From Sinful to Forgiven
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “God Transforms Reality”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
March 21, 2021
Psalm 51 NRSV
1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Some would say forgiving others is hard. I say being forgiven is harder for a lot of people. Either way, this morning I invite you to consider the power forgiveness. I invite you to consider the power of God to transform reality through forgiveness. I want to focus on the way forgiveness transforms our reality, our lives, and even our world. When we move from being “sin – full” to forgiven it really does have the power to change everything for us.
Psalm 51 is the perfect example of a confession of sin and a prayer for forgiveness. One writer [ Daniel B. Clendenin, journeywithjesus, March 29, 2009 ], comments that, “Confounding our expectations about how most politicians behave, one of the most eloquent expressions of human contrition comes from the most powerful statesman in Israel’s history. [ According to tradition ], Psalm 51 is a song written by King David when the prophet Nathan came to him after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and condemned his actions. David had also sent Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to the front lines of battle so that he would be slaughtered and that Bathsheba would become King David’s.
“Given that most ancient peoples divinized their kings and sanitized their faults, and that the Hebrews included rather than whitewashed this episode from their sacred history, David’s public confession is shocking in its candor. Perhaps it was this candor that led Christians to remember David almost a millennium later as ‘a man after God’s own heart’ in Acts 13:22.
In Psalm 51 we hear “David appeal to God’s unfailing love and immense compassion for forgiveness of his sins. David knows his failures are many: ‘For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.’ He admits that he has not only wronged his neighbor and befouled himself but, more importantly, dishonored God. David prays for release from the guilt of his sinful actions. He asks for cleansing, renewed joy, and a steadfast spirit to sustain him amidst the deep discouragement people can feel when hounded by their moral failure.
Another writer, “a Benedictine nun and author of some twenty-five books,” suggests that ‘The problem, is that we fail. We know ourselves to be weak. We stumble along, being less than we can be, never living up to our own standards, let alone anyone else’s. We eat too much between meals, we work too little to get ahead, we drink more than we should at the office party. We’re all addicted to something. Those addictions not only cripple us, they convince us that we are worthless and incapable of being worthwhile. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the worst order because it traps us inside our own sense of inadequacy, of futility, of failure.’”
Our sins may not be on the order of murder or even adultery but no doubt we are sinners. Some of us think of this as an overused term, others of us see it as an underused reality. Too many Christians are absorbed with the sins of others and too many non-Christians have been turned away from faith because of the way Christians have overenthusiastically condemned the sin in others. Either way leads us away from what I believe is the real message for us here. That is that yes, we sin, and yes, we need forgiveness, but forgiveness is of no use if we cannot accept it. The reasons for that are numerous and we probably don’t have time for that psychological examination. I am much more interested in the possibilities forgiveness has for transforming us, if we are willing to be forgiven and to be transformed. And much of the way being forgiven transforms us is just as true when we forgive others.
I want to invite you to think about the transforming power of being forgiven in three ways. First, being forgiven transforms us by freeing us from guilt. Of course, you say, this is obvious, what else is forgiveness for? But we cannot be unshackled from guilt if we do not recognize we are wrong, we have done wrong. Most of us double-down when someone confronts us with something we have done wrong. We become defensive, we deny it, or we deflect that truth of it, or we attack the person who has the gall to suggest to us we might possibly, maybe, perhaps acted in a way that resulted in hurt or pain or suffering for someone else by what we said, or did, or left unsaid or undone. That’s the classic prayer of confession: “O Lord forgive me for those things I have done that I ought not to have done, and for those things I left undone that I should have done.” But we must be willing to recognize and admit that we were wrong, we are wrong, we do wrong. To be human is to make mistakes, to do wrong. We cannot be forgiven until we recognize that act.
There are many who I disagree with around things that they call “cancel culture,” and things like that because that ignores the reality that if we have done something wrong we should be willing to be accountable, to learn from our mistake, to make it right and to grow to be a more mature person knowing that we won’t repeat the mistake. I fear for our young people who, thanks to the wonderful nature of social media, can say or do incredibly thoughtless, even mean, things that are recorded on social media when they are young teens, and then five, ten years later when they know better someone does a “gotcha” on them, brings up something terrible they said or did when they were young, stupid teenagers and ruins their lives, their reputation, and never gives them a chance to confess, repent, and seek to make it right. This isn’t correcting a wrong. If there was social media when I was a stupid teenager I can’t even imagine all the racist, sexist, homophobic jokes I laughed at, said, or otherwise ignorantly let happen around me without objection. Paul put it this way: “when I was a child, I thought like a child, I spoke like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult I gave up childish ways.” That is a transforming reality. We must forgive so that people can grow and be transformed into better people. But we must also hold people accountable to do so, not ignore their behavior or words if they continue to demonstrate hateful and ignorant thoughts, words, and deeds. If I am truly an adult I want to be forgiven for those things so that I can be an even better adult.
Secondly, forgiveness can transform us by setting us free from anger. This is especially true if we are the ones forgiving someone. To hold onto a painful hurt, a shattering disappointment in someone else, a destructive attitude is to be chained to someone whose behavior may not merit the energy we spend being angry with them. If someone has hurt us, and if they are not repentant, if they are not willing to admit being wrong we can choose to be angry, or we can choose not to let their immaturity or worse, their ignorance and perhaps even utter evil, steal our freedom. Someone once said, “I must forgive so that the shackles of my anger at their actions do not chain me to the past. To forgive is to set me free, not them.” If we choose to forgive them despite their unwillingness to accept their responsibility for their words or actions we claim the power of forgiveness to set us free, rather than hold us hostage to their ways. When we forgive we break the chains they would place on us first by what they did to wrong us, and secondly by refusing to rebuild relationships with us by asking for the forgiveness as they should. The famous line from the movie “Love Story,” from the 70’s has often been quoted for being so wrong – “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” In fact, love means a constant willingness to say “I’m sorry” because real love seeks to be responsible for its actions and to be accountable. Whether I have intentionally hurt someone, or simply let them down unintentionally real love is willing to ask for forgiveness. Love, in fact, frees us to say “I’m sorry,” any time it is needed. And it frees us to say it and to receive or give the forgiveness needed.
Truly, forgiveness is a powerful act because it does free us to live more fully. It has the power to transform us so that we can live fully, instead of living either under the weight of our own broken relationships, caused by our own actions and attitudes, or under the weight of the pain caused by others. God gives us the opportunity to confess our sin, to make right what we can and to accept responsibility for those things, and in so doing to find the way to live fully. When we live our lives under the weight of unforgiven sin, or the weight of anger and broken-heartedness because of someone sinning against us we cannot live fully, as God intends.
For Christians, Jesus Christ is the image of living fully. While we profess that Christ was without sin, we still can learn much about living fully by following the path of Christ. He looked for opportunities to heal. While we may not have the miraculous power he had, we can offer and accept forgiveness as a pathway to healing for our selves and for others. He welcomed the “other,” the leper, the lame, the sinner and the outcast. He made it clear that God values people that very often his own religion called unclean or sinful and he sought fellowship with them. If we want to live fully we too can show people they are of value instead of devaluing them. We read far too many stories of people being attacked, verbally, physically, and even killed because of race, or religion, or gender orientation. There is no place for this in real Christian living, and certainly not in living fully.
In Christ we see the fullness of life. He was fully connected with God and knew his relationship was one of grace, mercy, justice and healing. You and I can carry these qualities in our lives. To the degree we do this we will experience life in its fullest sense. To the degree we do not, we will find bitterness, pain, and a stunted spiritual life. All of us can benefit from recognizing the ways we have failed to live the fullest life and confess that, be set free from it, and find the fullness of life that Christ offers. This is the way God’s power of forgiveness transforms our reality and our lives.
I would like to close by offering us all the opportunity to confess, to be heard by God and to be forgiven. I have taken the Scripture reading and created a responsive reading for us to end with this morning before our final song and benediction. Join me in this as we read responsively.
Prayer of Confession – [ read responsively ]
One: 1Have mercy on me, O God,
All: According to your steadfast love;
One: According to your abundant mercy
All: Blot out my transgressions.
One: 2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
All: And cleanse me from my sin.
One: 3For I know my transgressions,
All: And my sin is ever before me.
One: 4Against you, you alone, have I sinned
All: And done what is evil in your sight,
One: So that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
All: 8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
One: 10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
All: And put a new and right spirit within me.
One: 11Do not cast me away from your presence,
All: And do not take your holy spirit from me.
One: 12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
All: 15O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
All: And amen