Monday, August 3, 2009

Mercy and Pity for the Church

Readings for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost include II Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

I notice that our Collect of the Day calls upon God to cleanse and defend the people of God, the Church, and, to do this, invokes the continual mercy of God. Of all the divine powers and attributes that could cleanse and defend us, it’s God’s mercy that we need most.

That rings true to what I know of the Church, an assembly of me’s and you’s whom God keeps twirling on the potter’s wheel to fashion into an us and a we, a usable vessel to serve God’s purposes in the world. To hold water to be poured, food to be served, treasure to be found, needs to be gathered, the alchemy of grace to be ignited.

But the Church’s me’s and you’s don’t always mix well, sometimes don’t play well together. We may not take the shape God needs to fashion, or hold the glaze, or survive the heat.

In the terms of today’s Gospel, we look for Jesus not so much because we’re ready and willing to be embraced and reshaped by his truth, but more because we’d like more, please, of something good he can give us. We’d like him to fill our little pots, not so much cause us to question what we want, or why.

We come prepared with many objects for prayer, many ways God may be useful to the me’s and you’s. But that we should be the objects of God’s will, useful to God in reconciling the world to God? We me’s and you’s have many projects in mind for God to do. But that we should be a project of God? Or just a vessel to serve the project of God?

Next to my Bible is my dictionary. Mercy: “Forbearance and compassion shown to a powerless person, especially an offender, or to one with no claim to receive kindness; kind and compassionate treatment in a case where severity is merited or expected.”

“Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church…”

That’s Rite II. In Rite I, a different word appears at that point in the collect. At our 8:00 eucharist this morning, we prayed, “O LORD, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church…” So the ten o’clockers get mercy, the eight o’clockers receive pity.

Pity: “Tenderness and concern aroused by the suffering and misfortune of another; compassion, sympathy.”

“O Lord, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church…”

Mercy and pity are the powers of God we hear at work in our scriptures today. With the psalmist, we prayed, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your lovingkindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.”

And the apostle writes from prison a letter to the Ephesians, counting on their pity to open themselves all the more to his exhortation and use their freedom to practice mercy within their fellowship: “Bear with one another in love, make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

An infamous failure of pity gets its comeuppance through the judicious use of a parable, the prophet Nathan craftily putting the pieces in place for David to convict himself of pitilessness. Even the hardest heart caves in, reaching for a tissue when Nathan talks about that precious baby ewe lamb that meant so much to a poor man that she ate from his own half-empty plate, drank from his cup, and slept in his bosom.

The second main human character in the parable isn’t fully human. Rich, he was unprincipled, unyielding, unfeeling. A guest comes to his home and this rich fellow doesn’t hesitate to serve him up a dinner of roast lamb—not his own lamb, the poor man’s one little ewe lamb.

“As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

“You are the man!” exclaims Nathan, upbraiding David for arranging the death of valiant Uriah, a distinguished infantry officer loyal to David, subservient to David, perplexing to David because (as we heard in last Sunday’s installment of “As David’s World Turns”) he couldn’t get Uriah to break wartime discipline and return to the bosom of his beautiful wife Bathsheba and so cover the inconvenience of her having in her womb David’s lust-child.

Who said that going to church in the summer isn’t exciting?

Speaking for God, Nathan lets David have it. “I anointed you king.. I rescued you from that paranoid Saul… I established you, and if all this had been too little, I would have done as much more—but my mercies have not been enough for you, have they? You chose not to imitate my mercy; now your choice will cause you trouble from within your own house.”

To which David replied, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Do you think?

But do we think? Do we recognize our own pitiless choices? And do we understand them as failures to imitate the mercy of God?

I can make a pitiless choice when I pre-judge a person’s motives instead of carefully listening, suspending judgment until I have learned what I cannot know any other way than by merciful listening.

I may make a pitiless choice when I have lived unmercifully within myself for a few hours or a few days and now, while I’m weary or anxious or snarly someone needs from me a patience or a wisdom that I will later realize that I truly owed them, but I am not open to giving it.

This is intimate stuff. Intensely personal are these powers of God, mercy and pity. In case you don’t like either of these words, their definitions have in common a word we may prefer: compassion.

God, by mercy, by pity, wills to shape and reshape the me’s and you’s of God’s people, forming of us a vessel that will hold the powerful love we are given, the love that creates an us, a we, a vessel of integrity that God may use to pour upon the world what is needed to sustain or transform it, help God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on one more small turf on earth as it is in heaven.

And while it’s fine (and accurate) to speak of God doing these things, the scriptures make clear, and our own experience makes clear, that God counts on us to deliver compassion in God’s name and in God’s Spirit.

So on the heels of the feeding of five thousand people, some of Jesus’s hearers understandably ask him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” To this he answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one whom God has sent.” This is intimate stuff, intensely personal. Unless we have this source of mercy, we will not learn to imitate this mercy or practice this compassion.

Or, as the apostle says, “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together…as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Okay, Lord. It’s a new week, starting today. Open us, we pray, to every encounter in which mercy or pity may be asked of us. And in each, open us, we pray, to you.