I am not happy to be here tonight, but please do not take that personally. My discomfort is because it is Ash Wednesday. Lent has begun and my charge, as I read the texts for tonight, is to warn you sinners to get right with God. Now I’m not sure that is why you came to worship tonight. Maybe you came for the beautiful music, or because you always show up for any worship service now matter what, or you might have heard that I am a nice guy who preaches uplifting sermons. But tonight Lent begins, so there is no more Mr. Nice Guy! Tonight I am supposed to channel my inner Baptist and reach back to the revivals of my youth and say, “Today is the day of your salvation.”
But I’m torn. First, I know what happens to people who speak hard truth that people don’t want to hear and, honestly, I’m kind of a people pleaser at heart. Second, I don’t really know if you are sinners. The law of averages says you probably are, but I don’t know which ones. (Maybe you could raise your hands so I will know!) Third, and most importantly, how can I tell you about your sin, without becoming aware of my own sinfulness. That’s really why I don’t want to be here tonight. Right now I’d really rather not talk about that.
So let me fall back for a minute on my seminary training and tell you what I’ve read in the commentaries. A distinguished professor wrote in his commentary on Psalm 51:
Twice a year, I see my doctor for a physical checkup. He monitors my vital signs and points me in the direction of good health. Today I embrace Lent as an annual spiritual checkup to see where I'm at and to renew my relationship with God. But, please, annually, not weekly!
That is a comforting way to think about Lent. After a lot of waiting around, my weight and pulse are checked. Deep breath in, deep breath out, and again. (Are you sleeping OK? “I have teenagers, what do you think?) The tight grip to check my blood pressure, (how’s your diet? I’ve cut out red meat and added greens.) Bright light the eyes, say “ahhh.” Rubber mallet to the knee. An uncomfortable moment with cold hands where I’m asked to cough and we are down the homestretch. Keep up that running and schedule a colonoscopy in six months. I guess I’ll live another year, time for the co-pay, “wow, don’t check my blood pressure now.” And I will get back to you to schedule that colonoscopy…in 2013.
If only there were an easy Lenten spiritual equivalent of a checkup. “I see you made it to church more than 50% of Sundays, bonus for Ash Wednesday and don’t forget the Great Easter Vigil. I see you were a little behind on your pledge, try to push that up this year. Served on a committee? Check. Washed dishes at the ham dinner? Check. Said your prayers? Check. Good job. Keep going to choir, make a joyful noise unto the Lord, and try to read your bible a little more this year and remember next year is your turn to be on church council.
Actually there is a checklist and it goes like this: anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. If these formed a medical exam it would feel like a combination of a stress test, endoscopy and angioplasty. Together they sound like a rather invasive medical procedure. Its my duty here tonight, as one entrusted with the cure of souls, to tell you that these spiritual diseases are a great human epidemic and if you are not living an engaged spiritual journey, you will most likely succumb to at least one of these.
King David, in Psalm 51, is not coming in for a check up. He is not asking, “Am I doing OK doc?” He says, “I know my sins and they are ever before me. 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 judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”
David is in line waiting for a heart transplant. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Listen to the verbs – wash me thoroughly for my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin, purge me, deliver me, restore me, teach me. He is a man in anguish, describing his feelings as like his very bones have been crushed. Like a patient with a faulty heart valve, he knows that the great physician must do something radical with his heart.
Some may say, “Of course he felt that way. He committed adultery. Worse, he sent her husband to certain death in battle. He deserves his torment.” And I would answer, when we are comparing our sins to the sins of others, we can always find someone lower than ourselves, and we are already near the sin of pride. In a recent gospel lesson Jesus said, “You have heard it said, you shall not commit murder, but I say to you if you are angry with your brother or sister and curse them and call them a fool, you are as guilty.” Most of us are not despots trying to cling to power in the Middle East or Wisconsin, we have not served 10 to 20 years for Murder Two, but when I read that list of deadly sins, you probably have a very good idea as to which are your favorites, which keep you up in the middle of the night.
Since you are here for Lent, and you know the main drama for tonight is that you are going to have ashes smeared on your forehead, I think you already get the point about being a sinner. Perhaps I was mistaken in the beginning of my sermon. Maybe it is not sin that is so hard to talk about, but rather grace. Like the patient waiting on the list for a heart to become available, I wonder if God’s grace will really touch me and heal me. Will I survive long enough for my name to be called? If I make it through surgery alive, will the new heart take to my chest or will it be rejected by my flesh? I don’t doubt that I’m a sinner. My bigger problem is I’m not sure I trust the great physician to heal me. I don’t have David’s passion and trust in the mercy and steadfast love of God. Maybe that is my biggest sin. I’m afraid to say, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit….” My fear is that I will cry out and nothing will happen.
I know David’s sense of desolation, for I once spent a year attending church but not having the nerve to go to the communion rail and for five years I thought I would never step in a pulpit. Eventually I came to know what I should have always known. There is more grace in God than sin in me. God did not caste me away from divine presence or take the Holy Spirit from me. I find it hard to believe that my sin is just blotted out, but I am blessed for I have heard joy and gladness from the Lord. I am washed, and though I may still be in the spin cycle, yet shall I dry. Hear me and believe, God abounds in steadfast love and there is more grace in God than sin in you.