By Ellen Sims
Text: Luke 9: 1-13
Did anyone else have an aunt or grandmother whose exclamation of surprise or disgust or distress was “lawdamercy” or, as my Aunt Margie sometimes said, simply, “Mercy!”? She was praying a shortened version what is known by many as “the Jesus prayer.”
This morning we’ve sung several versions of this early Christian prayer. We’ve sung it in English and in Greek. In its entirety, that brief prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” A shorter version: “Lord, have mercy.”
It’s a wonderful prayer to pray when you have little information about a concern that’s on your mind. You hear, for instance, the siren of an ambulance—and though you don’t know the situation, you can find a place of compassion in your heart and simply breathe out, “Lord, have mercy.”
But I’m bothered that this beloved prayer sounds as if a poor soul has to plead with Jesus to be granted mercy. So I sometimes shift the verb from the imperative mood to the indicative. Instead of “Lord, have mercy,” I prefer to pray, “The Lord has mercy”—to affirm God’s mercy instead of beg for it. I choose to trust in God’s mercy and hope that I can live in ways that allow me to share God’s mercy. Because the God I’ve glimpse in Jesus IS merciful–though the world can present evidence to the contrary.
To be honest, in times of anguish and desperation, I have begged God’s mercy. I know what it feels like to plead. To “please, please, please help him” and “please heal her.” However, what sounds like begging may not be. When a parent rushes a child to the hospital and pleads with the doctor to save that child, the parent doesn’t believe the doctor is reluctant to help and must be convinced. Instead, she’s expressing her own panic and need. “Save her,” a mother might cry out to the doctor who, of course, needs no such appeal to do his or her utmost. So the spirit of the Jesus prayer is based on trust, not doubt, in God’s mercy. That’s how I understand such a prayer.
Of course, the Bible itself triggers two almost unavoidable theological questions about God’s mercy. If God is indeed loving, caring, merciful:
1. Why do bad things happen to good people?
2. Why did the cross in particular happen to Jesus in particular?
There’s a name for the first: It’s called the theodicy question. Like poor, suffering Job, we presume the universe has, or should have, an orientation toward fairness and mercy. People who believe in God to some degree or another, believe God (being/force/prompter/movement) causes or at least affects things—though maybe not everything. So if God is both powerful and merciful, why does suffering exist?
There’s a name for the second question: soteriology. It’s a term theologians use to explain the purpose of Jesus’s life and death. Early Jesus followers, devastated by the cruel and underserved death of their lord, tried to make sense of the horror. Over centuries, Christian soteriology developed to explain what good, if any, came out of Jesus’s death. To make sense of that merciless death, Christians began to speak about the way God brought something good out of that tragedy, brought salvation to humanity through or in spite of that cruel death. Soteriology explains how Jesus saves us—and from what.
These two questions continue to generate many answers—but no final, definitive answer that satisfies everyone. We’ll have to save the soteriology question for another time. The theodicy question is raised in today’s Gospel lection, so we return to the story:
Jesus’s teaching was interrupted when someone in the crowd reported the horrific murder of some Galileans. Slain by Pilate’s order, they were killed, ironically, just after making sacrifices to God in the Temple. Apparently the crowd assumed the victims, though seemingly devout, must have displeased God, done something to deserve their cruel fate. Like first century Pat Robertsons, the crowd needed to feel the world was a predictable place where God protects good people and zaps the bad with hurricanes, earthquakes, or tyrants. But Jesus refuted that persistent doctrine. He denied the conventional explanation, saying: “If you think they suffered because they were worse sinners than any other Galileans, you’re wrong. And those 18 killed recently when a tower fell on them? They weren’t being punished by God either. God doesn’t work that way.”
As on another occasion when the disciples asked Jesus what sin the blind man’s parents committed to cost their son his sight, Jesus was quite clear that his God was not the zapping God. God did not cause suffering. Well, how can that be? we persist, not ready to let God off the hook. Isn’t God all powerful and thus responsible? How can any suffering exist if God exists and is both omnipotent and benevolent? How can Jesus be “savior” if he can’t save us from suffering—couldn’t even save himself?
Some claim to have found satisfying explanations for holding together three competing but widely held assumptions:
God has unlimited power.
God has unlimited mercy.
Humanity experiences suffering.
Maybe you’ve found a way to hang onto all three of these beliefs. Free will for humanity is an idea that helps us accommodate some of the contradiction we see when human suffering exists in the presence of a caring and powerful God–but not all suffering can be blamed on human action. Evolutionary theology describes if not explains God as a trajectory toward life and diversity and connection, which inevitably entails the chance and risk of suffering. But the God I meet in Jesus emphasizes God’s compassion and acknowledges the world’s suffering while questioning if God is powerful, at least in the traditional sense. In Jesus we see Love as willingly vulnerable. A compassionate God, therefore, suffers with creation. The God whose power is love is not a puppeteer who manipulates people and events. The God of compassion (a word which literally means to suffer with) endures the cross rather than employ violence.
Each of us must ultimately create our own path of understanding through times of suffering. But Jesus rejected the kind of power that controls people or events. The God I see as Jesus refused the devil’s lure of power at the start off his ministry and who later compared himself to a mother hen protecting her chicks with her own vulnerable body is a not a God who loves power but a God whose power is love. Each Lent, as I journey with Jesus to the cross, I’m re-convinced that the God of power and control must die there so the God of vulnerable love can be lifted up.
Love never works by force or coercion. Love operates by invitation, vulnerability, attraction, openness, risk, unconditional giving of self. God is Love. The season of Lent prepares us to see our Love of Power crucified and the Power of Love come to life at Easter. I’m learning to love and trust a different God. Whom Jesus knew intimately. I’m learning to trust that love is the strongest power.
A healthy theology will prevent us from being in denial about real suffering—or glorifying suffering through a religion that exalts the cross as God’s aim rather than evil’s consequence. A healthy theology doesn’t promise you will never have to suffer. It doesn’t promise prosperity and good fortune if you give to the church or your favorite televangelist. A healthy theology doesn’t offer simple answers. In fact, it prefers ambiguous stories.
Like the story of the fig tree. Although the crowd hoped Jesus would explain who was responsible for two recent public tragedies, he launched into a story about a fig tree, of all things. A man wanted to cut down his fig tree that had not, after three years, produced fruit yet. But the gardener stayed his hand, hoping that next season the tree might yield figs. Interestingly, the story doesn’t tell us if the fig tree did produce figs the next year. The story just tells us there’s that hope. And hope allows us to be merciful.
A friend has betrayed your trust and you consider cutting all ties. But you have hope the relationship can be mended and trust reestablished. You decide to be merciful. You decide to wait a little longer to see if this friendship can again bear good fruit. Not indefinitely. But you don’t cut off ties immediately.
A whole group of people are labeled dangerous by our society because a few are linked to terrorist acts. But you have hope that the few don’t represent the entire group. You decide to be merciful. You decide to wait a little longer to see the fruits of individuals who might have been misjudged.
The church of your childhood left you wounded, and for a long time you considered that part of you dead. But you have hope that your spiritual life can be renewed, that faith can become authentic, that a faith community might be trustworthy. You decide to wait a little longer before completely giving up on church.
We’re tempted at times to give up on important relationships, on people different from us. We’re even tempted to give up on God. Because we don’t want to be hurt. But Jesus asks us to be merciful to others and to ourselves.
We don’t have to understand the cosmic cause of suffering to have some role in preventing or ending harm. We who follow Jesus speak out, even for those who seem to be just taking up space in the garden. We try to stay the hand of those quick to give up on hope and we plead: “One more season.” Then we help to tend the garden because figs may grow at last from an immature tree.
We can’t use God’s mercy in ways that blind us to the consequences of our choices and excuse the harm we do–as Kate Campbell’s song “Terrible Mercy” suggests.
The Gardener of Life says to each of us, “Wait another season.” The season of Lent leads to Easter, which we’ll celebrate this year by turning this chapel into a veritable garden. Don’t give up yet. Maybe here you will have the chance to bloom, to grow, to heal from sorrow, and perhaps even to meet a new God.
PRAYER: Merciful God, there are hurts that are buried deep within; there is suffering spread across the face of the earth. May we know your love in times of hurt and feel your presence in the midst of pain. Give us hope beyond life’s sorrows. Mercy, Lord. Have mercy.