Sunday, March 04, 2007

God's unending mercy

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent.

The collect of the day expresses it well, the glory of God is his unending mercy. That is the significance of the cross. That is the message of Lent.

Mercy is a common human need. We all feel deep down the need for mercy. Perhaps that is why divine clemency is so often a part of religious myth. Consider for a moment the religion of the ancient Egyptians. Though the Egyptians were renown for their power and sophistication, one of the greatest gifts of the gods was mercy. Of the compassionate Osiris it was said, “His heart is in every wound.” It was believed by the Egyptians that all deities could give life by weeping, that their tears were endowed with the vitalizing power that is the essence of life itself.

Though not all religions gave such prominence to mercy, it seems that most religious people did, and did so instinctively. Among the many forms of worship that flourished at Athens, there was an altar that stood alone, conspicuous and honored above all others. Devout people thronged around it, even though no image of a god was there. Instead, the altar was dedicated to “pity” and was venerated through all the ancient world as one of the first great assertions among humanity of the supreme sanctity of Mercy.

Perhaps the earliest connection between mercy and holiness is the description of God’s mercy throughout the Hebrew Bible. From the garden of Eden and the story of our first parents, the biblical story has been the story of God’s mercy. God had mercy upon Adam and Eve, upon their son Cain. Mercy means giving someone better than what they deserve, and in the human story, that has usually meant not only forgiveness, but a chance at a new beginning.

God’s mercy means new beginnings, as when God showered his mercy upon Noah and his family. God’s merciful love called Abraham to be the father of a people who would be bound to God in a covenant of mercy. That mercy would extend through Abraham, Issac, Jacob, through the nation of Israel, and through their merciful servant messiah named Jesus.

The English word for mercy (as both an action and an instinctive reaction) actually encompasses several terms and ideas in the Bible. It is the word for compassion—an act of sharing the feelings of others. Mercy is often the translation for the Hebrew “Hesed” which refers to God’s faithfulness and goodness, his long-suffering loving-kindness.

This is the kind of God we worship—a merciful God, slow to anger and of great kindness. He rules his people from a throne of mercy, from the “mercy seat” over the ark of the covenant—that ark which contained not merely his will written on tablets of stone, but also the blossomed priestly staff of Aaron and a jar of manna—signs of God’s blessings and merciful loving-kindness in the wilderness.

The incarnate Lord reigns in his triumph on the cross, wearing a crown of thorns, looking down on his people in mercy, saying, “Father, forgive them,” and longing for them to accept mercy. Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem in today’s gospel reading is a painful reminder that mercy offered is not always mercy received, and by its very nature mercy cannot be forced.

You can feel the trauma in his heart at the question, “Lord, will only a few be saved.” The thought breaks his heart. He doesn’t answer directly, instead telling them to make sure they take advantage of the gift of mercy while they are able. A merciful heart longs for healing, kindness and reconciliation, but is pained by the fact that such gifts may never be willingly received. His lament over Jerusalem is a prayer made with a trembling voice and his gaze is made through teary eyes. “Oh, Jerusalem. How often I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were just not willing!”

Are you willing? Are you willing to be gathered close to the heart of Jesus? Are you willing to give up your sinful ways, to turn from evil temptations, and fall into the arms of a merciful savior?

The sacraments, as channels of divine grace, have been called “fountains of mercy.” They are available to you without cost, and contain mercies without number. The cleansing power of water and spirit is offered to all in holy Baptism. The warming touch of Jesus’ hands and the healing power of God’s love is given freely to those in need in the Anointing of the Sick. The compassionate ear and gentle embrace of a heavenly Father is available to sinners in sacramental confession.

The body, soul, and divinity of the incarnate Son of God is available to you right here at this altar. Communion with God, a partaking of the divine nature, a share in the sacrifice which brings salvation to the world, is offered to us at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Are you willing to receive the mercy that God offers to you?

Fulton Sheen often told a story he experienced about God’s “Fountain of Mercy” He said:

A woman wrote to me about her brother, saying that he was dying in a hospital and that he had been away from the sacraments for about thirty years. She said he led not just a bad life, but he was an evil man. He did much to corrupt youth and circulated all manner of evil pamphlets among the young to destroy both faith and morals. His sister said that about twenty priests had called on him, and he threw them all out of the hospital room.

“So, will you please go to see my brother,” she asked me? Last-resort Sheen they call me, I visited him this particular night, and stayed about five seconds. I fared no better than anyone else. But instead of making just one visit, I made forty. For forty straight nights, I went to see this man. The second night, I stayed ten or fifteen seconds. I increased my visits by several seconds every night. At the end of the month, I was spending ten to fifteen minutes with him.

I never once broached the subject of his soul until the fortieth night. That night I brought with me the Blessed Sacrament and the holy oils, and I said to him: “William, you are going to die tonight.”

He said, “I know it.” I said “I’m sure you want to make your peace with God tonight.” He replied, “I do not. Get out!” I said, “I’m not alone.” “Who is with you?” he asked. “I brought the good Lord along. Do you want him to get out, too?” He said nothing. So, I knelt down alongside of his bed for about fifteen minutes because I had the Blessed Sacrament with me.

After the prayer, I again said: “William, I’m sure you want to make your peace with God before you die.” He refused and started screaming for the nurse. So, in order to stop him, I ran to the door as if I were going to leave. Then, I quickly came back. I put my head down alongside of his face on the pillow, and I said: “Just one thing, William. Promise me, before you die tonight you will say, ‘My Jesus, mercy!’”

“I will not! Get out.” I had to leave. I told the nurse that if he wanted me during the night, I would come back. About four o'clock in the morning, the nurse called and said he had just died. I asked her how he died.

“Well...about a minute after you left, he began saying: ‘My Jesus, Mercy’ and he never stopped saying it until he died.” There was nothing in me that influenced him. Here was a divine invasion upon someone who had the faith once and lost it.

May each of us this Lent experience a divine invasion of God’s mercy. Amen.

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