Withered Bones in the Embrace of Mercy

       One of my great joys as a priest is Lent, and not just because I like to remind folks that they are gonna die on Ash Wednesday – which, if you missed, it…. you’re gonna die one day. I love Lent because it’s an opportunity to pay microscopic attention to our lives. And each Lenten season, a new theme emerges for me, and it often seems to be in alignment with others. This week, as I was praying through the Lectionary texts, I assumed that I would spend my time in the pulpit saying some things about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. But the theme that kept emerging was not wilderness and temptation but rather healing and hope. And trust me, I’ll never stop anyone who’s willing to wade into the wilderness with the Christ, but what captured my prayerful imagination was the words from the Psalmist.

       In the 32nd Psalm, the psalmist’s poetic prayer draws to the hearer’s mind the journey of someone who tightly withholds their sins from God, while carrying the weight of shame and guilt, And then they finally confess to God and to receive God’s merciful embrace and the joy therein. The psalmist paints a picture of withered bones, the very life from them sucked out by the intensity of their shame. Bones withered not by a checklist of sins, but rather by the ways in which their sin separated them from God and the things they truly loved.

       Like most folks, my understanding of sin has evolved over the years, but no matter what, I’ve always returned to the simple way I first learned about what sin actually is. At its most basic level, sin is to “miss the mark.” Perhaps when you hear the word sin, you think of five to ten things that your mother wouldn’t want you to do. But, I wonder how our understanding of sin would change by thinking of it as missing the mark and reflecting on how we walk through the world. Because I deeply want to love and serve Christ in all persons, as we promise when we renew our baptismal covenant, but I miss that mark so, so often, and each time, it’s sin. Because sin is so often the result of placing my own desires and wants over the very image of God who walks beside me.

In my seminary internship, I was meeting with congregants at the back of the church at the beginning of Lent, and in passing, they said, “Sin? Oh we don’t talk about that in the Episcopal Church.” I don’t remember my exact reaction, but I probably awkwardly laughed and moved the conversation along. I had only been in the Episcopal Church at that point for five years, but one thing I knew, was that over and over again we very much *do* talk about sin the Episcopal Church. And while it might look different than the heavy-handed moral superiority with which it is sometimes talked about, I am grateful that we can talk about sin. I’m grateful because without naming how we miss the mark, it’s very easy to forget where the mark is at all.

       In their prayer, the psalmist brought to God their withered bones, ravaged by unnamed sins, and in their confession, they found healing. Confessing our sins is not about simply making things right, it is about healing and mercy. It requires us not to be perfect, and to acknowledge the painful reality that not only will we never be perfect, but also requires us to stand the vulnerable truth that in this mess of imperfection, in the long, complicated process of healing, what God desires more than anything is connection with us and for us.  

       One author I read about this Psalm referred to this as “the ego-bruising work of Lent.”[1]And I don’t know where you find yourself this first Sunday in Lent, but for me, it’s my withered bones hearing God’s invitation this season to healing and hope. When I turn that microscopic lens to my life, I see a longing for what the psalmist terms as God’s embrace of mercy.  This, no doubt, is the ego-bruising work of Lent, and I long for us to take it up together, not just because we’re all going to die one day, but because I am deeply convicted by the psalmist’s affirmation of hope. I believe that when we reflect on our sins, we will see where we’ve missed the mark, and in that, our withered bones will receive healing. Because the point of confession and repentance is not to add shame and guilt but is to acknowledge that the only way to fall outside of God’s embrace of mercy is to withhold ourselves from it, to let our sins separate us from ourselves, from those we love or are called to love, and from God.

The work of Lent is to change, but it’s also the work of healing. It’s the long, complicated sometimes counter-intuitive process of healing that very often requires us to feel some things that we may have pushed to the side. But we never do this alone, we take on this intentional season together and with God’s help. What would this season look like if you set time aside not just to confess your sins, but to intentionally accept the healing and hope that comes on the other side of you no longer carrying them? What does it look like for your life to be full of healing and hope and joy, not because you are without sins, but because you need not carry and continue them? I’m convinced that this is the point of Lent. It is not abject self-flagellation or overly pious efforts, but rather the opportunity to confess, repent, and to heal. And we go out into the world today, holding the psalmist’s hope that when we do this our lives will be filled with rejoicing! Rejoicing in God’s grace, in God’s healing, and in God’s unrelenting embrace of mercy.  Thanks be to God!

[1] Benckhysen, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-psalm-32-13

A sermon on Psalm 32 delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Lent 1A, February 26, 2023.

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