1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
There are 150 psalms in the book of psalms, which we also call the psalter. All of them are poems, or lyrics to hymns, perhaps music for the temple, or songs for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, or spiritual poetry for private devotion. For a long time before Jesus, the psalms have stood at the heart of our pattern of daily prayer, as they still do in our daily offices of morning, noonday, and evening prayer, and compline. [See the readings for the day]
The early monastic communities in the deserts of Egypt kept a rigorous practice of saying all 150 psalms each day. That’s a lot. The Rule for monastic communities that St. Benedict wrote in the 6th century eased up on it, and worked through all 150 psalms over the course of the week. That’s still a lot. The earliest Book of Common Prayer, which was printed in 1549, arranged the psalms over the course of 30 days. We still have that arrangement in our prayer books. If you look at the Psalms, you will see that just before psalm 1 it says “day 1, morning prayer”.
2 Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.
All the psalms reveal something true and real about our shared human spiritual life, reaching towards heaven for the many needs of our lives. There are cries for blessing and gratitude, vengeance and protection, lamentation and praise, confidence and loneliness, victory and defeat. Our hearts are written in those psalms. Make them your friends.
Certain psalms, of course, are more famous and more memorable than others. Imagine a funeral without psalm 23, for instance. The Lord is my shepherd. Psalm 51 is another of those top 10 psalms, too. It tells the spiritual story of repentance better than any other.
We recite this psalm in all 18 verses on Ash Wednesday, right after we have been marked with ashes, as we enter the season of Lent. In one of our rites of confession, the priest and the penitent begin together saying verses from Psalm 51, reminding both priest and penitent that they stand side by side as repentant sinners before Jesus Christ.
4 Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
5 And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment.
So how to you feel about sin? To be sure, it’s a touchy subject. As a priest, I know that some of my brothers and sisters in pulpits around the world are very quick to point out what makes a sin, and just as quick to point out what happens to sinners.
Some of our more progressive churches have largely stopped talking about sin at all. Or when we do talk about sin, it’s a systemic thing, something that governments and corporations and cultures do. Personal sin makes us squirm a bit. As though suggesting that your actions might offend and anger God and cause harm to God’s creation will be seen as judgmental and harsh. It’s a little too fundamentalist for our tastes. As though sin is a crime against God that deserves a trial and a sentence.
My priest back in Seattle was asked why the Episcopal Church doesn’t condemn sinners. She said, “oh, we believe in sin alright. We just don’t like to shoot our wounded in the back.”
Sin wounds us. When we sin, we hurt. We hurt ourselves. Sometimes we hurt others. We hurt our relationship with God. Sin is a wound.
It’s something that needs to be healed. So when St. Paul acclaims the heart of the Gospel truth that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, he meant it. To save them in the same way that a doctor saves a life. It’s healing. It’s the balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole and soothes the sin-sick soul.
6 Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother’s womb.
7 For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly
I have a great little book called St. Augustine’s Prayer Book [note, this is a link to the new edition]. It was written and published the first time in 1947 by the Order of the Holy Cross, which is the Episcopal Church’s oldest monastic order for men. It is a little book of personal devotion for Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians, meant to supplement, not to replace, the Book of Common Prayer. There’s a section about preparing for confession which is called the Examination of Conscience. It encourages the Christian to work through a serious reflection on actions and attitudes, using the seven deadly sins as the framework. It asks quite specific questions that help me to see where I stand in the moral landscape. We have a pdf of the examination of conscience on our website.
You all remember the seven deadly sins, right? Pride, Anger, Envy, Covetousness, Gluttony, Lust, and Sloth. Sophisticated words, and perhaps a little dusty now. They’re not really part of our language today.
But this book dives into them, unpacking the various ways in which these sins can creep into our lives, and why they are a problem. It’s a diagnostic manual. It’s very helpful. Again, the point is not to show you how miserable and worthless you are, but to give you something real and concrete to work on. And that’s good, because we all want to grow in the spiritual life. We all want to be better people, and we all want healing for our sin-sick souls.
Jesus tells us how God feels when we’re found. God is the joyful shepherd to finds that lost sheep. God is the delighted woman who finds that lost coin. What was lost has been found. What was gone is now home, right where it belongs, with the other sheep, the other coins. The shepherd and the woman feel so happy about it that they call their friends and throw a party. It’s good to find something you thought you’d lost. It’s good to be found when you thought you were lost. It’s good to be healed. It’s good to be forgiven. It’s good to grow.
With the right understanding, God’s joy, the shepherd’s delight, the woman’s deep gratitude, these can be ours as well. Imagine how good it will feel when you dig into your own life and pull out that one thing that keeps tripping you up, that one mistake you keep repeating, that one sin that keeps clinging to you. Imagine how good it will feel to lift that thing in your outstretched hand and ask God to take it away from you. Perhaps there are lots of things tripping you up and wounding you, but that’s ok. For today, over the next few minutes between this sermon and the confession we pray each week, find one specific thing that needs healing today. Ask God to wash it away.
8 Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
9 Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
When we are liberated from the sin that holds us captive, holds us back, that binds us, we are made pure and clean, washed in the cool, clear river of grace. And just like a good shower at the end of a long day of hard work in the sun, it feels like a new birth. Forgiven and healed, we suddenly hear in the distance the laughter of the shepherd, the shouts of joy from an old woman holding up a single coin in her small room. God rejoices, and we rejoice.
10 Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.
11 Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.