Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinityadmin | 23 August 2009
“God be merciful to me, a sinner”
God’s “almighty power,” today’s Collect avers, is declared “most chiefly in showing mercy and pity.” Think about how radical a statement that is! It, quite literally, turns the world on its head. It, quite literally, inverts the power dynamic of human lives politically, ecclesiastically, institutionally. God’s power is shown “most chiefly” in the acts of mercy and pity. This is the remarkable counter to the power politics of every age.
But mercy also shapes a world and a culture, something which Shakespeare knew. Mercy, he has Portia declaim in his play, The Merchant of Venice, is “mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes/ the thronèd monarch better than his crown.” Temporal power is one thing – something we encounter every day. It is wielded by kings, CEOs and bishops, politicians and tyrants, priests and police. It is signaled in the symbols and emblems of power; for instance, crown and scepter, mitre and staff. “But mercy,” she points out, “is above this sceptered sway.” Divine mercy is greater than all the panoply and machinations of human power. Portia makes the wonderful point that it is to be “enthronèd in the hearts of kings,” meaning that it is a necessary quality for what it means to be a good ruler. Why? Because, as she says, “it is an attribute to God himself.” Mercy has a divine quality. Her final point is the great teaching that our collect along with the scripture readings suggests. “Earthly power doth then show likest God’s/When mercy seasons justice.”
Mercy seasons justice. In other words, mercy perfects justice. When we forget this fundamental aspect of the Christian faith, we are worse than the worst and pervert justice itself. The task of the Church is to proclaim mercy as the fundamental principle for our lives precisely out of an awareness of the limits of human justice and out of an awareness of human sin.
Jesus’ parable is straightforward and powerfully clear about the absolute priority of mercy. Ultimately, mercy is itself a higher form of justice. God’s justice stands in stark contrast to the pretensions of human justice. The parable is told “unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” Nothing could be clearer. They “trusted in themselves.” They were self-righteous. I think we can all appreciate how ugly self-righteousness can be. And not only that, they “despised others.” Such is the deadly nature of pride that cuts us off from God and from one another. Self-promotion but through the degradation of others!
Can righteousness be something that we possess of ourselves? Once again, Shakespeare has Portia make the point to Shylock, who is seeking revenge under the guise of justice, that we all stand in need of mercy. “There is none that doeth good, no, not one” as the Psalmist, too, has put it. “Though justice be thy plea, consider this:” Portia says to him, “That in the course of justice none of us/Should see salvation.” This insight impels a different outlook and behaviour. It conditions prayer itself. “We do pray for mercy,/And that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.” “Be ye merciful even as your Father in heaven is merciful,” as Jesus puts it elsewhere in Luke’s gospel.
The parable uses prayer itself as the illustration for the movement of mercy in our hearts. The proud Pharisee is said, in a marvelous statement, to have “stood and prayed thus with himself.” The parable allows us to know his thoughts. The point is that his prayer is no prayer. It is merely a recital of his sense of his own worth, an example of prideful boasting! It is all him and no God. Notice, too, that his ‘prayer’ is totally at the expense of others, especially “this Publican,” meaning here a tax-collector, a particularly despised occupation in the Israel of Jesus’ day, and, for that matter, any day. And yet, the Pharisee stands in an even starker contrast to the Publican, For the prayer of the Publican is the prayer of the humble which always open to the mercy of God. His prayer is not the recital of his talents and abilities while putting down others but the simple request for mercy. “God be merciful to me a sinner.” There is something wonderfully honest and freeing about such a self-acknowledgement.
Have you ever noticed how our liturgy constantly recalls us to mercy? Not, I think, in a groveling, overly self-referential way, which is really about a form of pride where the focus is on ourselves, like so many Uriah Heaps saying loudly, “be they ever so humble, there’s none so humble as I.” No. True prayer is simply about our honest and true openness to what is greater than ourselves and which we seek for ourselves and for others. It creates a community, a restored community, where justice is more than justice though not less than justice. In Shakespeare’s play, there is an intended reconciliation of all the divided elements of the play such as family, state, religion and economic life, albeit in ways that might be a tad disquieting in relation to our contemporary sensibilities. Yet, the point is that mercy has this divine quality that overcomes divisions and seeks to effect a principled unity and reconciliation.
The paradox of the parable, of course, is that the humble are exalted, meaning, raised up, while the self-exalted, those who are puffed up with themselves, are abased, put down. It is the Publican whom Jesus says returns to his home “justified,” right with God and man, we might say. Such is the paradox of grace, the paradox of justice and mercy.
It stands the world on its head. Not because it empties justice of its truth and meaning but because it perfects justice. It becomes a form of participation in the divine life itself. Human power shows itself most like God’s power through mercy. That mercy is the movement of divine grace in the human soul.
Paul understands this. His epistle is the living illustration of the parable. He describes himself as “the least of the Apostles” and says why: he has “persecuted the Church of God.” He is not calling attention to himself but to the power of God’s grace as being something greater than his own self-will and which has made him this ‘unworthy apostle’, but an apostle nonetheless and one who has “labored more abundantly than they all.” Is that boasting? Actually the labours of Paul can hardly be denied by he is saying this is about God’s grace, not him. The point is that he is what he is “by the grace of God.” Paul does not pretend to be the modern self-made man, beating his chest like Shelley’s Ozymandias and saying “look on my works ye mighty and despair.” No. He acknowledges the power of God’s grace to convert and perfect human lives. He allows himself to be the image of God’s revealing and perfecting grace, the living illustration of how the power of God is shown most chiefly in mercy and pity.
We have, I fear, lost much of this sensibility. Yet there it is to be recalled. It remains for us to proclaim it and to live in the joyous mercy of God towards us in Jesus Christ. The Publican’s prayer is to be our constant prayer, the prayer for mercy that leads to acts of mercy and kindness, commitment and service. We stand in only upon that which we have received and which has been declared to us. We are to be what we believe. And Paul, once again, gives us a kind of creedal account of the essentials of the Faith, focusing on the humility of Christ in his death and resurrection. It, too, is all mercy and grace. Christ is the mercy whose life and sacrifice have been made known to us. What is made known is to be lived. We are to be open in prayer to the grace which God has made known to us in Jesus Christ.
We are what we are only by the grace of God. Our prayer, like that of the Publican, is the honest recognition of the priority of God’s grace in our lives.
“God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Fr. David Curry,
Trinity XI, ’09,
Christ Church, Windsor
& St. George’s, Falmouth