By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord
“Just as we taste food with our mouths, we taste the psalms with our hearts”
-Bernard of Clairvaux.
Psalm 51 is a powerful cry. Lyrically it conjures a deep pit from which David and other sinners find themselves trapped and unable to rise. Theologically, Psalm 51 is an ocean which may be plumbed for an eternity as the reader jumps from questions of original sin, to personal sin, sacrifice, remorse, justice, purity, punishment, and grace. My Church and I are spending the entire year of 2021 praying and worshiping with the Psalms at center stage and the presence of Psalm 51 on this Ash Wednesday is an excellent example of why we should do so more often. I think that scripture outside of the Psalms often provides a kind of built-in shield for us intellectually and emotionally. We are able to read of Adam and Eve in the garden, Elijah burning the altar before the prophets of Baal, Paul preaching in Ephesus, Jesus on the Road to Emmaus and, no matter how convicting the preacher might be, convince ourselves that these are fundamentally stories about someone else. It could be that they are stories that inform our own lives or that we can imagine ourselves as characters in, but we are able to keep a certain distance from Peter, Mary and the rest of our scriptural characters.
The Psalms offer very little of that cover. While Psalm 51 provides a superscription attributing it to David after Nathan came to him, after David had come to Bathsheba, that’s it. When we read Psalm 51, as individuals or as a congregation, it is our lips that say: “I know my transgressions, my sins are ever before me” (v. 3, NRSV). Perhaps that is why, in worship, we assign the Psalms so often to a supporting role, as chant or responsive reading, to shift the weight of the burden, dull down the emotion with congregational monotone, or to polish it up with music. Brent Strawn writes, “Perhaps the intense honesty of these poems, which can run as close to blasphemy as one can imagine within the context of prayer, is what lead many Christians to distance themselves from the Psalms, respecting them only in a sterilized and sanitized sort of way.”
If any day in the Christian calendar is a day for intense honesty, it is Ash Wednesday. The words of the Psalmist rightfully belong on our lips; truly have we sinned and transgressed. We have sinned and God is justified in dropping a divine hammer upon us. Repent and believe in the gospel.
I would like to offer two main themes that, when coupled with the reality and emotional weight of [your, our, my] sin, could form the core of an Ash Wednesday sermon or homily.
You alone have I offended. Even in light of verse four of this psalm, there is no such thing as a victimless crime. If David did compose this psalm as a response to his rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah, he most certainly sinned against someone other than God. Setting that reality aside, in the Old Testament there is no sin that is only against God. “Even Idolatry, which might be thought to concern only one’s relation to the LORD, was understood to damage one’s community severely. The Old Testament knows of hidden sins and unintended sins but not of private sins that neither concern nor affect others.”
You could point to Matthew 25 as a positive example of this principle. What we do to each other, to our neighbor, to the least of these, we do to Christ. So any sin against our neighbor, the stranger, our siblings in Christ, is a sin against God. David caused harm to Bathsheba and Uriah, and as such David raped and murdered Christ. So too are our dealings with each other. When we buy products made with slave labor or that were sorted/packaged/shipped by underpaid and over worked warehouse employees, we force our Savior into poverty and slavery. When we hate our political adversary, we hate and despise the image of Christ in them from their births.
In transgression I was conceived or as the NRSV says “I was born guilty.” Related to the point above, I don’t think we should take this point to be an opening to preach about Augustine’s understanding of the Doctrine of Original Sin. Last year, my family welcomed our second baby, and I was once again struck that although we joke about our babies being “little sinners,” they have a purity that comes from being untouched by sins of action or inaction.
The preacher could take this opportunity to talk about the universality of sin. Before we were born, sin was present in the world, we made our appearance into a world mired in sin. My sons were born into a family of immense privilege. They will want for nothing. Both of their parents have master’s degrees and professional jobs. Our family has retirement and health benefits. The color of their skin at the very least provides them with the benefit of the doubt as they move throughout the world. Their sex means the world will always see them as capable and never ask for them to justify their presence. None of this is their fault or inherently sinful for them; however, it is a part of our larger communal sin. All of these privileges are baked into a system that grants privileges to some and denies them to others. If you are called to preach on communal sin, allow this to be your invitation.
In the sermon outline above the opening and core of a sermon on Psalm 51 can revolve around the reality and ever-present power of sin. The preacher could name those individual sins and tie them into sins against God that grate the bonds of community or name those sins that are built into the very structure of our world, but please don’t stop there.
The Psalm begins where the sermon should end. Grant Me Grace, God, as befits Your kindness. The Psalmist begins their confession with the full knowledge of God’s goodness and grace. The church is a place that confesses and proclaims God’s healing and help, to those who earnestly repent of their sins. We confess our sin and acknowledge the severity of our sin not so that we might wallow in guilt, but so we might orient our lives to God’s grace. Lent is a time of repentance and preparation for the offering of Christ crucified; a gift which was made possible by the Grace and Love of God in the first place.
Sinners though we may be, all is not lost. In fact, the one who could render judgement and destroy it all has opened the door for us to declare our praise and live our lives in union with Christ’s offering to us.
 Brent Strawn, Psalms for Preaching and Worship (Grand Rapids, MIchigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 5.
 Bolded translations are taken from Robert Alter, “Psalm 51” in The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (NY: Norton & Company, Inc.), 132-133.
 James L. Mayes, Psalms (Lousiville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press), 200.