One of my favorite musical pieces is Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere mei Deus” written during the 1630s for use in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. The text comes from Psalm 51 which we read together today; the title of the work simply comes from the first words of the Psalm in Latin: Have mercy on me, O God. I first heard the “Miserere” during a Lenten retreat for clergy as the facilitator played the 8 minute piece for us. We sat enchanted by the ethereal voices asking God over and over for compassion and loving-kindness, for mercy and forgiveness. I closed my eyes, letting the music wash over me as I thought about my own life, about the times when I had missed the mark. About how much I needed God to blot out my offenses and to create a clean heart within me.
A Lenten sermon based on Psalm 51.
If the words of the Psalmist sound familiar to you, it may be because they are featured prominently during our Ash Wednesday liturgy each year. After ashes are imposed on our foreheads and we are called to remember our mortality, we kneel together and recite those words. “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, and my sin is ever before me.” We join in with the poet who, when faced with the stark reality of his deeds, recognizes his need for God’s forgiveness.
In her little book, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor invites us not to shun the use of words like sin, damnation, repentance, or salvation. While we can fully acknowledge God’s deep grace and unmerited love for the whole world, we cannot just assume that we won’t need to make amends when we’ve messed things up. Taylor writes, “Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives. Ironically,” she concludes, “it will also weaken the language of grace, since the full impact of forgiveness cannot be felt apart from the full impact of what has been forgiven.” Each Lent then we receive the opportunity to have those words roll off our tongues once more, to contemplate their meanings, and to reflect on our own lives. To acknowledge where we have fallen short—where we have sinned—and repent and return to the Lord.
Now you might be thinking, “Wait a second there, Preacher Man. Didn’t you just tell us last week that God loves us no matter who we are and where we’ve been? And now you’re telling us that we gotta make things right with God? What gives?” To which I simply reply, “Yes. It’s both.” God loves us truly, madly, deeply with every ounce of who God is and God wants us not to be beset by the sins that so easily entangle us.
I think one of the results of us losing the language of sin is exactly what Barbara Brown Taylor describes, we think it somehow makes sin no longer exist. But we all know that just isn’t true. If someone were to ask us where we’ve messed up in the past week, or month, or year, a time when we’ve caused pain to someone we love whether intended or not, or a point where we lost our temper, or when we shaded the truth, or decided to placate our own wants event if doing so would rupture a relationship, I suspect all of us could describe just such a time. We know all too well that we are not perfect. And here’s the other side of that, God accepts us in our imperfection. God created us and knows our struggles and human frailties. God does not reject us because of them, rather—because of that deep love—God wants us to experience a fullness of life and be restored in our relationships.
Because friends, when there is sin in our lives, we do not experience that fullness, that tremendous joy that comes when we know that we are free from those things that hinder us. That we have been forgiven. And yet that is exactly what God desires for each of us. To fully experience that relief by knowing that before God who is just, righteous, and holy, we stand totally in the clear. God wants our relationships with others to be restored, to be sustaining and uplifting. God desires for us to have clean hearts.
Examples of this redemption abound. We see it often in novels or in movies. The film “Lady Bird” released in 2017 drips with forgiveness throughout its entirety. The eponymous protagonist, a teenage girl who refuses to go by her given name, faces her senior year of high school longing to attend a prestigious college on the East Coast as her family deals with significant financial difficulties. Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother can only be described as tumultuous. They constantly bicker. Additionally, as Lady Bird tries to find herself, she has to both forgive a boyfriend who admits he dated her only to please his parents, and also ask for forgiveness herself after she temporarily ditches her best friend for a more popular set only to realize she doesn’t like pretending to be someone she is not. We see the power of that redemption most of all in the simmering relationship with her mother. Both Lady Bird and her mom long for love and connection and seem to just keep missing it. It takes time and effort, but eventually they are beautifully reconciled. Their relationship restored.
Of course in scripture we learn about King David who forcefully took Bathsheba—another man’s wife—for himself simply because he saw her and lusted after her. And then when she became pregnant, he planned the murder of her husband who was off fighting the king’s battles to cover it all up. David thought he was powerful enough that all this would just slide by without comment from others—alas, powerful people today often think the same things themselves—but the prophet Nathan eventually confronts him. When faced with himself and the horrific things he has done, David wants to restore that relationship with God, so he repents, and seeks to return to the Lord.
And in the midst of it all, he took out his journal and picked up his lyre—an ancient guitar—and wrote a song to God. The very one we read this morning: Psalm 51. “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, and my sin is ever before me. … Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed. Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. … Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.”
Salvation. That’s really what we’re hoping for when we start going down the road of recognizing and acknowledging the sins in our life. But there’s a pitfall we need to avoid. Barbara Brown Taylor describes it as the difference between being remorseful and being truly repentant. She writes, “Repentance begins with the decision to return to relationship: to accept our God-given place in community and to choose a way of life that increases life for all members of that community. Needless to say, this often involves painful changes, which is why most of us prefer remorse to repentance. We would rather say, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I feel really, really awful about what I have done” than actually start doing things differently.” Because that is what repentance means, of course, to turn around, to change directions.
A much fuller life is out there for you and me if we only dive in to the interior work God invites us to do. It’s not so God can punish us like the fourth grade teacher who made you stand in the corner, but so that we might be fully restored in our relationships. None of us is exempt from this work; each of us has things which separate us from God, from others, from our natural world, or from ourselves. Relationships that need to be reconciled. Hurts that require repentance and to be forgiven. And above all else, discovering a newness of life. It means doing things differently, which is hard work, but it is not work we do alone. God journeys with us encouraging us to dig in, to make amends, to change. So beloved friends, let us join with David, asking a loving God to cleanse and wash us and to give us clean hearts once more. God wants to do that for us, if we just choose the path of salvation.