So what is the worst thing you have ever done? Something you really don’t want anyone else to know about. I know mine and I get a knot in my stomach whenever I remember.
Now think about what it would be like to have that event of your life emblazoned across the centuries and memorialized in Scripture. That is what has happened to David. And that is the context of Psalm 51.
David our hero.
The faithful shepherd.
The idealistic youth who felled a giant with a stone from his sling.
The one anointed by the prophet Samuel and proclaimed to be king.
The one upon whom “the spirit of the Lord came mightily.”
This David who united the tribal nation of Israel and established Jerusalem as its capital.
Yes. This same David abused his royal power by sexually abusing his neighbor. When she sent word that she was pregnant, David attempted an elaborate cover-up and then coldly ordered her husband’s murder.
The worst thing David ever did – memorialized in Scripture across the ages.
But this same Scripture gives us this powerful Psalm as well. This prayer of lament, of submission and confession.
The prayer of Psalm 51 has given many of us hope in the midst of our own failings. Because whenever any of us names our own sin along with David, we too are invited into the power of the gospel.
Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation.
I have borrowed this from the title of Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful little book Speaking of Sin. In it Taylor names our human tendency to downplay our own sin. To deflect our guilt. To diminish our complicity. To dismiss our responsibility.
We humans are so very adept at justifying ourselves.
But self-justification has no power to heal.
Rev. Taylor reminds us that it is only in the naming, the acknowledging, the recognizing and the confessing of our failures that there is any chance of being healed, made whole, saved by the justification and grace of God.
Look at the first two verses of this moving prayer. Watch how the Psalmist uses these powerful triplets.
“Mercy. Steadfast Love. Mercy,” he pleads.
“My transgressions. My iniquity. My sin,” he confesses.
“Blot out. Wash me. Cleanse me,” he implores
There is no spin here, no excuses, no hedging.
The Psalmist is brutally honest.
And the prayer has us sit there; right there, camped out in the tension, in the misery, in the discomfort.
This Psalm doesn’t rush to resolution.
It doesn’t allow for glib apologies and assume everything will be okay and go back to normal.
Instead, when we name our own sins along with David, this prayer causes us to really feel the weight of what we have done; it challenges us to truly understand the significance of its effect on others.
Because it is not until we have lingered for awhile in this brutal honesty that the uncomfortable reality of our failures allows us to catch a glimpse of the reality of grace.
The Psalms teach us that both repentance and reconciliation are process.
Have you been following the news from our Disciples General Assembly? I’m pretty proud of our church these days and I’m looking forward to the leadership of the Rev. Terri Owens.
It was back at the 2001 General Assembly that Disciples committed to our 2020 vision: “to be an anti-racist, pro-reconciling church.” Now here we are at 2017. We have spent several years going through the process of repentance; learning what reconciliation could look like. Here we are 16 years later and we have elected our first African American General Minister and President.
Disciples have been making the news because of this decision. Rev. Owens is the first Black woman ever elected to the highest office of any American mainline denomination. I hope you are as proud of that bold decision as I am.
But I’m also proud of Disciples for recognizing – all those years ago – that racism has been an entrenched sin within the church for far too long. It’s not enough to be “anti-racist,” our denomination proclaimed; we must be pro-active. “Pro-reconciling.”
Like David, Disciples named this deeply rooted sin that was crippling our body. And like David, we prayed for a new heart, a willing spirit; we prayed that we would be able to turn and become new. Renewed.
Thank God for the grace of new beginnings.
Now look again at the last two verses of Psalm 51. The plea to “rebuild the walls of Jerusalem” seems out of place in the context of David’s sin against Bathsheba and Uriah. But here is an example of the multi-layered meaning within the Psalms.
Throughout these prayers, whenever the Psalmist prays “I,” we should understand that is not just an individual “I.” It also is a corporate “I/we” that speaks to the life of Israel as a whole. Consider how this prayer must have spoken to Israel in Exile hundreds of years after David. The walls of the city are demolished and the Temple lay in ruins. This crisis came about – the prophets proclaimed – because of Israel’s sin. Because of their unfaithfulness to God.
Hear the prayer of Israel now. Torn from the homeland. Captive in a foreign land. Wondering if this may be the end of this people of YHWH.
“Mercy, Steadfast Love, Mercy,” they plead.
“My transgressions. My iniquity. My sin,” they confess.
“Blot out. Wash. Cleanse,” they implore.
When I was studying for this sermon, I found my copy of Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on the Psalms and pulled it off my shelf. When I opened it, pages started falling out. I’ve just about loved this book to death.
Brueggemann has taught me that the message of the Psalms begins with an assumption that Israel’s covenant with YHWH has created an orientation of safety and stability.
But then – as so often happens in life – a crisis happens and nothing seems safe or stable anymore. Sometimes, as in Psalm 51, the crisis is of our own making. Sometimes the disorientation comes because of the sin, abuse or oppression of another. There is a deep awareness that the world is not “right;” things are not as the “should be.” The orientation of stable relationship with God has devolved into a chaotic disorientation.
But it is in these very times of chaos and confusion that something new has the opportunity to come into being. A New Orientation, Brueggemann calls it.
It’s not a re-orientation; it’s not a going back to the way things were. Rather the disorientation leads to something new. A new way of seeing. A new way of being.
I think this is David’s experience here in Psalm 51. Right here, in his distress, he discovers the possibility for something brand new.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
The time of sorrowful repentance produced for David a new beginning. A new orientation toward God and hence a new, more compassionate, more humble orientation toward the people he was called to lead.
Because of David’s disorientation, he is one who has been broken open, who has been poured out, who has been emptied.
Does that language sound familiar?
This is my body, broken for you.
This is my blood, poured out for you.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2)
The Son of David.
The Good Shepherd.
The Anointed One.
Proclaimed to be King of all creation.
Filled with God’s Spirit.
Abounding in mercy, compassion and steadfast love.
The One who has – in his death – broken the power of Sin with a capital S.
The One who has – in his resurrection – offered the power to make all things new.
The One who has – by his spirit – created the power to heal the infection of brokenness within us. Within our families. Within our churches. Within our communities.
As I think back about my own worst thing and the process I went through to repent and heal, I remember how authentic repentance can feel like a death. And maybe that’s what it is. A complete giving over of myself. A true submitting of myself.
A dying to ourselves.
But thank God, we are a people who believe in resurrection.
Thank God, we are a people of resurrection because of the abundant mercy and steadfast love of the God of Life and Hope.
No matter what we have done, there is always grace and mercy.
There is always healing/wholeness/salvation ready for us.
There is always the gospel.
Sermon preached at First Christian Church, McKinney TX on July 16, 2017.