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Love is Life

Sermons

And Mercy Mild

February 08, 2004

Bible Reading

Show me your ways, O Lord;
Teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are my Savior,
And my hope is in you all day long.
Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love,
For they are from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways.
According to your love remember me,
For you are good, O Lord.

(Psalm 25:4-7)

Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ""The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins."" As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God's gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God's mercy to you. For God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

(Romans 11:25-32)

Reading from Swedenborg

"The Spirit of God" means the Lord's mercy, which is said to "brood," like a hen over eggs, over what the Lord stores away in people, which in the Bible are often called "remnants." These remnants are impressions of truth and good that never come to light of day until external things have been laid waste. These impressions are "the face of the waters." (Arcana Coelestia #19)

Sermon

It is time to revisit Calvin and Hobbes, that third testament I consult when I really need perspective on a spiritual tangle. In a strip that nicely complements our challenging New Testament reading, Calvin is sneaking up on Susie Derkins holding a big, bulging water balloon. As he verifies that his targeted victim remains blithely unaware, a devilish glee spreads across his face. Kablooooie! Blind-sided by a torrential bull's-eye! Susie is soaked from head to toe. Then, in the third panel, as the drenched Susie menacingly glares at the perpetrator, Calvin with folded hands is pointing an angelic face heavenward. He wails: "Oh, what an awful thing I did! How I regret it now! I hereby resolve to change my evil ways! Oh, remorse, remorse!" In the final panel, Calvin, strewn upon the ground after being thoroughly thrashed by an unmoved Susie, mutters, "My penitent sinner shtick needs work."

There is a spiritual concept involved here--one that Swedenborg says comes into play within the first three verses of the Bible. It is so fundamentally theological, in fact, that it is invoked throughout the Bible. Yet it is a spiritual word rarely mentioned in our usual discourse--a word that perhaps we are more than a little fuzzy about. The spiritual idea is mercy: God's mercy and human mercy. Susie, for instance, untouched by Calvin's claims of remorse, showed no mercy in her response to his attack.

What is the heart of mercy? What makes it spiritual? Is it important in our spiritual formation? If God is merciful toward us, what does this mean? Is there anything we can or should do to affect such mercy? Is there some spiritual growth step for us that can deepen our capacity for wise mercy in our own responses?

Mercy is defined in my dictionary as "kind and compassionate treatment of an offender," and as "a disposition to be kind and forgiving." In his epistle to the Romans, Paul speaks of God dispensing mercy, with the idea that somehow our wrongdoings, our sinful actions are ultimately against God, and therefore God is the only one who bestows ultimate mercy. But what is this mercy? Numerous Scripture references indicate that it is much more profound than leniency, and that it is not mere automatic forgiveness.

It is also true that before we can do anything, or have even had our first conscious spiritual thought, God's mercy is already operative in us. Swedenborg says that in the opening verses of Scripture, the correspondence of God's first movement upon the creation, described as "the Spirit of God brooding upon the faces of the waters" is the mercy of the Lord.

In the second chapter of Genesis, the Tree of Life is said to represent the mercy of the Lord. Swedenborg even says that it is the mercy of the Lord alone that inspires and encourages love in the human will, and mercy alone that enables the human mind to fill its understanding with truth. Yet at the same time, the mercy of God, in its wisdom, is modulated with each of us according to our present spiritual predicament. Swedenborg writes:

The Lord's mercy is within everything he does for the human race--which is in such a condition that he has mercy on it--and on each individual according to that person's spiritual condition. God has mercy on the state of those whom he permits to he punished and on those to whom he gives to enjoy their current goodness. Being punished is a manifestation of mercy because it turns all evil that is being punished towards good. And conferring the enjoyment of good is a manifestation of mercy, too, because nobody merits anything good at all. (Arcana Coelestia #587-88)

We see that God dispenses a blend of justice and mercy depending on where we are in our own hearts.

In New York a rabbi named Bergman was convicted in 1989 in a highly publicized case of criminal fraud in connection with the operation of his nursing homes. He tried to play "Let's Make a Deal" with the judge and avoid a prison sentence by arguing that he had been disgraced by all of the publicity and had thus suffered enough. Judge Frankel was underwhelmed by this argument and suggested that, as Bergman's crimes demonstrated, he "was suffering from loss of public esteem," which did not show true remorse and therefore did not merit any mercy from the court.

The judge enacted Biblical wisdom by requiring genuine remorse before bestowing mercy. The goal is not tenderness at all costs, but rather overcoming whatever negative inward condition has taken root. Without a change of heart, the most loving action that the Divine can extend may be to ensure more consequential suffering--karma, if you will--that may finally lead to a re-evaluation of our spiritual inventory. The truest justice metes out as much mercy as the receiver's own repentance will allow.

While mercy is mild, it is not mushy. Mercy can be dispensed too easily, to the point of losing self-respect. People who do not resent moral injuries done to them are not respecting rightfully the need for goodness to prevail. Justice must accompany mercy for it to be wisdom--and therein lies our spiritual growth.

There was a remarkable practice in colonial New England to urge a criminal sentenced to hang for his crimes the chance to repent before the event. If the criminal truly repented, the community would hold what they called a Reconciliation Feast in his honor, welcoming him back into its midst. But nonetheless, it would follow up this feast by hanging him the next day! In their view, reconciliation was not seen as inconsistent with punishment. While we could not abide such a drastic measure today, there is basic and irreplaceable value in the effects of punishment.

The whipping I remember most from my childhood was one that didn't hurt very much. But I don't remember it for that. I had been pushing the limits as usual on not doing my chores. I was warned numerous times, but kept ignoring my father, and blithely went about my goofing off. Finally he pounced on me and marched me back to the bedroom where he took out a belt--the only time I was ever hit with a foreign object at home. I guess I must have acted quite frightened (for in truth I was), because as he got ready, I could see my father's eyes softening. Nevertheless, he dutifully made me bend over the side of the bed and began to give me some lashes. Let me tell you, I never have felt lighter lashes . . . but deeper effects, because of the mercy that accompanied the punishment.

What has made the encounter so vividly memorable after all these years is my surprise that he had a change of heart, and the love that I felt in those strokes. But if the lashes had not been given, I do not think the experience would have been as strong or as profound. If we do not experience in our inner minds the feeling-full disposition of God toward us, then we will not experience the spiritual benefit of receiving mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Divine mercy is said to be key in maintaining an ongoing reconciliation with God. As Charles Wesley put it in his Christmas hymn, "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing": "Peace on earth and mercy mild; God and sinners reconciled."

In "The Merchant of Venice" Shakespeare penned one of the most oft-quoted passages on mercy--a view of mercy that also incorporates the understanding that mercy cannot exist apart from a sense of justice:

The quality of mercy is not [con]strain'd;
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;
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

In Arcana Coelestia #8307 Swedenborg writes:

The Lord's mercy remains constantly with every person; for the Lord wishes to save all people. But that mercy cannot flow into us until evils have been removed. . . . As soon as evils are removed however, mercy flows in--that is, good flowing from the Lord out of his mercy; and that good is charity and faith.

Even as we take our spiritual progress with the utmost seriousness, we must never lose our sense of humor. A wonderful tale of mercy happened after President Woodrow Wilson's departure from the Versailles conference following World War I. Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, on his way to a meeting with Colonel House, Wilson's adviser, was fired on by a young anarchist, Emile Cottin. As Clemenceau's car sped away, Cottin fired seven more shots. One hit Clemenceau near his heart. Cottin was apprehended and the death penalty was demanded, but Clemenceau intervened: "We have just won the most terrible war in history," he announced, "yet here is a Frenchman who misses his target six times out of seven . . . Of course, the fellow must be punished for the careless use of a dangerous weapon and for poor marksmanship." Clemenceau requested that Cottin be given a prison term of eight years "with intensive training in a shooting gallery."

Indeed, as we return full circle back to the opening pages of Genesis, we are faced with our endless grappling over conflicting tendencies within our nature--some tendencies that are healthy, and some that are destructive of spirit. Sin has been theologically defined as "missing the mark." And God, who has been sinned against, always wants to intervene in mercy on our behalf. But, as with Cottin and Clemenceau, there is the little matter of improving our marksmanship. May God grant.

Prayer

O God of mercy, we confess that six times out of seven, we have missed the mark. We have not only squandered our lives in foolish short-term pleasures and squabbles, but have also done real damage both to others and to ourselves. Have mercy on our souls, we pray. Flow into our lives with both mercy and justice. Let us feel the painful effects of our wrongs so that we may repent and leave them behind. And give us also the joy and inner peace that comes when we turn toward you, and live from charity and faith. Amen.

Rev. Dr. James F. Lawrence