The Power(s) of Mercy

portia and shylock

Portia (as the Lawyer) tells Shylock that he should show mercy.

A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 7, 2014.  The lectionary readings are Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, and Matthew 18:15-20.

I would imagine that most of you are familiar with the recent trend called the “ice bucket challenge.” The effort is meant to raise awareness (and money) for research to find a cure for ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In the ice bucket challenge, people make videos of themselves and challenge others to send money and/or throw a bucket of cold ice of themselves. On the internet there are videos of famous people and ordinary people, of church organists (including our own) and Irish nuns, and all kinds of people being silly for a good cause.

The videos and the effort reminded me of how many of us first came to know a little about Lou Gehrig’s Disease: It was through the book written a few years ago by Mitch Albom called, Tuesdays with Morrie. In that book, Albom recounts his weekly meetings with a former professor and mentor who was then dying of ALS. The conversations become a kind of primer for life, but especially near the end, there’s one Tuesday that really stood out for Albom.

On this particular day, Morrie Schwartz tells about how, years earlier, one of Morrie’s closest friends moved to Chicago. Soon thereafter, Morrie’s wife had to undergo a serious operation. Norman, this friend who had moved away, never called. He never wrote, he never did anything. And so, filled with anger, with disappointment, with resentment, Morrie dropped the friend. But it wasn’t too long afterwards that this friend died, as well.

In his Tuesday discussion with Mitch, Morrie Schwartz talks about the weight of his anger towards his friend. That anger weighed a ton. It was burden on Morrie. It slowed him down. It changed him. It kept him from moving on. There was the weight of the actual anger, but then compounding that was the regret at having been outwardly angry at the friend, and never being able to resolve the situation.

 

It had eaten at him and taken far too much time and worry and energy. Morrie remembers all of that and says to his friend, “We cannot live in the past… it will consume us. We cannot live in regret.” And then he says, simply, “Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others.” Though Morrie Schwartz was not preaching on today’s Gospel, he easily could have been.

A couple of weeks ago we read of Saint Peter’s encounter with Jesus in which Peter is proclaimed the rock on whom Jesus will build the church. Jesus then gives Peter what he calls the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and in today’s Gospel Jesus goes on to explain what these “keys” really are.

“Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven,” Jesus says. “And whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, this power of binding and loosing, is the power of having keys, of being able to keeps something locked up, or to unlock it and let it be loose, free and fully alive.

This power to bind and to loose belongs not only to Peter. Peter hands this power on to the early church community, made clear in today’s Gospel. Today’s Gospel comes out of a community wrestling with this power. The Gospel of Matthew is thought to have been written somewhere between 50 and 100 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus didn’t talk about casting people out of the community. He didn’t equate difficult or sinful Christians with “Gentiles and tax collectors.” Remember, he went out of his way to include Gentiles and tax collectors and prostitutes and outcasts of all kinds. What we hear in Matthew is Matthew’s church community struggling with itself, trying to understand how to maintain relationships, how to live with each other, and how to confront each other and forgive each other.

What developed was the tradition of the victim confronting the person who has offended or done wrong. If that doesn’t work, then take a couple of others with you. If the person still does not address the wrong she or he has done, then you tell the whole church, and if the person still doesn’t repent, she or he is put out of the church. We recall this tradition of repentance and reintegration into the full life of the church every Ash Wednesday, as we begin the season of Lent. The Prayer Book reminds us that Lent is a time for preparing new converts for Holy Baptism, but also, when those who, “because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church” (BCP 265).

It is in that context, the context of owning the power of forgiveness, that Matthew’s Christian community remembers the words Jesus spoke to his disciples, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The power to loose, to set another person free from guilt, from worry, from fear—this power clearly does good for the person who is separated or feels cut off or left out. We have all probably had times when we felt like the prodigal son or daughter, first who feels like a stranger and an outcast, but eventually (inexplicably) we are welcomed home. The power of forgives works wonders on the person forgiven, but it also sets loose the one who is able to forgive, or accept, or welcome.

Those who study connections between mind, body, and spirit are telling us how anger and resentment affect the body. Not only do they contribute to the obvious problems of high blood pressure and heart problems, but anger “bound up” seems to contribute to depression, addiction, and some studies are showing connections with other conditions such as arthritis and even some allergies. To forgive, or to move a little in the direction of forgiveness, begins to loose some of this anger, resentment, or whatever it is that has built up deep inside. The release of anger and resentment (through meditation, through prayer, through mindful exercise) helps us to live healthy and holy lives.

As the Church, we gently hold onto this power to loosen and to heal. The Church gives us prayer, We have the saints to teach us and show us how to forgive. We have the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which many call simply “confession.” We confess and are unburdened and freed, but a part of what we can confess includes the anger and resentment and the other ways in which we keep people bound up in us, with us, to us.

And we have the Holy Eucharist—this meal of forgiveness, in which we drink new wine and eat new bread, symbols of our being re-made into new bodies of Christ to extend the message “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).

In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock demands a pound of flesh from Antonio, who owes him three thousand ducats and can’t pay. Lady Portia, posing as a lawyer, tries to talk Shylock out of his vengeance. A part of her argument is subtle, but powerful (because it points to truth.) She says that Shylock should show mercy. Shylock asks, “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.” Portia replies simply, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” [Merchant of Venice, 4.1.175-176].

Mercy is not “strained.” It’s not forced, it’s not going to be demanded of you. You don’t have to do it. But the one who shows mercy, who forgives, who unloosens and unbinds… that one sets loose also a double blessing.

I don’t know which is more powerful or more healing: to say with conviction and faith and hope and love, “I forgive.” Or to say with all belief in a God who loves us beyond our wildest imagining, “I am forgiven.” But through prayer, through the liturgies of the church, through the quiet wrestlings of our consciences, our Risen Lord whispers those words into our ear, and prays that we might hear them, live them, and carry them in our heart. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we are forgiven, and we have the grace and power to forgive. Thanks be to God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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