Rev. Sarah Buteux
Preached at Common Ground on
March 7, 2019
There is a song by Kelley McRae where she sings:
Break us by the power of your grace
O Lord, won’t break us, by the power of your grace
Don’t let the sorrow take us
Oh Break us, by the power of your grace
I love this song, and in my own spiritual walk, there are times when I need to hear those words, when that is my prayer…break me God, break me down, break me open, break in and break up the lies and the patterns and the habits that are hurting me and the those around me.
Break me, O God and then re-make me into someone whose life is pleasing to you. Re-make me into someone who is living a life that is good and healthy and right for me and those around me.
But I haven’t sung that song here in this church. At least not yet. Because words are powerful. And I know that there are many who have used words like these, especially in the church, to break people in ways that have nothing to do with re-making or re-deeming them.
Words like sin and guilt, and repentance, have been used for far too long to break people simply because they were different,
because they didn’t conform,
because they didn’t look or act or love a certain way,
and I don’t want to have anything to do with that.
And yet, at the same time, just because we have been hurt by the misuse of words like sin, guilt, and repentance, doesn’t mean we should turn from them entirely. And I’m afraid a lot of progressive churches over correct in this regard.
I think we need to do the hard and delicate work of re-claiming these words, because at the end of the day, regardless of how much people have sinned against us, chances are we ourselves have sinned as well.
No matter how wounded we are, we stand in need of grace as much as anyone; a grace we can’t fully access if we never do the hard work of grappling with our own stuff.
I have a quote I want to share with you, but it’s pretty dense, so I printed it out.
“Forgiveness of sins,” says Edna Hong, “is what the gospel is all about. The purpose of Lent, she says, “is to arouse.( I love that she uses that word). To arouse the sense of sin. To arouse a sense of guilt for sin. To arouse the humble contrition for the guilt of sin that (and this is key) makes forgiveness possible.” (Why? …What do you think she means by that?
Because how can you be forgiven for a wrong you haven’t even acknowledged that you’ve done?)
She goes on to say that the ultimate purpose of Lent is, “to arouse a sense of gratitude for the forgiveness of sin,” a gratitude that motivates us to be more loving and just people in the world.
“To say it again – this time backward: There is no motivation for works of love without a sense of gratitude, no sense of gratitude without forgiveness, no forgiveness without contrition, no contrition without a sense of guilt, no sense of guilt without a sense of sin.
In other words, a guilty suffering spirit is more open to grace than an apathetic or smug soul. (A forgiven spirit is more apt to forgive). Therefore an age without a sense of sin, in which people are not even sorry for not being sorry for their sins, is in a rather serious predicament. Likewise (a church) so eager to forgive that it denies (or more often neglects) the need for forgiveness in the first place” (p 24 “Bread and Wine”).
I think that denial or soft peddling – in the progressive church – of our sinfulness and need for grace is what prompted some of you to ask for a Common Ground about guilt. And I get it. I hear you.
Guilt is something of a dirty word in many liberal churches. I mean it’s hard enough to get people to come as it is, the last thing you want to do is make them feel guilty. But guilt is not a word, a feeling, or a state to be feared.
Even psychologists realize this. Guilt, that feeling you get when you realize that you have seriously messed up, is vital to our humanity. If you don’t feel guilty when you do harm to yourself or others, there’s actually something clinically wrong with you.
Guilt is a healthy and rational response to our own mistakes. It is the feeling that propels us back to where we need to be, back to our best selves, back into relationship with others, and back into the arms of grace where our hearts can be washed clean and we can begin anew.
That’s what I hear in psalm 51. The psalmist speaks plainly about his need for forgiveness. His need for absolution.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, (he says)
and my sin is always before me.
And I say he, because this psalm is traditionally attributed to King David. David felt intense guilt.
Does anyone remember why?
David not only committed adultery with Bathsheba, after he found out that she was pregnant he had her husband killed in battle so he could take her as his own wife.
That’s a very serious transgression. David abused his power horribly, and at first he didn’t even realize it. It wasn’t until the prophet Nathan confronted him with the story of another man who had abused his power, that David felt the full force of the wrong he had done.
That guilt propelled him back to God. That guilt drove him to beg for forgiveness in no uncertain terms. It drove him back into the arms of grace and upon receiving that grace, back into a state of gratitude and joy, the joy of his salvation.
Guilt isn’t easy, but it’s good.
The ability to hold what we’ve done up against who we want to be is never comfortable, but if we can acknowledge our sins, come clean before God, and ask for forgiveness, it has the power to free us from being trapped in a cycle where we can’t help but do that same horrible thing over and over again, if not worse.
In David’s case, his guilt cleansed him. It restored him. It set him on a new path. Which is great for David, but the more I read and thought about his experience, the more I began to wonder about Bathsheeba.
She doesn’t get a psalm.
She doesn’t have a voice.
And she never had a choice – not about what happened to her, her husband, or her children. Bathsheeba has no place – at least that we know of – to express what she feels about what happened to her.
We said we would talk tonight about the difference between guilt and shame, and I think that might be what we see playing out here in the story of these two figures.
Guilt relates to things we have done that we know we shouldn’t have done, but shame, more often than not, is the result of things that happened to us that should never have happened to us.
Shame is rooted in bad things we couldn’t stop from happening, because we didn’t have the power, the agency, the maturity or the freedom to say “no.” Or because the person who did those things to us wouldn’t listen to us when we said “no.”
Shame doesn’t propel us back toward what is right, it paralyzes us.
It silences us over and over again.
It tells us where’re not good enough, strong enough, smart enough, or loved enough to be freed from the vicious cycles we are caught in.
Whereas guilt can be a force for good that tells us the hard truth about ourselves so we can change, I think shame can be demonic. Shame lies and tells that things will never change. Shame lies and tells us that what happened was our fault. That we deserved it. That were never getting out of this, not because we did something wrong, but because there is something about us that is wrong. And that’s not true.
There is this moment in a famous TED talk by Brene Brown where she’s trying to illustrate the difference between guilt and shame. She asks:
“How many of you, if you did something hurtful to me, would be willing to say, ‘I’m sorry, I made a mistake.’ How many of you would be willing to say that?
And most everyone raises their hands.
How many of you would say, ‘I’m sorry, I am a mistake.’?
You wouldn’t, and they didn’t. But the truth is that there are far too many of us walking around who feel like deep down this is the truth about us. It’s not.
We all make mistakes, but no matter what happens or what you have done, you are not a mistake.
I know the Psalmist says that he was sinful from the moment his mother conceived him and that there is a lot of theology out there about original sin and this idea that we are evil from birth, but the psalmist also says – in that very same verse – that God desired faithfulness from him as an embryo and taught him wisdom in that secret place. So I think there’s some poetic license at work here. There is a lot of scripture that speaks to our penchant for sin and a lot of scripture that wonders at the fact that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, that what God has made, God has declared good and that nothing – least of all sin – can separate us from the love of God. I don’t think it’s a case of either/or, but both/and.
Often, when we sin, we say that we are only human, as if that is the reason we messed up. But what if being human is not the problem? What if being “only human” is not such a bad thing. What if sin is what happens when we fail to be the humans God created us to be? What if sin is what happens when we live beneath our humanity or treat others as subhuman? And what if guilt is actually a gift, the gift God gave us so we can see the difference?