February 14, 2018
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Yesterday, I was preparing to drop Gabriel off with his first-grade class at the Mid-Town Academy, when, to my surprise, a little girl gave him a hug. There was no reason for it, so far as I could tell; she just did it.
“Oh,” I said, “how sweet!”
Gabriel was incredibly embarrassed – he blushed, made a silly face, rolled his eyes at me, as if to say, “Ah, Dad, knock it off . . . you’re embarrassing me!”
It was very real. I still feel the warmth of that spontaneous gesture of affection. And, maybe, with a little effort, I can feel Gabriel’s response, too, blushing so as to, in some way, vanish . . . after all, it’s so embarrassing!
Our Lenten discipline begins tonight with a different kind of embarrassment. It begins with Psalm 51, which scholars classify as an individual lament/complaint psalm. Traditionally, we associate this psalm with the story of David and Bathsheba. However, the psalmist never mentions that story by name. We can guess about the circumstances of its composition, but the ambiguity of Psalm 51 remains.
Perhaps its historical reticence is deliberate and pastoral rather than accidental. Maybe that ambiguity invites us to breathe, cry out, feel deeply the anguish of human frailty before one’s own sin.
In other words, Psalm 51 isn’t merely the anguished cry of some ancient poet, but perhaps the cry of us all. We make mistakes. Sometimes really big mistakes. Biblical narratives aren’t shy about naming our mistakes. Adam and Eve get us going; Cain and Abel add a homicidal twist; Jacob and Esau rob and steal in fraternal anti-fidelity; and even the early church couldn’t agree to disagree in a civil manner. Acts tells us that the church leadership split in two; apparently, it was a very messy divorce – Paul didn’t see eye to eye with Barnabas. As the narrator of Acts records, “the disagreement became so sharp that they parted company” (39). Last we see Barnabas, he’s sailing away with half the congregation and its property.
It’s not only historical, either. We have our “very embarrassing” situations, don’t we? What page would you turn to in the complicated, sticky, sometimes contradictory story of your life? They are not hard to find, are they? In the living room of your home. That was embarrassing, wasn’t it? Or that time you tried to get out of a relationship but didn’t execute your exit in an especially elegant or kind way. Or that moment when a secret becomes public, and everyone’s talking and no one’s talking. It’s out. It’s about you. And it’s as if you’ve been separated from everyone. It’s like they put you in a boat and pushed you into an ocean of not belonging. Everyone else was human, but not you.
Maybe, we are victims. Maybe our psalmist experienced bad parenting, or unjust circumstances. There’s a place for saying, I am a victim. And the psalmist will use this kind of language. But by the same token, we also play our part, contributing to our own self-destruction.
That’s the bad news. But here’s the good news and it is arguably more prominent than the bad news: The psalmist not only understands human nature, but the psalmist rejoices and finds strength in God’s nature. God forgives. God saves. God makes whole that which is broken; God comes to us, our broken selves, and collects us with tender sighs of compassion. God does not grow weary with us, but returns to us every day, God’s mercies renewed, sure as the sunrise. God opens our mouth and teaches us to sing a new song, a song of hope, a song of change already beginning, a song of new life, joy, salvation.
The truth about us all is that we do mess up, we will mess up, and we are messed up. But our psalmist testifies to a greater truth: God changes those who seek him.
Paul changed. David changed. Jacob and Esau changed. Naomi, mother-in-law of Ruth, she changed, too. Maybe that’s the other part of the story. The good news: God changes us for the better.
In a moment, we will be invited to receive the sign of the cross in the form of ashes on our foreheads. Isn’t it embarrassing? Very embarrassing! We look like living accidents. Ash and dust all over your face. All over my face. And yet, it’s the sign of the cross.
It tells the truth.
We may know the injuries of life. We may even be the cause of injury, to ourselves as well as to those we love. Maybe we still feel badly today, even at this moment. It lingers with us, staring at us. A character defect. A moral failure. Whatever.
That’s human nature, I guess. When it is our nature, when our sin is ever before us, we can open our mouth wide with self-pity. Or perhaps excuses. Or perhaps self-loathing.
But it’s not a secret here. So let’s unmask the lie. You’re not a horrible person. Not true. You’re not so alone as you may imagine. The ash and dust you feel in your heart — I carry the same ash and dust in my heart. As does everyone else. But instead of keeping it to ourselves, tonight, we’re going to wear it on our forehead. Nowhere to hide. No shame either. But remember: it’s ash. We wash it off. It’s not forever. I’ll tell you what’s forever: God’s love is forever. Today, hear joy and gladness, the way love announces its presence in Christ.
Biblical stories testify to the capacity of God to change our hearts. Our lives may be checkered with events, decisions, and things about which we feel badly. But the good news is that this “ash and dust in our hearts” – this stuff that accuses us is not the final verdict. Christ claims the ash and the dust of the human condition, signified in the cross, as the place from which he announces our freedom from sin.
In fact, by God’s grace,
the verdicts against us
turn into victories for us.
The lost are found. The blind see.
In a few moments, we’ll be standing around looking at one another with smudges of ash on our foreheads. It might be kind of embarrassing. And kind of beautiful, too.
It might be, like, gosh, we’re all here, all struggling – there’s Sue, and Mike, and Gwendoline, and Jim — but look, it’s not the struggle, not the verdict of sin, but the promise of victory that I see. I see ash, but mostly, I see “sweet expressions on each face” — it’s almost embarrassing.
But mostly beautiful. Blushingly beautiful.
Ah, Dad. Knock it off would you — you’re embarrassing me!
By God’s grace and to God’s glory. Amen.