Wasting Away


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

June 24, 2018

Texts: Psalm 32; Jonah 2

        The old woman held out her bony hand to me. As I took it only then did I realize how terribly, terribly thin she was. It was almost as if her bones had shrunk into her making her appear thinner than she already was. The cancer was wasting away her body. There is actually a medical term for this: cachexia. For many cancer patients it actually becomes the real cause of death. Although she was clearly wasting away physically, she had a clarity of mind – and soul – that went beyond her physical infirm-ities. In that sense, she was not wasting away.

       There is also wasting away of for lack of a better word I will call our souls. Often the physical and the psychical are intertwined, one deeply influencing the wasting away of the other. But there are times when we waste away in our hearts and our minds totally apart from our physical condition. In a real sense, this is the worst wasting away of all for it affects who we are as human beings.

        Here the Psalmist is talking about opening oneself up to God and then acknowledging one’s sin, one’s iniquity. In other words, when we try to manage our sin, with personal resources, we carry a destructive load. We cannot do it; we need to acknowledge what we have done before God even though, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it: God is the One from whom no secrets are hid.

        But we must first acknowledge our sin to ourselves, and that is really the most difficult thing to do. We twenty-first century Christians don’t usually think in terms of “sin.” We prefer terms like failures or faults. Sin has such a heavy meaning, a connotation we really do not like. The word “sin,” we think, belongs in another time, another century.

         A word about the Hebrew terms translated as “sin” here. The text uses three metaphors for sin and three metaphors for forgiveness. The first speaks of our trans-gressions as a burden we must carry; thus the trans-gression is not seen as an event but as an object. We suffer the consequences of carrying that burden. In acknowledging our transgression, our “crime,” as one translator puts it, we bring that burden to God.

        A second metaphor for sin is something God sees angering God. Thus, when we cover the sin, so to speak, that is, forgive the sin against us so it no longer exists, there is nothing sinful for God to see. The third metaphor consists of God imputing iniquity or passing judgment on the sinner; forgiveness consists in abandoning the judg-ment. In this Psalm, God judges that the Psalmist is no longer a sinner.

       This Psalm states a profound psychological and spiritual truth, namely that there is no real distinction between physical and emotional suffering. When we are able to acknowledge the sin, the transgression to our-selves, we are freed from both.

        The ancient Hebrew concept of what we call sin was quite different from our theologically laden sense of the word. For that reason, Robert Alter translates the word as “crime” which refers to an action; transgression is another translation that is sometimes used. But his translation makes clear that the psalmist here is talking about what we hide from ourselves as well as from God in spite of our best efforts.

         Even if we take away the old Calvinist notion of sin – total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints – yes, it does spell TULIP, but only in English – we moderns still struggle with our sense of our inability to become whole without God. And, yes, the millennials are more likely to be “nones,” that is nonbelievers. That may be a reason why so many are caught up only in the here and now, pushing off real existential questions.

         This Psalm speaks to the sharp divide between the millennials who reject what they consider to be the pat answers of faith and those who embrace a kind of certainty posing as faith. “Be not like a horse or a mule without understanding,” cautions the Psalmist. Indeed both extremes – rejection and blind embracing – are devoid of a deep understanding.

         The inability to acknowledge our deepest secrets leads to the wasting away of our emotional and physical well-being. This is more than just noting that we may have a fear or weakness. It is an inability to recognize who we really are.

         Each of us has some deep secret we have buried within us. Such a secret does not necessarily be one that might be considered terrible or make us beyond any form of redemption. That secret may be spiritual, such as a fear of death; it may be physical, such as a fear of pain. It may be an event in our past that we have buried deep within us. Any of these can separate us from the very ground of our being, from the infusion of God’s spirit, God’s love that enables us to overcome the deepest part of ourselves.

        Redemption from these deep secrets begins in acknowledging to ourselves that this thing gnawing at us actually exists and that it needs to be expunged. But as the Psalmist says, “While I kept silence … your [that is, God’s] hand was heavy upon me,” turning the sap into summer dust – consider the image of the dryness of the desert, how devoid of water it is. That dryness comes from our inability to acknowledge our deepest secret, hidden even from ourselves.

        In some ways, as a Nation, we have hidden our deepest secrets even from ourselves. The combination of furor and welcome to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, more commonly known as the lynching museum, is a case in point. A project of Brian Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, it is housed in Montgomery, Alabama, and names more than 4,000 victims in 800 individual steel monuments hanging from the ceiling. How fitting, I think, it is in Alabama, but as a nation we have been too eager to consign such atrocity to the South.

        There has been the not so quiet racism of the North, including New Jersey, which is one of our deep secrets we hide from ourselves. We think, “lynching, that’s over, a thing of the past,” but there are so many ways lynching continues, such as the way people are dragged over the coals of the courts and what we call the justice system.

        The Nation as a whole, including New Jersey, has not really addressed many serious issues of inequality, and not just on the race issue. This is one of our most deeply held secrets that results in many of the problems we think of as social. We use the language of equality but do not really believe in it or act on it.

        The debate in Congress on Medicaid is only one example. Rather than acknowledging that there are people who need care and for whom our society must take re-sponsibility, there is a debate about making disabled people work. Congress pits one group of people in our society against another. Now we have steel workers pitted against soybean farmers. No wonder everyone is so angry.

Alter translates the verse about keeping silence as, “When I kept silent, my limbs were worn out; when I roared all day long, for day and night, your hand was heavy upon me.” Our limbs do get worn out as we bury our deepest secrets and refuse to acknowledge our guilt because acknowledgment is the first step to real forgiveness and redemption. Those secrets are societal, national, and personal, all equally difficult to acknowledge.

        Walter Jones, the Republican who represents North Carolina’s Third Congressional District, a marvel of gerry-mandering, skirting the coast, only being more or less contiguous because small islands are sparsely populated, regrets his vote in support of the Iraq war. His guilt over his vote has led to his personal letters to the families of the more than 12,000 service members killed stating his sorrow at their loss.

        Those letters constitute an acknowledgment to be sure, but after we admit our deepest secrets to ourselves, then we must turn to God for absolution. We are called not only to confess our transgressions, the first step in seeking forgiveness, but then we must act in a way that results in redemption. Groaning and roaring are not enough.

        To be upright of heart as the text calls us to be means that we must work for lasting change; that is what redemption requires. Over the past few weeks we have witnessed the horrific and disgusting situation at our southern border in the separation of children, even nursing babies, from their parents. The turnaround only occurred because the images and sounds forced the President to stop the outcry. But what is the result?

         It is not to look seriously at the issues and problems that drive so many to leave their homelands. We have long neglected Central America’s Northern Triangle except when American business interests need to be defended. There’s a reason that they have been termed “banana republics.” For years the National Fruit Company ran our foreign policy in Central America. Now it’s mining and logging companies destroying the habitat.

         But our national policies are the result of our individual deepest secrets, the ones we hide from ourselves. Even as we decry certain national policies, we actually benefit from them. That is the deepest secret of all, the one we need to acknowledge in order to be truly forgiven and to redeem ourselves through real and lasting change.

         Let us come to God in prayer: Holy One, from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse our hearts and help us to act as did the One we follow, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.