Guilt and Grace
Scriptures: Psalm 32; Luke 18:9-14
In 1918 after serving as a second lieutenant in the army during World
War I, William Wilson got married and embarked on a promising career as a stockbroker in New York City. He could have been very successful except for one thing: he celebrated every deal and medicated every failure with copious amounts of alcohol. In time his drinking got him fired from his job. Then he and his wife lost their home and were forced to move in with her parents. But he insisted that he did not have a problem. In 1933 he was hospitalized for alcohol toxicity. He was released but soon lapsed again into drinking. He was hospitalized three more times within the next two years, but he still insisted that he did not have a problem, that he could handle his drinking.
I thought of William Wilson when I read Psalm 32. Verses
3-4: "When I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. Day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer."
At this point in Psalm 32, the psalm writer is in denial, "keeping
silence," unwilling to admit a problem, unwilling to acknowledge a broken relationship to God and to others. And this denial is killing him or her, just like William Wilson: "While I kept silence my body wasted away through my groaning all day long."
In the sermon teaser this week for our church eNews, I speculated that
in the Presidential debates you will never hear an admission of guilt. You will never hear one of them say they were wrong for something they did or said. Interestingly, right after I wrote that, a couple of them apologized for things they had said during the campaign. But you have to admit, you don't hear that very often: a candidate for public office confessing their sin.
But I also noticed in the newspaper this week that all of them are
getting sick. You can see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. It is not just the schedule; it is the strain of every day having to package yourself. Imagine how draining it must be to go for months hiding your weaknesses behind a daily outburst of righteous indignation.
I don't know if you watch Downtown Abbey. At first I didn't
particularly like it; it seemed like a show about rich people with too much time on their hands. But then I got hooked by the touching humanness of the characters. Especially Edith, Lord Grantham's daughter. The other two daughters are married, but Edith can't seem to find love. She has a child out of wedlock with a guy, but he disappears. But then Edith falls in love with Bertie, a son of English nobility, who asks her to marry him. But Edith is afraid to tell him the truth about her past-that her daughter whom he thinks she adopted is actually her own child. You can see the strain this puts on Edith. Her silence about this practically kills her, and when Bertie finds out though someone else, it ends their relationship, not because she had the illegitimate daughter but because she did not trust him enough to admit it.
That's the story of Psalm 32: "While I kept silence my body wasted
But look what happens next, beginning at verse 5: "Then I acknowledged
my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, 'I will confess my transgression to the Lord,' and you forgave the guilt of my sin." Then verse 7 says, "You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance." When the writer of Psalm 32 quits hiding from God, he or she discovers that God is a hiding place, a place of safety and welcome where we can drop the secrets, admit our failings, and be accepted.
In the last episode of Downtown Abbey last Sunday night, Bertie comes
back and decides he would still like to marry Edith. So they are engaged. But now they must decide whether or not to tell Bertie's mother about Edith's child. Bertie does not think they need to, but you can see the strain on Edith's face. The secret is literally making her sick. Finally, she decides on her own to go and tell Bertie's mother the whole truth. Bertie's mother is unforgiving. She calls Edith "damaged goods." But from that moment on you can see that Edith is a transformed person. She stands straighter. She looks at people with less fear and more determination to do what is right. And eventually Bertie's mother comes around to see what a strong person she is. And she is stronger. Coming clean has actually made her healthier.
That's why we have a prayer of confession in our church services. If
nothing else it is for your health. Denial is draining. Hiding is exhausting. Confession is freeing. Admitting our guilt is what finally allows us to be enveloped by grace.
Earlier I talked about politicians rarely admitting their guilt, but
there was a striking example of a politician doing just that in our prayer of confession this morning. If you look at the bulletin you will see that our prayer of confession comes from Psalm 51. If you look up Psalm 51 in the Bible, you will discover that it is a psalm of David when David was confronted by the prophet Nathan about his affair with Bathsheba. Psalm 51 is a confession of a guilt by a politician.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.
When David gives up denial, he discovers grace. When he gives up hiding from God, he discovers the blessing that God can still make of his life.
Now to finish the story of William Wilson. In 1934 during
his last hospitalization Wilson had a dramatic encounter with God. He described it as a flash of white light and the sense of an overwhelming presence in the room-the presence of a God he did not even believe in. From that point on Wilson knew he had to change, but he did not know how.
Five months later he went to a business meeting in Akron,
OH, and met a surgeon named Dr. Robert Smith. Smith was also struggling with alcoholism. The two spent several hours talking. Neither had been very religious, but they knew that their addiction was killing them and their families. So that day, May 12, 1935, William Wilson and Robert Smith, or Bill W. and Dr. Bob as they came to be known, began what is called Alcoholics Anonymous.
I don't know if you are familiar with the 12 steps of AA,
but the first 7 steps all have to do with confession:
1) We admitted we were powerless over our sin-that our lives had become unmanageable.
2) We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3) We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4) We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5) We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6) We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7) We humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
Over half of the 12 steps in AA have to do with what we call
confession: coming clean to God, so that God can make us clean; coming out of hiding, so God can enfold us with love. That's what Psalm 32 is about.