II Samuel 12.1-7a

Psalm 51.1-17

I Have a Confession to Make

First Sunday in Lent

Peter Gomes was both a professor at Harvard Divinity School and the Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Chapel until his death in 2011.  He was a prolific writer; some of you may have read his best-know work, titled, The Good Book.  He was also an aficionado of fine single malt scotches who enjoyed Cuban cigars.  He was my kind of theologian.  I was in one of Dr. Gomes’ seminars about fifteen years ago, and he was talking about the ways different religious traditions use scripture in worship.  I mentioned that I like to use the penitential psalms during Lent as prayers of confession, as we did with Psalm 6 this morning; I’ve been doing this pretty much through my entire ministerial career.  And Dr. Gomes was intrigued by this; he hadn’t heard of the practice before, and asked how my congregations responded, and I told him that reaction was generally positive – a lot of folks have never thought about actually praying the psalms, even though the psalms are basically Israel’s prayer book.  And then to pray them, and to remember that not only did our Hebrew forbears pray these same psalms, but that Jesus did as well, was a powerful spiritual experience for some parishioners who told me they felt blessed by the practice.  Dr. Gomes liked the idea and said he would incorporate the idea next time he taught the seminar.

Confession, penitence, contrition, remorse, whatever you call it, is part and parcel of the season of Lent.  Now, setting aside a certain amount of time – in the church’s case, a season of forty days – to consider our sin, the ways we let sin keep us from being our best selves, from being the best neighbors, the best children of God, is not something that sits entirely comfortably with today’s culture.  Quite a number of years ago, a parishioner came up to me after church and told me he didn’t much care for the Prayer of Confession, because he wasn’t convinced he had much of anything to confess, and certainly not on a weekly basis.  But then, in that same church, another parishioner told me she didn’t care much for the Assurance of Pardon which typically follows the Prayer of Confession, because she wasn’t convinced the forgiveness of God was that much of a sure thing.  I guess you can’t please everyone!  And then I came to the United Church and – no, this is not about you, it’s about our hymnal.  I like our hymnal, for a whole host of reasons, but I made a rather surprising discovery last year, something that had completely eluded me up until that point.  Lent is one of the major seasons of the church year, right?  It’s right up there with Advent as a season of preparation.  Well, there are no specifically Lenten hymns in our hymnal.  None.  Our hymnal goes from Epiphany, which ended on Tuesday, directly to Holy Week, which is six weeks away, and basically ignores the time in between.  So apparently it isn’t just old Jim Gray who has a problem with confession and penitence, our hymnal doesn’t much care for it either.

There are seven penitential psalms in the Bible, and while Psalm 6 is the first of them, Psalm 51 is the most striking and powerful.  As we heard earlier, it was King David’s cry of contrition when he was confronted with the magnitude of his sending Uriah to the front line of battle so he would almost surely die, just so David could have Uriah’s wife Bathsheba.  Earlier this morning we only glanced at the episode; here’s the rest of the story.  When David learned Bathsheba was carrying his child, he actually sent for her husband Uriah to come home for a few days’ leave, hoping that Uriah would spend time with his wife and David’s tracks might be covered, so to speak.  But Uriah, ever the loyal soldier, did not permit himself time with his wife; he slept outside his house.  So David invited him over for a meal and plied him with good food and ample wine, hoping that perhaps this might overcome his compunction.  But it did not.  So David finally sent Uriah back to where the battle was fiercest, and Uriah was killed.  Now Nathan was both a prophet and a close friend of David, and knew that he couldn’t just up and accuse the king of adultery and murder, so instead he couched his message in the form of the parable Charlene read this morning.  It’s a story of rich man with many flocks of sheep, and a poor man with but one lamb.  When a traveler came to visit the rich man, instead of preparing one of his own flock for dinner, he took the poor man’s only lamb, slaughtered it and served it up.  When Nathan told David the story David was enraged and said the rich man deserved to die.  And Nathan concluded his parable saying, “You are the man.”  And David became wracked with guilt.

David’s confession, and his prayer to God for forgiveness, is Psalm 51:

“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.”

It is at once a cry from the heart, a confession of sin and a plea for forgiveness.  And even though David never mentions the occasion for the prayer, the editor or compiler of the Psalms leaves no doubt; the superscription tells us, A Psalm of David when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.  It is a powerful psalm, and the crown of the seven penitential psalms; we use it every year at the pinnacle of Holy Week when we pray it on Maundy Thursday.  It is the psalm that provides the theme for this year’s UCC Lent Devotional, Deliver Us, and indeed three out of the first four devotions take Psalm 51 as their text.  Quinn Caldwell uses it for Ash Wednesday, Kaji Douša cites it on Thursday and Marchaé Grair quoted it in yesterday’s devotional.  In a season set aside for penitence and confession, Psalm 51 stands as the touchstone for Lent.

But there is another kind of confession, and in today’s sin-averse world I think it is an equally important one.  A confession is not always an admission of guilt; it is also an admission of contingency, or dependency.  It is a declaration that we are children of the divine.  It transcends religious boundaries because it is the confession that you and I and all of us and all creation are dependent on a higher power that is the source of love, the source of blessing, the source of morality, the source of life itself.  Regardless of what name we use for God – and there are more names for God than all of us together can imagine this morning - it is the admission that there is One who is greater than ourselves.  Simply put, we depend on God for our humanity.  Without God, there is not much we can do; with God, everything is possible.  With God, Nathan could speak some very difficult words to David his King.  Are there any difficult words we feel the need to speak to someone close to us?  Are there difficult words we need to hear ourselves?  With God, David could confront a very ugly part of his life.  Are there parts of our lives we still need to be reconciled with?  Is there maybe something we’ve done or said – or neglected to say or do - that we haven’t yet forgiven in ourselves?  It could be that during Lent we can find ways of working these things out.  The words of the 51st psalm are plaintive ones, but they also contain rays of light and hope:  “Create in me a clean heart O God, and put a new and right spirit within me… My tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance… and my mouth will declare your praise.”  

It’s a pretty good prayer for the first Sunday in Lent.

Amen.

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