A second chance, a clean heart, 5 Lent (B) – 2015

March 22, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

In today’s psalm we prayed, “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

In Milwaukee, St. Luke’s Hospital is renowned for its cardiac care. Next door, there is a church that has a large lighted cross that can be seen by patients. Over the years, the church has received many letters from patients, saying they receive hope when they see the cross, especially lighted at night. The cross seems to have special meaning to many of the patients in the cardiac care unit, whose windows look out toward the lighted cross. Some of the people staying in that unit await heart transplants, and while they wait, day after day, sometimes month after month, they take comfort in the cross. The cross means for them new life, just like the chance for a new heart means a new chance at life, a second chance.

In today’s psalm, the writer tells of his desire for a second chance, a clean heart, a renewed spirit. Tradition ascribes this psalm to King David and says he composed it after he is confronted by the prophet Nathan for committing adultery and then using his power to have a man killed to cover the king’s own wrongdoing. The writer of the psalm feels the weight of his sins keenly. He feels his sin as a disconnection from God. The image he uses to express his longing for reconnection, for restoration of right relationship with God, is his heart’s need for cleansing. Sin has soiled his heart, and so he cries out, “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

What would we do with a clean heart, a renewed heart, a second chance?

In our Old Testament lesson, God says through the prophet Jeremiah that God will write God’s law on the people’s hearts and forgive their sins. In a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, Ezekiel 11:19, God promises an even more radical surgery: “I will give them a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within them. I will remove their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.”

What would we do with a clean heart, a new heart, a second chance?

In Anne Tyler’s novel “Saint Maybe,” a character named Ian bears a terrible burden of guilt. He has too carelessly spoken words to his brother, expressing his unfounded idea that his brother’s wife is cheating on him. Ian’s careless speech, born of anger against his brother and sister-in-law, leads to their deaths, the leaving behind of their three children, and an aching pain in Ian that he bears part of the responsibility for how things turned out. He longs to be set free from his burden, to experience true forgiveness. Ian finds his way to a church where the minister tells him that he needs to take care of the three orphaned children. In taking on the raising of the children, Ian realizes that any forgiveness worth having needs to be linked to a change of life. The problem for Ian is that he sees forgiveness as something he must earn. He leads an upright life, but he cuts himself off from others, becomes distant from people, including himself. He wonders why, with all the good works he’s been doing, all the “atoning and atoning,” it still feels like God hasn’t forgiven him. He’s been busy trying to earn his forgiveness, and it’s not working. He lives in such a way as to avoid making mistakes. One of the children teases him, calling him, “King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways. Saint Maybe.”

Ian feels he has a second chance, but he also feels he has to be very cautious. Since he thinks forgiveness depends upon himself, his own ability to make things right, he can only live in a closed and cut-off way, a way that prevents him from experiencing the fullness of life, from taking risks for the sake of love. He has become a man, in a very narrow sense, of upright behavior. He has even taken a job as a cabinet maker, taking refuge in inanimate objects so he doesn’t have to deal with people, not risking hurting or being hurt.

What we hear in our gospel lesson is that, in Jesus, we know someone who not only knows our sins, but who does something about them. When we meet him in today’s lesson, Jesus is on his way to the cross. And he gives this promise: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Sin is what separates us from God, others, ourselves and our world. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, he will set in motion the reconciliation of all people, the forgiveness of all people, the drawing of all people to himself. It is a picture of reconciliation or of the healing of broken relationships, with God, with others, with our own selves. It’s not about giving us a chance to earn our forgiveness. Since our hearts need cleansing, God is going to do it. And through Jesus Christ, we can have a clean heart that can love again. For a second chance, and a third, and a fourth.

So the question is not, “What would you do with a second chance?” but rather, “What will you do with a chance to start over again, and another, and another?”

In giving us new life, Jesus also gives us a way to respond, a pattern of life: his own. And it is not about living in a cautious and closed-off way. Jesus’ way of life is a life of taking risks, of reaching out to others, of serving the poor, of working for justice, of being reconciled with others, of being like grains of wheat that multiply if they are willing to give up the certainty of being seeds for the adventure of growth and new life and the spreading of blessings.

What will you do with your clean heart, your chance to start over again?

Eventually, in “Saint Maybe,” Ian starts to discover God’s grace in the ordinary details of his life. He begins to be opened to the possibility of risk, of relationship, of healing. He discovers that the three children are not a burden – they are what give his life “color, energy, and well, life.” He falls in love and marries a woman, and together they plan for the arrival of their new baby. He uses his carpentry skills to build a cradle of fine wood for the baby. And in this effort, done in response to love, Ian discovers something new, and he takes a risk. In all his woodworking until now:

“he had worked with straight lines. He had deliberately stayed away from bow-backed chairs and benches that require eye judgment, personal opinion. Now he was surprised at how these two shallow U shapes satisfied his palm. . . . He took special pride in the cradle’s nearly seamless joints which would expand and contract in harmony and continue to stay tight through a hundred steamy summers and parched winters.”

Ian realizes through being forgiven and forgiving, through being given a clean heart and a second chance, and a third and a fourth, the importance of vulnerability, the importance of taking risks, the importance of relationship, his own ability to participate in love and new life and hope.

The response to being forgiven, to being given a clean heart, a new heart, and more chances than we can count, is not bed rest and caution, but a new exercise program, a program patterned after the life of Christ, walking in his way, following where he leads, being willing to spend it all, like he did for us, to take a risk, to give up the certainty of being a seed for the adventure of new life, new growth, new possibilities.


— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.

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