Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: A Psalm of Penitence

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 18, 2018, Lent 5B

Psalm 51:1-12

A Psalm of Penitence

This is not a fun psalm.

Unlike last week’s psalm, with its repeated refrains and vivid word pictures and sailors staggering to and fro as if drunk, there’s nothing in this psalm that has such appeal. This is a psalm that is, in our modern parlance, all business.

There’s no preamble here: the psalmist is right to the challenge at hand: “Have mercy on me, O God,” invoking the “steadfast love” that so characterized Psalm 107 as well. It does not take the psalmist long to move to the heart of the issue: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

And here we come, already, to the theme that makes this psalm so difficult, even alienating for our generation. We don’t much like the word “sin,” do we? In fact, we’ve come pretty close to achieving a society, and in some corners even a church, where the word “sin” is not so much abolished as disappeared. We can’t even summon up the word in situations where it is about the only word that should even be applied.

Take the case of People v. Turner, just three years ago, when a member of the Stanford University swim team was caught in the act of sexual assault on an unconscious 22-year-old woman. One of the most revolting aspects of that case was the apparent inability of many, both legal professionals and family members of the defendant, to grasp the degree to which such an action was wrong; the defendant’s father, protesting against an extremely minimal (and sub-minimum) six-month sentence handed down in the case, brought scorn upon himself by claiming such was “a steep price to pay for twenty minutes of action out of twenty years of life,” as if somehow sexual assault were a victimless crime, or not even a crime at all, just something young men do. Even worse were those defenders who urged that the “boy” not be punished so harshly for one “mistake,” as if he had gotten the wrong answer on a math problem. When our society is so impoverished that it can only call such crime a “mistake,” we clearly have little headway to address the idea of sin, or even more so sinfulness.

At the minimum, the psalmist in this case does not seem to suffer such a delusion, writing, “my sin is ever before me” as we just read. Verses 3-5 present an understanding of sin as not merely being about one wrong act, but a constant presence in the life of even the most repentant. We cringe, to be sure, at the image of verse five – “born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” – but the idea of original sin, a standard part of Reformed theology, observes that no human being escapes the taint of sin, so we have a means of understanding the psalmist even if the image disheartens us.

What becomes challenging for us most of all, though, is where the remedy for this sinfulness is found. The psalmist’s speech turns from self-description to address; the psalmist knows enough to know that the answer to that sinfulness is not to be found within, but in the direct intervention of God. The call to God – “teach me wisdom in my secret heart”; “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean”; “hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities” “create in me a clean heart, O God” – all of these point to the utter helplessness of the psalmist, or any of us for that matter, to “fix” ourselves where this sinfulness is concerned.

In the 1986 movie The Mission, Robert DeNiro plays a Spanish soldier, Rodrigo Mendoza, deployed in the South American colonial holdings of the Spanish empire in the 1700s. His general contentment with his life, which included the unsanctioned kidnapping and enslavement of the Guarani, the indigenous population of that area, is only disrupted when he kills his brother in a dispute turned violent. Seeking penance, he turns to a priest, Father Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons) who runs a mission working among and seeking to convert those same Guarani peoples. Father Gabriel obligingly assigns Rodrigo an act of physical penance; he is assigned to carry about a heavy burden, one which included the armor he wore as a soldier. Rodrigo bears the burden without complaint, doggedly lugging his burden about the daily tasks even as at times he is dragged down a hillside or stranded in a stream by the weight of that burden. Even Gabriel’s fellow priests become convinced that the penance is too much to bear, but neither Gabriel nor Rodrigo will relent.

The breaking point comes with the intervention not of the priests, but of the Guarani. As Rodrigo collapses under his burden yet again, one of the Guarani breaks away from his people and goes to him, speaking their indigenous language, which is of course quite alien to Rodrigo. At first it appears as if the Guarani man intends to kill him, as he holds his knife to Rodrigo’s throat; instead, he uses the knife to cut Rodrigo’s burden loose. At this Rodrigo collapses in tears and wailing, as the other Guarani come to help lift him up and disperse his burden.

Only in that radical moment of forgiveness does Rodrigo learn what he had really been seeking all along. He had come to Father Gabriel seeking penance – an act by which he could “make up for” the sin of killing his brother. What in fact he needed, though, was first an awareness of the sinfulness in which he was enmeshed – sinfulness in which killing his brother, as awful as it was, was merely one small part. Only in the fully undeserved act of forgiveness from the Guarani did Rodrigo realize the humanity of those whom he had been kidnapping and selling into slavery without the slightest twinge of regret or even consciousness of the horror of that act. He had to be confronted with the scope of his sinfulness before he could move beyond mere penance into genuine penitence, or repentance – a changing of direction, a turning back from that sin and towards the repair that only God can provide.

We have not engaged in anything quite like Rodrigo’s sinfulness, you and I (not that I know of). Nor have we, for the most part, indulged in anything quite so horrible as the act alluded in the preface to this psalm, in which David not only seized another man’s wife and raped her, but also moved to have her husband killed to cover up for the consequences of that crime. The choice to invoke that act in the preface to this psalm makes the words of verse 4 frankly awkward at best; clearly David’s sin was not against God alone, as Bathsheba could attest (as could Uriah, her husband, if he had survived it all). As was demonstrated in the movie scene above, the genuine act of repentance came about not in separation from those against whom Rodrigo had sinned, but in the very confrontation with them.

Still, though, we are likely to struggle with this psalm and the accompanying story if for no other reason than that we frankly have trouble recognizing the sinfulness in our lives. When we do something wrong, we can identify that sin, but sinfulness is a different thing altogether. Indeed, we find it difficult to echo the psalmist’s claim that “my sin is ever before me.” We’re good Christian folk, and good Americans, too. What kind of such broad sinfulness can we possibly even be a part of?


What happens when you go out to buy new clothes, or maybe over to Publix for coffee or tea or other indulgences? (I know, coffee hardly counts as an indulgence – more like desperate necessity – but bear with me.) Do we have any idea what went into the production of that clothing or coffee or tea? When a story reaches our ears about a garment factory in Bangladesh that burns to the ground or collapses, killing all the workers because the doors had been locked to keep any of the desperately underpaid laborers from leaving, do we grasp that they were there to make the clothing that appears on our department store shelves? Do we understand that the child-labor and even slave-labor practices in too much of the coffee- and tea-growing business directly lead to that cup we have in the morning? Yes, there is a web of sin, and we are fully enmeshed in it.

Or maybe closer to home: are we so caught up in our image of, say, teenagers or preteens as those kids with their faces buried in their phones or their social media apps (which, because we see one such teenager, must be true of all of them, right?) that we are incapable of hearing the desperate pleas of thousands of teenagers all across the country in the past month, young people who can no longer accept the premise that the simple act of going to school might be an occasion for their bodies to be torn apart with military-style weaponry? Are we capable of listening to that cry? (Some of those teenagers and college kids too will be holding an event this Saturday here in Gainesville, in support of the larger “March for our Lives” event in Washington, DC, that day; maybe it would be a good idea to go listen to them – actually listen to them without prejudice and blinders, and hear what they have to say.)

Maybe the thing we most need to pray for from this psalm is to get to the point where “my sin is ever before me.” Maybe what we most need is to have our eyes jerked open to just how profoundly we are caught up, despite the best of our intentions, in the very structures of the world that we take for granted, structures that visit desperate harm upon the world’s most vulnerable. And then, with that awareness before us, we can join in the psalmist’s prayer to be cleansed, to be purged of that sinfuness, to have a clean heart and a right spirit placed within us. It’s hard to repent until we know what we need to repent of, even if that good Lenten repentance is what we most need in our lives.

As odd as it sounds, maybe our first step is to pray that our sin is ever before us, if only because we can never truly pray for it to be purged away otherwise.

For mercy, for awareness, and then for repentance, Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #415, Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy; #421, Have Mercy, God, Upon My Life (Psalm 51); #427, Jesus Knows the Inmost Heart; #166, Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days


Note Re: your coffee and tea: the image above displays several products (including coffee, tea, and chocolate) from the Equal Exchange cooperative, one of a number of organizations that strive to meet fair-trade practices that provide for the living wage of those who produce the products they sell.

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