For the last few weeks we have been lashed by the fierce words of the Jewish Prophets.
Amos with his plumb-line, demanding that society be just
That the crooked parts be removed
The straight parts kept
Isaiah, a braver man than me, turning to his own congregation and saying
“Hear this leaders of Gomorrah, you people of Sodom”
A statement with all the sting of someone today saying
“Hear this leaders of Belsen, you people of Auschwitz”
And then three weeks with Jeremiah
Who is told his mission is to break down and to destroy
And then that people had gone off after other gods,
And then last week, the image of the potter with the clay
And the pot that will be thrown away if it is not true.
And so these words have stung us
For the injustice in the world
In our society
Within our selves.
Now what Psalm 51 urges us to do is stop,
And deal with this pain in the presence of God.
So that it is not a pain the poisons us
Removes us from God.
And I want to say that this morning, what the Psalm tells us to do
In the presence of God, is to hold three words together.
The first and the third words are English words
The middle word is a Hebrew word
“Have Mercy on me God, says the psalmist”
Mercy in the Hebrew is a womb word.
It is a mother word, it is the about the primal bond
The earthed, physical yearning, bond that a Mother has for a child.
I don’t know if you have ever spoken to a mother who has watched a child go through the justice system.
Or perhaps you have been that mother.
And there is the pain that a mother has to go through
A pain borne of love
A pain that is determined to humanise this child
Whom others label as delinquent, a thug, an animal
This mother looks across from the gallery to the dock and says “This is my son”
“This is my daughter”
The mother notices the cuffs on their child’s hands
Hands that she first held
Hands that once were free
And there is in her a longing that these hands be free once again
A determination that these hands bear kindness rather than cruelty.
The word for that maternal yearning is Hebrew
And it is mercy that God has for each one of us.
The middle word is often translated “steadfast love”.
The best illustration I can give this morning, comes from the Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, who wrote of his experiences in the book “Night”
In the book, he tells of the brutality of Auschwitz, his first night there
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
Much of the book is about the relationship that Elie has to be with his Father, Schlomo, his determination to be near his Father (Elie is 16 when these things happen) and how Elie becomes the one who gives care, and how his care for his Father threatens his own survival, and this determination to be with his Father, and his resentment at this bondage that they have to each other.
As the war starts to go against the Germans, the inmates are moved from camp, they have to March 50 miles in the snow to a station at place called Gleiwitz, on the march the men are driven on by guards who have orders to shoot anyone who cannot keep up. Elie sticks close to his Father, but another man Rabbi Eliahou towards the end of the March asks if anyone has seen his son, they had been together for three years “always near for each other, for suffering, for blows, for the ration of bread, for prayer”, but on the march they have been sepearated. Elie had spotted what had happened, as Rabbi Eliahou and old man had marched and begun to limp, his son had deliberately gone quicker ahead, letting the distance between them grow; Elie prayed a prayer
“almost despite myself , a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed. My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son has done.”
It is that determination to be loyal,
Despite the pain, in the darkest night
To be close,
Determination that I will not let you go;
That is God’s love
That is Hesed.
And it is the second word brought into this Psalm.
Have mercy Oh 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
The third word is an ugly little word “Sin”
In the Hebrew the one word is actually “my sin”
It is the personal ownership of that which defaces us
Which twists us within
Which distorts our relationships
Which uglifies humanity.
The lash of these prophets, of Amos, of Isaiah, of Jeremiah
Takes us out of our denial.
Denial is in all of us
We are good at concocting stories where the pain that we bear, is the fault of others.
I once shared a flat with a guy who had lost three jobs, they were part time jobs, in the space of a month. And I could see from the outside the behaviours that were causing this. But Steve sat down with me one day and said “I have sat down, and thought about these situations, and I can honestly say none of this was my fault”.
Another person, who has repeated forms of behaviour which abort success, whose life is marked by incompleteness – jobs left, qualifications failed in their final year, mobile phones constantly changed – there is always something disturbing about people who frequently change their mobile number; and they will always tell the story of those idiots who never got the funding right, those liars who said they would look out for me but never followed through on their promises.
I heard recently of an occupational health doctor addressing a gathering of stressed out ministers, and telling them that their overwork, their inability to take holidays, their tendency to be consumed by the crises which engulfed them, saying to them “this overwork is your doing, you are responsible for the hours that you are working, your decision making is causing your lack of physical exercise” and the ministers screaming back at the occupational health doctor, “its not our fault, you don’t understand, it’s the job that we do”
And most of the time we can get away with our self-denial, because we can hide our sins better than others.
But the psalmist demands an owning up to the selfishness, the arrogance, the self-righteous superiority complex, the greed, the lack of love, the determination to live a life which consults with God but is not yet broken to submit to God.
And the psalmist says you have to own this
Sin not owned is denial
Sin owned, but nothing else beside is paralysing guilt
But the psalmist says
Sin, Love, Mercy
You bring these together,
And God deals with the sin.
I still hold that this moment, is the bedrock of Christian discipleship
Is the heart of what the Good News of Jesus Christ
That in the imagination of God,
Love, mercy, sin are held together,
And in the cross of Jesus,
The sin is broken.
John Calvin used to say be aghast at those who denied their sin
Because it was in understanding the depth of our sin
That we grasped the immeasurable richness of the love and mercy of God.
And these words are held together in our life as Christians.
And in the gospel the sin is broken
Undone by the love and mercy
And we taste freedom.
That moment of trust is such a big moment
And there are moments when we must wrestle
To put the sin
The Hesed together
Have mercy o God according to your steadfast Hesed
According to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
A big time for me of this happening
Was in India when I was there 15 years ago.
I was with my friend Jacob at Sunday morning service of the Church of South India
In this Church called Nedumangadu, a Church with about 400 people in it.
Now this was a time of crisis in my faith.
Not the kind of crisis I have been through lately, the “Is God there crisis”
But the “Does God love me crisis”.
I had felt very unworthy of God
There had been a lot of sin, not too much love and mercy
And certainly no freedom.
But I had been doing that thing that the psalmist does
Trying to hold them together, but feeling nothing.
Just weight, heaviness, confinement.
For weeks I had been doing this, but felt nothing.
Anyway, at this service in Nedumangadu, they had a deal that since I was the celebrity white person (there are not too many white people in Nedumangadu, rural India, although I did once have the most bizarre experience of walking into a muddy hut and three Italian teenagers came out one of the rooms – I think they were there with some kind of Catholic mission)
Anyway, I am the celebrity white kid, the kind of inverse of what Tyronne might be feeling this morning.
And I am out the front,
Feeling an utter fraud,
The service goes on for about an hour and a half,
Which is hard going because I understand about 5% of it
And then we have communion
Now Church of South India is kind of Anglican, so there is a bit of kneeling in the Communion service
Except for the folk at the front, for whom there is a lot of kneeling
So I have to kneel, this is about 15 minutes, it is what the forces call a stress position.
I am praying there,
And to make it all worse, I have killer cramp in my thighs
And then this moment, when in feeling a fraud,
I remember the verse I had read that morning from Colossians
“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your mind because of your evil behaviour “ I knew about that part, the “my sin” part
“But now” and there was something about those words “but now”, something that allowed me in that moment, very personally, know these words were for me
“But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight”
The “But now”, was the moment that Hesed and mercy were held
And in the death of Jesus, had done away with “my sin”
That is the Good News.
At the heart of our living which is public, political, prophetic
Lies this intimate moment
Which often must be wrestled for
Where Mercy, Hesed and “My sin” are held
And the “My sin” part is done away with
So that we might be free,