“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.”
In 1996, Johnny Cash sang this remake of the Carter Family song, "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea." In it, God hears the cry of a man kneeling at his mother’s grave. For whatever personal reasons, he didn’t make it in time to say good-bye. But he shouts up to God for mercy, and God looks down upon him.
Depending on how you see yourself this song, or at least the portion I read, God’s mercy could be interpreted in two ways.
The first way is that God looks down upon the drunk, and shakes his head in disgust. God then picks up an index card and a pencil, and begins to scribble down all the sins this drunk had committed in his life.
God then he hands the card to an angel who rushes it to a gigantic warehouse filled with countless white cards just like this one. It's here they are all safely stored there until that fateful day when the drunk is brought before God in judgment. That’s one way of interpreting the Bible and Christianity.
The other way is more like this. God looks down on the drunk and sees a man, empty, broken and in dire need of help. God feels the man’s pain, and has empathy. When God hears the man crying over his mother’s grave, He can't help but be reminded of all the tears shed at his son’s death.
God knows the drunkard’s story, because he has walked with people just like him. People whose bad choices...have made their life a living hell. So in hearing the man cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me,” God pulls out his pencil and begins to erase the man’s index card. Ever since Abel’s blood cried out from the ground, God has responded mercifully to our pleas.
This is exactly what Psalm 51 is all about: God’s Mercy. More than a poem or a song of praise, I often turn to this passage when I offer up prayers for healing and spiritual renewal. However, this is not your typical prayer either.
Each stanza is a cry of passion and pain. Every word hungers for grace and salvation. Simply reading it or reciting it won’t cut it. It needs to be wailed from a place in your heart where you dare not go. You have to vocalize the pain and suffering. For our hearts to heal, we must first be honest about their brokenness.
But there’s more to this psalm than a plea for forgiveness. There’s a plea for re-creation – to be cleansed, restored, washed and made new again. The key to our healing and renewal is, of course, God’s creative mercy and grace. Only the creator of all life is able to take the dust of our broken hearts and regenerate abundant life.
I want you to imagine writing all the sins you’ve committed over the last 24 hours on an index card, and then handing it over to God.
Now if you understand God to be a vindictive judge who holds every sin you’ve ever done in some filing cabinet, then you might be reluctant to give your card over to God. This perception has caused many of us to carry fear in our heart. Its like whatever you did has made you somehow ugly and unforgivable.
To quote the band Mercy Me, “No matter the bumps, no matter the bruises, no matter the scars, still the truth is the cross has made you flawless.” How better off would the world be, if we stopped hiding from God and instead started crying out to God with a loud voice?
Brennan Manning says, “Jesus comes for sinners, for us who are outcast, or caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams.” That’s pretty much the sum of the gospel.
Just as he came to the blind and the lame, the lepers and the demon possessed, Jesus loves the prostitute who prays to her Sunday School God to help her find a different job so she can support her 2-year-old daughter.
He comes to love corporate executives, dope-sick addicts, lonely teachers, burned out bartenders, tired social workers, IRS agents, EMTs, janitors, AIDS patients, frustrated caretakers, movie stars, sports stars, the unknown, and the unwanted. This list is endless, because there's no ending to God's love.
Jesus comes to you...he comes to me. He does not come to condemn us to the hell we find ourselves in. He comes to break bread with us; to talk and pray with us; to heals us, tolerates us, and of course, to do unthinkable for us. Our of great love, Jesus gives himself up as a servant and sacrifice for all.
At the end of the day, what God desires the most isn't an index card...but a relationship with you and me. It’s been said, "If God condemned every sinner then who would he have left to forgive?" God gave his son to restore the joy of our salvation and to put a new and right spirit within us.
We must be like the psalmist who trusts God enough to cry out in pain, and to seek God for compassion and mercy. His cries are inspiration for us all to turn to the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “from the least to the greatest, says the Lord, I will forgive their iniquities and remember their sin no more.”
God knows what we have done. But do we know what God can do?
God forgets so we can remember to live anew, without the shame and guilt of our past, or without fear of meeting God in the future.
This psalm is often used by the Church on Ash Wednesday as a way for us to begin Lent with a clean and contrite heart. But I chose to it for today, as we enter our last week of our Lenten journey before Holy Week, because we continue to discover stuff about ourselves in this spiritual practice.
Lent is time for training our hearts and eyes to focus on a God who meets us in our brokenness, and loves us into holiness. God meets our grief with grace; our pain with the great paradox that our salvation will come through our suffering, not in spite of it.
Let us leave here today remembering the cries of the psalmist, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.”
In the final verse Johnny Cash joyfully proclaims, “Three years have passed since she went away. Her son is sleeping beside her today. And I know that in heaven his mother he sees, for God has heard that drunkard's plea.”
Now if that isn't Good News, then “Lord, have mercy on me.”
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Manning, Brennan. The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat Up, and Burnt Out. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2005.