A sermon preached at St Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, by Christopher L. Webber on August 15, 2005

The Episcopal Church Pension Fund sends out an annual report which is full of bar charts and statistics and heart warming stories of “your pension fund at work”:  all the sick and elderly people whose lives have been enriched by a check from the CPF.  Now I don’t want to seem critical of the Church Pension Fund. I might get elderly myself some day and meanwhile I’m glad to get their monthly deposit in my bank account. But what got my attention not long ago was not the bar charts and heart-warming stories but the title on the cover:  “God’s goodness and mercy.”  I thought to myself, “Wait a minute;  this is my fund.  Churches have been paying into it for years on my account.  That’s my money you’re talking about and it’s a legal obligation not a question of ‘mercy’.” I looked inside for some explanation but it was all statistics and heart-warming stories and it never again referred to “mercy.”

But that word “mercy” is something to ponder, not least because it comes up four times in today’s second reading, but also because if you are concerned at all about Islam you might recognize that you can’t study Islam without coming across that same word. Every chapter of the Qur’an begins: “In the name of Allah, Most gracious, most merciful.”  But the odd thing is that you can read through the Qur’an and never find a definition or explanation, just the repeated assertion that Allah is merciful. If you look in the Prayer Book you won’t find an explanation in the Prayer Book either.

So here is this word “mercy” or “merciful” in the Bible, in the Prayer Book, in the Qur’an and in the Annual Report of the Church Pension Fund and I guess we are just supposed to know what it means – but I’m not sure we do.  I think it used to be a common word in English. People used to say things like “Mercy me!” Or “Merciful heavens!” or just plain “Mercy!” But I think our vocabularies have gone down hill in recent years and I wonder if we ever use it any more outside of church.

But when we come to church, there it is in the intercessions: “Lord, have mercy,” and often and again in the readings. So I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary and some other places and I began to find a word with a badly split personality: there’s common usage on the one hand and there’s proper usage on the other hand and they seem to be miles apart.  I reacted badly to the CPF Report because I think of the pension as an obligation and I think of mercy as something special. Mercy, it seems to me, is undeserved and unexpected. The Oxford Dictionary offers as an example: “What a mercy it was that I held the ace of spades.”

But that’s common usage and the odd thing is that that’s totally different from the more formal definition they provide which talks about “forbearance and compassion shown by one person to another who is in his power and has no claim to receive kindness. . . . a disposition to forgive.”  Notice that last especially:  “a disposition to forgive.” Aren’t there certain people who are more inclined to forgive than others, more disposed to be merciful? With some people, you know there’s no point in asking. “You’re late with the rent?  Get out on the street.”  “You’re late to work?  You’re fired.” With other people, there’s more of a chance.  Some people are likelier to have mercy. Maybe God is likeliest of all.

It seems, in fact, to be a definition of God, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim: God is supremely “disposed to be merciful.”  You might even say: Mercy is who God is. And we who are Christians know best of all that God is like that because we have seen that mercy in a single human life lived out day by day and most of all seen in its fullest power on the cross. At the cross we find “a disposition to be merciful” that can still say, “Father, forgive them . . .”

Now, if you like doing this kind of research you can go back into the root meanings and origins of a word and you will find that there are at least two different words in the Old Testament that can be translated as “mercy” but the primary one has the same root as the word for womb. There seems in other words to be some relationship between this quality of God and the womb where the first bond is formed between a mother and child.

Let me tell you a story about that from the Bible.  Maybe you know it.  The Bible says that Solomon was wiser than anyone else who ever lived and it illustrates that by telling how two women came to him one day with an argument about a child that they both claimed to be theirs. They were, it seems, living together and both gave birth at the same time but one night one child died and in the morning both claimed that the living child was theirs and the dead child belonged to the other.  So they came to the king to settle their dispute and as they stood and argued Solomon said, “Bring me a sword.” “Cut the child in half,” he said, “and give half to each.”  And one woman said, “Fine.  Do it.” And the other said, “No; don’t do that; give the child to her, but don’t kill it.” And Solomon said, “Give the child to her; she is it’s mother.”

Now, that’s a wonderful story, but what brings it to life is the way it’s told: when the king calls for the sword, we are told of the one woman that “compassion for her son burned within her.”  And the word “compassion” there has the same root as womb and mercy.  A relationship with the living child “burned within her.” Mercy is a bond, an unbreakable bond.  “Can a woman forget her nursing child,” asks God through the prophet Isaiah, “or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget,” God says, “yet I will not forget you.”  God’s relationship with God’s people is like the relationship of mother and child – but even stronger. It doesn’t matter what the child does, mercy is always there, always available. You need only to ask.

And, you know, when you come at it this way, the Church Pension Fund maybe isn’t as far off base as I thought at first. Mercy is about an unbreakable commitment.  Whatever I do – well, maybe within some limits! – I can always come back and they’ll be there for me. And that is mercy.  That is what God is like.  And that was certainly the experience of the Jewish people: they rebelled and went astray, they turned to idols and false gods, they looked to Egypt to help them against the Assyrians, they looked to their city walls and their armies, they tried everything they could think of to avoid relying on God, to be able to say, “Look how smart we are. Look how strong we are.  Who needs God?  We worked it all out ourselves.”  But of course, it never did work.  They were not that smart. And finally they began to see that the prophets were right.

The prophets said their conduct was like leaning on a rotten staff for support, like relying on broken cisterns for water. And aren’t we still that way?  We don’t want to need God, do we? We don’t want to take the time for church or prayer. But notice the result.  Are we proud of the world we have made, and the wisdom of our choices? Maybe the thing we can learn first by keeping up with the daily news is our constant need for mercy.  What the news tells us is what the Bible tells us and what the Prayer Book tells us: “we have erred and strayed from our ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, . . . and there is no health in us.”

I was hoping for a statement something like that last week from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the English people. There were mobs in the street burning and looting and the Prime Minister had nothing to say except about punishment. I waited to hear from the Archbishop some word of understanding of the ability of the gospel to change lives and the need to communicate that gospel to a society in turmoil and I finally found on line a speech he had made in the House of Lords that never mentioned God or the gospel or the responsibility of the church.  No wonder England is in trouble!

But let us not look at others but look at ourselves. Where in all the debate about debt in recent weeks did the word “mercy” ever come up? “Mercy” as an unbreakable bond uniting us in a single society with obligations to each other and a need to forgive each other for our failures and come together to solve common problems? Where was that mercy, that unbreakable bond that unites us when all we heard about was division?  Where was the “disposition to forgive” when tensions were at the breaking point?

But even that is to illustrate my point by looking at others but not ourselves, not my relationship with the clerk at the checkout counter, the people in my office, my neighbors, my friends, my family. How much of the anger that seems endemic in American life these days, indeed in the world community, our so-called “global village” where important people shout at each other, accuse each other, take violent action against each other – how much of that infects my life and my relationships? Does the anger and divisiveness I see so often in the news begin to affect me?

We need to ask ourselves that question often: why did I react that way? was it fair?  did I realize what problems the other person may be having? was there any compassion, any mercy, in what I did, what I said? Was I disposed to forgive, or predisposed to anger?  We are here today not just to pray and not just to hear about God, but to receive communion, to be joined with the life of God, to receive God’s life into ours, and that life is given to change this world beginning with you and me.

God is merciful.  God “knoweth whereof we are made” and has compassion. God does not change.  Even the Church Pension Fund may change, may misplace my records or invest my pension funds badly and what I rely on from them conceivably might not be there and then I would need someone else’s mercy. But the mercy I need most is not like that. The mercy I need most is the sustaining, upholding, constant and unvarying love and compassion of my Creator, who knows me better than I know myself and yet forgives.

Knowing that mercy is there can change lives, can change our society, and needs most of all to change me.

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