O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Life is full of mystery. Especially people. We are all such mysteries. Yet there are these moments when we learn something about another person, and it’s like the light turns on in our heart of understanding who they are and why. It may be in our learning about their family of origin, their life history, their health, their abilities and training, their failures or successes. Whatever. And we have this “ah-ha” moment. It’s like a missing piece has been found in the puzzle of understanding this person… and their life now makes much more sense to us. Perhaps even what before had seemed to us a stain on this person’s character, we now can see is a scar which they have worn and wear well. We realize they are something of a walking miracle. You probably have had this experience. I certainly have.
The word in the scriptures that captures this deep sense of understanding another person is mercy, often also translated as compassion. The Hebrew word for compassion comes from the same root as the word for womb. Compassion is womb-like, for both the giver and the receiver.[i] Compassion safely, gently nurtures life. Estelle Frankel, a rabbi and psychotherapist, says that, “With compassion we enable all things to grow into their most beautiful and complete form, and with compassion we learn the wisdom of the womb,” how to hold, when to hold back as we carry someone in our womb of awareness.[ii]
Zechariah 8:20-23 :: Psalm 87 :: Luke 9:51-56
This evening’s lections highlight for us a very important paradox about what we might call “the Religious world-view.” In our readings from the Hebrew Bible, both Zechariah and the Psalmist remind us that the beauty and goodness of religion have the power to bring people into a relationship with the Divine. Surely, this is true for just about every one of us here, whether we call ourselves religious or not. Both biblical authors imagine for us a context where the abundant beauty and goodness of God become so incarnated in the life and worship of God’s people that the people of the world will long for nothing more than to enter into that life.
Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Come, let us go to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.’ … In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’
Glorious things are spoken of you *
O city of our God.
Jesus selected a small group to particularly teach and transform. As Jesus traveled, he saw and called an unusual assortment including uneducated fishermen. Matthew, whom we remember today, is an even more striking choice. As a tax collector working for the occupying Roman Empire, he was considered a traitor, outcast by the Jewish community.
Walking along, likely amid a crowd asking questions, Jesus saw Matthew. Jesus paid attention to the periphery and saw those looked down on or overlooked. Looking widely, Jesus saw Matthew, saw a human with dignity and worth. Matthew, an outcast seen and invited in, experienced Jesus’ mercy.
“Why eat with tax collectors and sinners?” say self-confident, serious, secure religious folk. Condemn traitors. Build barriers. Stick together. Keep yourselves clean.
“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said, “‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’” Matthew followed Jesus to learn what this meant spending his days Peter, James, John, and other unlikely companions.
How do we learn mercy? Here are three ways: Look, Honor, and Receive. Look widely. Pay attention not only to those close to you. Look to the periphery, see and welcome the outcast and stranger.
Honor mystery. We Brothers say in our Rule of Life: “… we honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies. Only God knows them as they truly are and in silence we learn to let go of the curiosity, presumption and condemnation which pretends to penetrate the mystery of their hearts.”[i]
Receive wisdom. What do others have to teach you, especially companions you didn’t or wouldn’t choose?
We remember St. Matthew, one whom Jesus selected, shaped, and sent with love. Following, we continue to learn mercy. Look widely. Honor mystery. Receive wisdom.
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 | Psalm 14 | 1 Timothy 1:12-17 | Luke 15:1-10
This morning we encounter with some pretty strong language (an understatement), particularly expressed by Jeremiah and the psalmist. “The whole land shall be a desolation yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black.”“Everyone has proved faithless, all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.”It can be difficult to hear we are lost. It can be discouraging to find one’s self, at the end of the day, a sinner, a straying sheep.
In light of the density and tone of the readings before us, I think an earlier translation of this morning’s Collect will help tune our ears to the Good News some of the strong language may hide from our hearing. “O God,” reads the Collect as it appears in the 1549 Prayer Book, “forasmuch as without thee, we are not able to please thee: Grant that the working of thy mercy may in all things direct and rule our hearts.”Editions from 1662 onward elide the concept of mercy with the action of the Holy Spirit,and while there is nothing theologically dubious about this move, I want us to hold in mind the mercy of God as we walk through these texts this morning.
Time spent with scripture will always make us aware of a holy tension. We never approach scripture with a naked objectivity or set of eyes unchanged by time. We bring a world of experiences and assumptions, many we do not even suspect we carry. Some of these are of our own design, while others are made for us by the societies in which we live. We never read these words “as they are.”
If we are careful and sensitive to this tension, we discover we read much more than scripture in this way. We read history, biology, physics, whole nations and peoples, our selves—indeed, all of reality itself—according to legions of assumptions and contradictions. These means we very seldom, if ever, have the full picture of any event, phenomenon, or person.
In the last century, Thomas Merton observed, “We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own infallibility. … and therefore, even when we are acting with the best of intentions, and imagine that we are doing great good, we may be actually doing tremendous material harm and contradicting all our good intentions.”
Despite their hiddenness, scripture tells us we wind up living these blind spots out in our lives as judgments. Judgements about ourselves, others, texts, events, even God. Too often, we assume our judgements are infallible; or at the very least, contextually correct: I am irredeemable. I am unlovable. I am the most lovable. I have a right to so and so. That person over there isn’t really human. God can’t be trusted because of the evil of the world. Has God said? There is no God.
Or, no god but we. [if you don’t think you occasionally fall into this… just ask the people you live with]
Jeremiah describes the inevitable calamity wrought by generations of God’s own people when they seek collectively to build a world apart from God, on terms of their own devising.
I looked on earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord.
“Waste and void.” These words, tōhûwābōhû, appear first in the opening lines of Genesis. Here, however, the procession of creation is undone as Jeremiah’s own people turn from the Truth that seeks them. There is no God (but I). Contrary to how we might receive this passage, this is not a description of divine punishment or wrath. “For my people are foolish,” laments the heart-broken God of Jeremiah, “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.”
C. S. Lewis paints for us a vivid picture of an eternity spent willfully blind or impassive to the scandalous extravagance of God’s goodness and mercy. In the fourth chapter of his allegory The Great Divorce, two people meet in the hereafter at the threshold of paradise. One, a “ghost,” is visiting from hell, and another, a “solid person,” a citizen of heaven, tries to get the ghost to accompany him up the mountain and enter into God’s joy. But the ghost will not let go of his judgments of himself, others, and God.
“‘I only want my rights,’” says the ghost, “‘I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’
‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.’
‘That may do very well for you, I daresay. If they choose to let in a bloody murderer … But I don’t see myself going in the same boat as you, see? Why should I? I don’t want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.’
The other shook his head. ‘You can never do it like that,’ he said. ‘Your feet will never grow hard enough to walk on our grass that way. You’d be tired out before we got to the mountains. And it isn’t exactly true, you know.’ Mirth danced in his eyes as he said it.
‘What isn’t true?’ asked the Ghost sulkily.
‘You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter now. 
Unable to relinquish to God control of his destiny or reading of reality, the ghost has reduced himself to almost nonexistence. He clings to an incomplete picture of reality. Deceived and drawn by the Enemy away from reality’s true fullness, he has made himself the arbiter of truth. “Unless the Lord builds the house,” writes the psalmist “their labor is in vain who build it.”
Much like the zealous young Paul, our limited vision of reality can seriously distort our concept of goodness. This distortion made Paul “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” It is not our work or strength that will make us whole; no program will lift us to that place from which we finally lose our tiny, creaturely perspective. For Paul as for us, the only thing that can restore our vision is the mercy of God—an encounter with Jesus, the shepherd who has left all to “tramp the hills”in search of you and me. Our invitation as God’s people is not to pretend to be good, or pious or saintly; it is to open ourselves to the searching, active mercy of God.
There is nothing flattering or becoming about the two images Jesus uses to describe lost humanity in this morning’s gospel—sheep are not known for being particularly bright or self-governing, and a coin lacks the ability to find or save itself altogether.
Ah, but we have assumed the parable was about us.
The good news for us today is less about us, and more about who God is. The good news is that Jesus shows us a God we can trust with the evil we see in the world, who has not kept himself distant from it or us. A God who spends everything to find and recover us. A God who empties himself to fill you with himself so that you might never be lost or alone again.
But it may just mean learning to leave our judgments behind as the Shepherd carries us to the other side of Jordan.
Collect for Proper 19, The Book of Common Prayer , as cited in Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 191-192.
Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, 225.
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce(C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd., 1946 & 1973, reprinted by HarperCollins, 2001), 28.
Psalm 127:1, The Book of Common Prayer, 782.
“Shepherd, do you tramp the hills,” no. 68 in Hymns for the Gospels (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2001)
When I was 26, I went to the Holy Land for the first time. The day I remember most was getting up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning with my fellow pilgrims and leaving our hotel in Jerusalem and getting into our coach, and in the dead of night driving due East. Ahead of us lay the great Judean wilderness. We could see very little, but eventually the coach stopped and we climbed out into the utter silence of the desert. As we stood in awe, our eyes slowly made out the shape of the hills, below the twinkling stars. Then the bus drove off. We were alone – standing together on the ancient road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
We, like the man in the parable, were going to walk from Jerusalem to Jericho. The ancient road is not the modern highway which now carries countless pilgrims down to Jericho in their air conditioned coaches. The road which we were taking winds its way between the hills and the rocks and the canyons, but always going down and down. For Jerusalem is high in the hills, while Jericho is way below sea level, one of the lowest points in the earth’s surface. The cities are less than 20 miles apart.
And so we set out for several hours of silent, prayerful walking .We began to see more and more clearly, and then there was a glorious sunrise, and we all sat down on the rocks and had Eucharist together.
On we walked, as the temperature rose; it became incredibly hot. “Keep drinking, keep drinking!” said our Palestinian guide. We did. But, sadly, we never made it to Jericho. The heat and sun became so intense as we walked lower and lower that some of our party felt unwell, and we called for the bus to drive us the last few miles into Jericho.
Why come to church? In an era of declining membership in mainline churches, in a time when more and more people – not justyoungpeople – are exercising the option not to attend church services, why do we keep coming back? What is it that we realize that we need, and that compels us to return to this place day after day, week after week?
There are many possible answers, and no doubt we would find a wide range of reasons if we polled the congregation today. Most of us would say we come first of all to worship and to give thanks to God. We realize that life is a gift – all of it –and we wantand needto return thanks to the Giver of all that we have received. Many of us would say we come to be fed by Word and Sacrament, to be nourished and strengthened by the holy gifts of Bread and Wine for the service we feel called to give in the world. Others of us come for community, to join together with people who have made a commitment to belonging to God and to following Christ. We take seriously the call to join ourselves to the Body of Christ, and we find strength in solidarity with others in this place. But here is another important reason why we come to church: We come because we realize that living as a Christian in the world is counter-cultural, and we need frequently to be remindedof that, instructedin that, and encouragedin that. When we realize that God asks us to live in ways that are often out of step with the culture that surrounds us, that God invites us to embrace and embody a different set of principles and values than the world promotes, namely the values of the kingdom of God, then we understand how much we need the support of others as we make this difficult and sometimes perilous journey upstream.
The prophet Malachi – whom we heard in our first lesson – could not be using more extreme language to prepare us for the coming Messiah. Our messenger comes “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.”
- A refiner’s fire is a metallurgy process dating back to antiquity. A refiner’s fire is a crucible for heating precious metal, like gold and silver, to a molten state, from which then the dross – the impurities – are skimmed off. It’s a searing process, at a precise temperature for a specific length of time, which produces the pure, precious metal.
- The fullers were the launderers. Fuller’s soap is a caustic cleansing agent, made from lye and other repugnant chemicals.[i] Fuller’s soap was used to purify fabric and make it white. The stench from this soap was so great that the fullers had to work outside the Jerusalem city walls as they stamped on garments with their feet or used wooden bats in tubs of this blanching soap.
Matthew 7:6, 12-14
Many of you may know that for almost the entire fifty days of Easter, I was home in Tennessee visiting and caring for my ailing mother who passed away on May 8th. As you can imagine, this time with my mom was precious, bittersweet, and we shared many reminiscences of our relationship throughout the years, but especially from my youth. One such instance was when I was 7 or 8 years old. I was at my friend Patrick’s house, which had a large lot behind it consisting of hills made from the excavation of red clay dirt for the future building of new homes. We had had a lot of rain that week and at the bottom of these clay dirt hills were big puddles of water. Thinking they looked refreshing, Patrick and I stripped down to our underwear and proceeded to roll down the clay mud hills landing in the puddles with a big splash. It was a lot of fun! We did this over and over again until I heard my mom calling me to supper in the distance.
Our frolicking in the clay puddles had seemed like such a good idea at the time that I could not have predicted my mother’s dismay when I showed up in the house wearing nothing but my soaked, red clay-stained tighty-whities, which would never again be white. (Mind you, not only did I walk home that way, two streets over and through several neighbors’ yards, but we had dinner guests that evening). As I plead my case before my agitated mother I said, “Well, Patrick did it first!” And we have all heard the retort that I remember mom using that evening: “If Patrick jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?” As a young boy from the heart of Appalachia, I’m not sure I knew very much at that time about the Brooklyn Bridge, but I imagined if there was a red clay puddle at the bottom, then yes, absolutely!
Our gospel lesson from Matthew this evening is a portion of what is known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.’ Most of us will be familiar with the Beatitudes which begin this famous sermon (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who morn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc.)[i] This sermon is given in a rabbinic tradition that takes aspects of the law and expounds upon them in order to help people realize that to which they have been called. And Jesus covers a lot of ground during this time of teaching. What most caught my eye was Jesus’ admonition to ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easythat leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’
Jesus’ teaching here was about the discernment of right of wrong which would not always be clear based on popular schools of thought. Jesus used the actions of the religious leaders of his day to prove the point. In his line of fire were the Pharisees, an influential sect within Judaism who were known for their personal piety and their insistence that Jews should observe all laws of the Torah which included 248 prescriptions and 365 proscriptions—that is “you shall’s” and “you shall not’s,” respectively.[ii] The Pharisees spent their lives learning the law and enforcing it to the best of their abilities in order to keep Israel a holy nation. And Jesus certainly did not disagree with their zeal. Just two chapters earlier at the beginning of this sermon Jesus affirms his commitment to the law saying, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.’[iii]
The Matthean community from which Matthew’s gospel originates, was one of Jewish origin and identity who were following ‘the Way’ that Jesus had preached. Out of their context of Judaism, they were concerned about matters of correct procedure, the main conundrum being: were they as apostles to be conservators or liberators? Were they to be conservators of the Jewish heritage and indoctrinate new converts to Jesus Christ back into the faith of the chosen people, orwere they to be liberators, seeing their experience of Jesus Christ as an invitation into the future, the coming kingdom of God and the gift of salvation and liberation for all. Which was it?[iv]
Jesus message which he reiterated over and over was that holiness was not determined by being set apart as morally superior to others but rather by exhibiting the highest attribute of God, what was known in Hebrew as chesed, which is translated as loving-kindness or compassion.[v] The Law was important but it had to be kept in the spirit of chesed, which is why later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus responds to a Pharisee’s question this way: When he was asked which commandment in the law is greatest he responded predictably: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is a quote from Deuteronomy and is part of the Shema, the primary creed in Judaism which begins every service.[vi]
But Jesus throws in a second which he says is like the first. What could be equal to loving God with every fiber of your being? Jesus uses a line from the Holiness Code in Leviticus: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The verse from Leviticus ends with the statement, “I am the Lord.”[vii] In other words, this is my essence, who I am. By keeping this law you will be set apart as my own. “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Jesus doesn’t negate any other part of the Law, but rather says on these two, love of God and love of neighbor, hang all the law and the prophets. In keeping the Law you must meld it with the spirit of Chesed: loving-kindness or compassion; you might even say ‘mercy.’
But as nice is all this sounds, Jesus’ point in the gospel we heard this evening is that the work of ‘chesed’ is not an easy walk in the park and it normally goes against the stream of popular thought. Love of God can only be accomplished by committing to the equally large task of love of neighbor as self. And I believe that this task is as big and perhaps daunting today as it was in Jesus’ day. We live in virtual society where social media that has promised to bring us together through technology and convenience is actually driving us apart. A couple of years ago I remember seeing an advertisement while waiting on the T to arrive for GrubHub, a popular food delivery service. I was so startled by its message that I took a picture of the sign that read: ‘Say hello to ordering food online, and say goodbye to saying hello into a phone.’[viii] In other words, why be inconvenienced by the complexity and difficulty of human interaction? It is this loss of personal connection that I believe has led us to a place of extreme isolation at a time where connection, understanding, compassion, kindness, and even mercy are so desperately needed. But let’s face it, chesed is not easy. This narrow way that leads to life takes the will and intention of commitment, the assent to experiencing inconvenience, the expectation of messiness, and the understanding that it will cost us all something, both individually and communally. How can we begin to actively engage in the work of chesed?
The first point Jesus makes in his summary of the Law begins with the word “You.” You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Why? Because that is why we were created. We were created in love for the sake of relationship with God, and in the image of God with the capacity to mirror the same love that is His essence, chesed. I know that one of my greatest challenges in my life is to see myself as one of God’s beloved, to see His image in myself. All too often, I’ve been my greatest critic and have done more to separate myself from God’s love than to embrace it. The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson said, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation[ix] unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”[x] This is the holiness we’re called to. If you’re having trouble seeing yourself as God’s beloved, you may want pray using the verse from Psalm 26: “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.”[xi] You are that abiding place!
Once we recognize our interconnectedness with God and His creation vertically, then I think we can the move to love of neighbor in the horizontal. This love of neighbor is of the same essence as the love of God, chesed. Our neighbors are a testimony to the vast diversity of God. To reject this diversity is to reject aspects of the living God in our midst. We cannot say, “I have no need of you.” We can only have relationship by actively and intentionally engaging our neighbors, especially the ones who challenge us. We must have the resolve to engage these neighbors not by reproving them for their wrong thought, but by actively listening to them and searching for the common ground where we can then begin to build a foundation. Sometimes the only common ground we may be able to find is that place at the altar where we all acknowledge our neediness by putting our hands together and stretching them out to receive sustenance from the one who is the essence of chesed: our kind, compassionate, merciful God who gave us Jesus his son as the shepherd leading us to the narrow gate that leads to life abundant.
I do not remember being punished by my mom for my romp in the muddy, clay-filled pools of water with Patrick, my cohort in crime. Even though I was instructed on ‘correct’ behavior, I believe my mom knew that in my incorrect decision of following Patrick’s actions (because of course her son would never lead anyone astray), I was just a young boy celebrating life and learning its lessons. She was a model of chesed, loving kindness and compassion. And I miss her! Amen
[ii]Harrington, Daniel, ed. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1991. Print.
[v]Winters, Charles L., ed. Education for Ministry, Year Two: New Testament. Sewanee: The University of the South. 1977. Print.
[ix]The doctrine of the incarnation affirms that the eternal Son of God took human flesh from His human mother and that the historical Christ is at once fully God and fully man. (From the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church).
[x]The Final Passover, Vol. 2, p. 402
When I began studying our gospel lesson for this morning, the first thing I thought of was an event from this past week that made all the major newspapers and has been circulating as a video on social media. The video is of Senator Elizabeth Warren confronting Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf about taking responsibility for fraud committed by his company who then scapegoated lower level employees.[i] Senator Warren’s examination of Mr. Stumpf was scathing and I have to confess I took a slight sadistic pleasure in seeing him wide-eyed and squirming as she fired question after question, admitting damning evidence into public record from what seemed to be this great chasm separating the two. After seeing the video, I couldn’t help but to think how lucky the rich man in our gospel lesson was to have had his interchange with Father Abraham instead of Senator Warren. While Abraham’s interaction with the wealthy man is firm, his tone is at least compassionate. To be honest, I think my curiosity was more the result of my recognition and identification with Mr. Stumpf. Throughout my life, I have at times made poor choices based on selfish motives. I too have had to face up to my shortcomings, ask forgiveness, and make reparations for harm caused to those whom I’d hurt. Perhaps you can relate.
Wisdom of Solomon 7:21-8:1
The Kingdom of God is within you—among you, between you. Within you. Within you. Do you know the place? Have you found the way to that land of God that comes to us not in things that can be observed? That distant land, that land within you? That place closer to you than your own breath–and more distant than all stars. It’s here, it’s there; it’s not here, it’s not there—then, here it is again. It’s so easy to lose your way and then find it once more.
That land has a special atmosphere, a gentle breeze that is the breath of the power of God, a bright Spirit as of a reflection of the eternal light, as Solomon’s Wisdom put it. The bright Spirit of that place—within you—is more beautiful than the sun and surpasses every constellation of the stars. The only rain fall there is of a special quality, a quality of mercy, mercy that is not strained, but“… droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” As a poet once said. Mercy himself is enthroned within you.