Lord Have Mercy -- Reflections for Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday. With this day, we begin a Lenten journey that calls on us to do a bit of introspection. With that in mind, I invite you to reflect on the message of Psalm 51. The message rooted in that Psalm was delivered by me at our 2010 Ash Wednesday Service. I am reposting it here that you might take in its message of repentance and restoration.

Psalm 51:1-17

    A biology professor enters a faculty meeting, sits down, and then suddenly stands up and begins shooting.  By the end of the shooting spree, three lie dead and a number of others are critically wounded. Why?  Apparently, a faculty committee had denied a tenure appeal.  We wonder, sometimes, why such a  thing could happen, especially when the perpetrator is well educated.  Surely, I wouldn’t do such a thing?   Surely, I’m not capable of doing that which is evil?  And yet, this is the question we face as we come here tonight to have our foreheads smeared with ash. 

    Among the texts that we read this evening was one that focused in  on the question of guilt. While this text calls for repentance, it also offers hope of forgiveness and a new beginning in life.  That text is Psalm 51.  Traditionally, it’s supposed  to be David’s prayer of contrition, which he offers to God, after Nathan rebukes him for his rape of Bathsheba, and his complicity in the death of her husband (2 Sam. 11-12). 

    Now, we don’t usually think of David’s “relationship” with Bathsheba in terms of rape.  Neither 2 Samuel nor the Psalmist uses this word, but unless we use the word, Bathsheba comes off as a seductress and David is let off the hook.  Maybe that’s the way we’d like it to be.  After all, David is supposed to be a man after God’s own heart.  How could such a godly man commit such an evil act?  Still, this isn’t the story of an affair between two consenting adults, because David was, after all, a person of power.  He got what he wanted, and what he wanted was Bathsheba. 

    As the story goes, when David is confronted with the enormity of his sin, he pleads with God not to cast him aside or remove the Holy Spirit from him, as God earlier had done with Saul.  Although,  David was likely concerned about his throne, this prayer of confession goes on to ask God for a clean heart, one that wasn’t infected by the sin that drove him to these acts of violence.

    Ash Wednesday tends to be one of the more uncomfortable services in the church year.  That maybe why it’s not among the best attended of services.  This could be due,  in large part,  to the focus on introspection.  Texts like Psalm 51 force us to consider the possibility that  if David could do this, then what about me?  If you’re like me, looking for skeletons hiding in the dark closets of our hearts doesn’t sound appealing.  And yet, even if I’m not a murderer or an adulterer – at least not in the physical sense –  am I any freer of sin than was David?  Beyond that, there are those difficult questions about my complicity in economic, political, and social systems that oppress others.

    Commenting on this text, Peter Marty suggests that we often make two missteps when talking of sin.  First, we tend to delight “in the deliciousness of other people’s sins.”  That is, we like to focus on the sins of our neighbors, either enjoying their comeuppance or clucking with self-righteousness, because we’ve not committed as heinous an act as they have, all the while neglecting to admit that we too  are sinners. 

    The second misstep is related to the first.  We tend to look at sin as if it’s primarily an external action.  It’s something bad, which we have done.  But, according to the Scriptures, sin starts in the heart  (Matthew 5:17ff).  Therefore, as Peter Marty points out, if we want to understand the reality of sin, then we might want to think of in terms of  cause and effect.  Sin, which is internal, is the cause, while sins, which are externals, are the effects.  Sin, therefore, is the underlying condition to our behaviors, which we often call sin. (Peter Marty in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, WJK, 2009, 11, 13).

    To this point in the service, we’ve heard the Word read and we’ve reflected upon that Word.  Ahead of us lies the marking of the forehead and the confession of sin.  This can be unsettling – in part because we’d rather not mar our appearance with a bit of dirt, and also because it requires that we admit that we’re sinners.  Consider the Psalmist’s refrain: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (vs. 3).  Indeed, the Psalmist confesses, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (vs. 5).  

    Fortunately for us,  the Psalm doesn’t end on this note.  It allows us to confess our sins and recognize our complicity in the evil that’s present in the world – both personal and systemic.  This recognition can be unsettling, unless there’s a word of liberation and forgiveness. Having made confession of our sins – even if we don’t publicly name them –  we put ourselves into position so that God might create within us a clean heart and right spirit.  The end result is, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5, we get to participate in the new creation that emerges out of God’s reconciling love.  Both the Psalmist and Paul understand that the only way we can  break free of the rat race we find ourselves running, is for God to reboot our lives – and this takes an act of grace.

    Having been marked with ash, and having confessed our sins before God, pleading for a new heart and new spirit, we may look forward to receiving in the ash a sign of forgiveness and restoration.  While we’re still bearing on our bodies the marker of our sin, we will go forth  from this place, embarking on the journey called Lent, with broken and contrite spirits,  giving praise and thanks to the Lord our God, who has shown mercy on us.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Ash Wednesday
February 17, 2010


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