Sunday, September 11, 2016

Proclaim the God Whose Name is Mercy

Sermon preached at St. Mark's Church, Penn Yan, NY, September 11, 2016.  Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Luke 15:1-10.

          15 years is a long time.  Our memories dim and we have birthed a new generation since 9/11/2001.  If we are not affected by its aftermath personally, it tends to be relegated to the history books, and something we need not talk about.

          15 years is a short time, though, and we are living still very much in a 9/11 world, a world where the aftershocks of that day keep coming.

          I was rector of a parish in suburban Washington, DC on 9/11.  I could walk you through every moment of that day.  I had a congregation in which many, including myself, spent hours not knowing where our loved-ones were, living in intense fear because of the rumors that more than the Pentagon had been hit.  Thankfully at the end of the day we were all accounted for, but we were numb, like the rest of the nation and the world, at the horrific loss of innocent life.

          We then experienced the rush of unity that nearly everyone felt, a unity of grief for the loss, a unity of awe and pride for first responders, and the kind of unity that comes when you know exactly who your enemy is.  Our church was full for a prayer service that very night, and standing room only at a Service on Friday the 14th and the next Sunday.

          I do not know what it was like here, but in my world in suburban Washington that unity very quickly gave way to divisions.  My congregation divided into two camps:  those desirous of immediate, violent, revenge and those who looked for some kind of measured, thoughtful response.  Some of the latter were pacifists, but not all.

          Our congregation weathered the storm of division, because we were somewhat skilled at it, and our impulse to hang together was stronger than anything that might split us.  This was partially due that, by and large, the element of hate did not enter the conversation.

          That is not, however, what happened to our national world.  It has been painful to watch us become more and more divided, with scorn and hate of those who think differently commonplace.

          What is happening?  Well, we can look to Jeremiah today, who gives us a harsh rebuke,

For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.

It is good for us to hear these harsh words, because they should serve to re-awaken our capacity for self-reflection and even self-criticism, practices which are ruled as unpatriotic by many, many people.  Our capacity to look at the big picture and take the time to reflect are almost gone in our smartphone, facebook, 24-hour news cycle world where everything must happen instantaneously.  Sometimes I despair that the simple art of conversation is dying.

          The capacity for conversation is something we Christians are called to practice and to witness to, and to teach, because it is the only way for stupid children to gain wisdom.

          We can also look to Jesus for an answer to the question of what is happening to us, and his answer leads us to the big picture, maybe the biggest picture of all.

          The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were very suspicious of the company he kept.  It caused them to question his ethics and the rightness of his ultimate purpose.  He was hanging around with the kind of people with which good religious folk were not supposed to hang around.
          So he tells them some stories:  a shepherd who looks for his lost sheep, a woman who looks for a lost coin, and a father who celebrates the return of a lost son.  His strong implications in these stories are that all God wants is a return to relationship with him and that mercy is perhaps God’s chief quality, not judgment.  The God of Jesus is a God who gathers, not scatters, unites not divides.

          This message may seem obvious to us, but it made the religious leaders afraid, and they began to act out of that fear, and, well, you know the result.

          But this message is still not obvious to most people, witness if nothing else, the phenomenon of a world constantly surprised that a Pope makes mercy his central theme, as if that were something newfangled, odd, and even dangerous. Where will this end?

          These is a seismic shift going on in the world, a breakdown of an old order and the chaotic coming together of a new one.  The world that is breaking apart is a world of certainty and order, maintained by a privileged few, where might makes right, you know who is in and who is out, and God is neatly tamed in our religious houses, blessing who we would bless and cursing those we would curse.

          Again, this may seem obvious to us, and it has been going on for at least fifty years, and most of us, if not all, welcome it.  But it makes many, perhaps most, very afraid.  And they start to act out of this fear and attempt to restore order, and as they act out of this fear, it continues to multiply, to the point where we are today.  9/11 was not the cause of this shift to a new world, it was some people’s attempt to stop it coming, and the huge irony is that we keep fighting back attempting to do the same thing—restore our sense of order—some might say, “Make America Great Again.”

          The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the labels we use to divide ourselves, including that of “sinner,” are meaningless to the God whose name is Mercy.  We cannot make a world that is great—or even good—until we can reach across all divides and live as one humanity.  And that means, among other things, breaking the cycle of violence which so affects us, from the violence of peoples and peoples, to the violence of the language we use to disagree with them.

          So on this 15th anniversary we Christian folk have two tasks which have been our tasks from the very beginning, although we have very often not been very good at them.

Teaching, witnessing to, and practicing the art of conversation.

Proclaim the God whose name is Mercy.

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