Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 119 whose refrain is beautiful to the ears of those who love Mercy.
We can invite Mercy in many ways.
One way is to ask Mercy to heal the fractured circumstances of our lives – the outside of the cup, if we would borrow an image from today’s Gospel:
to strengthen us against any pain or fear in our own lives
to deliver us and those we love from all that overwhelms
to forgive our inexcusable retreats into selfishness
to repair that which seems irrevocably broken
But another, deeper way is to invite Mercy to the inside of our “cup”:
to indwell our hearts
to transform, within us, the place where we encounter life
to inspire us to respond always with the heart of Jesus
to flow from us in continual witness to God’s Mercy
Today, in our prayer, let’s spend some time with Mercy, the most beautiful Face of God.
Poem:Blest are the undefiled in heart (Psalm 119) by Isaac Watts – (1674 – 1748) was an English Christian minister (Congregational), hymn writer, theologian, and logician. He was a prolific and popular hymn writer and is credited with some 750 hymns. He is recognized as the “Godfather of English Hymnody”; many of his hymns remain in use today and have been translated into numerous languages.
Blest are the undefiled in heart,
whose ways are right and clean;
who never from your law depart,
but flee from every sin.
Blest are the ones that keep your word,
and serve you with their hands;
with their whole heart they seek you, Lord,
obeying your commands.
Great is their peace who love your law;
how firm their souls abide!
Nor can a bold temptation draw
their steady feet aside.
Then shall my heart have inward joy!
I’ll keep my steps from shame;
your statutes help me to obey,
and glorify your name.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 118 (Confitemini Domino), part of the Hallel. Hallel consists of six Psalms (113–118), which are recited as a unit, on joyous occasions such as Passover.
This joy arises from the core belief and experiential evidence that “God’s Mercy endures forever”.
Give thanks to the LORD, Who is good, Whose mercy endures forever. Let the house of Israel say, “God’s mercy endures forever.”
Psalm 118: 1-2
Looking at the entire psalm, we see the prayer of a person delivered from enemies, one who has taken refuge in the Lord. And the Lord has responded both in protection and abiding relationship.
Our Gospel story of the woman with the alabaster jar reiterates this theme. Surely this woman is beset by enemies, both within and without. Ultimately, grace moves her to take refuge at the feet of Jesus’s Mercy. She does this by breaking through any inhibiting tradition in order to offer Jesus her own intimate act of tenderness. Moved, Jesus reciprocates.
As we seek to be fully embraced in God’s Lavish Mercy, what “ointments”, held too long, must we pour out to God. What illusions do we cling to convincing us we have no need for repentance, forgiveness, transformation?
What little jars of selfishness, pride, or arrogance keep us from fully giving and receiving Mercy?
In my distress, I poured my heart out to the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free. The LORD is with me now, I am not afraid; darkness has no power against me.
Psalm 118: 13-14
Poem:Mended by Annie Villiers
Invisible mending This is the place where souls come To be mended where Tatty ends of unfinished business Or business unravelled Are drawn together and tenderly Made new. Nimble stitches Seen only by the weaver Whose loving fingers Repair the frangible fabric of lives.
Music: Confitemini Domino – Taize Community
Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus, quoniam in sæculum misericordia ejus.
O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious, because his mercy endureth for ever.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 103, and its gentle comforting refrain:
The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.
Our Sunday readings encourage to become like this merciful, forgiving, patient, compassionate Lord.
I’m not doing so well at that. Anybody else with me? Sometimes I feel like we’re living in a desert devoid of humanness and reverence.
Somehow, in our current political and cultural environment, too often I feel angry and even outraged. Those kinds of feelings don’t leave much room for compassion and its accompanying virtues!
Recently I witnessed two wonderful friends openly spat on social media because of their opposing political camps. I’ve seen family members shut each other out for the same reasons. We can’t turn on the TV without seeing a barrage of hateful words and actions unleashed against other human beings.
I feel poisoned and sick when I see the culture we have brewed for ourselves!
In our first reading, Sirach seems to have felt pretty sickened by his environment too. He counsels his listeners:
Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD?
Paul, in our second reading, tells us why we should change our hateful behavior:
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
In our Gospel, Jesus uses a stunning parable to drive home the commandment for forgiveness. I don’t think any of us really wants to end up like the selfish, wicked servant – handed over to the torture of our own hatreds.
This Sunday’s readings are serious. They’re not kidding. We have to change any sinful incivility or hate that resides in our hearts. We may not be able to change our feelings. But we can stop feeding them with lies, propaganda, and conspiracy theories.
What we can change are our actions and words. And we must.
Poetry: Love my enemies, enemy my love by Rebecca Seiferle
Oh, we fear our enemy’s mind, the shape
in his thought that resembles the cripple
in our own, for it’s not just his fear
we fear, but his love and his paradise
We fear he will deprive us of our peace
of mind, and, fearing this, are thus deprived,
so we must go to war, to be free of this
terror, this unremitting fear, that he might
he might, he might. Oh it’s hard to say
what he might do or feel or think.
Except all that we cannot bear of
feeling or thinking—so his might
must be met with might of armor
and of intent—informed by all the hunker
down within the bunker of ourselves.
How does he love? and eat? and drink?
He must be all strategy or some sick lie.
How can reason unlock such a door,
for we bar it too with friends and lovers,
in waking hours, on ordinary days?
Finding the other so senseless and unknown,
we go to war to feel free of the fear
of our own minds, and so come
to ruin in our hearts of ordinary days.
Music: Kyrie Eleison – Lord, have Mercy
This is an extended, meditative singing of the prayer. I like to listen to it in the very early morning. Just doing that is a good prayer for me.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 95, a favorite of liturgists, and one we have met several times before. What different light might it offer us today as we pray?
The psalm today serves as a bridge between powerful readings about neighborly love and fraternal correction. These readings tell us to listen for God’s heartbeat in our world and to enter its rhythm.
They also tell us to love our neighbor enough that, if she or he is out of synch with God’s rhythm, we help align them by our counsel and example.
Have you ever tried to do that? It’s really tough!
First of all, we have to be so vigilant about the purity of our own intentions. We can’t instruct our friends in righteousness out of our own confusion. So often, our desire for others to “improve” grows out of our opinionated self-interest. You might remember what Jesus said about extracting the plank from our own eye before removing the splinter from our neighbor’s!
Next we really have to love our sister or brother and sincerely want their good. We have to forgive them any hurt they have caused us. We have to be bigger than most of us, speaking for myself, are inclined to be.
As the psalm tells us, we can’t have hard hearts. As we approach our sister or brother, our hearts must be softened by listening, patience, understanding, humility and hope. We have to be sure the “voice” we’re sharing comes from God not self.
Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert, Where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works.
And the flip of all this, of course, is that when we are the one out of rhythm, we receive loving correction in the same spirit of openness.
Lots of Grace is needed on both sides of this dance! May we learn and receive it!
Poetry: The Gift by Li-Young Lee
To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.
I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Deuteronomy 32, commonly referred to as the Song of Moses. Most biblical scholars agree that the selection was composed long after Moses died and inserted in Deuteronomy perhaps at the time of the prophet Samuel.
As literature, the poem shows Moses prophesying the troubles that will come upon the people because of their faithlessness. As history, these troubles have already occurred and are referenced as a lesson for the future.
The verses highlighted today are unhappy ones. With exaggerated anthropomorphism, God is characterized as really mad and passive-aggressive with Israel. It’s not a nice picture of how God relates to us. It’s not real either.
Still, the writer was a human being searching for some rational way to understand the trauma Israel was experiencing at the hands of their enemies. The logic, or illogic, goes something like this:
things are a mess
it must be our fault
we did bad things
so God’s mad and did bad things back
we better straighten up
then God might relent
We are all tempted to reason like this when we experience misfortune, pain, and trauma. We think evil should make sense. It doesn’t. The interplay of good and evil is a mystery we will never understand in this life.
What we can understand is faithfulness – God’s to us, and ours to God.
God, you are my Rock—how faultless are your deeds, how right all your ways! You are faithful God, without deceit, You are Justice, Righteousness, and Mercy
This is the true message of the Song of Moses: Our merciful God is always faithful. When we experience suffering in life, – even the kind we bring on ourselves and one another – let our sorrow draw us ever closer to God’s Mercy which abides with us in all our troubles. Within the sacred mystery of grace, that Mercy seeks to transform us into Mercy ourselves.
Poetry: Possible Answers to Prayer by Scott Cairns The poem gives a wake up call about self-absorption in our prayers, and – with its own touch of anthropomorphism – images how God might perceive narrow prayers. The poem encourages us to accompany others in their greater sufferings.
Your petitions—though they continue to bear just the one signature—have been duly recorded. Your anxieties—despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent entertainment value—nonetheless serve to bring your person vividly to mind.
Your repentance—all but obscured beneath a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.
Your intermittent concern for the sick, the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes recognizable to me, if not to them.
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly righteous indignation toward the many whose habits and sympathies offend you—
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend how near I am, with what fervor I adore precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.
Music: Audite Caeli – Michel Richard Delalande
This motet captures the opening words of the Song of Moses, Deuteronomy 32.
Audite, caeli, quae loquor: audiat terra verba oris mei. Concrescat ut pluvia doctrina mea, fluat ut ros eloquium meum, quasi imber super herbam, et quasi stillae super gramina. Quia nomen Domini invocabo: date magnificentiam Deo nostro. Dei perfecta sunt opera, et omnes viae ejus judicia.
Hear, O ye heavens, the things I speak, let the earth give ear to the words of my mouth.Let my doctrine gather as the rain, let my speech distil as the dew, as a shower upon the herb, and as drops upon the grass. Because I will invoke the name of the Lord: give ye magnificence to our God. The works of God are perfect, and all his ways are judgments.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 51, a deeply moving plea for a pure heart and a right spirit. Psalm 51 is a penitential psalm known by its Latin name, Miserere (Have Mercy). You, dear readers, may remember a reflection on this beautiful psalm from just about a month ago.
As I prayed with Psalm 51 today, I asked myself how my spirit has been doing in the intervening month. May I challenge you all with the same question?
Corona time is not easy on the Spirit. Confinement, uncertainty, suffering and loss have impacted all of us in some way. Restrictions away from friends, family, and community deplete us. Social unrest and political lunacy unsettle us.
On the other hand, some of us have been able to embrace this time as a long retreat from “the way things were”. It has been a time of washing our hearts down to their bare muscle. We have sat in the quiet with questions like “What is it that I most love, most trust, most need, most believe in, most hope for?”.
It is such an appropriate time to pray Psalm 51, to be with God in our “secret heart” – that place where no one else ever hears our rawest thoughts and purest prayers:
to acknowledge any sin or guilt we carry
to name our desire for healing and clarity
to listen to the whispering of Wisdom within us
to find our strength by finding our rootedness in God
to reclaim joy even in the midst of difficulty
to make our heart at home in praise
to be righted by Mercy
Let’s pray with and for one another as we cherish this Psalm.
Poetry: The Place Where We Are Right – Yehuda Amichai
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
Music: Wisdom in the Secret Heart – Shane and Shane
It has been suggested that I make it easier to find previous reflections on the readings for the day, just in case you would like to pray with the First Reading orGospel. I’ll try to remember to do that.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 60, and it’s a doozy. It is a hard Psalm to pray with because it contains many layers of meaning. But, in the end, I think it is worth the effort.
The Psalm emerges from a time filled with violence. David struggles to keep control both within and outside his kingdom. His own son and nephew turn against him. His nephew wreaks unspeakable mayhem in Israel’s name. Everything in David’s world is in violent disarray. He actually whines to God about the mess:
O God, you have rejected us and broken our defenses …
You have rocked the country and split it open …
You have made your people feel hardships …
You have given us stupefying wine…
Like many of you, I read these verses in the wake of another divisive political rally, in a country riven by fearful hatred, racism, biased brutality, political corruption, and poisonous propaganda. I am so tempted to immediately tie Psalm 60 to these current realities.
But I think that, when we pray the psalms, we must let them first teach us about ourselves. Once that conversion or enlightenment occurs, it may then be possible to apply their wisdom to our world.
What is it that makes Psalm 60 a prayer and not a political manifesto? We find the answer in verse 7:
Help us with your right hand, O Lord, and answer us.
David realizes that he is completely out of whack. He has just put all the responsibility for his chaos in God’s lap when it is really David’s own self-serving choices that have caused the problem.
David’s selfish, short-sighted, and sinful decisions have blinded him like “stupefying wine”. One might say he has drunk his own kool-aid. He needs God’s justice to detoxify him … that divine “right hand” which created a perfectly balanced world.
Each of David’s previously mentioned “whines” is completed with a sincere and contrite plea:
repair the cracks in the country
give us aid against the foe
Once we realize, like David:
that the “country” is our own heart,
that the “foe” is any residue there of injustice,
and that the “rally” must be of our own merciful love,
… only then might we be ready to pray for our fractured country and our broken, weeping world.
Poetry:Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front – Wendell Berry’s inspired poem about conversion and recovery of the soul in a soul-killing culture.
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 69 which Brueggemann describes as
“a script for unburdening negation in God’s presence. It is a script for rehabilitation to the community of praise and thanks.”
Walter Bruggemann: From Whom No Secrets Are Hid
This Sunday’s reading are not happy ones. Jeremiah is plagued by his persecutors. Romans describes the reign of sin and death before Christ’s act of redemption. And, in our Gospel, Jesus tells his followers not to be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul!
Guess what! Despite the Gospel’s advice, I am afraid of that kind of stuff — persecution, sin, evil, murder…. and all the other terrible consequences in the larger reading of all of Psalm 69.
And guess what else. The psalmist is not only afraid. He is angry… and I mean infuriated, outraged and massively ticked off.
No one wants to listen to him about his grievances either so who gets an earful? Yes, you got it — God.
In verses 22-28, the writer spews a line of curses for his enemies. And they’re masterpieces — very satisfying ideations if you ever find yourself in similar straits.
But that’s the whole beauty of this psalm. All the negativity remains in the prayer’s imagination. It is not acted out. Once vehemently expressed to God, the catharsis slowly evolves to healing. This happens because the complaining psalmist all of a sudden realizes to Whom he is complaining — the Merciful One, the Patient One, the Forgiving One who has given all these generosities repeatedly to him.
I pray to you, O LORD, for the time of your favor, O God! In your great kindness answer me with your constant help. Answer me, O LORD, for bounteous is your kindness; in your great mercy turn toward me.
Seeing God’s Face turn toward him in prayer, the psalmist regains balance. The final verse of the psalm rests on the hope and confidence God has promised in the covenantal relationship.
For God will rescue Zion, and rebuild the cities of Judah. They will dwell there and possess it the descendants of God’s servants will inherit it; those who love God’s name will dwell in it.
Anger visits all of us, sometimes in response to persecution, misunderstanding or disrespect. We feel it for personal grievances and for meanness in the world toward the helpless. Praying with Psalm 69 may help us, too, find our balance, as did the psalmist, so that the anger leads to wholeness rather than destruction.
Poetry: Time’s Lesson – Emily Dickinson
Mine enemy is growing old, —
I have at last revenge.
The palate of the hate departs;
If any would avenge, —
Let him be quick, the viand flits,
It is a faded meat.
Anger as soon as fed is dead;
'T is starving makes it fat.
Music: Liberty and Justice for All – Brandon Williams
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 51, the Miserere. Perhaps the most recognized of the penitential psalms, it is said to have been written by David after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. ( although it more likely was written separately and applied to David’s situation later.)
This psalm is so rich in deep spiritual psychology that it would be a shame to dismiss it simply as a “confessional”. The psalm truly teaches us how our soul’s vigor and wholeness may be restored in an environment of sin where we are often both consciously and unconsciously complicit.
Let me give an example of how I see this. Last night in my city, a group of protesters gathered around a statue of Christopher Columbus, supposedly, “to protect it” from dismantling by “them”. Many in the group carried clubs and bats; a few carried military-style weapons. All of the “defenders” were white, angry, and mostly men.
I ask myself what were they really there to do. What did they really feel they had to defend? Did their violent public intimidation scream out, “We love Christopher Columbus!”? Or did it shout, “We refuse to acknowledge that our heritage is laced with racism and sinful domination!”?
For me, this is the kind of sinful circumstance which Psalm 51 can help us redeem. We may not act out our culpable ignorance, violence, defensiveness, or racism like last night’s threatening mob. But we must examine what we retain of these sins in our choices, attitudes, speech, and complicit silence.
How does Psalm 51 guide us to that kind of redemption?
First, there is a broken-hearted recognition of failure in holding up our end of relationship with God. Because, as David acknowledges, it is God whom we ultimately offend in our crassness toward one another. It’s not about only one sinful act, like the list we made before our grade school confessions. It’s about a fissure in love, honesty, and loyalty to the One who gives us all life.
Second, there is confession – saying out loud the failure that has replaced love. My favorite Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, describes it as Truth-telling:
Psalm 51 makes available the truth of our life before God. On the one hand, it resists arrogant autonomy that imagines (with David) that we can live without accountability or dependence on the will and purpose of God. On the other hand, it contradicts the practice of denial that is so seductive in a society that has no time, patience, or energy for the nurture of an interior life. It turns out that truth-telling before God is an indispensable condition for joyous existence. Such emancipation makes for exuberant singing and glad generosity. (Walter Brueggemann: From Whom No Secrets are Hid)
Third, and most important because it is woven through and sustains the other two, is the immovable confidence in God’s mercy and God’s desire to give it.
For you do not desire sacrifice or I would give it; a burnt offering you would not accept.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.
Psalm 51 is a big one. If you have time, read the whole thing reflectively. It’s good medicine once we have the courage to swallow it.
Poetry: To Live in the Mercy of God – Denise Levertov
To lie back under the tallest
oldest trees. How far the stems
before ribs of shelter
To live in the mercy of God. The complete
sentence too adequate, has no give.
Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of
stony wood beneath lenient
And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.
Becomes the steady
air you glide on, arms
stretched like the wings of flying foxes.
To hear the multiple silence
of trees, the rainy
forest depths of their listening.
To float, upheld,
as salt water
would hold you,
once you dared.
To live in the mercy of God.
To feel vibrate the enraptured
waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,
O or Ah
spray. The smoke of it.
of steelwhite foam, glissades
of fugitive jade barely perceptible. Such passion—
rage or joy?
Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
flung on resistance.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 119 which is considered a hymn psalm, meant for offering praise for God’s handiwork.
This psalm, the longest in the Bible, is an extended string of delight in God’s beauty, power, and tenderness. It reminds me of a mockingbird’s lovely, tireless song, lilting up into the morning or evening sky.
Though long, the psalm is a very simple yet profound prayer. Seeing its length, we might tend to set it aside for a shorter psalm. Instead, don’t tackle the whole thing. Pick one verse that speaks to you. Sit down beside it. Let it crawl into to your lap like a small child. Cradle it and let your soul hum with it.
I remember, as a young novice, learning to pray this beautiful psalm in Latin. Its innocent clarity echoed my desire simply to deepen in God’s ways. Psalm 119 has been one of my favorites for nearly sixty years now, carrying God’s Word to me in myriad ways.
Today in our prayer, we might want to contemplate what single word God is speaking most clearly to us in this moment. The words vary over the course and circumstances of our lives. Let us listen and respond to what we hear today in quiet prayer.