Meg Peery McLaughlin
March 1, 2020
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4 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 judgement.
5 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.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Three conversations I had just this week (shared with permission):
The first one was over eggs at Breadmans, three of us were talking about church. The fellow said he’d gone to church his whole life. He was double my age, so that was a lot of church. For the majority of those years he’d gone to a different church, not UPC, of which he is now a part. I asked why the change?I was tired. He said. Tired of what? Tired of being told every single week how bad I was. It was just too much.
The second one was in a hallway, on the fly, after a sunday school class. She said, It’s just too overwhelming. The climate: I’m doing my part but it won’t ultimately matter unless we do something systemic about fossil fuels. I’m from oil country, I know what an uphill battle that is. The democracy: I write my senators, I vote, but I live in NC. It’s everything; it’s a mess. I’m looking for a “what I can do,” but I’m part of something bigger than myself. I’m overwhelmed.
The third one was on the phone with someone who was working through some organizational messiness. Some complex dynamics that required tenacity and tenderness. Oh, I said, almost to myself, but I suppose out loud. Oh, we need a Savior. Without missing a beat, the voice on the other end of the phone said calmly, surely, “We already have one.”
I share these little windows, as pieces of our Lenten puzzle.
And if you’ll permit me, I’ll also share a conversation that I’ve been having with myself as this week we have now read Psalm 51 three times as a congregation. The PCM students used it Sunday for our Prayer of Confession. We read it on Wednesday before we smudged Ash on our foreheads, and here it is again.
Psalm 51 is a prayer the church reads at the start of this season every year. In Lent we often bury the word “Alleluia” in Lent, saving it for Easter morning, but there are other words at bubble up during this penitent season: Psalm 51 is filled to the brim with them: sin, iniquity transgression, evil, contrition, brokenness.
But every time we read it I cringe at the line: Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
Even as I read the words in worship, the conversation starts inside my head:
What meaning do people make of these harsh words?
Does this resonate with anyone? What conclusions are they jumping to:
that sex is wrong, that babies are born bad?
Who wants to come to church and hear that nonsense?
Oh, Lent. We need you so badly and we misunderstand you so greatly.
Down in Atlanta, at Emory, a professor of theology wrote
“In light of our problematic religious history, it may be tempting for the preacher to avoid the theme of contrition and sorrow for sin altogether[i].”
Ha!? You think so?
Well friends listen to this:
You were created good. In God’s own image. This is something we try to remind you of all the time. Our junior choir will be starting to practice songs that they will sing in worship next month, to prepare for a musical called In the Image of God. They will stand here and sing AND IT WAS GOOD! We’ve got enough depression and self esteem issues in this life to forget that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
My friend at Breadman’s was right: we are good. That is how God made us and we need to remember that.
And if this is true, sin isn’t our nature, sin is an aberration of it. Sin is a turning away from who God created us to be, and repentance is a turning back toward goodness.
When we’re honest, we admit our sinfulness, how we’re not who God creates us to be.
This Psalm is honest like that, it doesn’t hold back. It’s ascribed to David after he has had an affair with Bathsheba, another man’s wife, after he has orchestrated that same man’s death. Bad choices are part of our story.
But it’s not just our choices, it’s also the order of our hearts.
We love the wrong things, we forget that we have limits, we pretend we’re in control.
And it’s not just us. It’s happening all around us.
When Psalm 51 states that cringe-worthy line, it’s confronting us with a truth about human life that we almost never acknowledge.
“Every newborn child enters into a web of human relations that is already deeply flawed. The slate is never blank for any of us.”[ii]
We are always, all of us, part of something bigger than us. My great great grandfather, Albert Pendleton Gillespie lived in SW VA. He bought mineral rights from mountain farmers scratching out a life— they would work the land, but not profit from what was deep beneath it. The money Albert Pendleton Gillespie’s money sent my dad to college, and lasted long enough paid my tuition across the street. It came primarily from the profits from coal mining, which denigrated the land and dirtied the air.
As Duke scholar Ellen Davis puts it “If it were possible not to be involved in the sin of others, then we would be living in this world without any history.”
My friend in the hallway was right. It is overwhelming.
Deryl Fleming is a mentor in ministry and a friend. I could listen to him pray for days but his prayers are often brief, witty even, simply saying what needs to be said. Once when we were both tending to a family planning a funeral, Deryl closed our time in prayer. And he asked God to give the family good grief.
He didn’t say the phrase like Charlie Brown would, it wasn’t Good Grief, God, this death is hard and premature, which it was, no, it was a plea that this family’s grief be good, healthy, productive; that they would feel the feelings as they came, rather than smooshing them down that they would have friends with whom they didn’t have to pretended everything was fine. He sincerely wanted their grief to be good. And come to think of it, Deryl would also pray at times for people to have a good death.
Good grief. Good Death.
My question for us today is – ‘can there be good guilt?’
Not the kind that negates the way God made us.
Not the kind that leads us to self-flagellation of the soul
Not the kind that makes God mean rather than merciful
But can we pray for good and honest contrition, a willingness to be sad about how we’re not as God made us, not living in the way God dreams for this world to be?
Are we willing to let our hearts break?
Whenever I get an email from my friend behind me, the one who has sat on the organ bench for 18 years, the one we are so sad to learn is retiring in May, whenever I get an email from Tom Brown, there is quote in his signature line: words from a musician, of course.
Knowing Tom, You would think it would be one of his friends from the 17th or 18th centuries – Bach, Beethoven.
But instead, it’s a Jewish folk singer from the 1960s – Leonard Cohen.
Most days, in my inbox, I read the words:
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
I wonder if the same is true about hearts.
God is a God of steadfast love and abundant mercy, one who has the power to wash us clean and set us right one who restores to us the joy of salvation and promises God’s very nearness. God is a god of light and forgiveness.
My friend on the phone was right: we have a savior.
Perhaps if our hearts are cracked, broken open, then all that love would find an easy way in.
There is one last conversation I want to share with you. A conversation that happens between us. Not just in Lent, but every single week. One of us stands here and speaks a word of forgiveness to you.
Words of peace. And then you speak them back. It is an exchange of reconciliation, of hearts mended and sent to mend others.
Scholar Pat Miller says, ‘There is no more significant act in worship than the assurance of pardon. Your sins are forgiven. Those words are never said casually.”[iii]
My friend Jessica Tate tells of this moment at the first church she served. A woman named Gracie had just started coming to Jessica’s church in Fairfax. Gracie was a new Christian. She grew up without a faith tradition, found her way in to practicing Buddhism and ended up at Jessica’s church because she wanted community for her kids and she was curious.
She shared with the congregation her first experience in worship there.
“We got to the part in the service when the minister says, ‘In Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven,’ and I thought to myself, ‘Can this really be true? Can it really be true?’
I looked around and people didn’t seem to have heard. It was like they had forgotten that this was the best news they would ever, ever hear.”
Have we become so accustomed to grace that it ceases to amaze us?
Maybe…just maybe…what we need is some good guilt,
so we can recognize the amazing grace that is our gift in Jesus Christ our Lord.
I pray it will be so.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] Dr. Rodney Hunter, Journal for Preachers, Lent 2020.
[ii] Ellen Davis, pg. 170 Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament.
[iii] Miller, Patrick D., “Preaching Repentance in a Narcissistic Age: Psalm 51,” Journal for Preachers, 1998.