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"Always, We Begin Again" -- Psalm 51 (Ash Wednesday)

The Benedictines have a saying that’s become part of the rhythm of their lives: “Always, we begin again.”[1] As Benedictines live their life in community – either together in one place or out in the world – they structure their common life around what’s called the Rule of St. Benedict.[2] The Rule of St Benedict offers guidelines for living, but, importantly, it also builds a structure for each day – a pattern, for moving through each day, and then the next:

Each morning, they wake – and move into prayer – and then out into their work. And then they return to prayer, they give thanks – and then back into work – and then back into prayer – work flowing into prayer – and prayer into work. Along the way, they share meals together, and conversation – living the rhythm of each day with each other, and in the presence of God. And at the close of the day and at the beginning of the next, there is this prayer:

“Always, we begin again.

And that’s a blessing because we know that each day brings with it its own challenges and joys, and every now and then we need to begin again. We do our best to live lives of meaning – and along the way – each day – from time to time – we also get it wrong – sometimes badly wrong. We harm others, and ourselves. We participate in the things of the world that keep harm going, rolling over lives – the things that keep folks down.

And, as we move through each day, we experience the full range of what human life encounters. Hopefully, we find some joy – along with the frustration, and the worry, and the sense of overwhelm. And, in a world, where we are all moving through, getting things wrong – we know what is like to be on the blunt edge of that – the receiving side of the world’s harm – we know what it is like to hurt.

So after a full day like that – every day – the Benedictines pray this assurance and this hope:

“Always, we begin again.

Now, that’s not just a true statement about chronological time. It is true: Every day we begin again, with the rising of the sun. It’s also a true statement about God’s love for us. In Jesus Christ, God has come to us in to heal and to save us from everything that does us harm – and from all the harm that we do. God has come to us in Jesus Christ

· with forgiveness, for our sin and our brokenness;

· with freedom, for all the ways that we are oppressed – and for all the ways that we oppress others; and

· with healing, for all the ways we hurt – and for all the ways we harm each other.

It’s like we’ve been saying in worship in our Assurance of Grace – “Every day is a brand new day.” In God’s grace, God gives us a fresh clean start. “Always, we begin again.”

In this Psalm, King David prays for a fresh clean start like that: “Create in my a clean heart, O God, and renew a right and willing spirit within me.” Allow me to begin again.

King David is a complicated character in the Bible. On the one hand, he is God’s chosen King for God’s people. He draws them together as a nation. He protects them from aggressors. He tries to follow God. And he establishes a house and a family that will stretch on down to Jesus.

And on the other hand, King David causes a lot of harm in the world. This Psalm of lament wells up as David realizes some of the worst he has done. He has sent one of his general’s out into battle, where the general will surely be killed – all so that David can take the general’s wife, Bathsheba. Just in that one sequence of events, he has – by generous count – broken 5 of the 10 commandments – and in human terms, add to that the violence that he does to Bathsheba.

This Psalm takes all of that seriously. And after a long while of hiding the truth, David takes all that seriously. He doesn’t hold back: “God, you know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me” – all the harm David has caused in the world – laid out before God and everybody. And so the Psalm begins: “Have mercy on me according to thy steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy; blot out my transgressions.” David trusts in God to create in him a clean heart – to renew in him a right spirit.

Now, if we are going to do justice to the complexity of David, we should probably say one more thing. David knows what it is to do harm – he names the harm he has done – and he also knows what it is to hurt. He says something like that here, when he talks about how his bones have been crushed. From the whole of David’s story, we know that in the very beginning, he was hunted down by King Saul living his life in fear and peril. David’s heart breaks when his bosom friend Jonathan is killed in battle. And he will lament and wail again, when his son Absalom is killed while in open rebellion against his father – David will cry out, “Absalom! Absalom! O that I would have died for thee!” (2 Samuel 18:33)

David knows what it is to harm others – his sin is ever before him. And he knows what it is to hurt in his own crushed bones – what it is to feel his heart break open in pain.

This Psalm takes our lives seriously – the whole of our lives – in all of their complexity. It acknowledges plainly for us: The harm we do in the world is real, and so is the hurt that we know in our bodies and our lives – in bones that have been crushed, and hearts that have been broken. And the Psalm brings all this – the whole of our life – out into the open – and trusts God. The Psalm trusts in God’s steadfast love – in God’s abundant mercy – what in the New Testament we will come to know as God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit with in me. Cast me not away from thy presence. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and renew a right spirit within me.” Give me a fresh clean start; help me to begin again.

We lean into God’s love like that in the regular rhythm of our lives – in our daily prayers for mercy: Lord, have mercy! We do that together, each week, when we pray our prayer of confession in worship. We say these true things about us – that we need God – we are broken and need God’s forgiveness; we are pushed down and held back and need God’s liberating power; and we are lost and confused, and we need God to help us find our way home. Every week, we pray our need – and then we claim together the sure promise of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – the love that created us and called us good – the love that re-creates in us a healed heart – the love that empowers us to begin again. “Always, we begin again.”

Ash Wednesday gives us the opportunity to do that too. Ash Wednesday marks the start of the season of Lent – as we begin together our journey with Jesus through the wilderness, toward Holy Week and all that it holds, toward the Last Supper, and Gethsemane, and the Cross – and then out on beyond Lent and the Cross – on out into Resurrection. Some describe Lent as a penitential season – a time to think about the harm we have done in the world, our sin and our brokenness, and to turn, and to change. Others speak more broadly of Lent as a season of reflection – a time to slow down, and to notice – to notice and name true things about ourselves, about our world, about God. It might be a season to let go of something; It might be a season to take on an intentional spiritual practice – to recommit to a life of prayer connected with the life we live in the world. I like the way that one writer puts it: “During Lent, Christians ask one way or another what it means to be ourselves”[3]– in the company of each other and in the steadfast presence of God.

This Lent, we will be embracing the theme: In the Desert, a Healing Spring. We will be naming our parched places – the hurt we experience, and the harm we do. We’ll consider the parched places of or world. And, as we travel through Lent with Jesus, we will also look for all the ways we find healing – streams of living water:

In the Desert, a Healing Spring.

As we gather at table in just a bit on this Ash Wednesday, the invitation is to experience all that here – the honesty of what it means to be ourselves, and the healing power of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.

We’ll come forward and receive in ashes the sign of the cross, with the reminder that we have come from the earth, and to the earth we will return. And then, we will receive the bread and the cup – bread for the journey, and Christ’s own life, for us and in us. We will lean together into God’s steadfast love and tender mercy, as we affirm, in our bodies:

Always, we begin again.

© 2020 Scott Clark

[1]John McQuiston II, Always We Begin Again: The Benedictine Way of Living (Morehouse Publishing: Pittsburgh, PA, 1996) [2]St. Benedict, The Rule of St Benedict (Vintage Books: New York, 1998 ed.) [3]Andrea Wigodsky, Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.2 (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2010).

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