The Wideness of God's Mercy
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 28, 2013
St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Charleston
Today’s collect is as powerful as it is familiar. In it we prayed that God would “increase and multiply upon us (God’s) mercy” (BCP, p 231). This is a prayer, then, for the mercy of God Almighty. And then, having become recipients of God’s mercy, we pray further that “we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.” Indeed, this collect is as powerful as it is familiar ... and as substantive as it is beautiful. And, I suggest that not only is it a wonderful collect of the day. It is worth considering as a collect for life. With that suggestion in mind, listen to these words again: “Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.”
We are led this morning, therefore, to attempt an understanding of God’s mercy. Now, the hymn writer affirms that “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea” (Hymnal, 469). So, any attempt to understand the mercy of God will not be an easy task. Nevertheless, we are led to that endeavor today.
At the outset, I want to suggest that the exercise of mercy contains within it the practice of two basic Christian virtues – forgiveness and love. As we experience forgiveness and love, we begin to understand something of the mercy of God. That is, we know that we cannot earn either forgiveness or love, and yet, we depend on both, to know something of the fullness of life. We will not be far off base, therefore, to understand God’s mercy as a combination of forgiveness and love.
The first reading, from Genesis, introduces the troublesome story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in that story we learn something about mercy. Just following the verses read this morning comes the encounter that resulted in God’s wrath. Remember that God’s two messengers were guests in Lot’s house in Sodom – a city which already had a bad reputation. The subsequent confrontation with the men of the city was not reported as a condemnation of homosexuality, as is often said. Rather, the men of Sodom in this story were guilty of neglecting their responsibility to show hospitality to strangers. Indeed, they abused their role as hosts. In the biblical world, that responsibility for hospitality represented a priority of the highest degree. In fact, hospitality to strangers was akin to the biblical concept of mercy. That is why it was so important. Thus, a stranger in the land was dependent on the hospitality of hosts, in a similar way that we are dependent on the mercy of God for life itself. Failure to exercise hospitality – and neglecting to replicate the mercy of God – resulted in severe repercussions for the people of Sodom. The point, though, is that showing hospitality to strangers indicates a human attempt to fulfill the call to exercise mercy.
In his Letter of the Colossians, St. Paul waxes eloquently about the extent of the transformation that Christ brings to our lives – a transformation enabled by the mercy of God in sending Christ to us. As St. Paul puts it, this is not a matter of “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (2:8). Rather, in Christ, “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him” (2:9-10). Thus, according to St. Paul, an accurate understanding of the person and the work of Christ must be broad and full. It is only as we perceive the fullness of Christ’s identity and his work that we may begin to grasp the mercy of God, who is the source of the gift which is Jesus Christ.
Finally, we come to the reading from St. Luke’s Gospel, which indicates several instances of how God acts with mercy toward creation. The petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are requests for the mercy of God – for the Kingdom on earth, for daily bread, for forgiveness of sins, and for relief from judgement. Then, the example of a friend who seeks bread at midnight also speaks to an act of mercy – in this case, by the homeowner who gets up in the middle of the night for his friend. To indicate what he means, Jesus affirms, “I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (11:9-10). Jesus provides us with that description of mercy in action. Then, after referring to our customary generosity toward our own children, Jesus summarizes his teaching this way: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (11:13). Again, it is in the nature of God to deal mercifully with creation.
From our readings today, it is clear that the exercise of mercy includes the practice of forgiveness and of love. We receive forgiveness and love from friends and loved ones and, ultimately, from God. Like the homeowner asleep in his bed and like the good parent, we are called to practice such mercy towards others as well. When we offer forgiveness, then we participate in the Godly act of mercy. When we love one another, we touch the being of God, for we have grasped the experience of mercy.
Perhaps then we may gain a sense of the Psalmist’s hope-filled vision: “Truly, (God’s) salvation is very near to those who fear him ... Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (85: 9-10). Further, as we know forgiveness and love in our lives and as we practice such forgiveness and love toward others, we may also begin to know the fruits of today’s collect, a collect for all of our lives: “Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.” Amen..
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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