The Power of Mercy
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Trinity, August 15, 2021
“O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure.”
OUR WORLD teeters every day on the brink of believing or disbelieving in its Creator. The image of a great invisible Being up in the sky, directing winds and tides, solar flares and every live-birth on this planet, the orbits of galactic dust and ion clouds: all at the same time as the orbits of electrons in every atom: it’s a lot to take in. How can any being have that much to do, hold that much power? Mankind has trouble believing in God. What I have trouble with – occasionally – is believing in mankind.
Don’t think I’m against science. Real science is one of our greatest achievements. But a kind of science that we invent imagines the fantastic and awesome powers of the universe as mere accidents – all just finite and mindless matter and energy. “Light does this or that because this is what light does. Animals seek food by killing and eating other animals. Our motives are mere instinct. The zookeeper is no different than an ape in a cage. He doesn’t eat the gazelle because MacDonald’s is easier and he keeps his job.”
The problem with such man-made science is that it lacks our better qualities: our brain child is all brain and no heart. Such science will be a dead tool because it has no place for mercy. Lacking any place or facility for love, our pseudoscience has become indifferent regarding the objects it takes apart. Scientists are not enthralled by things they see as dead: their zeal is only for the process of dissecting them. That’s where all pro-choice arguments derive from. Until a thing lives according to me, it’s dead.
The most godlike thing about people is that we look at other people with compassion. If we lose that, we cease to be human, for our humanity is grounded in our being the image and likeness of God, who cares very deeply for every one of us.
The power of a Silicon Valley tycoon or a president or a general resides in his or her ability to give orders and have them carried out by lesser people. But tell me: who has the greater power? Is it power when a king or kingpin can make someone else die? Or wouldn’t you say there is more power when, having that authority, the godlike man lets someone else live? Which one was Jesus? In His amazing life, I don’t recall Him dropping one word toward making anyone die. He commanded one fig tree to whither – as an illustration. He was at His most powerful when He took Lordship over sin and death, and through love and mercy He gave us all back our lives.
Power is shown best through mercy. Mercy is how we are like God. Mercy doesn’t deny truth, and if our sciences discover truth, we need only to add mercy for it really to be true, and alive. The Psalmist had it right 3,000 years ago. “Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed. Truth shall spring out of the earth, And righteousness shall look down from heaven.” Psalm 85:10-11
In the movie Schindler’s List, Oscar Schindler sought to save the Jewish inmates in a German concentration camp by curbing the cruelty of its commandant. He told him, “They fear us because we have the power to kill arbitrarily. A man commits a crime, he should know better. We have him killed and we feel pretty good about it. Or we kill him ourselves and we feel even better. That's not power, though, that's justice. That's different than power.
Power is when we have every justification to kill - and we don’t.” And the Nazi actually tried a week or so of showing mercy instead of random murder. But the sociopath had lost his humanity and the mercy didn’t last. The point was made anyway: the power of mercy is greater than the power of indifferent cruelty.
There is an ideal size to any city, and when we build beyond that, concentrating people too greatly in the confines of high-rises and streets and each other’s noise, that’s when our best human attributes break down. The law of the jungle pertains to environments that are not jungles, but rather like overcrowded zoos. Let me drive through wild country and forests, and my attitude is great, my heart magnanimous. But confine me and my car to gridlock in downtown Los Angeles at rush hour, and I can learn very quickly to hate people.
That isn’t the natural human habitat: it’s inhuman, competitive, and the survival of the rudest in an arbitrary world where ten lanes crammed with anxious commuters are required to converge their cars into one off-ramp. God never made any world like that one. It’s the rare person indeed that can maintain mercy and forbearance when 2,000 tons of steel wants your space – now!
Mercy needs to be rescued from a cartoon world that paints it as weakness. Pansies and sissies, pale saints and lying politicians are cast as simpering and mercy-minded where so-called real men and intelligent women don their superpowers and weapons, giving them heroic achievements through destructive strength. Marvel comics – spoiler alert: I hate to break this to you – DC Comix is not the real world. Wolverine, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Beyonce and Mick Jagger are not real people. Real heroes face real threats and just smile.
They smile, not because they’re about to fire rockets or lasers, but because their opponent simply doesn’t understand. It may be possible to disabuse him of his error. If not, a harmless escape can be found. There’s really nothing to get hot over. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” is something heroes know and count on. Matt 5:7 “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” Luke 6:35-36
Jesus was emphatic about this. We forgive others as a real pre-condition of being forgiven ourselves. It’s right in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s in the nature of our God, and thank God for it. It isn’t out of moral or spiritual superiority that we can bestow grace and mercy on somebody who’s won our pity. It’s because we know how much we need God’s mercy and grace ourselves—so we must be merciful and give grace to others.
Jesus uses the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican to give a snapshot of two human hearts. The better-placed man, morally superior and obedient to all the Jewish laws and almsgiving, saw himself as God’s gift to the world. His ludicrous prayer of thanks suggests God should thank him for being so wonderful … for being worlds better than the tax-collector back there, lurking by the door, crying. That tax-gatherer, like Matthew, only cried out his grief and contrition to God, pleading with Him for mercy on his soul. The man truly closer to God had his head in his hands, moaning out his deplorable failures. Mercy comes from on high when we know how much we need it. When we fail to know our spiritual poverty, our real inheritance can be forfeit.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged our notion of what God’s commandments were really about. Jews were set on reciprocation, doing good to someone who does good to you. Jesus likened those to sinners and traitors. Even they know that rule. But if you want to be like God, then you must love even your enemy, love someone who can’t love you back, greet strangers, and forgive the sins others do to you. “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”Matt 5:48 I never comprehended that last statement until I understood this connection. We are moving toward our likeness of God, and will arrive at that place when we learn mercy, forgiveness, love and compassion.
I’m resistant to chick flicks and romance novels. I will endure them, if I can. But if it gets maudlin, I bolt: you understand? The soppy side is not my natural home, if I sense mere sentimentality. Sentimentality is the candy-coating without the cereal, and it isn’t even real sugar.
I am more drawn to disaster movies. Give me a good volcano erupting, or a skyscraper on fire, bad guys threatening innocent people. Why? Movies of this genre give me a hero. True heroes aren’t coming in with guns blazing. They’re smart. They see the threat before anyone else. They concern themselves with the innocent. They sacrifice their safety and wellbeing, turning toward the threat instead of escaping from it. They marshal all their strength and brainpower and a great heart to the saving of others, regardless of the losses to themselves. I like that kind of hero. I want to be him. Honorable. Genuine. Not perfect, but he knows that and doesn’t pretend any different. It’s in a hero’s nature to save others, and in so doing, a hero is like God. No superpowers, magic, or equipment belts. Mercy wins over Marvel comics every time.
Our collect today speaks to me as a real light on true power and how it flexes its muscles. Bullies and bullets don’t show courage or moral strength. That’s the lie of tyrants and terrorists – cowards all. Mercy, love, compassion, and peace through strength are the signs of our origins from God, and so we pray,
O GOD, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Mercifully grant unto us such a measure of thy grace, that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises, and be made partakers of thy heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.