Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions…
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise….
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise…
(adapted from Psalm 51)
The church’s traditional understanding is that King David wrote this song of yearning and remorse after his great sin against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. If you’ve been reading 2 Samuel this past week, you’ve remembered this sad, sad tale of David’s fall and the consequent undoing of his family. “What goes around, comes around,” our mothers used to say and certainly that is the tale told here.
It was in the spring of the year, when kings go off to war, that David stayed in Jerusalem.
It was in a moment of passion, made toxic by power and privilege that David sent for the woman and had his way with her.
It was in thoughtless carelessness that he discarded the woman he had abused; he sent her home and forgot about her.
It was in a time of panic that David heard she was pregnant; it was in a tangled web of deceit that David sought to bring the husband home from the battlefront as a ploy to cover up his own wantonness.
It was in desperation that David ordered the husband killed.
It was in a pretension of compassion that he took the widow Bathsheba into his own home.
And it was into this complacency of hubris that King David received the word of the Lord from the prophet Nathan.
There was a rich man, (Nathan said) with countless flocks and untold power and privilege. There was another man with only one little ewe lamb that he loved. It was like a daughter to him, the story says. One day, when preparing a banquet, instead of choosing a lamb from his own plentiful flock, the rich man took the lamb of the poor man; the lamb was killed and served as dinner for his guests.
The king was livid. It was in righteous indignation that he declared the wicked rich man should die.
“You are the man, David!” and Nathan stared him down.
Finally – it was in honesty and humility, in remorse and repentance that David fell to his knees and wept. I am the man! Have mercy on me, O God!
Mercy is all there is for times like these.
Mercy that can stare us down.
Mercy that will expose our hubris and name our deathly acts and challenge our sinful attitudes so that we may, possibly, be restored to life.
It is the only way: facing the darkness within so that we might find the light; naming our brokenness so that we might be healed.
David cried out for mercy, compassion, cleansing. And – of course – the God who is mercy and compassion and steadfast, eternal love turned to David with that ever-amazing grace.
With God nothing is unforgivable.
But still the cycles were set in place. The Pandora’s box had been opened. God doesn’t have a magic wand that will eliminate the natural consequences of our actions. “The sins of the fathers” – we say.
A saying that comes from Exodus, by the way. The saying is a mixed blessing, a two edged sword of truth, a troubling promise from Exodus 34:
The LORD passed before Moses and proclaimed,
The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.
And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped.
Is it God who visits the iniquity of the parents upon their children? Or does God allow us to do that to ourselves?
I would say God doesn’t need to punish when we humans are so exceedingly adept at creating our own cycles of alienation and pain.
Abuse creates cycles of abuse until the generations of people who are shaped by it don’t know any other way to act. Deception cultivates spirals of deception until the children and their children’s children have forgotten, or have never known, there is such a thing as truth. Disregard and disrespect, hatred and shame draw unsuspecting people into their orbit and alter their destinies.
These cycles of brokenness foster a systemic evil that is almost invisible to us because we are so used to it; this is our normal. In our particular society here in America, there are so many varied forces that influence our thinking, that shape our values; forces beyond our understanding that trick us into seeing our world, seeing our neighbors, seeing ourselves with a skewed vision.
For too many years too many Christians in America were somehow blinded to the evil of slavery. And then for another long one hundred years after emancipation, we still couldn’t see how our policies and practices and prejudices kept our human family segregated and fragmented; we were blind to how the sins of the fathers continued to damage our children to the third and fourth and fifth generations.
Now – praise God – look how far we have come!
Now – Lord, have mercy – look how far we yet need to go.
Have you seen the movie “42?” It’s the story of Jackie Robinson in 1947, the first year a Black man played professional baseball in America. It will bring tears to your eyes – the ugliness and the hatred; the courage and the hope.
There is this one powerful scene that I can’t get out of my mind: a young boy and his father settled in to their seats to watch their home team, the Cincinnati Reds, play against the Dodgers and the boy is especially excited to see his hero, Pee Wee Reese. It’s an idyllic American picture: a little boy and his loving dad at a baseball game.
But then Jackie Robinson trots onto the field and the scene changes from idyllic to ugly. All around him, the crowd flings insults and abuse, and the boy watches the volleys of vicious hostility with sad confusion. The scene makes us cringe as we watch this impressionable boy lose his innocence. We suck in our breaths as we witness the sins of the fathers infecting the next generation. We watch this sweet little boy’s face change into the very image of his dad’s twisted face: “Get out of here, nigger,” the boy shouts. “We don’t want you.”
Pee Wee Reese truly did show himself to be a hero that day. He had been nervous about coming ‘home’ to his fans whom he knew would not approve of him playing ball with a Black man. But in that moment, in that trial by fire, Pee Wee Reese showed the world what he is made of. In the midst of all that ugliness, he loped across the field, put his arm around Robinson’s neck and stood there smiling – for all the world to see.
“What on earth are you doing?!” Jackie said to Pee Wee.
“I just want everyone to know where I stand,” he replied.
“Maybe we all ought to wear the number 42. Then they couldn’t tell us apart.”
Now, once a year, the entire major league organization, both the American League and the National League, celebrate Jackie Robinson Day.
Every April 15, everyone on the team is number 42.
What we stand for is important; all the world is watching us.
What we stand against says all kinds of things about who we really are as a people; and standing against the conventional wisdom will always take courage.
Who we stand with is crucial; too many people have been abused and oppressed, disregarded and disrespected – even in the name of religion; even by the power of the church.
What would Jesus do?
Where does Jesus stand?
The prophet Nathan was the one who spoke the word of the Lord to David and promised him God’s unfailing faithfulness to make David and his descendants into a “house,” a legacy, a dynasty. It was a good word. But then Nathan was the same one who was called to speak another word from the Lord to David – a painful word but oh so needed for this one who had been blinded by his power and privilege.
The Bathsheba’s and Uriah’s and Jackie Robinson’s of the world are all victims of the sins of the fathers that keep cycling through the generations. But the David’s of the world are victims too; caught in the spirals of brokenness and so in need of redemption and reconciliation.
At some point, a people needs to stand up and say: the cycle stops here. Here and now WE will be a people of welcome and grace for all. And because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, we can do this.
The “sins of the fathers” may last to the third and fourth generation, Scriptures testifies, but thank God, mercy lasts to the thousandth generation – in other words to infinity and beyond.
There – let’s stand there – with mercy.
Image: Bathsheba at the Bath
Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest
Friedrich Heinrich FÜGER
(b. 1751, d. 1818)