[A sermon preached at Ginter Park Presbyterian on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Psalm 51:1-12.]
When Beth and I agreed to be your interns this year, one of the first things that we did was sign something called a learning covenant. It’s a pretty simple agreement signed by us and by Carla and by the folks over at the seminary outlining some of the ways we were looking forward to growing together in the coming months. As interns, we had an opportunity to articulate some of our learning goals for the year, and as supervisors, Carla and the seminary laid out some general expectations that they would have of us. Pretty standard stuff. We also chose a spiritual practice that we would commit to throughout our internship – I chose a daily practice of centering prayer.
When I read this morning’s text from Jeremiah, I couldn’t help but think of my learning covenant. While the actual document is floating around somewhere on my computer’s hard-drive, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that the practice of centering prayer has been written upon my heart.
Centering prayer is a contemplative practice that I hadn’t really heard about until I started seminary. Some of you may remember learning more about it through April Swofford’s Sunday school class this past winter. But the goal of centering prayer, at least for me, is opening to the presence of God in the present moment. In this form of prayer, people sit in silence and use a sacred word to draw their attention back to God whenever thoughts start to creep in or the mind begins to wander. Now, I’m sure for some of you, sitting in silence for twenty to thirty minutes sounds absolutely awful. Maybe others of you find this sort of quiet contemplation restorative or invigorating. For me, I’d have to say it’s a little of both.
Sometimes, I find myself able to settle down and embrace God’s invitation into silence. But most of the time it’s just hard – it’s hard to sit there, it’s hard to pause and let go of productivity, it’s hard to be open, it’s hard to be vulnerable, it’s hard to be present. Occasionally, though, I find myself approaching my prayer practice as if it’s another dreaded chore on an already too long to-do list. On one such occasion, I had managed to drag myself to prayer, just eager to get it over with. I was convinced that while I had covenanted to sit in prayer for this set amount of time each day, I never promised to be open to it, and I definitely never promised to like it. Slumped down in my chair, I crossed my arms over my chest and did my best to scowl at God. I had this mental picture of me and God, sitting as far away from one another as possible while still being in the same room. God would smile patiently, knowingly, and I would just cast my withering stares from the corner of the room, like a toddler put in time out. Eventually, though, after a few minutes of scorn had come and gone, I had this thought. I imagined God turning to me and playfully joking: “Your face is gonna get stuck like that.”
With one simple little sentence, there was a gradual softening – my shoulders relaxed, my face smoothed, my resistance began to dissolve. As grace wove its way through my defense mechanisms, I suddenly became more receptive, more open. God chose humor, of all things, to reach out to me when I was most closed off. God created a clean heart in me, God renewed a right spirit within me, God taught me wisdom in my secret heart not by shaming me for my stubbornness or berating me for my shortcomings, but by inviting me to laugh at myself.
During Lent, we talk a lot about repentance. We hear about deserts and temptation, wilderness journeys and sets of commandments. We read penitential psalms that remind us we were born guilty, that we were sinners when our mothers conceived us. Our lectionary presents the Jesus of Lent as someone who chases the moneychangers off the Temple grounds with a whip. This is the same Lenten Jesus who gets up in Peter’s face when the disciples struggle to come to terms with Jesus’ impending death. Throughout our journey toward the cross, the harshness of repentance doesn’t seem to leave much room for tender movements of mercy.
This crowding out of compassion isn’t a completely new concept for us. We see the ruthlessness of our culture in every public scandal, every tabloid cover, every online comments section. A few weeks ago, I read a New York Times OpEd piece by David Brooks addressing the recent controversy surrounding NBC News anchor Brian Williams. Brooks observed that the way we respond to scandal these days is barbaric: “When somebody violates a public trust,” he says, “we try to purge and ostracize them. A sort of coliseum culture takes over, leaving no place for mercy.” “By now,” Brooks writes, “the script is familiar. Some famous person does something wrong. The Internet, the most impersonal of mediums, erupts with contempt and mockery. The offender issues a paltry half-apology, which only inflames the public more. The pounding cry for resignation builds until capitulation comes. Public passion is then spent and the spotlight moves on.” When we consider these cycles of public opinion and when we reflect on the mercilessness of our own culture, is it any wonder that we sometimes struggle to see the tender side of a sovereign God? Is it any wonder that we think of repentance in terms of guilt and shame rather than an opportunity to embrace a more excellent way?
It’s easy to read today’s psalm, Psalm 51, solely as an expression of human remorse or preoccupation with failure or guilt. The Reformer Martin Luther once observed that whoever called this a penitential psalm “knew what he was doing” (Mays, 197). But the psalmist also looks beyond the self to God and lays hold on the wondrous possibilities of God’s grace. Even in a thought-world where holiness and impurity were mutually exclusive, the psalmist acknowledges that despite his iniquities, his transgressions, and his sins, the Holy Spirit is still with him. He hasn’t managed to scare God off no matter how many scornful glares he may cast or how obstinately he’s behaved or how grumpy his centering prayer practice might have been that day. God isn’t going anywhere. In fact, God was working within the psalmist even before he offered this prayer, even before he recognized his own sinfulness, because only by God’s grace are we ever even able to reach out our hands toward God.
God’s grace always precedes our awareness. Recently, I came across a saying by 9th c. Islamic scholar al-Bukhari that sums this up quite nicely. He writes that when we come closer to God by a single hand-span, God comes closer to us by arms’ length. When we draw closer to God by an arm’s length, God draws closer by the distance of two outstretched arms. When we go to God walking, God comes to us running.
When it comes to mercy, God outdoes us all. And who are we to think we can limit the ways in which God initiates transformation? Repentance doesn’t have to look like a thousand lashes or a week in the stocks. As the poet Mary Oliver writes, God doesn’t demand that we walk on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. Maybe God washes away our sins, not by scrubbing our souls raw, but by gentle exfoliation and a generous use of moisturizer. Maybe God calls us home with lullabies rather than rebukes or reprimands.
The process of repentance can be gentle, it can be tender, even, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Any way you slice it, it still involves change, and as we all know, the momentum of “we’ve always done it this way” can be pretty hard to reckon with. Change has to begin with a letting go, a process we know to be fraught with anxiety and grief, even when we’re letting go of something that no longer serves us. This is something that Christians often practice during Lent – traditionally this is a time of giving up of unhealthy behaviors or old habits that are holding us back. But often we find that as we open our hands to let go of something old, we’re also poised to welcome in something new.
Frequently people talk about giving up things like soda or chocolate for Lent, but what they don’t talk about is how much more water they’re drinking or how much healthier they’re eating as a result. We give up workaholism or perfectionism and regain our sense of balance. We give up our morning Starbuck’s coffee and we donate the money we would have spent so that wells can be dug in communities without access to safe drinking water. We relinquish our time spent on Facebook and we spend more time in prayer. Repentance gives us an opportunity to let go of anything that diminishes our love of God, neighbor, and self, and instead, choose a more beautiful way.
The letting go required of true repentance is hard work, no doubt about it. But God doesn’t pry our fingers off of whatever we need to relinquish. God knows a white knuckled grip when God sees it, and instead of reaching for the crowbar, God just smiles and says, whenever you’re ready, I’m here. From one sinner to another, though, don’t wait too long. Your face might get stuck like that.