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Clean Heart

February 14, 2013

“Clean Heart” Psalm 51:1-17 © 2.13.13 Ash Wednesday C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

One of my responsibilities as executor of my mother’s estate is to sell her home, as directed in her will. Of course, the first step was to empty the house of its contents, and that process began soon after Mama’s funeral. My niece Page inherited all of her grandmother’s personal belongings, furnishings, and indeed, everything in the house and the outbuildings. So she needed to take away what she wanted before I could do anything. Unfortunately, for reasons I won’t go into here, that became a rather complicated and frustrating matter, but finally Page and her brother Ben made their selections, and I contacted an estate sale company. After a very brief and disappointing conversation with the first one I called, I found a great little business headed by a lady named Rita, specializing in just the sorts of small things Mama had—glassware, tools, plates, and so on. Rita in turn recommended a hard-working colleague named Teresa, with whom I bartered for cleaning the house. At her suggestion, I let her have everything that was left after Rita was done, in exchange for her crew removing it and then getting the bathrooms, carpet, kitchen, etc. in shape for listing. She would sell the stuff on eBay and in her flea market booth.

Teresa and her crew worked like dogs for the better part of a week. On the first day, they were there until 3:00 AM, removing what my mom and dad had accumulated over their 50 years in the house. Mama never threw or gave anything away, and let’s just say she also always wanted to make sure she had plenty of any product she might need. When the place was finally empty, there was still more to be done. Because of her fatigue from severe anemia and lack of motivation after Daddy died, Mama no longer cleaned as she once had, a fact that troubled her greatly. So Teresa and her workers had their hands full.

That now empty and clean house in Albany with a realtor’s sign in the yard came to mind as I read Psalm 51, with the penitent’s talk of a clean, broken, empty heart. Maybe I was influenced by Paul Stookey’s likening of a human soul to a house with rooms that hold various memories, secrets, and hurts (“The House Song,” see http://www.noelpaulstookey.com/02-02.html for lyrics).

Whatever my inspiration, I wondered: we know how to clean our houses, even if we may from time to time neglect them, but how do we clean our hearts? The answer is: we can’t. Only God can, because to do it takes the creative energy that belongs only to the Spirit of God. It’s the same power that brought order out of chaos at the beginning of it all, the very energy that raised Jesus from the dead. That’s what it takes to cleanse our hearts, our very lives of sin and restore to us the joy God intends for all humankind to know.

The psalmist admits that he or she has made a mess of life. And we join in that confession. We’ve blown it, gone wrong, missed the mark. We’ve heaped and hoarded and sullied and soured so much that we are overwhelmed and frustrated and despairing. God can help us, and does. We need but ask: “be gracious to me.”

The process of getting the house that is our hearts cleaned can be difficult and time-consuming and painful. When Teresa and her crew set about their work in my mom’s home, they encountered a great many challenges that required them to put in long hours to correct. Sometimes what they saw wasn’t pretty and not easily and quickly fixed, but they knew what to do and were willing to do it.

When we confess sin, we come face to face with what is not so pretty about ourselves, all our neglect and denial and anger and frustration and affronts to God. We need a good scrubbing with God-soap, and the experience may leave us raw and tearful. We may even have to be taken apart, then put back together, like Teresa had to do with the chandeliers in the living room in Albany. She removed each piece of glass, cleaned it, then reassembled the fixture so that it shone brightly. Sometimes God cleans us up by dismantling us, in Walter Brueggemann’s phrase.

But what happens when the Spirit has restored our heart, opened us to newness? We may make fresh and exciting discoveries, see ourselves and our possibilities as never before, learn something we never anticipated or sought. When Teresa finished with the house, it was completely empty, such as I had never seen it before. I discovered, for example, that there were outlets every so many feet in all the rooms, and a cable TV connection in my sister’s old room, where stuff had been stacked wall to wall and to the ceiling. And I saw where work still needed to be done. But I could imagine new possibilities for the next family to occupy the place, with all the old furniture moved out. I saw it with fresh eyes. And Teresa had also found my mother’s diary, a treasure that Susan and I are reading, getting to know her as a late teen, then a wife and new mother. In the box, too, was my baby book, report cards, pictures. Without a thorough cleaning, an emptying, none of that would have been found.

When it happens in our hearts, such cleansing, emptying, opening, discovering is the gift of a gracious God. No ritual can provide it, no repeated prayers or good works. Only God’s Spirit can clean our hearts.

In fantasy, a witch wiggles her nose or waves a wand, and the house is cleaned. Teresa and her crew got out the vacuums and brooms and cleanser and garbage bags; they got down on their knees and up on ladders and pushed loaded hand trucks. God doesn’t use magic or scrub brushes. His work is done by going to the cross, in his Son Jesus. It’s the same cross whose sign is made on our foreheads this evening. Yeah, it’s dirty and gritty and unpleasant. But it stands for the wondrous love that makes us clean before God.

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