Today’s Gospel passage addresses the question of how we show up, for each other and in the world. This text seeks to guide us in creating human community grounded in the mercy, generosity, and abundance of divine love. In William Kent Krueger’s novel, This Tender Land, something happens that illustrates both the risks and the possibilities inherent in this Gospel project. Set during the years of the Great Depression, the novel tells the story of four orphans imprisoned at the Lincoln Indian Training School. Together they escape, embarking on a dangerous journey by canoe. At one point, the story’s narrator, Odie, becomes separated from the group. He meets the Schofields, a multi-generational family who had set out for Chicago after losing their farm to foreclosure. Their truck had broken down, and now they were stuck in an encampment of down and out folks. The Schofields care for Odie, giving him food, blankets, and companionship. And he learns that Mr. Schofield is coping with their situation by drinking. He’s been bartering away his family’s remaining possessions in order to pay for alcohol.
Eventually Odie finds his own companions camped across the river from the Schofields. One hot night, he can’t sleep. He gets up, taking a generous sum of money that had been gifted to them along the way. He finds Mr. Schofield awake at the family’s camp. And he makes the impulsive decision to give the money away to Mr. Schofield so that he can get his family to Chicago. Odie’s brother is furious, believing he has wasted the money. Their friend, Forrest has a different perspective.
“Quite a bet you made last night,” Forrest said, stirring the oatmeal. “Forty dollars’ worth.”
“What do you mean, ‘bet’?’”
“That a leopard’ll change its spots. Drink’s a tough devil to face down. I seen it lay lots of good men low. But, [Odie], here’s the thing. If you never make that kind of bet, you’ll never see the good that might come from it.”
“You think it wasn’t a bad idea?”
“Like your brother says, could turn out you’re throwing good money after bad. But me, I admire your leap of faith.’” (p.318)
Today’s Gospel passage continues Jesus’ sermon to the crowd gathered on the level place, his blessing of the suffering multitudes before him experiencing poverty, grief, hunger, and hatred. God sees them, he says. God centers their well-being. They matter to God. And Jesus extends this blessing to the rich as well, to the full, the laughing and the popular. He does this by awakening them to their woe. He calls out their disconnection from community and their complicity in suffering. He reminds them they have a choice. They can behave differently. In today’s passage, Jesus gets to the nitty-gritty of what rich and poor alike must do to become his disciples, to form a community shaped by God’s blessings and corrected by God’s woes.
It is not enough to love those who love us back. Insular, circular love is a dead end when it comes to God’s vision and agenda. Disciples of Jesus love everyone—even enemies. And this love is not a feeling. This love seeks the good of the other person, acts with their best interests in mind. Even if that person does not care a bit about us, even if they hate us, abuse us, strike us, or steal from us. The love to which Jesus calls us continually expands our circle of concern. This abundant, unconditional love is generous both emotionally and materially. This love does not require the other to show gratitude, to offer repentance or to make repayment. This is the sort of love that brings about transformation, that enables the full flourishing of creation, that births the world God longs to bring into being.
We have been gazing upon Mr. Tiffany’s angel of mercy today. She is fierce. Her eyes are stern. She holds in her hands a broken rod of punishment. She ends the endless cycle of harm. And she does this in order to shield the child clinging to her skirts. She takes the risk to show up with the strong, brave, truthful, and transformational love of God so that the next generation can dwell in safety, can know true security. I’ve been thinking about what the teaching of Jesus means concretely in the world in which we live. It is crucial that we understand: a lack of accountability for harm is false mercy, fake generosity, impotent love. Being accountable is good for us and good for the community. It is in our best interest. God’s loving mercy puts a stop to the escalation of violence and makes space for healing to occur.
When it comes to the sentencing of former officer Kim Potter, for instance, I truly wonder what mercy would be. I do know that white fragility is hindering a necessary transformation. White fragility wants to excuse the violence that comes from our unconscious irrational white fear of black and brown bodies because it is not intentional. Change will only come when white people and institutions take responsibility for the actual consequences of our actions. And yet, would more prison time have served mercy? Would it create accountability? Would it unleash the abundance of love that is needed for revolution? I doubt it. I personally believe that the entire prison industrial complex with its punishment paradigm perpetuates violence and needs to be dismantled.
At the beginning of today’s Gospel passage, as Jesus takes a breath after delivering his blessings and woes, there’s a brief transition. “But I say to you that listen.” This teaching is very difficult, and Jesus knew it. He was aware that most people would tune it out or turn it into a debate. Most people would not take it to heart, or try to put it into practice. However, just like the woes, this challenging word is pastoral. Jesus offers this teaching for our good, with our best interests in mind, to help us make sense of our deepest suffering, to guide us in working through the challenges of community life.
Someone offered a word of testimony about how the First Church community attempts to practice of God’s merciful, generous love. This person is going through a hard time, a life and death struggle really. They said, “I’ve never felt so much love before in my life. On the one hand that’s terrifying, but on the other hand I haven’t experienced the kind of love I feel in this community anywhere else, and I know it’s only with that love and support that I’m going to make it through.” In another conversation I was having with a colleague, I found myself trying to explain how I understand church membership. I don’t love the concept of institutional membership, I said, like a club with privileges. I want to define membership as belonging to a body that shows up with love, for each other and in the world.
As I reflected on the comment “I’ve never felt so much love before in my life” I thought about what a risk it is to show up the way Jesus teaches us to. It takes courage for a person to share the truth of who they are and what they are experiencing. They never know for sure how we will be received, or how it will feel to allow themselves to be known. And to show up with love for someone else is also risky. Giving our presence and attention takes energy, takes time. We have to combine genuine care with the boundaries that are healthy for us and the other person. And we never know if our words and actions, meant to be supportive, will fulfill our intentions, or if they will somehow compound the pain.
What really strikes me in the teaching of Jesus this morning is what it says about who we are. “Be merciful, as your mother/father God is merciful” We are like God. That is quite astonishing. Connected to our divine source, the love we hold is powerful, and protective. Living in the flow of God’s endless generosity, we lose nothing when we give and lend, when we release our resentments when we refrain from retaliation. The gathering words, “She Told Me That the Earth Loves Me” remind me that creation itself is preaching this sermon of Jesus. The earth knows what amazing abundance is possible when we choose to do good to everyone, when we act with the best interests of even our antagonists in mind. “I forget sometimes” the poet proclaims, “how trees look at me with the generosity of water. I forget all the other breath I’m breathing in.” When we take the risk of showing up for each other and for the world with love that is like God’s love, love that acts with mercy and generosity, then we the experience life as God intended. We unleash the abundance at the heart of creation. Amen.