Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 103, an effusive canticle on God’s unbounded Mercy.
Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all my being, bless his holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits. He pardons all your iniquities, he heals all your ills. He redeems your life from destruction, he crowns you with kindness and compassion.
A sufficient prayer today would be to thank God for our experiences of this overflowing mercy. But our Gospel tells us there is more to it. There is a response required of us.
If you’re into social media like Facebook or Twitter, you may have noticed the popular meme “BeLike”. (A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that becomes a fad and spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture, often carrying a symbolic meaning.) Here is an example of the #BeLike meme posted by the NJ State Police.
If our psalmist and evangelist were writing a meme for today’s readings, it might look like this:
That’s the message. I’m spending my prayer time with just that today.
Poetry: The Prodigal’s Mother Speaks to God by Allison Frank
When he returned a second time,
the straps of his sandals broken,
his robe stained with wine,
it was not as easy to forgive.
By then his father
was long gone himself,
leaving me with my other son, the sullen one
whose anger is the instrument he tunes
from good morning on.
There’s no room for a man
in the womb.
But when I saw my youngest coming from far off,
so small he seemed, a kid
unsteady on its legs.
what will you do? I thought,
remembering when he learned to walk.
Shape shifter! It’s like looking through water—
the heat bends, it blurs everything: brush, precipice.
A shambles between us.
Today, in God’s Lavish Mercy, we pray with Psalm 32, a classic penitential psalm.
It is an uncomplicated description of repentance and forgiveness which, nevertheless, discloses profound insights into the human spirit.
Blessed is the one whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered. Blessed the one to whom the LORD imputes not guilt, in whose spirit there is no guile.
This relational sequence of confession and forgiveness is probed in depth in Psalm 32 (where) the speaker describes his silence and his consequent bodily disability (vv. 3–4). One can observe in the psalm an inchoate theory of repression that became definitive for Sigmund Freud. Repression immobilizes, says the psalmist! The abrupt move in verse 5 concerns the process of making his sin known, saying it aloud, confessing it.
It is confession that makes forgiveness possible. It is denial that precludes assurance and that immobilizes the perpetrator.
Walter Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid
Praying with Psalm 32 this morning reminded me of a story I wrote a few years ago.
Young Emma, skewered by indecision, had stared into her mother’s jewelry box. She had always loved those silver earrings, a gift to her mother from her grandmother—an heirloom now, a treasure beyond price. She wanted so to wear them on this special date, but they were “hands off” and she knew it. Still, her mother at work and unaware of her desire, Emma had succumbed to temptation.
The dance had been wonderful, a whirlwind of such delight that Emma had not noticed when her left earring had brushed against her partner’s shoulder, tumbling hopelessly under the dancers’ trampling feet. Only at evening’s end, approaching her front door exhausted and dreamy, had she reached up to unclip the precious gems.
Her mother sat waiting for her in the soft lamplight, having already noticed the earrings missing from her dresser. Awaiting retribution, Emma knelt beside her mother and confessed the further sacrilege of loss. But her mother simply cupped Emma’s tearful face in her hands, whispering, “You are my jewel. Of course I forgive you.” Though accustomed to her mother’s kindness, this act of compassion astonished Emma, filling her with an indescribable, transformative gratitude.
As we pray Psalm 32, there may be a great forgiveness we are thankful for, or just the small kindnesses that allow us to rise each morning with joy and hope. Perhaps there is a memory of compassion, like Emma’s, that we treasure—one that in turn has made us kinder and more honest.
But maybe, on the other hand, there is a “lost earring”, never acknowledged. With time, that unacknowledgement burrows deeper into the spirit restricting our capacity to love.
Psalm 32 reminds us that God is our Mother waiting in the lamplight to cup our face with love, to receive our joyful thanks for divine mercies.
For this shall every faithful soul pray to you in time of stress. Though deep waters overflow, they shall not reach us.
Like Emma, we may be astonished at the graciousness that has been given to us. We may respond by pouring out our thanks to God in a silent act of prayer.
May we also have the courage to become like our merciful God, anticipating the other’s need for our forgiveness. May we seek the strength not to harbor injury, but too release it to make room for further grace in our hearts.
Poetry: FIRST FORGIVENESS - Irene Zimmerman
The usually mild evening breeze
became a wailing wind
when the gates clanged shut behind them.
They shivered despite their leathery clothes
as they searched for the fragrant blossoms
they’d grown accustomed to sleep on,
but found only serpentine coils
that bit and drew blood from their hands. It was Eve who discovered the cave.
When she emerged, she saw Adam
standing uncertainly at the entrance. A river of fire flooded her face
as she remembered his blaming words—
“The woman you gave me,
she gave me fruit from the tree,
and I ate.”
“Spend the night wherever you choose,”
she told him bitterly.
“You needn’t stay with me.” Long afterwards, when even the moon’s
cold light had left the entrance
and she’d made up a word
for the hot rain running from her eyes,
she sensed Adam near her in the dark. His breath shivered on her face.
“Eve,” he moaned,
“I’m sorry. Forgive me.” In the darkness between them
the unfamiliar words
She understood their meaning
when she touched his tears.
Music: Father, I Have Sinned – Eugene O’Reilly
Our story above was about a “prodigal daughter”. Our music is about a “prodigal son”.
Today, in Mercy, our readings are soaked in Mercy itself … seasoned by repentance, forgiveness, hope, and trust.
Both in Micah’s lilting, poetic words and in Jesus’sparable, we are embraced by the infinite tenderness of God.
You may find the following comparison odd at first, but stay with me a minute. Reading this morning’s scriptures, I thought of Lidia Bastianich, the famous chef. To me, her show is the perfect combination of instruction, humor, and familial camaraderie. Still, even though Lydia offers tons of invaluable culinary tips, it is her repeated farewell phrase that I most treasure: “Tutti a tavola a mangiare!”. “Let everyone come to the table and eat!”
Micah, who prophesied just prior to the Siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC, condemned the sinfulness rampant in Israel and Judah. At the same time, he consoled the “remnant” people and, àla Lydia, invited them to the table of forgiveness and reconciliation. Here’s the way Micah asks God to “set the table” for God’s repentant People:
Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance, That dwells apart in a woodland, in the midst of Carmel. Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead, as in the days of old …
Jesus describes a similar banquet offered to the repentant son:
The father ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly, bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’
As I pray today, I ask if there is any lost or hungry part of my spirit that longs to return to the table of Peace and Mercy. I pray also for those places and souls throughout our world who hunger to hear:
“Tutti a tavola a mangiare!”
Music: Father, I Have Sinned -written by Fr. Eugene O’Reilly
Today, in Mercy, Numbers tells a story of Moses’ intervention to save the people from God’s wrath. It is a story of God’s relenting … a theme which repeats itself endlessly in the Hebrew Scriptures.
This is the way we sometimes characterize the astonishment of Grace – God’s overwhelming passion to love and forgive us over and over. We just can’t imaginesuch mercy, such infinite generative love!
And so we imagine instead that Moses made God do it!😉 Yeah, I don’t think so.
We imagine that God cannot tolerate our sinful pursuits because we cannot tolerate them in ourselves or in others. But God is mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, wholeness, love. God can’t help loving us!
Of course, we shouldn’t be stupid and take advantage of the divine largesse… not because it would hurt God, but because it so damages us and limits our capacity for wholeness. But nevertheless, whether we’re stupid or not, God will always welcome us home.
A few days ago, we prayed with the word splancha – that “gut love” that so describes God’s passion for us. We find the word again today in the heart-wrenching parable of the Prodigal Son.
You know the story. Near the end, as the devastated son returns seeking mercy…
While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion — withsplancha – esplanchnisthē Luke 15:20
Our God is a Love that is filled, overflowing – with no room for retribution or condemnation.
Indeed, our God, like the Prodigal Father, is soft-hearted, an easy mark, a pushover for our sincere repentance, trust, and hope. Our God would bleed for us!
This short but powerful scene from George Balanchine’s ballet, Prodigal Son, may inspire our prayer today. The father is steadfast, a monolith of strength and love. The son is broken, naked in his desperation. Let their magnetic reunion take you to God’s heart. Let God wrap you too in the mantle of Love for any hurt or emptiness that is within you.
George Balanchine “Prodigal Son” – Final Scene (Son- Barishnikov)
Claude Debussy also wrote a beautiful piece on this parable. If you have a contemplative space sometime this week, you may want to listen to Debussy’s moving opera (with my all-time fav Ms. Jessye Norman.)
Today, in Mercy,halfway through Lent, we see in our readings glimpses of new life.
The captivity in Egypt had been TOUGH on Israel. During those many decades, they had appeared to be abandoned and forgotten by God.It was a harsh reckoning for them … hard to be forgotten. Even then, when they thought they had found freedom, they still wandered for forty years in the desert.
But now Israel stands at a new horizon.Moses has died and Joshua has become Israel’s leader.God tells him that it is a new day:
“Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.”
In our second reading, Paul tells us:
Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.
And in our revered Gospel story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells us:
This beloved child of mine was dead, and has come to life again; was lost, and has been found.
All of these passages speak to us in our Lenten journey, and in our Life journey.We have experienced our own “Egypts”, times when we felt disconnected, even abandoned, by God.We have sometimes felt we were journeying aimlessly toward an unknown goal. We have at times wandered, like the prodigal son, from the path of God’s love. We have darknesses in our memories that still long for Light.
This poem from Mary Oliver might capture the feeling for us:
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
~ Mary Oliver ~
In today’s readings, God is reminding us that the Light awaits us. Forgiveness, reconciliation, new energy and grace are the gifts of Easter – the gifts where we must keep our eyes focused as we journey.
So let us do as e.e.cummings encourages us in this poem:
Let It Go – e.e. cummings
let it go – the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise – let it go it
was sworn to
let them go – the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers – you must let them go they
let all go – the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things – let all go
so comes love
Music: Remember Not the Things of the Past – Bob Hurd
Remember not the things of the past;
now I do something new,
do you not see it?
Now I do something new, says the Lord.
In our distress God has grasped us by the hand,
opened a path in the sea, and we shall pass over,
we shall pass over, free at last.
In our parched land of hypocrisy and hate,
God makes a river spring forth,
a river of mercy, truth and compassion; come and drink.
And who among us is sinless in God’s sight?
Then who will cast the first stone, when he who was sinless
carried our failings to the cross?
Pressing ahead, letting go what lies behind,
may we be found in the Lord, and sharing his dying,
share in his rising from the dead.
Today, in Mercy, our readings pour out the lavish mercy of God. Our prayer invites us bask in that warmth and understanding.
The prophet Micah asks,
“Who is there like You … the God who delights in clemency?”
Our Psalm reminds us that “the Lord is kind and merciful”:
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us.
(Two musical selections today.)
Then Jesus tells us the tender parable of the Prodigal Son, which is really more about the Merciful Father. He receives his contrite child in the same way that God receives us in our repentance.
Sometimes we become so content with ourselves that we fail to realize our need for contrition. Sometimes our failures are buried so deep and so long in us that we become blind to them. Repentance is the grace to break through that blindness.
We were created to be an image of the merciful God we meet in today’s scripture. Where we are short of that in our actions, words, choices and attitudes – that’s where we have need of repentance.
Rembrandt’s magnificent painting captures a sacred feeling that might help our prayer. Sometimes we are the gracious Father – loving, forgiving, hoping and working for life in others. Sometimes we are the son, returning from our own destructive selfishness to seek a new beginning. Sometimes we are a little bit of each.