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Create in Me A Clean Heart         
based on Psalm 51
by Rev. Thomas Hall

It may be the first week of spring training for most professional baseball teams, but for us this is the first week of Lent. Lent throws us a curve, changes cadence, moves us in quite a different direction from our culture. For most of the year we Christians follow our culture, listen to the same news, watch the same movies, read the same bestsellers, see the same mannequins at Boscovs. But when we come to Lent, we come to a cultural parting in the road. The Lenten journey asks a different question of us than does our pop culture. Culture asks us, "How do you look today? How do you feel today? Not too good? Well, we can change that. So thanks to Rogaine, Viagra, tummy tucks, health clubs, Clairol, tax-free investments, retirement, loving the Flyers-and 76ers, and of course, by using Garlic tablets, we hang on to our eternity just a bit longer.

But Lent, on the other hand, just sits there like some monk, chanting Psalm 51. Asks us quite a different question: Is it well with your soul? Feeling and looking good is important -- I have some hair coloring stuff in the bathroom closet, too. But Lent reminds us that beneath the cosmetics, the hair coloring, the nice threads, our job, salary, family, and cat, there is a soul that needs grooming and care. That beneath all of the layers of our activities and commitments, and leisure and work is a soul that has been damaged by sin. The chanting in Psalm 51 this morning asks us point blank, "How is it with your soul?"

Three years ago this week, I stood before a chapel door at Drew University and read the sign that said, "Ash Wednesday service today, imposition of ashes following the sermon." I entered and prepared to worship. I don’t remember the hymns that we sang that morning or the sermon. But I can still remember reciting with my colleagues an eternally long litany of confession. Following that , we were invited to go to the front and receive ashes on either forehead or hand. Well, my tradition as a Pentecostal had never celebrated Ashes, Lent, or mortification of the body. We sang nice choruses, though. In fact, in my tradition, the only thing I know about marks on the forehead or hand came right out of the book of Revelation. Where those who had rejected Christ and were left behind to face the Beast could get food if they took the mark of the beast. That, I was taught, was not a good thing to do, for those Christians who had missed the first boat to heaven.

"All those who wish to receive ashes please come forward." Well, I certainly could identify the coming forward part of the invitation. I had sung "Just as I Am" enough times to make sure that every soul could get saved. But it was the ashes and the smearing of them on my head or body that really threw me for a loop.

Though I was probably the most shy come-forwarder in the chapel service I made my way to the front of the church. I couldn’t bear to have the ashes crossed on my forehead -- that was too close to the stuff I had been taught in the Book of Revelation, but I held my hand out quickly and received this sign of the cross in ashes and then returned to my place. I don’t know why but those ashes seemed to sear an indelible mark on my hand. No matter where I went that day, I discovered other persons with this black cross smudged on. I observed it over finely featured faces, over rough, wrinkled foreheads, on hands that extended from suit coats holding mega ram notebooks and cell phones.

No matter where I went that afternoon, I discovered other persons with the sign of the cross. Persons I had never known, custodial workers, waitresses, store owners, professors, poorly dressed persons I passed along Madison Street. And I felt that together we shared a common experience, a shared moment of faith. We were brothers and sisters sharing a moment, reminding each other of our fallenness, of our mortality, and that through the cross of Jesus, that we were ultimately, God’s property. The cross formed with ashes on our hands or foreheads is a visual way of saying with our African-American friends that "It’s me, O Lord, Standing in the Need of Prayer."

Like me, some of you may come from a tradition that hasn’t participated in a service of repentance. I appreciate this psalm because it is honest. Gut level honest. No beating around the bush. No gentle segues that lead us to the discovery that in some small way we might be sinners. Just gut level honesty. If we want to enter into conversation with Psalm 51, we must also be honest. Honest to ourselves. Honest to God. So Psalm 51 keeps our halos ajar, tilted downward toward the earth. It has our name on it.

The first thing that strikes me is a confession--the uses that three-letter word, "sin." Calls it a lot of things, iniquity, sin, transgressions, doing what he calls "evil," and death. If sin--this three-letter word--is the size of a June bug in our vocabulary, then it’s the size of sperm whale in the Hebrew language and thought. Our three letter word required eight or nine Hebrew words to completely describe it. I’ll just give you a few of the pieces of what I discovered about sin.

To sin, was to miss the bull’s eye of an archery target. King David had several Annie Oakley kind of archers who it was said, "could fling a stone within a hair-breath of the bull’s eye, and not miss." That image came to describe what sin was like: to miss the bull’s eye of God’s will for our lives. To fail to live up to the fullest intent of God’s plan.

Another Hebrew word for sin described it as not doing what we should’ve and doing what we shouldn’ve. We call such sins in church language the sins of omission and the sins of commission. Such sins, it was believed, poisoned the soul, and could infect the entire community. Running around bad-mouthing someone, for instance, could poison and entire community. Enough church splits have convinced us that sin is a poison that is highly contagious.

Yet another Hebrew word describes sin as being unfaithful to the covenant between neighbor and God. All life is upheld by covenant; when we attend a wedding, we are watching covenant-making in action. When we worship on a Sunday morning, there is an unwritten covenant between us and God that we honor. To break covenant is to sin. That’s why committing adultery is so wrong--because in taking another’s spouse, one violates the sacred covenant of marriage. And to injure a neighbor is to injure the covenant with God. Every time we come to that part in the Lord’s prayer where we say, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" we’re praying for forgiveness of this kind of sin, for breaking our promises to God and neighbor.

Finally, the ancients had a word to describe the kind of sin that gets front page coverage in the newspaper--deeds that are so violent, senseless, destructive, and evil and we cringe and draw back.

What’s behind all of these words that describe sin? Behind all of the types of sin was the belief that sin poisoned the soul from within and led to its complete destruction. Sin is chaos that mars and destroys God image within us--our soul. It threatens the order and parameters of our community and nation. And it’s lethal! Spreads like gangrene numbing and destroying those who are infected by it. The opposite of sin is contained in the three volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. The belief that good actions and words will lead to good results. The power of Chicken Soup for the Soul is in the stories of warm-hearted, brave, self-giving people who, by their actions, set in motion good results. Someone is loved and that person, in turn, expresses that love to the next person. But sin might be better described as Strychnine For the Soul or Ant Poison for the Soul, for sin aims at the soul’s demise, so that given enough of the poison, the soul--that inner person of mind and spirit--ceases to exist.

I want to suggest three things that we can do today that will empower us to nourish our soul, rather than starve and fragment the soul. First, be honest to God. Remember the ashes of Lent that remind us that we are all of us sinners and in need of repair.

Secondly, Remember what ashes stand for -- from dust we came and to dust we shall return. So what are we doing with our lives between the dust? Look at your life from the stand point of dust! From the standpoint of eternity. Take a friend of mine. This person lived a tough life no doubt. Made some bad choices. Five years ago, he started listening to that strange chant of Psalm 51 and now he is a Christian. A Christian who is well-aware of dust. He recently was given less than a year of life. So what does he do? He enrolls in college; wants to learn how to preach the gospel. Wants to give the hours that remain in his life to sharing God’s good news with others. Sometimes he makes it sometimes he’s too ill, but he reminds me of what Psalm 51 and the season of Lent says, from dust we’ve come and to dust we’ll return. So be sure that you’re spending your energies in the right places, with the right people, doing the right kinds of things.

Thirdly, Psalm 51 and the ashes of Lent remind us not only that we are sinners, that we are from and return to dust, but that we are God’s property. God is the healer who begins to change us from the inside when any sick soul cries out for help. The Gospel doesn’t guarantee your physical well-being, or slow the aging process, but it does something much more. Our confessions and God’s forgiveness begins the healing process in our soul. Ashes in the form of the cross remind us that we’re God’s property.

So this week take a piece of Psalm 51 -- say the part where the psalmist says, "Create in me a Clean Heart O God. And pray that again and again. Make it a soaking prayer that permeates your being. Then begin to walk in newness of life that has begun. Amen.