Sermon preached on the 5th Sunday in Lent, March 25, 2012 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Psalm 51
Lead us, Holy Spirit, into truth that sets us free.
Last week I spoke about this truth that sets us free, so very important in John’s Gospel. We saw from this Gospel something perhaps startling, that the truth that sets us free is not a proposition, but a story, and that this story was not only the story of God or the story of Jesus. The story that sets us free is also our own story.
There have been some interesting conversations since then. Some of them that have either been reported to me or that I have had myself amount to this: the suspicion or even the outright denial that you have a story, at least one that can or should be told.
Of course, all of you know that just is not true. If you have been alive, you have a story. You know that. I suspect the problem is twofold: On the one hand, you are not sure at all that your story is worth telling. It is not very exciting. It is just too ordinary. On the other hand, you are afraid to tell your story because you are afraid it will be judged to be lacking, boring even. Besides, you really do not know how to tell your story, especially if you are to tell it as a story of God.
Here’s the most important thing to know in order to push back against all this sense of inadequacy and fear. That important thing is that you cannot think about your story, your life, as you think other human beings might look at it. God does not think like that. Remember Isaiah 55, Canticle 10 in the Prayer Book:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
God does not think like we do, which means that what we might consider to be an ordinary, boring story is full of glory to God. God, in fact, specializes in making ordinary things extraordinary. Water, bread, wine, oil. The ordinary seems to be, in fact, God’s preferred way of communicating with us.
“But even God cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” you might protest. Really? Let’s look at Psalm 51.
Psalm 51 is a story written as a poem. The writer is deeply troubled and sure of his or her unworthiness. Look at the nouns in the first six verses: offenses, wickedness, sin, transgressions, sin, sin, evil, judgment, wicked, sinner. This person is pretty convinced of his unworthiness. In verse 9 he calls it for how it feels: brokenness. Brokenness so deep, it has set into his bones. Brokenness he deserves, so he attributes it to God.
Tradition has ascribed this psalm to David, composed as a reaction to the terrible story of his falling for another man’s wife, Bathsheba, and his conspiring to have her husband killed in order to have her for himself. But then the prophet Nathan brings David up short and he realizes the terrible depths to which he has gone to satisfy himself.
But David has a long relationship with God and he knows something about God: God has promised David that he will never let him go. Now David has pushed that promise to its limit and he knows it. But in the midst of his confession, he asks God to act, with the kind of assurance that he will. So alongside those nouns of sin and judgment are an opposite set of words: mercy, compassion, wash, cleanse, purge, wash, clean.
And what I think is the decisive line in the psalm:
For behold, you look for truth deep within me…
“Behold” in the Bible is a kind of code word, a special marker, that says “Pay attention! Something significant is being said!” What that significant thing here is that God also does not think like us in judging us on surface matters or even on things that seem to speak of a damaged personality. God will go as deep into me as he needs to go in order to find the truth.
God’s primary job in relating to me is not to judge me for what I have done, but to seek within me what he has made. You see, if God is our creator, then God knows the truth about each one of us. He made that truth. It is his truth, his image stamped on ours. And I think God never, ever gives up in seeking that truth, that image, out, and desperately wants us to do that seeking with him.
Now what does that have to do with our story?
Simply this. If each and every one of us is made in the image of God, then deep within each one of us, ordinary as we may be, is something extraordinary. To talk about the Life of the Spirit is to talk about the lifelong journey to find that extraordinary thing. We are, each one of us, seekers after the glory within. And our story, whatever that story is, is the seeking after—or, sometimes, the running away from—the glory within.
Most of the time, any story we tell about our lives can relay only a glimpse we had of that glory in ourselves, or in another. What we have to do is get better at noticing those glimpses. And all that we have to do is notice, and if we tell about them all that we have to do is tell, with the preface, perhaps, that this is a story for me about the glory of God.
Here’s an example.
Having some delicious strawberries at the organ concert Friday evening, made me think of picking strawberries with my great-grandmother Pearl, which was an early summer ritual. She would always say as we entered the patch, “Now you can eat one. Save the rest for later.”
I tended to eat one for every six to eight I picked. And I was very good at not getting caught. But one day, of course, I did get caught, and Gram was very stern with me. Then she turned to get back to picking, but suddenly stopped and turned around with a great big one in her hand. She winked and said, “Have this, but no more!”
I’m convinced God adores silk purses made from sow’s ears.