“Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving-kindness,” the haunting verses are chanted in churches throughout the world each Ash Wednesday. Tradition holds that these words were written by David, the King, when he realized the gravity of his sin with Bathsheba. Tradition holds that David’s most profound lament, the lament that re-echoes as we begin the season of Lent, of repentance, are words written after the king had been morally compromised, after he treated a woman as a possession to be taken. David realizes he has sinned, and gravely.
The psalm takes a turn at the end, as many psalms do. The powerful lament gains a tone of hope, “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again, and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.” David’s understanding that he has done wrong runs deep. But so does his conviction that God will not abandon the relationship. David and God are with each other for the long haul. The relationship remains, and David trusts, God will always always renew, recreate, and bless. With God there are no outcasts.
I often hear folks of older generations talk about life in smaller communities. As a society we have a memory of neighborhoods and towns where “you knew everybody,” and there is a certain longing for that quality of relationship. Religion can be prone to nostalgia, and with nostalgia we have to be careful. But this particular kind of nostalgia rings with some truth for me today. We have lost a certain quality and permanence in relationship that seemed to exist when the world was “smaller.”
The theologian and former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, cautions about the problematic quality of our relationships in an ever growing world. Writing in the midst of some of our recent Anglican disagreements, Rowan Williams said we have a capacity to believe we can say to one another “I have no need of you.” This is folly and sin, something St. Paul writes in his First Letter of the Corinthians that Christians cannot say, just as an eye cannot say it to the hand.
But our own emotional health, for healthy communities, for followers of Jesus to live consistently with Christ’s vision of the world, we must regard relationships as more than temporary, more than virtual. We cannot say, “I have no need of you.” We believe human life has intrinsic value, God-given value, and we are invited to behave according to our belief. We are invited to stay in relationship, even when it is hard, even when we don’t want to. We are invited to reflect God’s ongoing love, God’s ongoing concern, through our ongoing commitment to one another.
Such an view of relationship has real world, and dare I say, political implications. This week I helped write a letter, with signatures from a collection of University City faith leaders, regarding the proposed tax-increment-financed proposal to redevelop property at Olive and 170. They want to build a big box store or two up there, what folks in UCity have started to call the “TIF proposal.” We begin in our letter by noticing how divided our community seems over this TIF. If you’ve been engaged in the meetings or online, you know, it’s been a divided issue. We don’t take a position in support or against the project as a whole.
But we do stand together to say that for the TIF plan to be approved, if they are going to build a big box store up there at Olive and 170, we believe a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) is morally necessary. The proposed development would displace some of our most vulnerable residents. Any development plan will need to go beyond bricks and mortar to justify the disruption. A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) would need to include living wage jobs for residents, a guarantee of affordable housing to be constructed, workforce education, and other provisions that could help break the cycle of poverty.
A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) needs to be led by the community — especially the residents of the Third Ward. Third Ward residents need to be able to trust that their voices and interests guide the project that affects them directly. Therefore, a CBA should be independently negotiated and enforceable by the community, not just by the city council. Local non-profits and community organizations should have a legally enforceable role in the ongoing oversight of the agreement. Morally, we owe transparency and a place at the table to the most vulnerable residents who will be affected by this proposed project.
If I lost you for a second there, I apologize. This is a nuanced place the clergy have chosen. We aren’t for or against the development, but we are worried that a certain callousness seems to occur in many similar developments. I lived in San Diego when historic residents were pushed out to construct a stadium and entertainment district. I lived in Washington, DC when large blocks of section 8 housing were bulldozed to make way for a convention center and large hotel. Poor folks, people of color, and immigrant communities are often pushed out by such projects. We are asking for a legal commitment to stay in relationship, to stay at the table, to say, if we are going to use tax dollars, the money of citizens, to finance such a business, then we owe it to the residents to guarantee that they will realize some of the benefit: fair housing, good jobs. The poor can’t just be pushed out of their apartments, homes, and businesses, pushed off the land, erased from the picture. Some of you may disagree with me and the clergy in this nuanced approach. That’s okay. I hope you’ll stay in relationship with us.
Jesus today makes a nuanced appeal to a group of hungry people. Outside a ruined village on Galilee’s Northeast shore today there is a cheesy looking sign which reads “Capernaum: the town of Jesus.” Jesus had just escaped the crowd, who wanted to make him king. He snuck back home to his town, to Capernaum, and the people are surprised. “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Then subtly, subtly (they think they’re being sly) they demand that he provide some bread.
You almost want Jesus to say something like, “Do I look like a baker?” But he doesn’t. He gives them a theological answer. God gives bread. God gives me. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” Jesus takes a question about food, about daily bread, about economics, and Jesus points the people to relationship. The bread isn’t the point, as good as it tastes, as great as it is to have a full belly.
What is the ecosystem of relationships that feeds you? We have much to gain from being conscious and conscientious about how our relationships are feeding us. Who are the people with whom you break bread regularly? Who informs your worldview? Who is there for you when you are hurting? When you need to celebrate?
Jesus described his vision of relationship in the Gospels. He talks about welcoming children and centers the least of these as the gatekeepers to the Beloved Community of God. Jesus practiced what he preached. He ate with tax-collectors and sinners. He shared a table with women and outcasts. Notice too, the Pharisees and the Romans were at his table as well. They wouldn’t be complaining that Jesus invited the “wrong people” if the powerful weren’t also gathered. Jesus welcomed everybody.
Jesus’ table hospitality, his vision of a diverse collective gathered to break bread stands in stark contrast to ideologies we encounter today. Jesus’s vision of the Beloved Community cries out against the vision of white nationalism professed by those who gathered last year in Charlottesville, who are planning to gather again next week in Washington DC, in the park in front of my old church. There is a real danger today whole virtual communities gather to proclaim a vision counter to Jesus’ vision. Those voices are ascendent, they’re gaining strength. They estimate the crowd that will gather in Washington next week may be bigger than the crowd in Virginia last year. There is real danger, and they need to be countered in the public square. White nationalism must be called out for what it is: false teaching, false doctrine, heresy, hate, and counter to the Gospel of Christ. We cannot cede the public square to those who would do such harm.
For Jesus differences mattered. Jesus was not color-blind, or wealth-blind, or gender-blind. No. Jesus saw diversity. Jesus wanted a diverse community around his table because his table was God’s table. All of these crazy diverse people are God’s people, he says. To God their stories matter. To God their presence matters. We are more whole when we see God’s beautiful diversity, and when we stick it out relationships with people who are radically different. All God’s people are welcome. There are no outcasts with God.
Relationship is the reason for Jesus’ presence, for all the miracles. Relationship, ongoing relationship with God and one another, that is why we return to this church, this table, week in and week in, to practice relationship. The bread of life comes to us in the midst of an ongoing, messy, sometimes complicated community. The bread of life, taken, blessed, broken, and given for you comes in the midst of the mess. God invites us into relationship, relationship with God, relationship with one another. The sacrament is a reminder that we are caught up in an ongoing, messily blessed, body of believers. We are in a sacramental web of relationships, a sign of God’s ongoing love and concern for our world.
Sometimes staying in relationship is difficult.
I began this sermon with the words of King David, and I have to admit I still struggle with Israel’s ancient king. If he were a political leader today, and he had treated a beloved daughter of God so terribly, had treated a woman as property to be seized, I would go further than Nathan who said “You are that man.” I would call for his resignation. I struggle with David.
Tradition holds that psalm 51 was written by David, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness.” This psalm gives me a reason to hope. David knew he had done wrong, and he asked for forgiveness. David was willing to choose right relationship over being right. He was able to let go of self-righteousness. David is able to see his fault, and to ask for mercy, to ask for a clean heart. I pray that such awareness might take hold today.
I’m not sure David should have been allowed to continue governing, but I am grateful for his psalm. I am grateful for the words of repentance we say each Ash Wednesday, and over and over throughout the year. I am grateful for the hope of a new heart and a right Spirit. Choosing to follow Jesus means choosing relationship over self-righteousness, over economics, even over bread. Choosing to follow Jesus means knowing that we can never say the words, “I have no need of you” to our fellow human beings.
Choosing to follow Jesus means knowing that we all, all of us need to speak the words, “Have mercy on me, O God.” We all, all of us, are in need of forgiveness. We all, all of us are capable of staying in relationship, even when relationships are tough. Because with God there are no outcasts. With God there is mercy, plenteous redemption, and everlasting love.