Trinity, Iowa City — 7:00 a.m.
Joel 2:1-2,12-17 | Psalm 103:8-14 | 2Cor 5:20b-6:10 | Matt 6:1-6, 16-21
Back in the Good Old Days, Way Back! we used to confess our sins, at least upon occasion, in these words:
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.Well, when we last revised the Prayer Book, we altered that a bit, and we left out the phrase “And there is no health in us” and the words “miserable offenders.” This may be seen as an early triumph of political correctness, and I suppose it probably is, though the omission of these phrases had been proposed for over two hundred years on the grounds that they “tended often to be misunderstood.” And I suppose they probably were. But I’m always a little uneasy when people deal with problematic texts by expunging them rather than interpreting them. But interpretation is harder. It’s too much like thinking to be congenial to the modern American temperament.
Anyway, the notion that “there is no health in us miserable offenders” certainly seems overly dismal to the trying-desperately-to-be-optimistic modern mind. (Never mind that it’s true). But what is this sixteenth-century (not twenty-first century) language saying? “Health” in classical English is practically a synonym for “salvation,” certainly for “wholeness.” (Actually, in Old English, “health” and “wholeness” are the same word.) It’s not that there is nothing good about us at all, but that we are not able to fix ourselves, we are not complete, we are not whole. And “miserable” is an assertion about our objective condition, not about our subjective emotions. “But I don’t feel miserable!” So who cares? Preoccupation with our feelings is a modern fascination, in which Biblical faith has relatively little interest. Our feelings are vitally important as communicative of our subjectivity, but they are not reliable indicators of the objective reality of our lives in the world. Which is that we live in a world of misery to which our own offenses have contributed, and we do not have the capacity to heal ourselves. (And if you require evidence for that, circumspice. Look around. Buy a clue.)
We do need to seek healing. But part of our problem is that all too often we seek healing and forgiveness on the basis of an incomplete diagnosis. Most of us probably can, and sometimes do, compile a list of our sins — especially if we avail ourselves of the opportunity to receive the ministry of the Reconciliation of a Penitent, or as we have usually called it, Sacramental Confession. (“Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. Since my last confession I have [rustle rustle] umm…where’s my list?...”) Well, yes, our sins probably do include the behaviors on our list, mostly, though some of them are likely to be trivial and the really serious ones it may never have occurred to us to put on the list at all.
But in this Lenten season of penitence, let me suggest that perhaps what we mean, or should mean, by being “miserable offenders with no health in us” goes beyond —includes, but goes beyond — our lists of self-perceived, personal, individual screw-ups. Sin is not only personal, it is communal, corporate, societal, systemic. We are victims of the sin of the world, but we are also complicit in it, sometimes without even knowing it, often without being able to do much about it directly. Repentance does not have anything to do with groveling and cowering as “sinners in the hand of an angry God.” It has more to do with turning around, turning our values around, turning our commitments around, turning our loyalties around, turning our whole lives around, and following Jesus Christ into the Kingdom of God.