1 Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
2 Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
purify me from my sin!
3 Because I know my wrongdoings,
my sin is always right in front of me.
4 I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
completely correct when you issue your judgment.
5 Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
from the moment my mother conceived me.
6 And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.[a]
7 Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and celebration again;
let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
9 Hide your face from my sins;
wipe away all my guilty deeds!
10 Create a clean heart for me, God;
put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
11 Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
12 Return the joy of your salvation to me
and sustain me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
and sinners will come back to you.
14 Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
15 Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
16 You don’t want sacrifices.
If I gave an entirely burned offering,
you wouldn’t be pleased.
17 A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.[b]
You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.
If there’s one aspect of Presbyterian worship I did not understand and did not appreciate as a child and adolescent it was the weekly prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. This was partly because I was a good kid—a diligent student, a pleaser… I was not overtly rebellious. Never have smoked a cigarette. Didn’t like doing ANYTHING that might upset the authority figures in my life. So in the too short moment of silence in every worship service I’d rack my brain trying to find something to confess… and I usually couldn’t. So I didn’t see the point. And besides… EVERY week we’re told our sins are forgiven already… so why bother? This practice of self-examination and confession, embedded in our weekly worship, seemed useless, redundant… When a friend in college told me her favorite season of the church year was Lent… those 40 days and nights often dedicated to the practice of self-examination and confession… that season which we have just entered once more— when she suggested that Lent was her favorite season I thought she was crazy. If a few minutes of it every week was too much for me… a whole season seemed absurd.
My how things change. Now I engage in this practice of self-examination and confession almost daily. And it just might be my favorite part of weekly worship. I’m still not an overtly rebellious person. I’m still, apparently, basically good. I still don’t like upsetting authority figures… or anyone really. But I know that I fall short of the glory of God, as do we all, daily. I know that if I examine my life through the lens of the 10 commandments, I have ample room for growth. Heck this is obvious even if I attend only to the greatest commandment— actually two commandments— that Jesus identified— “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. Some days are better than others, but my love is frail, complicated, dis-ordered… I have endless room for growth in love. I am a sinner.
There it is. The most basic practice of confession. Saying those words– right out loud. I am a sinner. I have sinned. I sin. Our scripture reading today is one of the most developed explorations of that basic confession in the whole of the Bible. Psalm 51 is what scholars call a prayer for help. All the prayers for help in the Bible contain complaints of trouble, petitions for help, expressions of trust and praise. And we’ve got all of this in this Psalm… and yet it is different than many of the other prayers for help. While the Psalmist frequently complains of troubling circumstances, saying things like “change my situation, so I may praise you.” What this Psalm says, repeatedly is “Change me; I am the problem.”[i]
The first two verses of this Psalm use every Hebrew word for sin. There are three Hebrew words for sin, just three, and all of them are in these two verses. The most common Hebrew word for sin is chatah, which most literally means “to miss the mark,” “to go astray.” The second is avah, meaning literally “to act wrongly,” and the third word is pasha, “to rebel.” Now this third word is actually used a lot in this Psalm.[ii]The translation of scripture from which I read renders pasha as “wrongdoings,” the Bibles in your pews say “transgressions,” another scholar suggests the rebellion should be made more obvious in the translation— and he says “rebellious acts” is a better way to translate pasha. For example, where the translation I read says “Wipe out my wrongdoings” he writes “Delete my rebellious acts.”[iii]
I rarely use Hebrew in the pulpit… It’s not our language. I’m mentioning it today only because in the FIRST verses, in practically one breath the Psalmist uses every word for sin available to him. So this is a comprehensive confession. It speaks of concrete, bold rebellion (the heading on it suggests it is David’s prayer after he has claimed Bathsheba as his own and arranged the death of her husband—and act in which he boldly violated so much of God’s moral law in the 10 commandments). So this Psalm speaks about overt rebellion. But it also speaks of a sinful condition, a baseline experience of being, to some degree, estranged from God throughout the course of one’s life. Frankly, I think this is all verse five is trying to express when it speaks of being sinful from one’s mother’s womb. Theologians across Christian history have gotten lots more out of that verse, but all that is is a basic confession of the human condition. From the beginning of time, and from the beginning of each of our individual lives, we have missed the mark; we have gone astray; we have rebelled; we have acted wrongly.
This Psalm speaks of both sins (lowercase s, and plural) and Sin (capital S, singular)— sins being the individual acts or failures to act which fall short of God’s glory; Sin the distorted condition that generates these particular acts. I love how T.S. Eliot expresses this distinction in his play The Cocktail Party. There’s this scene in which the character Celia Copplestone is trying to explain to a counselor her sense of guilt. This sense of guilt, it didn’t come from committing immoral acts, “sin in the ordinary sense” as she understands it. She says:
It’s not the feeling of anything I’ve ever done,
Which I might get away from, or of anything in me
I could get rid of— but of emptiness, of failure
Towards someone, or something, outside myself.
And I feel I must… atone— is that the word?
Can you treat a patient for such a state of mind?[iv]
The Psalmist in Psalm 51 is confessing both this general condition, of which Celia speaks, and particular, concrete acts of rebellion. He’s confessing all of it. I am a sinner, through and through, he’s saying.
But that’s not all that he’s saying. In fact, even if from the outset he’s offering a comprehensive confession of his sin, he’s making an even more powerful statement about God’s character— the God he knows, the God he worships, the God to whom he is now appealing is a God of mercy, steadfast love, compassion. The first words of this Psalm are what? “Have mercy on me, O God.” The presumption is that God is merciful. One of the most basic confessions of God’s identity cherished by the Israelites is found in Exodus 34:6 “The Lord! The Lord! God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness.”[v] What is the rest of the first verse? “1 Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love! Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!” Mercy, Faithful love, Compassion… it all echoes this verse from Exodus. So while in two verses we hear the ENTIRE Hebrew vocabulary for human sinfulness, in just ONE verse, we have nearly complete reflection of the most basic Hebrew understanding of God’s goodness.
And later in the Psalm, much later, the Psalmist begs God to stay with him, to remain in him by God’s Holy Spirit. Here’s the remarkable thing… The psalmist is saying, basically, “Please don’t leave me. Please don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.” Which means that God is still there. The Holy Spirit is still within him. Even after horrible deeds have been done. Even in the midst of an underlying, distorted condition. The Psalmist even suggests that the most horrific rebellion he has carried out has been carried out in God’s sight… God was right there all along. God’s presence is steadfast. This is what we sing about when we sing of amazing grace— a love the precedes our wrongdoing, and survives our wrongdoing, and transforms our wrongdoing. This is the God we worship. And this is the ground of the practice of self-examination and confession.
We don’t search our souls in order to feel badly about ourselves, but rather so that we might honor and nurture a relationship with the God who never abandons nor forsakes us. It is because the Psalmist knew God to be a God of mercy, loving kindness, compassion— that the Psalmist could be totally honest, and humble with God. When we engage in self-examination and surrender to a loving God an honest confession of wherever we have missed the mark in a given day, or a given life— we are affirming that there is one who forgives us, who loves us, and who can and will help us to grow and to change. The Psalmist says “Create a clean heart for me, God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!” Change me!
I engage in self-examination and confession when I believe that there is a loving power who will help me to change and to grow. This is why we’re assured of God’s pardon every week… and why we say prayers of confession every week. Because in the mirror of God’s grace, we realize our brokenness; in the face of God’s faithful love, we realize the fickleness of our love; in the light of God’s mercy, we realize our need. And as we engage this practice again and again, whether in worship or in our own acts of reflection and devotion, we begin to experience the power of God’s steadfast presence and love to change us, to help us to grow, to restore us to joy…
Pastor Rebecca and I have decided to focus on spiritual practices all throughout this season of Lent, for the whole of March, both in worship and in Adult Ed (starting next week). But it doesn’t seem sufficient to just talk about practice… better to actually engage the practices we’re teaching. Of course we’ve already prayed prayers of confession today, but I’d like to invite you to practice self-examination and confession once more in this hour of worship.
And I have a twofold exercise in mind for us to engage. Our Ash Wednesday service was cancelled due to weather— what a month it has been—so we missed our worship together on the first day of Lent. But this is the first Sunday of Lent— and it seems appropriate to impose ashes today. This is an embodied enactment of humility and repentance. When a cross is smudged on our forehead and we hear the words about our origin and destiny in dust, we realize how fully our lives depend on God’s mercy.
Further, you all got a small piece of paper from an usher earlier in the service. I hope you’ve kept track of that. I invite you to take a few minutes in silence, honestly admitting your need for God’s mercy, and, if you’re willing—I invite you to write on this paper an expression of the sin that you need to release to God’s mercy; a burden you’re carrying that you need to let go; a wound in you that needs healing.
And after you have taken this silence, and written down what you need to release, I invite you to come forward, receive the sign of the cross on your forehead from Pastor Rebecca, and then release your paper to the candle flame in the candle I will be holding. LET IT GO and watch it disappear in flame.[vi] And see in that flame how brighly God’s love burns for you.
[i] This paragraph was particularly influenced by the notes in The CEB Study Bible, published by the Common English Bible Editorial Board in 2013, general editor Joel B. Green. Another key influence was: James L. Mays, Psalms, in the series: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching , (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 199, 202.
[ii] I am grateful for Barbara Brown Taylor’s lucid discussion of these terms in her short work Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2000), 48-49.
[iii] I am referencing here Mitchell Dahood’s commentary Psalm 51-100 in the series: The Anchor Bible, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company), 1-3.
[iv] This scene was brought to my attention by Bernhard W. Anderson and Steven Bishop, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today, 3rd Edition, Revised and Expanded, (Lousville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 77.
[v] Again, I’m indebted to The CEB Study Bible for this insight. And I am citing the CEB translation of this verse from Exodus.
[vi] I am grateful to the Vice-Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Larissa Kwong-Abazia, for introducing me to flash paper and this use of it in the context of worship.