“On Joy and Vanquishing Ghosts”

Psalm 32: 1 – 11 – Bill Maury-Holmes

On joy and vanquishing ghosts

There’s a ghost in my house, I can’t hide Lyrics by R. Dean Taylor, 1966

Jill went big last week to finish her sermon series in dialogue with Hamilton. She spoke to what the musical did not, that enslavement of so many rendered the stories of America incomplete and sources for ongoing injustice towards people of color. Racism has often been labeled America’s “original sin,” and our inabilities to recognize and change this goes far in fueling our ongoing horrors. We remain, in tragic ways, a haunted country. There’s a ghost in our house, we can’t hide. Stories matter.

And thus so does being honest.

Our Psalm today gives voice to one who had suffered mightily, for some unknown wrongdoings of their own. We never learn what these shortcomings may have been, which means they’re not important to the story. They simply just were, an unexplained backdrop to a drama of suffering and restoration.

What is important is the dynamic between our narrator and a loving God, a dynamic where choices are made and they count, where isolation, damaged silence and pain become transformed to forgiveness, protection, safety and joy and the inclusion/restoration to beloved community.

What makes that switch is what we may call coming clean, of bringing our messes into the light and airing them out, of telling our lesser truths, (many) warts and all.

Some of you may have grown up Catholic, and thus would know this in the sacrament of confession in the Catholic Church. It’s more often called the sacrament of Reconciliation these days, as the end of restored relationship with God and others is more the point than the means of how one accomplishes such. But it so important that the act of coming clean happens. Let me share some ways.

Some of you know that I have had a long-time interest in the life and work of St. Damien de Veuster, the 19th century Belgian Catholic priest who lived and served with those at the Kalaupapa peninsula on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Folks in Hawaii between 1866 and 1969 were sent to Kaluapapa for the “crime” of being sick, of having contracted Hansen’s disease, what has been (wrongly but) popularly called “leprosy.” Father Damien is a fascinating character, hard-working, loving, ornery, fiercely loyal to those cast away, possessing singular focus and integrity and a dark sense of humor. He loved his Belgian ale.

When I first started trying to follow Jesus in my late teens I was looking for role models. I’d seen plenty around me who for whatever reasons didn’t measure up; finding exemplars was a task. I stumbled onto Damien’s story and I was taken. At first it was straightforward. Jesus touched (and healed) lepers, those who were

most frightening and cast aside in his time and place. Damien did too. Tell me more.

Damien’s story, and that of St. Marianne Cope, the Franciscan sister nun who followed him and did even more work and for a longer time, became touchstones for my own faith. They compelled me then and motivate me still. I often ask myself what would Damien and Marianne do when I am seeking real world guidance.

But at age 19 it was a sidenote story about Damien that really grabbed me. I was reading a little, obscure devotional history book and I first came upon a story of Damien’s practice of confession. At that time, Damien thought (as did many Catholics) that only confession to a priest “counted” as valid. As I learned later, it was part of the constitution of his priestly order that all priests were to have a nearby partner so they could minister the sacraments to each other, including hearing confession and proclaiming reconciliation with the forgiveness of sins. No other priests had come with Damien to Kalaupapa; there were too many fears institutionally and personally of contagiousness. He was working solo.

So he had nobody to whom he thought he could confess. And it ate him up. His writings show that he deeply felt that he was in some peril, that he felt captive to his wrongs without a mechanism for release. Thus when he was given a pastoral

visit by the Bishop of his order, a good, supportive and genial soul by the name of Louis Maigret, a most striking thing happened.

Part of the reason for the visit was specifically so that Damien could give his confession to Maigret. But upon arrival, the bishop was not allowed to disembark for shore. If he left the boat, so the authorities said, he would not be allowed back aboard as he now too could be exposed and infected with the dreaded disease. After some hostile back and forthing, Damien rowed a small boat out and anchored next to the bigger frigate. And then he shouted his confession to his shipbound superior priest, in full public, but in French.

It seems to have become a minor scandal, that a kind and giving priest would be effectively forced to publicly humiliate himself in order to keep his faith and vows, and find his desired relief. When I later started doing research into Damien and the history of Kalaupapa I found enough in the letters and newspapers to corroborate the core of the story.

At 19 I had found one who not only served by giving his life in service and solidarity with those most outcast, but also took deeply seriously his life, faith, integrity and relationship with God. He wanted to live the liberation, the forgiveness and the reconciliation that he shared with others.

That little story leveled me. I’d come to faith warily. I liked Jesus a lot. I was a lot more standoffish with some of his followers. I’d seen enough up close

and from afar of people who talked about Christianity and morality but didn’t seem to be very good at living anything like it. This was particularly noxious to me when done by Christian leader-types. I got then and get still that all of us come up short in countless ways, but those who worked their egos and petty moralities out “in the name of Jesus” were quite a stumbling block for me, along with many others it turned out.

Damien was different, and compelling. He shared joy. He offered hope where nobody else did. God looked pretty good in Damien.

There were some things in my life at that time that I didn’t particularly like, things not particularly uncommon as an adolescent male and that haunted me a bit. Damien’s confession gave me a model of what could be possible. One’s debts did not need stay on the ledger forever.

That’s the good news we hear in Psalm 32. It starts and ends with happiness, gladness and loud joy. The Lord God does good for the needy and broken soul who comes clean. The fear of judgement resided in the Psalmist’s sleepless body and guts and is not brought upon them by God. Transparency allows God to liberate.

And now the Psalmist can rhapsodize. When life’s tide comes high water and hard, there is a high and safe ground. When one needs safety, Mother God

provides a hidden shelter. Troubles? God can keep you clear, and provide the beloved community to celebrate – loudly – liberation with me, you, us, all.

This is a sneaky element of traditional Christian practice that makes its way into our worship every week, even at our oh-so progressive Redlands United Church of Christ. It comes right after that bit about “give us this day our daily bread, and…”

“…forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We use the alternate formula in the Lord’s prayer here at RUCC, subbing out “sins” in favor of “debts.” It’s a fair theological point; we all do some things that place us in the “debts” portion of life’s ledger. And we’re a congregation that is profoundly ambivalent about how what is called “sin” gets selectively thrown about as a way of harming others.

But in switching “debts” for “sins” we may also lose something descriptively helpful – we each and all, individually and collectively, mess up in any number of ways, and rather than simply costing us we hurt ourselves and hurt others. With Anne Lamott and many, we know that “hurt people, hurt others.”

Being honest about that the psalmist calls our “transgressions, sin, iniquity, and deceit” is not only an exercise in truth-telling. It also, through the act of naming, can reduce their hidden power over us, a power that keeps us stuck, suffering perhaps in pain, and experiencing isolation from others and even God.

I have learned much about this from friends who are in various recovery programs, working their steps as they seek to maintain and grow in health and sobriety. It’s not a once done, always done sort of thing. Sobriety, as it is said, is “one day at a time,” it’s that ongoing work of making a “searching and fearless inventory of ourselves” and admitting to ourselves and to others “the exact nature” of our wrongs, and also to God who receives us in all our needs,.

A friend of mine read this psalm and replied that “it brought (him) back to the raw feelings in early recovery and (his) first concept of a Higher Power.” A saying that resonated with him was “I know two things about God. There is one, and it isn’t me.” What the psalmist finds is that in confessional honesty God is kind, forgiving, restorative. It’s a golden thread of human experience with the God encountered by our restored psalmist, what is called the “steadfast love,” “loving kindness,” or “tender mercies.” And it changes everything.

Everything. It would be unfortunate to read this solely through the lens of individualism, of a liberated individual from the moral failures, petty and otherwise, of their individual life. Yes, that transformation is essential, and wonderful. But it is the surroundings that tell the bigger story, the ones that make up the expanding beloved community who sing out the “glad cries of deliverance.”

So indulge me a thought experiment as we finish that might bring us full circle to Jill’s sermon last week. Perhaps too the Psalmist is speaking truth to

cultures, to human structures. Perhaps the one rotting while keeping silence are those of us who won’t confess how greed, systemic racism, savage inequalities and desire for comfort, order and control have riven our country and churches, chopped and diced us all sorts of ways. For that we must stop, confess these sins and change, “one day at a time.” Then the shouts for joy may be louder, the community of joy more expansive, and real.

It is in isolation that the psalmist suffers, languishing haunted in their woes alone. It is in being liberated to beloved community that God’s “steadfast love surrounds.” May we be so moved.