A Wideness in God’s Mercy I: Repentance
Bible Text: Psalm 51 | Preacher: Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster | Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. —Psalm 51:1
A Meditation on Ash Wednesday
Author and poet Kathleen Norris spends time as an artist in residence at religious schools around the country. She invites children into the gift of creative writing by reading the psalms with them. The Psalms, she says, are some of the greatest poems in the world. She watches kids become baffled by the raw honest of the Psalms, how free the ancient poets were to express the emotions that kids, even in elementary school, have been taught to suppress: the Psalms bubble over with under-inhabited emotions like sadness, anger, even anger at God. Once the kids read Psalms together, she invites them to write their own Psalms. As Norris relates:
“One little boy wrote a poem called ‘The Monster who was Sorry.’ He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response [in the poem] is to throw his sister down the stairs, then wreck his room, and finally wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: ‘Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’” The little boy’s poem could have easily said, “I did all that because my father yells.” Or it could have blamed someone else for wrecking the whole town. It could have ended with his father forcing him to make a bogus, faked apology to his sister. He could have, in the poem, imagined himself running as far away from the wrecked town as possible, like Alexander does in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
Alexander just wants to move to Australia. But instead of running away or shifting blame, this little boy goes back into the house, sits amid the mess, and begins to repent: “I shouldn’t have done all that.”
Lee Taft served as a plaintiff’s litigation lawyer for 20 years. The longer he served, the more inadequate the work seemed. In the 1980s, for example, he worked a case in which he represented a young widow whose husband died because of a mistake made by a team of doctors. On the day the case was settled, the widow rushed out of the courtroom in a storm of rage. When Taft sat down to talk with her, he thought maybe she was disappointed in the settlement, or regretted not taking the case to trial. Instead, she said, “None of the doctors ever apologized for what happened to my husband. If one of them had said ‘I’m sorry,’ maybe I would begin to heal.” In the late 1990s, holding onto story after story like that in which the courtroom failed to offer the healing victims sought, Taft packed up his life and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, enrolling in MDiv coursework at Harvard Divinity School.
He studied apology, good apologies, bad apologies, REPENTANCE, and the ways that humans individually and in the public sphere might repent, apologize, and make things right together. We all know what a bad apology looks like. For me, it was when my neighbor broke my tennis racket in elementary school, and his mom made him come over to apologize. She stood there with him in our front hallway as he issued a forced, “I’m sorry.” We never played tennis together again. On the more gut-churning national scale, Louis C. K., Ryan Adams, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey offered public apologies that felt just as forced. I’d add R. Kelly to the list, but he still claims he hasn’t done anything wrong.
Or, take Richard Nixon’s apology where he says:
“I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of events that have led to this decision [to resign]. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be in the best interest of the nation.’” As Taft explains, the Nixon apology misses the mark: Nixon is not specific. He does not acknowledge the actual things he did wrong. Nor does he say why any of it was wrong. It’s as if Nixon is the little boy who wrote the poem “The Monster who was Sorry,” but instead of sitting in his messy house saying, “I shouldn’t have done all that,” he looks around at the mess and says, “I thought it was a good idea at the time.”
Repentance is not just for individuals either. Whole systems, sometimes need to repent, to change. In 2002 a Dallas police officer and his police informant conspired to plant fake cocaine on immigrants (it was actually gypsum dust made from drywall board). They got away with it for long enough that 25 innocent people were wrongfully jailed. They were able to get away with it because the city had cut costs and stopped actually testing the drugs associated with drug-related arrests. They wanted to get away with it because the city had incentivized promotions based on arrests specifically connected to the war on drugs. How does a city recover after such a systemic failure? How does trust in the police return? How does the city repent and make it right?
The Dallas city attorney ended up bringing in Lee Taft, this lawyer-turned-theologian who was now fresh from divinity school to design a process for moving forward. Taft asked city officials to participate in this 4-part process of REPENTANCE and RECONCILIATION. (1) The city had to admit that it played a part in the scandal. (2) The city had to express remorse. (3) The city had to apologize to the victims, families, and citizens for the specific things that the city had done wrong. (4) The city had to talk specifically with those harmed about what fair compensation might look like for those wrongfully arrested, including designing steps to fix the systemic problems that made way for the scandal.
Lee Taft says that, though this process for healing and rebuilding relationship is built entirely for a secular context, it is rooted in the biblical practice of repentance. In a new translation of the Bible published in 2012, the word repentance is replaced with the phrase “change your hearts and minds.” The word is metanoia in Greek, and it has the sense, literally, of turning around. The Dallas Police force and the city did just that, they turned themselves around and in the process they turned a corner and rebuilt what had been broken: the public’s trust.
No one has ever been particularly “good” at repentance. It’s awkward. It’s difficult. It is full of a thousand emotions we would rather hide from. When Adam and Eve are discovered eating the apple in the Garden of Eden Adam immediately blames Eve instead of apologizing. And does Judas ever apologize to Jesus or anyone for that matter for betraying Jesus his friend and leader for a bag of silver?
Deep within the Psalms we are offered a glimpse at the practice of REPENTANCE in ancient times, a way to make things right, not just with each other, but also with God. Psalm 51 is linked to David who as you remember isn’t perfect. Most notably one day David looked out his castle window at a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, who was taking a bath on a not so distant rooftop. Being king he had the power to send for her. Of course he got her pregnant. He tried to make it look as if her husband Uriah had gotten her pregnant. That didn’t work so he sent Uriah to the front lines to be killed in a violent ancient turf war. In the context of our current news cycles this story doesn’t seem so ancient. The newspaper is rife with Bathshebas. And at this point in the story David still doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. It isn’t until one of David’s spiritual advisors tells him a little parable that he sees he’s made a huge mistake.
Psalm 51 is a musical interlude in the David saga where David sits in the mess he’s made and says, “I shouldn’t have done all that.” What’s different about Psalm 51 compared to the more secular process the Dallas police were guided through is that Psalm 51 addresses God. God who knows we are mortal, fragile, fallible; God who knows we are nothing but dust; God who gave us the capacity to choose how we live our lives; God who bends toward mercy and grace and compassion.
God is literally at the center of Psalm 51. Look.
In the first half of the Psalm, David wants nothing but to be cleansed. Clean me. Erase it all. Fix it. Look how beautifully the poetry is written. God at the center, God who is justified in punishing David, David who is full of the deepest remorse and the desire to make it right. David is clearly shaken to the core. This is a cry for help. It names sin as sin. It portrays David taking responsibility for his actions. It shows David fully feeling all that he has done wrong.
And look again at the second stanza. The core of the second stanza, there is a more tender, beautiful God of salvation.
At the core of the second stanza, there is a more tender, beautiful God of salvation. The whole stanza folds in on God. The Psalm bends toward God who bends toward us. The Psalm turns us toward God who offers the widest mercy and the deepest grace. It curls toward our God who can make a very real change in David’s life.
These good habits of repentance—these healthy ways of changing our hearts and lives—matter. Jesus thought they mattered so much that he invited anyone within shouting distance to repent: the good guys and the villains, the weak and the strong, the powerful and the marginalized, the rich and the poor, the shameless and the anxious. This change, this repentance, was urgent for Jesus because he believed that the reign of God was and is beginning now, and the reign of God requires a change of heart.
For Jesus this was urgent because now, today, this moment is always the best time to curl toward God’s life changing love. Repentance, changing your heart and your life, now, mattered to Jesus because it is possible that the kingdom of God is being birthed right here right now.
What makes Ash Wednesday different than any old regular Wednesday is that today, Christians around the globe are wearing a sign of Christ’s love on our foreheads. From the outside maybe that smudge looks a bit smug: “Look at all those Christians who claim to do good in God’s name. We all know they are just as imperfect as the next guy.” But, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Today, the smudge means exactly that we are imperfect and we know that God knows it. God knows that we are mortal, fragile, fallible; God knows we are nothing but dust. God knows all this and in the wideness of God’s mercy God names us, claims us, picks us up, cradles us, calls us good, looks at the messy house that we sit in, and helps us clean it up, create it anew, creating us anew in the process. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen. Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead, 1998), 69.  Judith Viorst. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. New York: Atheneum, 1978.  Lee Taft, Apology Subverted: The Commodification of Apology, 109 Yale L.J. (2000), 1152.  President Nixon’s resignation speech of August 8. 1974  Lee Taft, Apology Subverted: The Commodification of Apology, 109 Yale L.J. (2000), 1141.  Gaiser, Frederick. The David of Psalm 51: Reading Psalm 51 in Light of Psalm 50. Word and World, Volume 23, Number 4, Fall 2003, 385.  Gaiser, Frederick. The David of Psalm 51: Reading Psalm 51 in Light of Psalm 50. Word and World, Volume 23, Number 4, Fall 2003, 386.  Cox, Harvey. The Ethics of Forgiveness: Best of Intentions. Christian Century. November 30, 2004.