The power of God’s mercy

The power of God’s mercy

This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at St. Christopher, Fort Worth, on March 18, 2018.

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St Christopher’s FW 2018           5 Lent – Year B             March 18

Every time we celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation – as we do this morning – everyone gathered says together the Baptismal Covenant, reminding ourselves that we are called into the Body of Christ as living members of the Body, and that we are called for a purpose beyond ourselves: to proclaim and embody the Good News of God’s love for all people.

That is another way of saying that we are called to evangelism – the “E-word.”  Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry (who spoke to us and taught in this nave less than a year ago), has been leading the Church to a renewed understanding of evangelism. I believe it was during his first sermon to the Church as our new Presiding Bishop that he remarked with tongue-in-cheek (somewhat) that it’s a new day when one hears the word “Episcopalian” and the word “Evangelism” in the same sentence. When he references himself as the CEO, he means “Chief Evangelism Officer” – not so much “Chief Executive Officer.”  And now, evangelism is one of the three chief objectives of the Episcopal Church, along with racial reconciliation and the care of creation. The most recent meeting of the House of Bishops this month was devoted largely to evangelism.

Now, I think it’s safe to say – and I could say this in front of any Christian tradition or denomination – that all Christians do not understand evangelism the same way. And so, some of us may be nervous about that word. But, I want to suggest that “evangelism” is a perfectly good word, and frankly, an important word  which describes our purpose as Christians, for it means “good news” – as in the proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel.

And the Good News we are called to proclaim and embody is the Good News of God’s Grace, God’s Forgiveness, God’s Mercy, God’s Love: Love which is a gift and cannot be earned;  Love which is given without conditions;  Love which has the power to change lives and change this world.

At this week’s “Evangelism Matters” conference in Ohio, Bishop Curry states his belief that the world would be better off with more Episcopalians, but as he says that, he reinforces his understanding of evangelism by saying this: “evangelism isn’t about building a bigger Church; it’s about building a better world.”  Love changes the world.  The proclamation of God’s love changes this world.

Pope Francis has written a book which is appropriate for the Season of Lent entitled “The Name of God is Mercy.” When Pope Francis celebrated his first Mass after his election as Bishop of Rome, he said in his homily the following: “The message of Jesus is mercy. For me, and I say this with humility, it is the Lord’s strongest message.”

This morning I direct our attention to a chapter in the book where Pope Francis shows the contrast between “shepherds” and those he calls “scholars of the law.” The “scholars of the law” as presented in the Gospels “represent the principle opposition to Jesus; they challenge him in the name of doctrine.”

The “scholars of the law” challenge Jesus when he heals the leper, for example. Pope Francis reminds us that “the Law of Moses stated that lepers had to be excluded from the city, … cast out, and declared impure.  In addition to suffering from the illness, they faced exclusion, marginalization, and loneliness. The leper was not just a victim of illness, but also felt guilty, as if he were being punished for his sins.”

“At his own risk and danger, Jesus goes up to the leper and restores him, he heals him.  In so doing, he shows us a new horizon, the logic of a God who is love … Jesus touched the leper and brought him back into community … like the Good Shepherd who leaves the flock to save one lost sheep. … Jesus goes and heals and integrates the marginalized, the ones outside the city.  In so doing, he shows us the way.” [65-67]

The contrast between the “scholars of the law” and the Good Shepherd is not a contrast between doctrine and mercy. It’s not that there is opposition between doctrine and mercy. As Pope Francis says, “Let us not forget that mercy is doctrine.”  Claiming that God shows mercy, and calls us to show mercy, is a doctrinal statement.  The title of the Pope’s book, “The Name of God is Mercy,” is a doctrinal statement.  Claiming that “if it’s not about love, it’s not about God” is a doctrinal statement.

If we are honest, we live in a cultural context in which we hear some bad theology in America, and witness a lack of mercy. Now, I want to say up front that we need all the instruments in the symphony [so to speak]. All of the faith traditions and denominations are needed, and have their gifts, and contribute to the Christian witness, and the symphony is diminished if any are missing. And, along with that, we Episcopalians are not perfect, nor anywhere near perfection.

But when we hear the “scholars of the law” in our day – public Christian leaders – claim that those who suffered from a hurricane, or an earthquake, or a typhoon, or any natural disaster, lived in immoral cities that “had it coming,” the world needs a strong voice to declare Mercy and Love.

When we hear current day “scholars of the law” claim that children died in their classrooms because we removed God from school (as if we could do that), we can’t be surprised that many people think of the Church as judgmental, dogmatic, and self-righteous.  And the world needs someone to proclaim and embody the Good News of God’s Grace, God’s Forgiveness, God’s Mercy, and God’s Love which has the power to change lives.

Today’s psalm – Psalm 51 – is a prayer for God’s mercy. Intense and penitential, this psalm of sin and pardon, and guilt and grace, is attributed by some to David, who was called to repentance after his adultery with Bathsheba, and for having had her husband killed.  It reads: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness  and cleanse me from my sin.  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

The psalmist – along with generations who have prayed this psalm – moves to a prayer for a changed life: “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.”

Generations of faithful people have prayed that psalm, and can attest to the power of God’s mercy to change lives.  The Pope claims it is the Lord’s strongest message.

I’m mindful of a story, a movie (one of my favorites, now 30 years old), starring Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons, entitled “The Mission.” It’s set in 1750’s Brazil. DeNiro’s character, Captain Rodrigo Mendoza, is a ruthless slave trader of natives, who kills his own brother in a fight over a woman.  He loved his brother, and never meant for it to happen.  It was an impulsive duel, a fair fight within the law, and so there were no legal consequences or ramifications to his brother’s death. So Mendoza faced no punishment – punishment he craved.

He spends 6 months holed up in a monastery in isolation wanting to die.  “There is no redemption for me,”  he tells the priest who tries to help him.  There is no redemption for me.  “No penance is hard enough for me.”

“Do you dare to try it?” the priest asks.  “Do you dare to see it fail?” Mendoza responds.  And the challenge is set. “Game on,” as we say.

Mendoza chooses to make his way over mountains and through rivers and up steep cliffs to the home of the very natives he was trapping, and selling as slaves (recent Christian converts, by the way).

And he chooses to make this journey on foot, dragging behind him a huge net full of heavy armor.  The trip is physically demanding and treacherous.  It takes days.

How will the natives respond to the one who sold their family members into slavery?  The natives see him coming, and they gather.  Mendoza reaches the top of the mountain, exhausted, covered in mud, with the armor tied to his back.  He is surrounded by the natives.  I don’t think he cares if he lives or dies.

And a young warrior walks over, pulls out his knife, puts it to Mendoza’s throat, hesitates, withdraws the knife from his neck,  and cuts the armor loose from Mendoza’s back,  and kicks the armor off the cliff.  All Rodrigo Mendoza can do is cry – a cry that turns to laughter, but a gut wrenching cry of one who has been forgiven; the cry of one that NOW knows that he, too, can be forgiven.

The reality is he was forgiven already by God.  Rodrigo Mendoza just had to accept it. That huge net, full of armor – that sack-full of guilt-driven attempts to deserve mercy or deserve forgiveness – had to be cut loose and kicked off the cliff.  I would suggest that a young Brazilian native shows us what Jesus thinks about deserving mercy, or grace, or love.

A New Testament scholar named William Countryman says the following about the Good News of Jesus:  “What God says to you in Jesus is this: You are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus spoke and lived.”

He says: “God might have said it more simply: ‘You are loved. I love you.’ This message is true, but it would have been ambiguous.  It might have meant, ‘I love you because you are good.’  It might have meant, ‘I love the nice bits of you, but I really wish you would clean up your act.’  It might have meant, ‘I still love you, and I would like to go on loving you, but I won’t tolerate your behavior much longer.’”

“Instead, God says something quite unambiguous: ‘You are forgiven.’ What this means is, ‘I love you anyway, no matter what.  I love you not because you are particularly good nor because you are particularly repentant nor because I’m trying to bribe you or threaten you into changing. I love you because I love you.’”

Evangelism is the proclamation of the Good News of God’s Mercy, undeserved forgiveness, unmerited grace, and unconditional love.  That’s the message we are called to proclaim and embody in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one God, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.