5 September, 2021 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18
The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
“You never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy.” Amen.
“Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity” (Proverbs 22:8).
“Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9).
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? …faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2: 14, 17).
The theme resounds through today’s lectionary loud and clear: coming to church, assembling and praying together, following our own individual spiritual practices – these things are necessary but not sufficient. Ringing through all of today’s readings is the central commandment of our faith: to love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, and through that commitment, to love our neighbor as ourselves. That love of neighbor isn’t simply wishing someone well. It is a practical love. It’s an active love.
This is the core…and each week, in fact, we conclude our worship praying: “send us out [from this place] to do the work you have given us to do,” and then we are dismissed with a “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” (BCP, p. 366).
Faith without works may be a starting place, but Proverbs, Psalms, James, Mark, and indeed the whole of the Judeo-Christian tradition remind us that we are called to more.
But sometimes, and I would suggest, particularly right now, it’s hard to know what that “more” is. In fact, right now, at least to me, the potential works we could dedicate ourselves to are so numerous and so consequential it feels overwhelming. There is so much need right now, it’s almost hard to hold even the list in our heads all at the same time, much less take in the human impact.
Any of us could offer a litany of all the events we’ve been watching take place:
- In rapid succession Haiti has experienced a presidential assassination, a devastating earthquake, and the ruinous impact of hurricane Grace.
- We are watching the results of climate change unfold in the destruction of hurricane Ida from Louisiana all the way up through New York, the loss of life from flash floods in Tennessee, fires burning all across the west.
- Over the last few weeks we’ve seen the human cost of our country’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
- And underlying all of this, the surge of COVID infections coinciding with the return of students and teachers to school, just when we had started to feel that we were emerging from the pandemic.
I came across an article in The Atlantic a couple of weeks ago. The author was wrestling with the impact of this accumulation of tragedies we are living with. As he put it, “For the better part of two years now, the world has been living through a pandemic…virtually everyone has felt the pain in one way or another. Meanwhile, the world’s baseline drumbeat of catastrophe has not faltered. Wildfires have filled the skies with smoke; earthquakes have leveled cities; buildings have collapsed without warning.” How, he asks, is this affecting “our ability—or inability—to empathize?”
How do we take this all in? How do we know where to start? It’s way beyond me.
And yet, this is where we are. This is our context for making meaning of today’s readings. Not only are we to reckon with the weight of events, we are also called to be actively engaged.
But, as today’s Gospel passage suggests, even Jesus might have become overwhelmed by the pressing needs of the crowds around him. We read that Jesus sought solitude and rest. If we follow the sequence of events in the Gospel of Mark, we see that the community had just endured the murder of John the Baptist. Then Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee (again) with his disciples, arriving on the other side to find that people recognized him straightaway. We are told they “rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak” (Mark 6:55-56). Then, finally, seeking some time apart, in today’s passage, Jesus enters the house and we hear him say, “Don’t tell them I’m here.” Jesus needed a moment. “Yet he could not escape notice” we are told (Mark 7:24).
So when the Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, approaches Jesus, he doesn’t seem to have the expansiveness in that moment to respond to her plea. Instead, in his response, he limits his mission, prioritizing a focus on the Jewish people: “Let the children [that is, the Israelites] be fed first,” he says. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). On the face of it, not a response of compassion and loving-kindness, hmm? Until the woman reminded him that all people are part of God’s vision of justice and well-being, even Jesus momentarily lost his focus, it would seem.
And if even Jesus could be affected by compassion fatigue, where does that leave us?!
You might not find it surprising that I don’t have an answer to that. As I sat with this week’s readings, I asked myself: “Okay. Faith without works is dead. I got it. But now what? What makes that real in our lives?” As I rolled that question around in my mind, I realized that my attention kept being drawn to one word: mercy. It shows up in today’s collect for example: “…you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy.”
We use the word mercy word a lot. So often, in fact, that it’s one of those words that for me, can start to feel vague, or sloppy, or rote. As a church, for example, we have been responding to prayer petitions with the words “Lord, have mercy,” since at least the fourth century.
So it’s worth lingering over this word. We might define it as “steadfast [or unwavering[ love,” or perhaps as “loving kindness.” We could say that mercy is compassion, backed up by practical action. Mercy is central to our Judeo-Christian understanding of God. Some would say mercy is the attitude that marks God’s relationship with us. We may be seeing evidence of God’s mercy peaking through the lines of the epistle when James asks questions like: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom?” (James 2:5b).
In addition to making a couple of appearances in our lectionary this week, the word “mercy,” coincidentally, also showed up in my email on Friday morning as that morning’s offering from the Brothers at the monastery. I know some of you receive that email each morning. It’s called “Brother, Give us a word,” and Friday’s word was mercy. I’ll share with you Brother Sean’s reflection:
“It is not our work or strength that will make us whole; no program will lift us to that place from which we finally lose our tiny, creaturely perspective. The only thing that can restore our vision is the mercy of God…Our invitation as God’s people is not to pretend to be good, or pious or saintly; it is to open ourselves to the searching, active mercy of God.”
For many of us, it is counter to our nature to think that the way to respond to the urgent needs of the world is to step back. To relinquish self-reliance. As today’s collect reminds us, perhaps in different language than I would use, but that’s a topic for another day – as the collect reminds us, when we rely on our own strength – when we are proud — those are the times when it’s hardest to experience God with us. Those are the times when we lose our broader vision and our ability to discern the works we are being called to. We can only sow justice, we can only share our bread (as Proverbs counsels), we can only back up our faith with the works of God (as James calls Christians to do) when we realize that it’s not our work, or our strength that make this possible. It is only through opening ourselves to the steadfast love of God—it’s only through taking a deep breath and realizing that we don’t have to do it all—that we can take in the needs of the world, as crazy as it is right now, and discern how we, each in our unique way, can do our part, bit by bit, to bring about God’s justice in the world.
Lord, have mercy.