Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
Confess – “Reformed and Always Being Reformed”
October 31, 2021
On this Reformation Sunday, a Sunday on which we celebrate the history of the Presbyterian Church, our text is a Psalm of David, Psalm 51. David was the beloved king of Israel, a man who was close to God’s own heart, a man known for his devotion and charisma.
The psalm was written following the visit of the prophet Nathan to King David. Nathan had come to hold the King accountable for his sins. The name Nathan in the Hebrew means “gift”, by the way. The ancients had it right that being held accountable for wrongdoing was ultimately a gift to the wrongdoer.
The one who holds up a mirror before a powerful person who has gone astray is to be seen – ultimately – as a gift to that person and to that nation. Nathan, the prophet, was a gift to King David and to the Hebrew people.
The background of Nathan’s story with David begins in II Samuel 11. As the text states, in the spring of the year, when kings go off to battle, the middle-aged King David stays home. One warm afternoon, while strolling on the high porch of his castle, he notices the beautiful Bathsheba, who happens to be married to one of David’s decorated soldiers. To make a long story short, Bathsheba becomes pregnant, not by her husband, and David seeks to cover his sins by inviting her husband, Uriah, home from the battle front.
Being the loyal soldier, Uriah does not sleep in his own home, but remains with the soldiers, foiling David’s plans. Ultimately, David arranges for the loyal Uriah to be killed at the frontlines of the battle. David seemed “free and clear” at this point of his unrighteous deeds, at least until the prophet Nathan arrives. Nathan arrives as a “gift” to hold even the powerful king accountable for his sins. Psalm 51 is the prayer of David that follows that encounter.
Hear the Word of God from Psalm 51, verses 1-13:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin, 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, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The Scots Confession, like Psalm 51, was written as a response to sin and corruption. In the 1500’s, being a long way from Rome, the Roman Catholic priests of Scotland had gone far astray. They had abused their offices; they had fathered many children out of wedlock; and they focused their efforts on building their wealth instead of pastoring their flocks.
Often, the local priest was not someone who had responded to the call to preach the Word of God, but was some ne’er do well son of local nobility who was granted a parish and who operated it more like a little fiefdom than a congregation. The bold Scots had been speaking up against such practices, speaking up against Church and crown, sparking the flames of Reformation.
Part I of the Presbyterian Constitution, which is the Book of Confessions, reminds us that: When the Queen Regent Mary of Guise died in her sleep in 1560, the Protestant nobility of Scotland was able to secure English recognition of Scottish sovereignty in the Treaty of Edinburgh. To the Scots, this favorable conclusion to the civil war with Mary’s French-supported forces represented a providential deliverance.”
The Scottish Parliament, having declared Scotland a Protestant nation, asked the clergy to frame a confession of faith (for at that time, the Church was a state-established religion). Six ministers, including John Knox, completed their work in four days. In 1560, the document was ratified by Parliament as a ‘doctrine grounded upon the infallible Word of God.’”
The three touchpoints of the Scots Confession, as noted in our Affirmation of Faith today, are the “true preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline uprightly administered.” At a turning point in the history of the Scottish nation and of the world, the Scots Confession offered to the world the encouragement to “cleave, worship, serve, and trust” in God alone.
(From The Book of Confessions, Part I of the Constitution of the PCUSA, page 10)
Why does all of this matter today?
Remembrance of this history matters because we are reminded that the Church has been wrong before. The Scottish Reformation was an important part of holding national and ecclesiastical leaders accountable for sin and corruption. One of the theological phrases that emerged from the Reformation of 500 years ago is that the Church is “reformed and always being reformed” by the Spirit of God. Another way to say that is that the Church has been wrong or off track in the past and always will be – at least in some ways – be wrong or off track and in need of re-formation.
Truth be told, the Church will not reach the kingdom of God in this lifetime and will thus always be in need of re-formation. As a Presbyterian congregation, we regularly claim this. We claim that we have been re-formed in years past, we are being re-formed in the present, and we will be re-formed in the future. We examine ourselves and our beliefs every Sunday, and always seek to open our hearts and minds to new revelations by God’s Holy Spirit.
Repentance and confession of sin may be strange and frightening and even anathema to many in today’s world, but most Presbyterians offer a prayer of confession every Sunday. We publicly repent of our sins every week. We know we have done wrong, by what we have said and not said, by what we have done and left undone.
Christian faith, Christian tradition, Christian doctrine and biblical understanding are not static. Learning and growth and transformation are to be anticipated and expected. If you and I believe exactly what we believed fifty years ago about God, the Bible and humanity, then we are probably missing something. We are not likely listening for God’s Spirit. Have you heard the old quote: “Doubting and questioning is the ants in the pants of faith; it keeps it moving and shaking.”
As proud as many of us may be of a Protestant background and a Reformed understanding and certain theological commitments of the Presbyterian Church, the Reformation itself reminds us that “total depravity” is a cornerstone belief. There is no one who is righteous, no, not even one – not even King David, not even the bishops and cardinals and popes of the Roman Catholic Church, not even you or me.
A key theological claim of Protestant Churches is that all of us are sinners in need of God’s grace. And when we ever come across someone who is suffering because of their sin, our first response is not to be judgment, but humility. “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Humility is at the heart of the Protestant tradition. Protestants are aware that we may well be wrong about something in our present. We have been wrong about racism and slavery. We have been wrong about sexism and the role of women in the Church. We have been wrong about greed and the ways we have failed to care for God’s good creation. One of the books I am reading now is “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson. The subtitle is “The Roots of our Discontent”.
One of Wilkerson’s primary points in the book is that we exist with a very deeply entrenched caste system in the United States of America, a caste system based upon economics, for sure, but with a direct and powerful connection to the darkness of one’s skin. Wilkerson’s book reminded me of how much I have benefited from the privilege of my station in life.
Even the name that my sons might input on an application to work for a major corporation gives them an advantage over someone with a less Euro-centric name. When we have purchased houses, our realtors have been glad to show us the houses in the more safe and preferable neighborhoods. When we approached a bank for a loan, we had a better chance for approval than many with the same financial situation.
Recent books like White Fragility and Be the Bridge and Between the World and Me remind us of how challenging it has been to be a minority person in a majority culture. Other authors have explored how challenging it has been to live and breathe as a woman in a patriarchal world. Books and movies have been helpful in highlighting the discrepancies, but the most powerful stories for me have been those that have come from friends or acquaintances. I am grateful for those women and those persons of color who have spoken up and shared their truth, the truth of how they were overlooked, or pushed aside, or ignored, or abused, or worse.
There are so many untold stories of racism and sexism. The “Me Too” movement has opened up and changed the way that men relate to women. Hopeful strides have been made in breaking the glass ceiling for women to receive roles of leadership. Even so, studies reveal that women still are not paid on an equal footing with men. The racial reckoning of 2020 brought to light many sad and revealing stories, and hopefully is changing the way that white persons relate to persons of color, but how many untold stories are there yet to hear?
Some seem to want to claim that it is unpatriotic to confess that there has been anything wrong with the good ol’ US of A. Some seem to want to claim that their church or their political party is in the right, and could not possibly be misguided. Is there anything wrong with our nation? Is there anything misguided in our churches? Is there anything amiss with the political party that you or I may support?
Of course there is! No one is righteous, no, not even one. Not the left, nor the right, nor the center are righteous. We are all equally deserving of God’s displeasure.
A new documentary will be coming soon called “Attica”. Attica will reveal the horrors that preceded and followed a prison uprising in New York state in 1971. What struck me about the review was the comment by one of the National Guardsmen. They were lined up following the carnage in the prison yard and told by their commanding officer: Do not speak about what you have seen this day. People will not understand. Yes, you have witnessed horrors that no one should ever witness, but keep silent about this, because the public will not understand.
Fifty years later, the public must understand. The public must share the burden of witnessing this film, because we need to know our history, lest we be tempted to repeat it, or allow it to be repeated.
Some may say: let’s just turn the page and move forward together, which is a nice and hopeful sentiment, but one that does not recognize the pain and grief of those who have suffered.
Reformation requires an honest wrestling with our history, particularly the history of racism and sexism.
Reformation involves the allowance for the language of grief and lament.
Reformation requires regular confession of sin, forgiveness and repentance, as well as seeking to make things whole.
Today, Scotland is in the news again. Glasgow is hosting COP26, or the 26th Conference of the Parties, for the latest in climate change talks. What happens – or does not happen – at COP26 may have dramatic consequences for decades to come. Future generations will be impacted by what is decided – or not decided – at conferences such as this. And future generations will judge us for our action or lack thereof. Once again, perhaps, Scotland finds itself at the center of a turning point in the history of the world.
It is good to remember and appreciate and even hold some measure of pride in one’s heritage; it is important to know from whence you’ve come. It is instructive to be aware of what has happened in the past, so that we can glean from our ancestors the good choices and commitments they made, and leave behind those actions and attitudes that were uninformed, or misguided, or even sinfully cruel.
It is important to acknowledge the good parts of one’s history, as well as to confess and repent of the parts that were not so good. Perhaps we may all become more open to the gift of the prophets among us, calling us and our leaders to account, as Nathan did for King David so long ago.
Create in us a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within us. Do not cast us away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from us. estore to us the joy of your salvation, and sustain in us a willing spirit.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
October 31, 2021