“Faith Formation Amidst Covid 19: Mercy” (1 of 4)
Rom 11:1-2a, 29-32 ~ Rev. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ August 16, 2020
Feeling rejected? Feeling afraid? Feeling alone? As we continue into this new way of being church; as we continue into this new way of being a community; as we continue into this new of being a world these feelings are among those many are experiencing: feelings of rejection, fear, and loneliness. Do you know that our last ‘in-person’ gathering for worship (as if we knew of any other way to worship) was back in March 8th? It is over 5 months ago that we last gathered communally for worship, for study groups, for fellowship opportunities. Do you remember those ‘good old days’? Handshakes, smiles, and hugs at the door, rather than social distancing protocol; seeing one another’s faces, rather than viewing them with a mask. These have, indeed, been challenging days for all of us and we have seen a range of responses. Some have responded with incredible generosity and others with horrible greed. One frame that I have seen increasingly being presented has been the comparison of today’s challenging times to those experienced during the Spanish flu a century ago, or during wartime, or during the Great Depression. These comparisons seek to offer us a broader perspective on our suffering today calling us an ‘entitled society’, calling us to ‘suck it up’ as our previous generations have faithfully endured in even harder times. And this morning, I would like for us, and over the coming few weeks, to begin a spiritual assessment of where we are and how we will move forward. I guess that is what happens when you are gifted with some holiday time: you have time to think, gain perspective, assess and ponder.
So, where to begin? I would like to begin with a first step that counters this growing condemnation of our feeling of entitlement; calling for us to ‘suck it up’ as our predecessors have endured even worse. What I would like for us to begin with on this first week is a focus on mercy. Yes…others have had difficult times…more difficult, indeed. Yet, what we are experiencing is very challenging, it is very difficult, and it is very painful in and of itself. I believe our analysis of where we are at, and where we shall go from here requires a deep mercy that understands this reality of our feelings of pain, suffering and fear. Our theological guide over these coming weeks for this journey will be Paul’s writings in the letter to the Roman church. Romans is often referred to as Paul’s “magnum opus” of all his letters. How could it not be as Paul writes to the small community of believers in the heart of Roman territory…in Rome! And Paul begins this morning by offering mercy. Paul does not remind them of how challenging the times were in the slavery days of Egypt or Assyria or Babylon. This morning’s text is one which outlines a God who is one of mercy. He begins “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” Even in their pain, even in their suffering, even in their feelings of being alone and rejected, God has not rejected us! By no means!!!
Paul’s words of assurance, ‘By no means!’, were not written amidst a pandemic. They were, however, written during some very challenging times. They were written amidst a communal debate over which part were beloved by God. Among Paul’s community were Jews, believers who lived under the covenant of Abraham and now had come to follow Jesus. There was also a second group. There were Gentiles, believers who also followed Jesus but did not have a Jewish background. The debate in the community here was over who God’s love included: did God’s love extend only to Jewish believers who followed Jesus as the promised Messiah ~ or ~ did God’s love further extend to those new believers who had come to follow Jesus. Jews? Or Jews and Gentiles? Paul’s response was one that revealed the deep mercy of God’s gracious love: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! Paul’s conviction to God’s mercy does not only occur in this section to the Roman church, it occurs in three sections throughout this letter. Do you feel rejected ~ By no means! Do you feel alone…by no means! Do you feel afraid…by no means!
Now, in the coming weeks, we will consider ways for faithful living amidst these times and hopefully we will further tune our own spiritual compasses as we forge ahead in these covid 19 days, but I want us to stay this morning on this important concept of mercy. If we are too quick to jump ahead to solutions and deny the painful realities of what we are dealing with, we will miss the importance of hearing our hearts speaking and of hearing the pains of others around us. One of the biblical images that comes to my mind is Jesus’ teaching of the loving father in Luke 15. In the parable of the lost son who has brashly asked for his inheritance before his father’s death, wasted it all away in a foreign land and has this deep epiphany of mercy. As the son is there eating the pigs’ slop, he knows in his heart the love and mercy his father would still have for him. The son journeys home, prepared to ask to be among the servants, and finds a father who celebrates. For the son who had been lost for so long has finally come home. The son does not meet the judgement of the father. He meets mercy, he meets love, he meets grace. Has God given up on us? By no means.
This is the way God’s self-revelation in which Jesus comes to us. Long before Luke tells that story, the gospel writer names Jesus’ arrival as…‘Emmanuel’ ~ which means ‘God with us’. God’s mercy with us, God’s love with us, God’s grace with us. I have been working with two families for funeral plans in the coming month. And while we are a long way from finding comfort through communal singing, I find that great church hymn by George Matheson singing in my head as I think of these families. “O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go” is a hymn of God’s sustaining mercies. You know the song…O live that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee; I give thee back the life I owe, that in thy ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be”. In the pains and the uncertainties, in the turbulent seas of life, we can trust that God’s mercy and love is with us. Has God given up on us? By no means!
This adoption of mercy needs to be among the spiritual foundation of how we live, for we do not know another’s pains, we do not know their suffering. We must, as God does, show mercy. Modern wisdom shows the transformational power of mercy. Andrew Lloyd Webers’ musical Les Miserables presents the story of a hardened prisoner of 19 years, Jean Valean. His sentence was for his crime of theft. He stole bread to feed his starving niece. Upon his release, we see a hardened prisoner who is consumed with rage. He next finds himself on the doorstep of the bishop who invites him to the stay the night. In the morning, Valjean’s rage tempts him to steal a set of silver candlestick holders from the Bishop’s home. Once again arrested by the police, Valjean is taken to the Bishop who dispenses, not vengeance, but rather mercy. “The candlesticks were my gift to Jean. They are his officers”. That moment of mercy becomes the beginning point for Valjean to face the darkness of his own life, to determine how he will live in the days ahead. Mercy is essential; mercy is transformational; mercy received and mercy offered is a gift from God that allows us to live deep, rich and full lives.
Now…we have a lot of conversations ahead that the Apostle Paul will lead us through as we continue through his letter to the Romans. We will discover that Covid 19 faith does not end with mercy, but I would like to suggest that it begins with it. God’s way is mercy. God’s followers live with mercy. Can you have mercy with yourself in these hard times? Can you have mercy with others in their struggles? Can you adopt a deep posture of merciful care and listening to the times in which we live? This shojld be our beginning point that leads to spiritual health. As our modern-day ‘saint’ here in BC, Dr. Bonnie Henry continues to remind us in the conclusion of all of her communications: “Be kind. Be calm. Be safe”. Mercy is the way of God. Mercy is the way of God’s people who seek life. Mercy.
Last week, we were blessed with the leadership of Rev. Gabrielle Seudfeld who masterfully unpacked the story of Joseph in her sermon “Just One Big Happy Family”, and the conclusion of the story is the Hebrew lection for this morning. Given that the narrative of Joseph is among the longest in the entire Bible, it further serves to highlight the importance of mercy in God’s nature and how we are to live mercifully as children of God. After all the wrongs done unto Joseph, he concludes the story by what? He concludes by offering mercy to his brothers. The stories finishes with Joseph’s merciful words: “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:20)