Excerpted from the NC Council of Churches Lenten Guide, “Love One Another: Reflections on Race, Power, and Privilege”
Ash Wednesday —Psalm 51: 1-17
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is 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.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Today happens to be the first day of the most important season of the Christian year, Lent. Today many of us will mark ourselves with ashes as a reminder we’re not as good as God knows we can be. Sometimes we’re not even as good as we know we can be.
David’s prayer, the Psaltar for today, acknowledges this. He prays for a clean heart, for a right spirit, for joy, and for the assurance of God’s presence. If David already had these things, he wouldn’t be asking for them in the song. If David didn’t know what these things are, he wouldn’t be asking for them in the song. He knows what they are because he once had a right spirit and the assurance of God’s presence. Now he does not have them, and he wants them back.
Sometimes it takes a while for us to miss something we thought we had all along. Sometimes we don’t even know we had it until it’s gone. David had joy and the assurance of God’s presence back in the day when he slew Goliath, back in the day when he danced in the streets to celebrate victory over his enemies, back in the day when Israel was united under one leader— a leader with a clean heart and a right spirit. It’s possible David didn’t know the great gifts he had until they were gone. It’s possible David took his right spirit and the assurance of God’s presence for granted. He wouldn’t be the first to do so…
Only when the gifts are gone does David fully understand their significance. Acknowledging their significance also helps David recognize his own complicity in letting them go. He got lazy toward his work, sloppy with his leadership, complacent about his power, and squishy on the rules. Psalm 51 is David’s recognition that he assumed too much about his victories in battle, too much about his accumulation of wealth, too much about all the good things happening in his life. David began to assume all this success was the result of his outstanding resume. David does have a good resume, but he has it because he stands on the shoulders of generations who came before him, people who were not complacent and didn’t bend the rules. He has an outstanding resume because he is surrounded by loyal supporters and an able staff who do have clean hearts and right spirits. Here at last, David recognizes he took all that for granted.
We can learn a lot from David on this first day of Lent, starting with the recognition that none of us is self-made. We, too, stand on the shoulders of generations who have come before us in ways great and small. It’s a good exercise for anybody, not just King David, to think about all the people who helped us get where we are and all the people who continue to support where we are going. On this first day of Lent, we can call ourselves to remember some of the things we now take for granted or have forgotten altogether.
Among several important things we have forgotten is caring for our neighbors. Instead, we’ve divided ourselves along social, economic, and religious lines, each of which can obscure the more salient matter of racial inequity. In a few short years, we’ve gone from being a nation that welcomes “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore” (Statue of Liberty quote), to a land filled with governors who decry settling anyone from war-torn Syria, most of whom have darker skin than the governors refusing to welcome them. We’ve gone from a nation that wrote into its founding documents, “any law… impeding the free exercise of religion” (Art. 1, US Constitution), to a land filled with politicians who declare a particular faith tradition unacceptable for the President of our country and others who go so far as to suggest barring entry into the country to practitioners of that faith, pretending to ignore that nearly all people in that faith tradition have darker skin than nearly all the politicians who decry their faith.
Examples like these show how we are losing face with our own precepts. Like David, we have forgotten our right spirit. Like David, we can be reminded. If David can confess his transgression and resolve to live differently, we can follow his example.
A lot of words are uttered at the beginning of Lent about how sinful we are—human depravity, evil hearts, rotten apples, and all that. I’d like to suggest a more positive exercise. Let’s spend the next 40 days remembering how fortunate we are and calling attention to the hard work that has brought us to this place. Let’s remember those who sat down on buses or stood up for voting rights; let’s remember those with right spirits who show kindness in the face of hatred; let’s remember those with clean hearts who pursue justice against all odds. In this way we might find ourselves being a little more humble, a little more gracious, and a little more conciliatory to those around us. And that would make us all a little less sinful, just as a by-product.
For the next 40 days let’s get in the habit of remembering the gift and let the joy of remembering change our lives. Let us reclaim our status as those who have clean hearts and right spirits.
Prayer: Loving God, as we enter this holy season of Lent, help us to remember and to honor the efforts of those who have gone before, on whose shoulders we now stand. And help us to carry on their work for justice in ways small and large. Amen.