O God, Create in Me a Clean Heart

A Sermon for Fourteenth Pentecost

[sung to the tune of “St. Columba”:] O God, create in me a clean heart.

It's the Labor Day weekend, and we all know what that means: “School days, school days. . .” Who's your teacher this year? Who's your favorite teacher, ever? Was it your older sister, your grandfather, your best friend?

For many of us, our first, if not our favorite, teacher was. . .our mother. What did your mother teach you? Probably what you learned from your mom was what I learned: the “basics.” Mom would remind us to do those basic things, in three little words. I love you. Yes. But also: Make your bed. Finish your homework. Wash your hands.

Somewhere there's a photo of my mom and me in a little backyard sandbox where I loved to play when I was a pre-schooler. There's my mom, smiling one of those smiles that says, “Oh, that Tommy!” And there's me – in my cowboy hat, playing in the sand, with gloves on. That's not a baseball glove I'm talking about. That's gloves, as in, I'm wearing gloves to keep my hands from getting dirty, so I don't HAVE to wash them. Right now, some of you are saying to yourselves, “Ah, HA! So THAT explains it!”

What else did your mother teach you? How about all those things NOT to do? Don't even think of hitting your little sister! Don't take what doesn't belong to you. And my personal favorite: Don't say that again, or I'm going to wash your mouth out. . .with soap. Of course, most of us never had that happen literally. . .but we got the picture. Clean up your language. Or in the words one of my clergy friends, who's down the street and around the corner, used for his sermon title today: “Bite your tongue.” The problem with biting your tongue is that it really hurts. And you could very well bleed. Couldn't we learn how to say something nice about people before things get bloody?

O God, create in me a clean heart.

Everything we ever needed to learn in life we may have learned at home. Or in kindergarten. Or maybe in church. For more than 2,000 years, the church has taught about something called repentance. Some people probably think we “wait ’til Lent to repent!” But when we baptize babies or children or especially adults, we ask the same question of everyone present: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Before any kind of reconciliation can happen, before homecoming, before forgiveness, before starting over, before making amends. . .there has to be repentance. To repent is to admit we have made a mistake, something that hurts both someone else and God, and then to confess our mistake, our sin, to God and to those hurt by our sin. Today's Gospel story is all about repentance.

Mom used to say things like, Wash your hands. Or I'll wash your mouth out. But Jesus says, Wash your heart. O God, create in me a clean heart.

Jesus says “Wash your heart” because he knew that people in his day believed every word they spoke passed through their hearts – the home of all their thoughts and feelings, the place where will and spirit lived. In Mark's telling of the Jesus story, one of the main issues is the relationship his disciples have to the purity code, the rules about clean–hearted Jewish living. We pray our own version of that purity code each week in the Collect for Purity: “Almighty God, (unto whom) [to you] all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts. . .”

It's about moral purity, Jesus tries to teach those un-teachable teachers. Clean hands are important, but it's NOT about hands. It's about saying and doing the right things. It's about making a list like the one at the end of today's Gospel lesson and checking it. Twice. Or more. Especially in an election year. Deceit? Slander? Pride? Folly? Is Jesus speaking to Presidential candidates? (Is Jesus speaking to US?)

O God, create in me a clean heart. Now, my mom wasn't a perfect parent. Neither was my Dad. But as their birthdays approach again this month, and I think about what life in this world would have been like without them, I think it's safe to say they were blessed with hearts that were pretty pure and clean a lot of the time. And when they weren't, when their hearts just weren't in what they were doing, when they found themselves giving in to the broken, sinful world of that time instead of giving themselves over to God. . .well. . .Sunday would come around again, and they knew it was time to repent. They would pack up all five of us kids and shuttle us off to church, so they could hear words like the ones we've just heard: “Listen to me, all of you, and take this to heart: it's not what goes into you that pollutes; pollution happens when you let some kind of garbage come out of you (adapted from Eugene Peterson's The Message).”

Wash your heart, Jesus implores those not-so-clean-hearted religious leaders. Wash your heart, and streams of living water will flow (John 7:38) – from within you, into your children, and then, through them, into the world. The living water of Jesus flowed when mom and dad sang to us. They would, without shame or embarassment, love to sing, especially at bedtime. They taught us songs that made us sleepy, lullabies that helped us – and them – get ready for a new day. And as they sang, they prayed twice – once for themselves, and once for us. They prayed our hearts would be pure and clean. Not just our hands. Not just our heads. But our hearts. Especially our hearts.

I invite you to pray this prayer I've taught you today. Tonight, when you get ready for bed, when you say your prayers, try using these eight little words as part of your praying. And tomorrow morning, when you wake up and begin a new day, all over again, try singing or saying them again: O God, create in me a clean heart. AMEN.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
September 2, 2012