As we heard our psalm today, you may have thought the psalm sounded familiar. And you would be right. Just under five weeks ago, we said this exact same psalm on Ash Wednesday. After we were invited into a holy Lent – one of fasting, self-examination, and repentance, and ashes were spread across our foreheads, we said this psalm. “Have mercy on me, O God…For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me…[I have] done evil in your sight…” we confessed. We begged God to create in us a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us. I wonder how saying these words again, just several weeks later, feels today. Perhaps after weeks of following your Lenten discipline, you feel closer to that clean heart and renewed spirit. Maybe you are making your way out of Lent and the repetition of Psalm 51 feels unnecessary because you have completed your repentance work. But maybe Psalm 51 feels unattainable, because your sinfulness feels like something you cannot shake.
If you are in the latter category, and if, in fact, you are beginning to wonder if you will ever master this sinfulness thing, take heart. I actually say verse eleven of this psalm every time I celebrate the Eucharist. Week in and week out, whether we are in Lent, Eastertide, or Ordinary time, even after I have prayed and confessed with the community, before I approach the altar to celebrate holy communion, I say these same words, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Whether in a season of penitence or not, whether I have already celebrated Eucharist two times earlier in the morning, I still pray Psalm 51.11, longing for the God of mercy and hesed, or loving-kindness, to create in me a clean heart.
That is why I think the beginning of our liturgy was so hard today. As part of the penitential order, we prayed the decalogue, or the ten commandments. With each commandment, we responded, “Amen. Lord have mercy.” Reading the decalogue in scripture, as we did just a few weeks ago in Lent is a bit different – somehow having them in paragraph form makes them more palatable – with only certain commandments jumping out at us as areas of improvement. But praying them is more difficult. With each commandment receiving a closing petition, the idea is hammered home – we struggle with every last one of these commandments. Now I can imagine what you are thinking – but I have never murdered. While that may be true, the poor and the oppressed die every day because no one cares enough to change policy or ensure each person gets help. Or maybe you are muttering that you have never put any gods before our God. But we commit idolatry every day when we believe money or even we ourselves are in control instead of our God. Each petition we pray in the decalogue reminds of how deep and diverse our sinfulness is.
But here’s the funny thing about those commandments – the Israelites could not follow them either. The Israelites had been rescued from slavery and protected relentlessly. Once the Israelites were finally in safety and heading to the Promised Land, God created a new covenant with the people. God sent Moses up the mountaintop and had Moses write the law on tablets – the law that would guide the people into faithful, covenantal living. But before Moses could even get down the mountain and deliver the covenant to the people, they had already created the golden calf – an idol in the place of God. They people would struggle so much with the ten commandments that a whole generation of God’s covenantal people would not be allowed into the Promised Land – not even Moses himself. Although God intended for the decalogue to shape the lives of the people and to create the boundaries for the covenant, and although none of the petitions are all that unreasonable, yet still the people would break their covenant with God time and again.
We are just like our ancestors. I was just retelling a parishioner this week about my Lenten discipline in college. You see, in college I picked up a bit of a potty mouth. It got so bad that my freshman year, I decided to charge myself a quarter for every curse word I uttered, with the plan of giving the proceeds to church on Easter. By the end of week two in Lent, I had to reduce the fee to a nickel because I could not afford the fee! And the funny thing was that every year in college was the same. “This year! This year I will master my filthy mouth.” And every year I would have to reduce the fees. We are creatures of habit, masters of repeated sinfulness, just like our ancestors.
That is why reading Jeremiah is so powerful today. Jeremiah writes in a time of desperation for the people of God. The Babylonians have razed the temple and carried King Zedekiah off in chains. Effectively, the Babylonians have “destroyed the twin symbols of God’s covenantal fidelity.”[i] Sometimes we talk about the exile so much that I think we forget the heart-wrenching experience of exile. Being taken from homes and forced to live in a foreign land is certainly awful enough. But the things that were taken – the land of promise, the temple for God’s dwelling, the king offered for comfort to God’s people – are all taken, leaving not just lives in ruin, but faith in question. But today, in the midst of the physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation, Jeremiah’s reading says God will make a new covenant. God knows the people cannot stop breaking the old covenant, and so God promises to “forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” Instead of making the people responsible for the maintenance of the covenant, God goes a step further and writes the law in their hearts, embodies God’s way within the people.
The words of Jeremiah in the section called “the Book of Comfort,”[ii] and this new covenant by God, show a God whose abundance knows no limits. God offers this new covenant to a people who surely do not deserve another covenant. God has offered prophets and sages, has called the people to repentance, has threatened and cajoled, and yet still the people could not keep the basic tenants of the covenant established in those ten commandments. But instead of abandoning the people to exile, God offers reconciliation and restoration yet again. And because God knows we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, God basically says, “Here. Let me help you. Let me write these laws in your hearts so that you do not have to achieve your way into favor with me, but you will simply live faithfully, living the covenant with your bodies and minds.” And when even that does not seem to work, God sends God’s only son. God never gives up on us or our relationship with God. Even all these years after Christ’s resurrection, God is still finding new ways to make our covenant work.
I have had parishioners attend two services in one day – maybe they were a speaker at two services or maybe they sang in two different choirs. Invariably, one of these multi-service attendees will ask me, “Should I take communion again? I shouldn’t, right?” I always chuckle because I have to remind them that I take communion three times every Sunday – sometimes four or five if I take communion to someone homebound on a Sunday. I confess all those times, I pray all those times, I say those words of Psalm 51 all those times, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Lent is the same way – sometimes we are confessing multiple times in one day. Sometimes we need to say the decalogue, and we need to confess our sins, and we need to hear Psalm 51. And before we go to bed, we may need to confess to God again. We do all those things with confidence because our God is a god of mercy, hesed, and restoration, always looking for ways to renew God’s covenant with us. God’s persistence with us is what inspires our work this Lent. So yes, create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us – every week, every day, every hour. Amen.
[i] Richard Floyd, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 122.
[ii] Jon L. Berquist, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 123.