Text: Luke 4: 16-21; John 20:20-21
Some of you are familiar with writer Sue Monk Kidd, perhaps through her best-selling novel “The Secret Life of Bees.” She is a wonderful story-teller who writes fiction that is clearly drawn from a deep spiritual well. She’s also a former writer for Guideposts, an inspirational magazine found on the coffee tables of many conservative Christians, including the one in our home when I was growing up. Her ties to the magazine were severed during a painful journey toward a more open theology which she recounts in her poignant book Dance of the Dissident Daughter, published in 1996.
Ms. Kidd’s latest novel is entitled The Invention of Wings. It’s a fictionalized history of the famous Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who were born in Charleston, South Carolina in the 19th century. Theirs was a slave-owning family, yet the sisters became leading Quaker abolitionists prior to the Civil War. The tale has an “upstairs-downstairs” character like Downton Abbey as the story switches from the privileged Sarah Grimke’s voice to that of Handful, a family slave about Sarah’s age. The book opens with Handful’s description of her mother, a slave of course, whom she calls “Mauma” – M-A-U-M-A. In recounting Mauma’s painfully-acquired wisdom, Handful says this: “Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.” On this day when we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Community of the Cross of Nails, I want to suggest that we cannot truly be reconciling people until we learn some things about “the scarce side of mercy.”
The familiar texts I’ve chosen for this occasion are both “sending” stories from the gospels. The passage from Luke 4 describes the day Jesus got up in the synagogue and told his audience that he was sent by God to the poor. The verses in John come just before Jesus’ ascension when he appears in a room where his disciples have locked themselves in because of their fear. Jesus knows they are afraid and that persecution is indeed in their future. So he offers them his peace and his final instructions: “As God has sent me, so I am sending you.” In essence, he says, “I was sent to offer the poor good news, healing, freedom from oppression, and the advent of God’s day on earth. Now I’m sending you out into the world to do the same.” Luke 4 outlines the job description of Jesus and John 20 affirms that it is also ours.
If we take this job seriously, the work will necessarily take us to the scarce side of mercy. It will in fact require us to get in touch with the cruelty present in the lives of others. Now all of us have endured tough times at one point or another in our lives. So please don’t hear this sermon as minimizing the challenges some of us have faced. Life can be really tough and we’re often called upon to endure the dark days in silence, alone, out of the view of others, even those who love us. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” is a beloved spiritual because in some sense it’s true for each of us.
But as I’ve considered what it means to be partners in this worldwide network of reconciling people we call the Community of the Cross of Nails, I’ve become convinced that we can’t be true reconcilers without somehow being in touch with those to whom life has dealt a terrible hand. In general, we can’t be reconciling people if we can’t see another’s point of view. More specifically, as middle class citizens of the First World who bring our capitalistic, commercialized lens to everything whether we want to or not, our calling is to seek out those who are the victims of our empire. That’s where Jesus was sent and that’s where he’s sending us – to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the captive.
Mercy seems scarce in many places. One is described by Mitri Raheb in his new book Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes. There Mitri explains that long before its current distress, Palestine was a buffer zone and a battleground between empires. For most of its history, it has been occupied, but never in the way it is currently occupied by Israel. An Israeli who has settled on Palestinian land has access to four times the amount of water available to a Palestinian in the West Bank. Five million Palestinians are refugees who are not allowed to return home. Westerners like ourselves tend to view the Jews as victims, and indeed they have been. But today Israel is the seventh largest military power in the world with nuclear weapons and an advanced military industrial complex. For sure, the Palestinian side of this intractable conflict is not wholly innocent. But without a doubt, mercy seems very scarce in Palestinian refugee camps and we need to learn what that’s like. Otherwise we’re inclined to sit here safe and secure and naively wonder why the Jews and Palestinians can’t reconcile with one another.
Life is incredibly hard in so many places today. In Guinea, victims of ebola too often go home to die alone. We’ve had an influx of very young border-crossers recently because gangs and violence in their home countries make it impossible for them to grow up in safety. Girls in Afghanistan are kidnapped or threatened with stoning because they want to get an education. Rape is still a common weapon of war. Hard as it is, depressing as it is, we simply have to expose our hearts to the desperation in our world today or our calls for “reconciliation” are hollow.
As Erin said, one of CCN’s three major goals is “healing the wounds of history,” which may be the most difficult one to achieve. If someone burned your village or murdered your family, it’s pretty hard to heal those wounds and even harder not to pass them on to your children. This is especially true if it’s done by people who are different from you. Remember the song from South Pacific:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
you’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
The wounds are deep and the hatred is intense in many places where poverty, disease and violence are a way of life. Without pretending to know more than we can know as comfortable Americans, trying to comprehend these points of view is our calling.
One could argue that lawyers have a little edge up on this because one of the things they teach well in law school is how to see the other side of a dispute. It’s a helpful skill, for sure. But unless they turn into mediators, the reason most lawyers try to understand the other side’s perspective is so that they can anticipate their opponent’s arguments and counter them in order to win. It’s not, in most instances, in order to understand the other’s pain or to make it their own. And this doesn’t just apply to lawyers.
Yet Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero reminds us that “there are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” We don’t seek suffering, for sure, and yet the pain we feel often teaches us something about what others have experienced. Julius Lester, who chronicled life in the Old South in his book To Be a Slave, says it this way: “History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.” We learn how to be reconcilers when we somehow visit the scarce side of mercy – those places where life is incredibly hard and unfair in ways that go beyond what most of us can imagine.
I also think our reconciliation skills can be sharpened by recognizing that mercy is often scarce for some people because of us. We can be creators of the “scarce side of mercy” ourselves. One of the lessons life has taught me that when we like other people, which often means they agree with us, we typically give them the benefit of the doubt. When we don’t, we don’t give them an inch. At times we withhold our mercy by refusing to listen to the views of others or viewing ourselves as somehow superior. Our friend Dan Buttry, American Baptist Global Consultant for Peace and Justice, offers helpful insight here as he describes the two faces we all wear. As an example, he uses Slobodan Milosevic, the ruthless Serbian politician responsible for thousands of deaths through ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia. Most would agree that Milosevic is an example of someone who truly represents the face of evil. But our faith teaches us that he, even he, is also the image of God. He’s both and that’s hard for us to accept. Yet violence grows, Dan argues, when we rip these two images apart and someone like Milosevic (or a certain politician?) becomes only the face of evil and we understand ourselves, our country, our party, or simply people like us as the image of God.
“Once we have separated the image of God and the face of evil, and we have slapped the label of evil upon our enemy, what are we left with?” asks Dan. “Why, we are left with the image of God. We are righteous in what we do. Because of the evil of the other, we are justified in the violence we do against the enemy (even if the violence is only hateful thoughts). Thus I have removed the humility that comes with seeing my own propensity to evil, and what I’m left with is the arrogance of playing God. . . We can pull out the tangled roots of violence only when we all recognize the other side’s suffering and our own complicity in evil. When we have learned the humility of bringing together those two labels, the image of God and the face of evil, both for ourselves and for our enemies,” says Dan, “then we restore our full humanity.” This means every time we create an opportunity for people to understand the suffering and pain of others, we promote reconciliation and ultimately the redemption of the world.
Our participation in the Community of the Cross of Nails for the last 37 of its 40 years reflects the desire of this congregation to be a reconciling presence. Of our five international partnerships, CCN is the trickiest to understand. It’s not like Cuba or the Republic of Georgia where we have a partner church or Nicaragua where we have a partner nonprofit or Zimbabwe where we have a seminary partner. The focus is not what’s going on in Coventry, but what we are doing here. We go to Coventry and stand with our CCN partners in the haunting ruins of the bombed out cathedral to be inspired. We are awed as we remember that in 1940 in the midst of death and destruction, a faithful pastor said, “Father, forgive.” We stand within the walls of the old cathedral with the sky as the ceiling and we ask ourselves if we would have been so gracious, so loving in the face of evil. Provost Howard’s response could have been a momentary platitude that sounded good then but means nothing today almost 75 years later. Instead we are partners with reconciling people all over the world – in Ukraine and South Africa, in Poland and India, and, most importantly, in Germany. We do this not because dozens of Pullenites have been to Coventry, but because of what they do when they get home – because of the ongoing life and ministry of this community day in and day out, year in and year out.
It’s important to note that Provost Howard did not say, “Father, forgive them” as Jesus did. He said, “Father, forgive” in full recognition that we are all in need of forgiveness because we all bear both the potential for good and for evil. This admission requires a large dose of humility, which is not a common American trait. And it’s certainly not what many of us are feeling on the heels of a painful election. But there is no reconciliation without humility, without an admission that our lives are not the center of the universe and that others bear tremendous burdens which impact who they are and who their children will become. Their pain is real and their wounds are deep.
Closer to home, be aware that Mennonite conflict resolution practitioners speak of conflict as “holy ground.” In these days, that’s tough to believe because it means we have to think about the relentless negativity we’ve seen on television recently as holy ground. The eternal wrangling in Congress is holy ground. Hard conversations with differently-thinking family members are holy ground. Even the conflicted emotions we often feel inside ourselves are holy ground.
Theologian Gail O’Day reminds us that as he stood in the synagogue in his hometown, Jesus declared the radical inclusiveness of God’s mercy. In so doing, he was bearing witness to the identity of God. Human beings may be instruments of God’s grace for others, she says, but we are never allowed to set limits on who may receive that grace. Throughout history, the gospel has always been more radically inclusive than humans can imagine so we continually struggle for a breadth of love and acceptance that more nearly approximates the extravagance of God’s love.
God’s mercy is radially inclusive. Many people live on the scarce side of mercy. Can both of these statements be true? I believe they are. And I think it’s because we have not believed and absorbed God’s incredible love, which means we aren’t fully able to share it with others and be true reconcilers in the midst of conflict.
So we need to learn about the desperate lives of our sisters and brothers. We also need to examine our hearts to be sure we’re not withholding mercy because we believe we are better than others. Both of these are hard to do. Both can be painfully revealing. But if we’ve been sent by Jesus, they’re in the job description. Reconciliation is part of our job and it will make mercy a little less scarce in our troubled world.