By Derek Weber
Ash Wednesday – Psalm 51:1-17
February 26, 2020
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 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. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:1-17, NRSV).
Ash Wednesday is an event in and of itself. There might be those who believe that the invitation to the observance of Lenten discipline and the reading of the scripture is enough of a proclamation of the Word. Certainly the imposition of ashes, where that is observed, is the center of the worship experience. And the Selah series is designed to revolve around a spiritual as the heart of the service, so the song itself becomes a proclamation. Yet the preached word has a place, even in this most kinetic of services. Ash Wednesday begins with a need for repentance and the call to walk with Christ.
Suggested Spiritual: Motherless Child
As mentioned in the paragraph above, there are those for whom preaching on Ash Wednesday seems an unnecessary addition to a rich and profound service. Simply following the liturgy from the Book of Worship and the Invitation to the Observance of Lenten Discipline (pp. 321-324) might provide enough of a proclamation for the service. Certainly, the Imposition of Ashes, if practiced, provides a profound embodiment of the Word.
Yet the liturgy provides space for a sermon, so what words might we bring into this sacred space? The worship team at Discipleship Ministries has discerned a need for the church to turn to lament and to the psalms in general for inspiration and guidance through this Lenten season.
As a companion to the Psalm, we are also suggesting a spiritual to lay alongside. This spiritual may be a help to preaching, or it may be used in the liturgy of the day, spoken or sung.
So, on Ash Wednesday, we turn to one of the most familiar psalms of lament, Psalm 51. Traditionally assigned to David after being chastised by Nathan about his affair with Bathsheba, the psalm is full of the pathos of the consequence of sin on innocent life. The psalm speaks of the brokenness that is felt because of this breach. It speaks of the all-encompassing effect of sin, the all-surrounding effect. “I was born guilty,” the psalmist writes, from conception, sin is my identity, my defining nature. All I know and all I am is sin.
I have a recording of the great Paul Robeson singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” As with many old recordings, there is a crackle in the recording, as if there is an electrical field surrounding us as we listen to that deep, resonant voice sing those words.
"Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child / Sometimes I feel like a motherless child / Sometimes I feel like a motherless child / a long way from home / a long way from home."
That’s all there is to it. You don’t have to struggle to learn the lyrics. What you must struggle to learn is the depth of suffering behind those words: the emptiness, the brokenness, the aloneness of those words. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe this feeling of abandonment, of despair, of wanting to hide from the consequence of your actions or the impact of the actions of others on your life is all too present in our reality. As you preach on Ash Wednesday, be assured that those who gather are aware of their sinfulness and brokenness in their lives. We live in an alienating world, a divisive and hurtful environment, where too many draw inward and apart and away from a community of faith where healing and acceptance might be found.
Let’s be clear: Ash Wednesday is not a time to slide into easy solutions or a shallow grace. Instead, we can embrace the depth of the sorrow and begin our Lenten journey with a full awareness of our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There is an awareness of the brokenness of our society, our world, and even ourselves that is palpable in our communities today. We may not know why, or what to do about it, but the sense of estrangement is real. “I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” What is needed is a hope that joy and gladness can be heard. What is needed is the confidence that crushed bones can rejoice.
Ash Wednesday is a call to claim a Savior, to begin a journey of reconciliation. And it starts with confession. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.”