Last week we started a new series looking at how God's perspective might shape our perspective. We began by knowing that the world is good, and today we shall think about tackling the mess we sometimes make of that goodness. Our reading is Psalm 119:1-8 and 169-76.
**The recorded service is no longer available, but the text of the reading and reflection are below.**
Reading | Psalm 119:1-8, 169-76 (NIV)
Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.
They do no wrong but follow his ways.
You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed.
Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands.
I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws.
I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me...
May my cry come before you, Lord; give me understanding according to your word.
May my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise.
May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees.
May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous.
May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts.
I long for your salvation, Lord, and your law gives me delight.
Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me.
I have strayed like a lost sheep.
Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands.
Reflection | Tackling the Mess
Last week I talked about the ways in which our perspective on the world has perhaps shifted over the past year and may again shift in the coming months. The way we see and understand the world changes all the time, but my feeling is that the pandemic has quickened or exaggerated those changes for many of us. And so over the next few weeks I want us to be thinking about God’s perspective, and how that might shape ours. Perhaps it might help to think of this as a way of focusing on a few core ideas, to steady us in the midst of so much upheaval.
We started last Sunday by thinking about knowing the world, and we heard the creation story from Genesis 1, which reminded us that God made the world and called it good, and created us in God’s own image. I said then that I thought that beginning with the essential goodness of things helped us to look for and protect that goodness in the world and in ourselves and in others, to hold fast to God’s view that it is and we are good and worth loving and redeeming. I want you to keep hold of that idea of essential goodness today, as we move on to think about the ways in which we make a mess of it and must work to restore it. And we do need both parts of that, because admitting that we’ve done wrong means nothing if we don’t also seek to apologise and make amends. As my mum always used to say, “sorry means I wish I hadn’t done it and I won’t do it again”.
Many times over the past few months I have read news reports with utter horror, and the words “this world is evil” have resounded in my head. In those moments I have experienced a crushing kind of despair, in which all seems utterly hopeless, and then I have had to drag myself back to the beginning of the story, to remind myself that this world is good though there is evil in it. Because it is when I start to believe again in the goodness of the world that I can trust that the evil in it can be stood against. And so if our theme last week was ‘knowing the world’ then our theme this week is ‘tackling the mess’, in the honest faith that it can be tackled.
Having heard Genesis 1 last week, perhaps the obvious choice of a reading for this week would have been Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve do the one thing they have been told not to, and things first start getting in a mess. I didn’t choose that story because my mind doesn’t always go straight to the obvious, but I do want us to think about it for a moment. Many words have been written about the nature of Adam and Eve’s error, and about what it says about our fallen human nature, and I almost added to them, but to be honest I’m not sure it matters why they ate the fruit, because I’m not sure that this one occasion can or should represent one essential flaw in all humankind.
The story of the fall tells us in no uncertain terms that the world is not as it should or could be, but it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about why that is. Sometimes things go wrong because we are disobedient or arrogant or greedy. But sometimes things go wrong because we are ignorant or selfish or angry. And sometimes things go wrong because we are desperate or hurting or afraid. This world is complicated and the mess we make of it cannot be reduced to a single cause. I think it is important to remember that, because different types of mess need tackling in different ways. Someone who steals because they are greedy needs to be treated differently to someone who steals because they are desperate.
Perhaps that sounds obvious, but there is a strong tradition of Christian teaching that says that a sin is a sin is a sin. I believe the intention is to remind us that we all mess things up, to guard against any temptation to judge others or ease ourselves off the hook because at least we’re better than the other guys, to remind us that we all stand as equals before God. That is all well and good, but sadly our intentions don’t always take us where we want to go, and I think there are also ways in which this teaching can be deeply harmful. When not understood properly, it can oppress some with too great a sense of their guilt, and relieve others of the full weight of theirs.
I have recently read Anthony Reddie’s book Is God Colour Blind? (He gives away his answer in the opening pages, so I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say the answer is no, God is not colour blind but rather sees and affirms difference.) In it he presents a sermon in which he considers the doctrine of original sin, and argues powerfully that while we are all guilty of something, we need to “[anchor] sin in the concrete and the material, within specific situations and contexts that take seriously that some people are most definitely more guilty than others''. Perhaps drawing on the experience of his own family, he says that “when Black Caribbean people came to Britain and were confronted with wholesale racism and rejection from good White Christian folk, I am sure it was very, very cold comfort to be told that they were as sinful as the people who were despising and rejecting them”.
If we act as if all sin is the same, there is a danger that we do not fully recognise the concrete and material outworkings of that sin, and we do not fully address the pain and injustice it causes. If we pretend that tearing down the statue of a slaver is as great a sin as profiting from slavery, then our theology has led us into unhelpful places. Perhaps you are thinking that is a ridiculous example because of course slavery is the greater sin, but how much attention was given to discussing the rights and wrongs of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, taking attention away from the injustices and harms people were protesting against?
The reality is that if we are going to confront the mess that we have collectively made of the world, we have to be honest about who has caused that mess, and the truth will be that some have made more mess than others. That honesty will be uncomfortable for many, but I believe it is vital because if we do not see with clear vision what has gone wrong and why it has gone wrong and who has got it wrong, we cannot hope to put it right.
Like many of my sermons, this one hasn’t gone quite where I expected it to, and I haven’t even come to our reading yet. I chose Psalm 119 because it is a psalm of repentance, and as such I thought it might suggest a pattern for how we can begin to tackle the mess we have made. So let’s take a look and ask if that is the case. In the verses we heard earlier, the psalmist acknowledges that they have strayed, calls for mercy and deliverance, and seeks understanding and a steadying hand that they might live better.
That’s a good place for us all to start, and yet when I returned to read the psalm in full in the light of all I have just said, I began to see it a little differently. The psalmist appears to repent, but they do not name any of the ways in which they have strayed, and at times they contradict themselves to say they have in fact kept God’s law. They know they have done wrong, but it feels like they’re not really ready to confront their failings, and so there seems little chance of putting them right. I did wonder if I should change the reading, but I think perhaps we need to see that tendency towards selfdeception and self-justification, in order to recognise it and guard against it in ourselves.
I think it’s also telling that the pronouns are all “I” and “you” and “they” but never “we”. It is a very individualistic understanding of sin, but I think we need to recognise our places in sinful communities and structures too, or our repentance can only go so far and we can only repair so much damage. I’ll come back to this next week when we think about protecting the vulnerable, so I won’t say any more on that for now.
If we are to tackle our messes, then like the psalmist we need to acknowledge that we have got it wrong, seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, and commit to doing all we can to right those wrongs and avoid them in the future. But we need to do all of that with a greater honesty and a greater awareness of our place in flawed systems and broken societies.
I want to tie a few last things together before I close. I spoke earlier about needing clear vision, and the psalmist talks again and again about God’s laws, and this whole series is about looking for God’s perspective. I think these three things come together in Jesus’ call to repentance, which is not just an apology but a change of mind, and in the double love commandment, which declares that the heart of the law is to love God and love our neighbour. What is needed is for us to change our thinking, so that we see clearly through God’s law of love. Only then will we see where things have gone wrong, and only then can we begin to put things right, to realise more fully the goodness in which and for which we were created.
I invite us now to take a moment’s reflection, to recognise the ways in which we have sinned against God and against one another – in thought and word and deed, through negligence and weakness and our own deliberate fault, as I will ever remember from my Anglican upbringing – and to consider how we might apologise and make amends.