Our scripture for
this 5th Sunday of Lent is from the 51st Psalm:
1Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4Against 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.
5Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
We have all heard of heart-lung
transplants, right? I want to introduce to you this morning the
concept of a heart-spirit transplant. And suggest to you that such
a transplant is what it means to be a Christian. That we are
called to do, or perhaps better said, that we are called to have done to
us precisely what the Psalmist says -- 'to put within me a clean heart,
O God, a new and right spirit within me'.
Of course the Bible authors had no
concept of a transplant. If you went to a physician in biblical
times with an ache in your side, and the physician said to you "Well, I
think you need a kidney transplant", you'd say "what?!". What's
that? Well, we're going to take a kidney out of someone else, and
we're going to put it in you. Yeah, right!
They wouldn't have any concept of that.
There's a bizarre scene in the movie "The Last Temptation of Christ",
Willem Defoe portrayed a rather strange Jesus. But there's this
one scene in which Jesus literally takes his heart out of his chest and
offers it to the people. This bloody, bleeding heart. Very
literal. And it's a grotesque portrayal of a concept -- that we
are invited to take the heart of Jesus.
Indeed, do we not speak of devout, good
Christians as people who have the heart of Jesus within them? So
before I develop this idea of Christ giving us his heart, of God
planting in us the spirit of God, I want to spend a little bit of time
dealing with one idea in the scripture that I think is probably
problematic for some.
Verse 5: "Indeed, I was born
guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me". What does that
remind you of? What does that call to mind? Original sin.
Yes, you got it right away. The problem here isn't what the text
says, the problem is the lens through which we read it. If you're
looking for a scriptural description of original sin, well, here it is.
And the problem is the way we understand it in light of that doctrine.
The idea of original sin is not just
that we are born guilty (because I think that's profoundly true in one
sense, and I'm going to come back to that in just a bit) but original
sin of course says that we are conceived in sin. That the
sin of Adam and Eve is passed on through the generations through the act
of sexual procreation. And hence only one who is born of a virgin
can be without sin.
Now while that is a common belief, a
common teaching in traditional Christianity in many churches, it's not
something we teach. It's not a doctrine of our church. In the
Christian Church Disciples of Christ you are free to take it or leave
it. I choose to leave it. And I'm not going to go into all
of that, the reasons why, but I am convinced by the argument of Matthew
Fox (theologian) in his book "Original Blessing", in which he says we
are born not in original sin but with original blessing. That is,
that fundamentally as human beings we are good. We are created in
the image of God.
And you see, there's a long list of
psychological problems which are created precisely when children are
raised in such an environment where they are told constantly how bad
they are. And not told how good they are. And a
theology which teaches that you are a 'sinner', such as Amazing Grace --
"how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me". When that is
reinforced and you are beat up with that sin, then it reinforces that
unhealthy psychological development that creates all kinds of emotional
problems. And it has no place in the church.
Now, you may have sensed that I have
strong feelings about this doctrine
The message that we want to convey is
about how good we are as children of God. How every person
deserves to be loved, to be valued, to be treated with respect as a
child of God.
Now I believe that to be fundamentally
true, and it is central to our message of transforming lives,
transforming Christianity, and transforming our world.
And still, in spite of all that, still,
we cannot avoid the problem of sin. It is a reality in our lives
and in our world. So even though we are born with original
blessing, not original sin, there is a true sense in which we can also
say 'yeah, we are born guilty'. Not because of some sexual act in
which we were conceived, but simply because we are human. We are
fallible. We make mistakes. We even willfully choose to do
things we may know are wrong.
We do not always choose the path that
God desires, wills, for us. And in that sense of choosing
something less than God's desire, we are all sinners. And like the
Psalmist, we know our transgressions. We know our failures.
We know our shortcomings. But does that mean that we are literally
born guilty? Literally conceived in sin? Is the Psalmist
making some claim about an ontological reality, that is the notion that
by virtue of the very fact of us being human that this is our
fundamental nature, to sin?
Look at verse 7: "Purge me with
hyssop [a reference to a Jewish rite of cleansing] and I shall be clean,
wash me and I shall be whiter than snow".
Now this should not be an unfamiliar
concept to us, we talk about this -- such as baptism, when you're
baptized you are cleansed. So when a person is baptized, are they
whiter than snow? Well maybe if the preacher holds them down under
the water for too long they might come out that way
We don't take this literally, right? It's like Dominic Crossan
loves to say: Jesus is talking to the crowd and someone says "Wait
a minute Jesus, I don't get that part about a seed, what's that have to
do with anything you're teaching". And someone else says "It's a
This is a metaphor, and we know that,
we understand that. Verse 5 is not a metaphor, it is hyperbole.
Exaggeration to make a point. And I think we can all get that, we
know there are times when you have this overwhelming sense of guilt and
it feels like, yeah, 'I was born guilty'. But surely one of of the
heresies of scripture is when we take a poetic expression like this and
absolutize it into a literal truth which we then elevate to the level of
a central doctrine that is central to Christianity. That we have to
believe this to be Christian.
The proper theological term for such is
'scatology'. Loosely translated, it means "It's a bunch of
That's the clean translation J.
So yes we are born human, fallible,
sinners, yes. And we are also born good, holy, in the image of
God. Both are true.
And because the first is true, we are
in need of forgiveness. And because the second is true, we have
the assurance of forgiveness.
How can we be so certain of that?
Because it is the nature of God. Read again verse 1: "Have
mercy on me O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your
abundant mercy. Blot out my transgressions". This is the
nature of God. To forgive.
We tell our children that even when we
are angry, we love them. In fact, especially when you are
angry with them, tell them that you love them. How important is
that for child development, even in the midst of anger they are still
loved? And if that is true of us as parents, how much more is that
true of God?
And so the Psalmist calls upon this
character of God to resolve this inherent tension we sometimes feel
within us that yeah, there is this sinful nature of us but yeah, we're
also created good. Original blessing, original sin. Create
in me a new heart, and put a new and right spirit within me.
It may seem preposterous to suggest
that such is even possible, that we can replace that sinful nature with
something so good and holy as the spirit of God. But that is
precisely what the Psalmist proposes.
In their new book, just came out a
couple of weeks ago, "The First Paul", by John Dominic Crossan and
Marcus Borg, they use this analogy of a transplant to suggest that not
only is such possible -- to receive the spirit of God, the heart of
Christ -- but that is what Paul means when he writes to the Galatians,
for instance: "I have been crucified in Christ, it is no longer I
who live, but it is Christ who lives in me".
Now, obviously, Paul had not been
crucified. He wouldn't be writing this if he had been crucified.
Tradition says perhaps he was crucified (that's how he was perhaps put
to death) but he had not yet been crucified. So he's speaking here
metaphorically of the way in which we die and rise with Christ.
In Paul's case that resulted in a transformative "identity transplant"
(Borg & Crossan call it). His old identity was replaced by a new
identity in Christ.
And they note, that in the 7 authentic
letters considered to be written by Paul, the phrase "in Christ" appears
over 100 times. In just 7 letters, over 100 times. So in a
very real sense, for Paul, to be a follower of Jesus is to be "in
Christ", we are in Christ, we have the spirit of Christ in us. And
so Paul says that if anyone is in Christ there is a 'new creation'.
A new identity.
Crossan and Borg use this analogy of a
transplant to describe this new creation of Christ -- "in Christ".
"In a heart
transplant, a person's old and damaged heart is totally removed and
replaced by a new, undamaged one. It's possible that the new
organ may be rejected by the body, but there are medications to help
prevent this. What God did in Christ, and what God thereby
offers to everyone, is an identity change. A character
replacement. A Spirit transplant. God's own holy spirit,
the spirit of non-violent distributive justice, that is God's own
self, nature, and character, is offered freely and gratuitously to
all people. It is what Paul calls 'grace'. It is a free
gift offered without any prior conditions demanded by God, or prior
merits expected of us. Indeed, how could either of those even
Also, to continue
the analogy -- the medications against the rejection of God's spirit
transplant are called prayer and meditation, worship and liturgy".
What we do here is the medication to
prevent that rejection of that spirit transplant.
Paul calls this process of a spirit
transplant God's "just-making", or God's justification (that's what
justification means, to make 'just').
Bono, the lead singer for the Irish
rock band U2, the great theologian that he is, as well as rock star,
sums up this process of a spirit transplant in the song "Yahweh".
Only he sings not of a transplant, but a birth. Now, those of you
in this crowd, if you don't know U2, a very popular rock band.
Just came out with a new album. So imagine, this is a song that
has been played on the airwaves of contemporary radio (hasn't been a big
hit, but one of their best songs, I think). The last song, and I
think intentionally the last song, that they put on their last album
"How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" (there's a message in and of itself).
And this is what Bono sings:
Take these shoes
Click clacking down some dead end street
Take these shoes
And make them fit
Take this shirt
Polyester white trash made in nowhere
Take this shirt
And make it clean, clean
Take this soul
Stranded in some skin and bones
Take this soul
And make it sing
Always pain before a child is born
Still I'm waiting for the dawn
Take these hands
Teach them what to carry
Take these hands
Don't make a fist
Take this mouth
So quick to criticize
Take this mouth
Give it a kiss
Always pain before a child is born
Still I'm waiting for the dawn
Now I could spend the next 20 minutes
unpacking this song, describing the metaphors, but I'd just as soon let
it be what it is, and for you to meditate on it. That's just half
Instead, what I want to do to conclude
my reflection is to give you an experience of this "Yahweh", the name of
God, that can be the basis of transformation and rebirth. Or, a
heart and spirit transplant.
And the experience comes from Richard
Rohr, a Franciscan priest, founder of the Center for Action and
Contemplation in New Mexico, very highly sought-after author, speaker,
and all matters related to spirituality. And Rohr attended a
conference on the convergence of religion and science, an annual event
held in Santa Fe (New Mexico). Speakers were brought from the top
of the field in science and religion, biblical scholars and theologians.
And among the latter was a Jewish
scholar who spoke about the meaning of the name of God, Rabbi David
Abrams. And Rohr said what the Rabbi shared in that lecture wasn't
just profound, it was life-changing.
He shared three things, two of which
Rohr already knew.
First, the name of God is considered so
holy in the Jewish tradition that normally you do not pronounce it.
That's the meaning of the second commandment in the Jewish tradition
(third in ours) "Do not use the name of the Lord God in vain".
That's not about 'cussing', that's trivializing the commandment.
He says the name of God is so holy you cannot speak it, for to speak it
is to suggest that somehow I know God in a way we cannot know God.
That I possess God by speaking the name. And so it's an
unspeakable name. That's what it means to hold it so sacred.
Rohr said, yeah, I knew that.
Secondly, he said ancient Hebrew has no
vowels in written form, only consonants. And so, since the name of
God had not been spoken for thousands of years, there has been some
debate the last few centuries about just how your pronounce the name of
God. "Jehovah" in some traditions, "Yahweh" in other traditions.
We haven't known until recently, and Rohr said 'yeah, I knew that'.
Third, this was the new life-changing
thing, he says this is the basis of a life of prayer and for your own
personal contemplation. Third, he said, Jewish scholars are now
fairly certain two vowels in the name of Yahweh are "Yah" and "weh".
They are the only two vowels in Hebrew that are spoken without moving
the mouth or the tongue, it is just the passage of air through your
mouth shaped in a certain way.
He says it's as if, then, that the two
syllables of the name of God are an attempt to pronounce the sound of
inhalation ("Yah") and exhalation ("Weh").
Breath. The breath of life, you
see, is God. From the moment we are born, until the moment we give our
last breath, we breathe in the breath of God. We take in that
breath of God every moment of our lives, even when we're not aware of
And then this Rabbi did an
extraordinary thing. In this room filled with scholars and
academicians, PhD's, you know, all these intellectual types, he just
began to breathe into the microphone:
Yah-weh. . . . yah-weh. . . yah-weh. .
. yah-weh. . . . yah-weh. . .
Abrams did this about 35 times.
Rohr said he began to hear people cry. He looked around and saw
these PhD's with tears rolling down their cheeks. In this
intellectual conference suddenly they were connecting to the essence of
God's power, presence, the
life-affirming, the life-giving presence of God that is there and
available to us in every moment of time, and they were making that
connection in a powerful way that these great scientists had never made
This is the presence, the life of God.
It is always present and available to
Create in me a new heart, O Yah-weh.
Put in me a new and right spirit.