Sermon for 19 Pentecost Yr B

19 Pentecost Yr B, 3/10/2021

Ps 26

Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

“Integrity and innocence”

What do the following three Canadians have in common? David Milgaard, Donald Marshall Jr., and Thomas Sophonow. If you guessed that they were wrongfully found guilty and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, you are correct. 

David Milgaard was charged with the 1969 murder of Saskatoon nursing aide Gail Miller and in January 1970 was sentenced to life in prison. Milgaard’s mother, Joyce, believed from the day he was arrested that her son was innocent. He spent more than two decades in prison. Milgaard was eventually cleared by DNA evidence, and Larry Fisher was found guilty of the rape and stabbing death of Gail Miller.

In 1971, Marshall was wrongfully convicted of murdering his friend, Sandy Seale, in a Sydney, N.S., park. He was released in 1982 after RCMP reviewed his case. He was cleared by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal the following year. Marshall, a Mi’kmaq, was exonerated by a royal commission in 1990 that determined systemic racism had contributed to his wrongful imprisonment.

Winnipeg police announced in June 2000 that evidence had cleared Thomas Sophonow in the killing of doughnut-shop clerk Barbara Stoppel.

Authorities said they had a new suspect in the 1981 murder for which Sophonow was tried three times and spent nearly four years behind bars. The Manitoba Court of Appeal acquitted him in 1985.1

In Psalm 26, even though we do not know the exact situation, it sounds like the psalmist was accused of some wrong that he was innocent of. The title that the NRSV Lutheran Study Biblegives this psalm seems to confirm this: “Plea for Justice and Declaration of Righteousness.” The Good News Bible title is similar: “The Prayer of an Innocent Person.” The Lutheran Study Bible identifies Psalm 26 as a prayer for help. Prayers for help often contain the following 5 elements: i) a call to be heard; ii) complaints about God’s absence, the person’s suffering, and oppressors; iii) pleas for help; iv) statements of trust in God; and v) promises to praise God after the crisis is past. Psalm 26 has some of these elements, so let’s take a closer look.

In verse one, it almost sounds like the psalmist is on trial, or others doubt the psalmist’s integrity. The Message renders it like this: “Clear my name, God; I’ve kept an honest shop. “I’ve thrown in my lot with you, God, and I’m not budging.” The NRSV puts it like this: “Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering.” 

In verse 2, the atmosphere of a court case comes through, and the psalmist seems to be speaking to God as Judge in the NRSV rendering: “Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind.” However in The Message rendering it is quite different. The imagery reflects more medical language, and God is like an M.D., and the psalmist is a patient: “Examine me, God, from head to foot, order your battery of tests. Make sure I’m fit inside and out.” 

Verse 3 of the NRSV rendering emphasises the psalmist’s trust in God’s steadfast love, which makes it possible for the psalmist to be faithful: “For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.” Of course, God’s steadfast love is so rich in meaning in the Bible, among other things it involves God’s justice. So God as Judge will always give everyone a fair trial, and be able, unlike human judges, to discern with the utmost truth, who is guilty and who is innocent. 

In verses 4 and 5, once again the setting has the impression of court language. The psalmist insists that there is no evidence that he is guilty by association, and he is defending his innocence. “I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I hate the company of evildoers, and will not sit with the wicked.”

In verses 6 and 7 he defends his innocence and cleanness by washing his hands and stating that he loves to worship God, bear witness to God, and be in the presence of the worshipping community. The Message renders these verses in the following colourful language: “I scrub my hands with purest soap, then join hands with the others in the great circle, dancing around your altar, God, Singing God-songs at the top of my lungs, telling God-stories.” 

Verse 8 is a continuation of the theme of the psalmist loving to worship God in God’s presence: “O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.” 

In verses 9 and 10 the psalmist forcefully pleads with God not to punish him or reject him or judge him like those who are criminals. Again the language of The Message is colourful: “When it’s time for spring cleaning, don’t sweep me out with the quacks and crooks. Men with bags of dirty tricks, women with purses stuffed with bribe-money.” 

Verses 11 and 12 conclude the psalm with an emphasis again on the psalmist’s integrity, and his promise to worship God in the future. “But as for me, I walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me. My foot stands on level ground; in the great congregation I will bless the LORD.” 

Integrity is important in life. That reminds me of the following story. Four boys found $13,000 in a brown paper bag on a New York street. Three of the boys wanted to divide the money and keep it. The fourth one persuaded them that the honest thing to do was to inform the police. The police took the money, but the boys’ action was widely publicized. In no time at all, a dozen claimants showed up to state that the money was theirs. It’s amazing how many people lose $13,000 in a brown paper bag! After a period of time had elapsed, the case was brought before the court, and the boys were called in. The judge listened to all the claimants, then praised the boys’ honesty and awarded the money to them. Faced with a conflict of right or wrong, they had made the right choice.2

It has been observed that: People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered. Love them anyway. 

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. 

The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.

People favour underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for some underdogs anyway. 

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.3

When you think about your life, like the psalmist, there has likely been at least one time when you were accused of doing wrong, but you were innocent. Like the psalmist, others may have questioned or doubted your integrity. Hopefully you, like the psalmist, are here today because of our LORD’s steadfast love, and all-sufficient grace. For that, we offer our praise and thanks! 

1 See the following article on the CBC website: <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-s-wrongful-convictions-1.783998#sophonow&gt;.

2 Albert P. Stauderman, Let Me Illustrate: Stories and Quotations for Christian Communicators (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983), p. 109. 

3 James S. Hewett, Editor, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988), p. 54.