From the 51st Psalm: “Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.”
I had a small, but not insignificant revelation a few weeks ago. Every Lenten season I make a sincere effort to be more cognizant of my shortcomings, weaknesses and willful disobedience. This may sound silly. Shouldn’t one always be conscientious of one’s sins and not just during these weeks of Lent? But, truly, I claim Lent as the 40 days in which I am not allowed to fall off the wagon. If I am ever going to get my act together it’s going to be now. And I take it personally, as if God is taking inventory of my thoughts and my actions and, if they warrant exposure and recrimination, he will be so bold as to post them on Youtube.
Not long after Ash Wednesday I went to the gym to exercise. Just moments before beginning my workout, I was cut to the quick, shamed by an elliptical machine. Let me explain: Before the machine will function you have to enter the particular workout you would like to pursue: cardio, hills, fat burner, etc… And then it asks you to enter your weight and age. Ugh, these machines make you feel defeated before you even begin. I want to punch in “too heavy” and “approaching 50 so cut me some slack!” but those options do not exist.
Here’s what happened: I caught myself shaving off pounds when it asked me to enter my weight. I couldn’t even tell the truth to an inanimate piece of exercise equipment. While this fib may seem trivial, it was telling. Lent had just begun and I was already lying to myself; trying to make myself out to be someone I was not.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
If you are not aware, next Sunday is the first day of Holy Week—Palm Sunday—the day on our Christian calendar in which we assume our share of the blame for our Lord’s crucifixion. This is why Jesus announces in our Gospel this morning that “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” It is time for the beginning of the end. The chief priests and Pharisees are in a panic to arrest Jesus. “This man is performing many signs,” they declare in the 11th chapter of John. “If we left him go on like this everyone will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation (John 11: 47b-48).
So you see our hour has come too. We have only days to prepare ourselves. Days to confess our sins and boldly experience the healing power of our guilt. This is why the 51st Psalm is part of our lectionary on Ash Wednesday and today. It outlines the paradox of the Lenten journey: our liberation will come through our suffering, not in spite of it. The psalmist knows that if we do not participate in an honest assessment of our sins in thought, word, and deed, then we are more apt to blame our brokenness and that of the world on someone or something else. Look within, and listen to the psalmist’s wail and plea to be re-created. Let the broad, strong, roughening words of the song shake your bones: wash, cleanse, purge, blot out. RESTORE.
Our hour has come. We cannot languish in sin and indifference, expecting Jesus to be resurrected on Easter morning. We have a role to play in his passion as well. By praying this psalm we become the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies . . . only to be reborn. When Jesus professed he would be lifted up from the earth and draw all people to himself he was including you and me. We must be made clean.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Psalm 51 reveals a despair born of self-loathing and a longing for release. It is a cosmic cry for help. It was originally King David’s lament, in response to the Prophet Nathan excoriating him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. David impregnated her then masterminded Uriah’s murder. We must imagine the all-powerful King David on his knees, whimpering, pleading, in desolation.
The core plea of the 51 Psalm precisely fits David’s estrangement with God in the aftermath of the affair. The king has made himself into a monster. He knows it. Just as he knows the only God can restore him. It is there in the 10th verse that David employs the Hebrew verb “bara’” which means “to create” to petition just such a divine act from the only Being who can grant it. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” His confession is followed by pleading, by the cry of the old heart for a new heart, a clean heart.
We know that in scripture “heart” does not mean the muscle that tolls at the center of the human coil. Instead, the Hebrew word “lev” is an all-inclusive concept of one’s interior being. The Greek translates the Hebrew “lev” as mind, conscience, heart and will. This means the biblical heart is the strong spiritual center that integrates our feeling, knowing, experiencing, into a secret self that only God knows and that only God can fill.
Like David we wish God to teach our hearts wisdom so that we can pursue the faithfulness God desires (51:6). Just as God did for David, God can penetrate the layers of our secrets: our anger, doubt, resentfulness, hatefulness, jealously, laziness, and fear. Our insurmountable smallness. He reaches through the dead husk with his hand, an open hand, to hold the ailing heart within. What He holds He illuminates. What He holds He makes new because our brokenness is no match for God’s grace.
Now you may ask how you can be made clean in these last days of our desert journey. How can you begin a practice of confession that is more deliberate than our general confession of sin as part of each Eucharist? One way is through the sacrament of private confession known in our prayer book as “Reconciliation of a Penitent.” The saying commonly referred to confession in the Episcopal Church is “All may. Some should. None must.” I know that we clergy would welcome to hear your private confession, but if you’re not quite comfortable with that option, you should feel comfortable opening the prayer book and praying it alone. So please humor me and turn to page 449, Form Two. [Congregation is led through Reconciliation of a Penitent]
The Priest and Penitent begin as follows
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions only too well,
and my sin is ever before me.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
have mercy upon us.
Penitent Pray for me, a sinner.
Priest May God in his love enlighten your heart, that you may
remember in truth all your sins and his unfailing mercy.
The Priest then continues
Now, in the presence of Christ, and of me, his minister,
confess your sins with a humble and obedient heart to
Almighty God, our Creator and our Redeemer.
The Penitent says
Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in
your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and
death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the
water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of
his righteousness, and established me among your children in
your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your
saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste.
Especially, I confess to you and to the Church . . .
Here the Penitent confesses particular sins.
Therefore, O Lord, from these and all other sins I cannot
now remember, I turn to you in sorrow and repentance.
Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me
to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him
in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior
Jesus Christ. Amen.
Will you turn again to Christ as your Lord?
Penitent I will.
Priest Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?
Penitent I forgive them.
May Almighty God in mercy receive your confession of
sorrow and of faith, strengthen you in all goodness, and by
the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.
The Priest concludes (And now my favorite dismissal in the entire Prayer Book)
Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and
are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus
our Lord. Abide in peace. The Lord has put away all
Penitent Thanks be to God.