Psalm 51:1-17 (from Voices United)
We conclude our 5-sermon journey through the Psalms for Lent, exploring the faith questions that arise from these readings that prepare us to celebrate Easter. Today we read Psalm 51 together. For those of you who worshiped with us on Ash Wednesday, when Lent began, you will recognize it. In addition to being read this Sunday, Psalm 51 is assigned to Ash Wednesday every year because it clearly names our sin and guilt, and pleads with God for mercy.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your great kindness,
in the fullness of your mercy blot out my offences.
Wash away all my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence, and blameless in your judgement.
Guilty I have been from my birth, a sinner from the time of my conception.
But you desire truth in our 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 the sounds of joy and gladness,
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Turn away your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Put a new heart in me, O God,
and give me again a constant spirit.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and strengthen me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
O God, open my lips,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
You desire no sacrifice, or I would give it;
you take no delight in burnt offerings.
The sacrifice you accept, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Of all the questions this Lenten season might raise for us followers of Jesus, certainly those pertaining to our sin, guilt, shame and repentance must eventually be addressed. Over the centuries Christian leaders seem to have obsessed on laying guilt trips on people, trying to convince us that our proper repentance is the first (and maybe the only) condition necessary for restoring a right relationship with God – that somehow God forgiving and accepting us is solely dependent on us confessing our sins the right way. And in too many instances this has become so manipulative that people began rejecting the Church and its teachings, and just walking away … except of course, those of us who feel too guilty. Just kidding. But, let’s be honest, it can feel like that sometimes. Here we are … the faithful … carrying with us not only our own guilt, but also the guilt and shame of family members and friends who have long since walked away from the church and its teachings. So this morning perhaps it would be helpful to ponder together what a life beyond guilt trips could offer us and our loved ones.
The question is, What conditions are necessary for your spirit to be “put right” with God? … for you to live in a right relationship with God? … and by extension, for you to live in right relationships with others and with God’s creation? And I’m going to be speaking personally here about my own journey (that is, in first person), and will leave it to you to translate it into your own personal experience. We will explore four conditions that emerge from Psalm 51 this morning.
I begin with this necessity, though I don’t think it is the first or the only condition: An honest assessment of my guilty conscience. I don’t know if you noticed but the verses in this Psalm that include “guilty I have been from my birth … a sinner from my conception” sounds like God made me this way and I was born to feel guilty. The Church calls it “original sin” and even if you’ve never heard of that, much of our human experience of guilt and shame comes from it. I’m a sinner at the core and don’t deserve God’s love. So the only thing I can do is plead for God to forgive me … and yet I never really stop feeling guilty, which suggests to me that God has not really forgiven me yet … and on and on it goes. I’m running in circles and never feel good enough to be in a right relationship with God. The Psalm writer’s understanding of God begins this way: “Against you, God, have I sinned and you are justified in your judgement and condemnation of me.”
And yet the Psalmist breaks free from the endless cycle of unworthiness to show me the God who wants me to experience what God intended me to know and be from the very beginning: “You, God,” the writer prays, “you desire truth in my inward being, so please teach me this wisdom in my secret heart.” Remind me that I was born with original blessing and not sin. Remind me that the guilt I feel can be useful as a guide to grow in relationship with you and others, but never as an endless cycle of shame and alienation. Remind me that you accept me as I am, and long for me to become the person you are creating. And that feels to me like an honest assessment of my guilty conscience.
A second condition necessary for a right relationship with God may actually be the first one in the process – a genuine longing to be put right with God … a sincere desire to live in a right relationship. Many of the requests made to God in this Psalm I hear in this way, pleading with genuine longing for God to “have mercy in your kindness” … to “wash away my guilt and cleanse me from my sin” … to “purge and wash me so I can feel whiter than snow” … to “let me hear the sounds of joy and gladness.” These petitions describe the experience of being freed from sin, but for me a right relationship is more than being freed from something; the bigger question is: freed for what purpose? And then probably the most familiar line of this Psalm breaks on the ear: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” When I speak those words from my heart, I make room for God to prepare me for a greater purpose, for something good, for something worthwhile in God’s creation … I’m asking God for a heart that not only feels clean, but is made new for seeking right relationships with others. My genuine longing to be put right with God, opens the door for God to use me as an instrument of establishing good and healthy relationships with those around me. I am invited to share what I have been given … the gift of relationship.
This points to a third essential condition for my spirit to be put right with God: A gentle trust in God’s goodness that awaits and enfolds me as I am. Whatever desire I may have to restore my relationship with God, it’s God’s desire first, prompted by God’s never-ceasing welcome into God’s own loving heart. The Psalmist describes it like this: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and strengthen me with a willing spirit.” God’s saving work – that we as followers of Jesus see in his life, death, and resurrection – God’s saving work is preparing in me a spirit willing to rely on God’s restoring goodness in all circumstances in life; so that even when I realize how much of a mess I have made on my own, the love of God in Christ is there to embrace me. And the joyful hope this promise gives me offers all the courage necessary to ask forgiveness from God and share forgiveness with others. Trusting in God’s never-ending forgiveness helps me realize how much God wants to be in right relationship with me … and God is hard at work in my heart to make it so.
One last condition to consider in being ‘put right’ with God: A humble spirit and an open heart. When the Psalmist admits that God does not want formal ceremonial confessions of sin (sacrifices) but rather “a broken spirit and a contrite heart” I wonder what that means really. Does God break me to make me realize how desperate I am? Does God shame me to wake me up to my shattered life? I don’t believe so. I’ve struggled with these images over the years and have come to trust that the brokenness referred to here is, for me, really more like breaking open … like my heart is closed off to the many possibilities of God’s goodness and God breaks my heart free to imagine more. Similarly, I also trust that the desperate sadness I feel when I make mistakes in my relationships – you know, because of my arrogance, my selfishness, my anger – these failures humble me in a way that breaks my heart wide open, and I realize how much I need God … God’s love, goodness, forgiveness, help, and presence. A humble spirit and a heart broken wide open brings me to God … and when that happens, I feel God’s open arms enfold me anew.
So that’s how I experience it. Maybe you’ll take some time between now and Easter and try to sort out how you experience God’s promise too.
Orleans United Church
March 22, 2015