A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
I love our psalm for today. Psalm 51 is one of the most powerful and beautiful of the songs of Israel. Its text is the basis for some of the most beautiful Christian Music that I know. The reason for that, is that it speaks beautifully of God’s loving-kindness, the harmony of God’s compassion and life-giving spirit. It is classified among the Penitential Psalms and indeed that is what it is, a psalm of penitence par excellence.
But penitence and repentance are often not well understood. When it says, “wash me through and through from my wickedness,” we are tempted to think that it only refers to being particularly awful and that we somehow should find really bad things to think and say of ourselves. But that’s not it at all. Our text for today, from the middle of this psalm, describes it best: “For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.” Deep within us, all of us, is the truth, and that truth is deep wisdom. But that is also our deepest secret, because inside is also where our hurts, and fears, and confusions dwell. We are vulnerable—if the wrong people found out those deep secrets we could be damaged, damaged terribly, even destroyed. And thus, many people avoid the truth within themselves entirely, and in closing themselves off from the truth of their sinfulness, transgressions and fears, they also close themselves off from the wisdom of God, from the source of life—sometimes even from life itself.
All of us are subject to this, to one degree or another, because all of us are fearful and everyone at some point wants to hide, at least to hide something or to hide from someone. I have seen when someone insists that they have nothing hidden, that they have never committed a sin, have never needed to ask God or anyone else for forgiveness. A psychologist would tell you that such a person is a psychopath. A person that fears that at the core of their being is nothing, or at least nothing that could be loved. Such people trust no one, and ultimately, others learn not to trust them.
But God searches for truth deep within us. God can be trusted to find the blessing of our spirit. God’s loving-kindness and mercy touches us where we are most vulnerable and tender. Even when no other human being could be trusted with our secrets—fears, sins, misdeeds, unrealistic aspirations, embarrassing quirks—God can be trusted. In amongst all our vulnerabilities the love of God searches out and finds that beautiful creature who God created. God calls forth our bountiful spirit in the joy of his saving help.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus says that the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. And how does he say he is glorified? He says it is like a grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying—that in giving up being a single piece of grain that the bounty of a new harvest appears. We are called to penitence, precisely for the bounty of new life, to allow God to search us inwardly, to acknowledge and accept that we need mercy, that we need to trust God. We need to give up protecting all the things that are hiding that spirit which God seeks to reveal in us.
Not every person can be trusted with our inmost vulnerability. Sometimes people betray one another, sometimes people don’t understand, or they just gossip. Being free from those things that we have hidden doesn’t mean regarding all our sins as meaningless or trivial. Penitence is acknowledging the truth to God, of giving up the fearful things we cling to in order to avoid the real danger of being a free person in God, that is to say, a Christian as Jesus is calling us to be.
This is a journey we don’t take alone, however. We are in a community that is travelling with Jesus along the road to Calvary, along the road to his Resurrection and ours. It doesn’t have to be abstract or strictly internal—most of us do discover others who we can trust to share at least some of the difficulties of our journey. Certainly, those who benefit from the many AA groups that meet here every week day would tell you how important it is to them. Some things need to be sorted out in an even more secure and safe way. That’s why the church provides the sacrament of Reconciliation. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can find it beginning on page 446 in the Book of Common Prayer. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church doesn’t treat this as a duty for everyone. But it is an opportunity to sort out and give over to the God of all mercy those things that might get in the way of our abundant and joyful life. Priests are trained that the confidentiality of this sacrament is beyond ordinary confidentiality. It is sealed in the trust of God’s transforming mercy. I’m pleased to schedule the sacrament of Reconciliation with anyone who contacts me, and there are plenty of other priests who are happy to do so as well. It is God that is merciful, all the time. If is a privilege to help someone recognize it and know it.
Let us pray:
For behold, you look for truth deep within me,
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure;
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
Make me hear of joy and gladness,
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out my iniquities
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.