically keep her completely pure and untouched by sin forever. We covered her in the promise that our faith provides. The promise that as a member of the community of God, she will be welcomed, forgiven, and guided in the inevitable moments when she falls. We will soon gather for communion. As we do so, let us remember that the broken ones of this earth are not some distant, ugly population that we can cast aside and forget about. The broken ones are each and every one of us. And in confessing that fact together, let us remember that through the love and guidance of and God and of one another, there is always a chance to begin again.
To conclude, I want to talk more, and in a more direct manner, about sin. I want to do this because I believe it is important to have a moral and spiritual grounding. A standard that we try to work towards, and a north star to which we align ourselves when things inevitably go wrong. I’m not interested in more shame, more classification, more accusation, and more shunning. I want more attention to the sinful systems and assumptions we operate under each day. And I want more effort to view our personal sins, not as things to hide or beat ourselves up over, but as invitations to reexamine and recommit to who we are and who we want to be.
Under a system like that, I could call myself a sinner. One broken soul among many, eager to be guided home again.