Princeton University Religious Life

Living Mercifully With One Another

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
September 11, 2016
I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

            A few years ago, I heard a story on the radio while driving about differences between classroom pedagogy in Japan versus the United States.  A classroom recording was played of a Japanese group of 12 or 13 year-olds and their teacher in which one boy was the last in the group to understand the concept being discussed.  Over the audio transcript, an American reporter narrated what was going on – the teacher’s clues and encouragement, the classmates’ enthusiastic encouragement, and when the boy finally had his lightbulb moment - the cheers from the room.  The point of the radio article was that, in Japanese educational culture, the student who was most worthy of praise that day wasn’t one of those who grasped immediately the right answer, it was the one who worked the hardest to get there.  The praise was for effort over adversity.  Maybe I still resonate with this brief article heard years ago because, depending on the subject, I’ve needed a lot of help to grasp certain concepts.  More accurately, though, I think the article spoke to me about honoring and valuing the actual journey that people have to make to get to a certain point of learning, or believing, or growing up, or shutting up – of simply getting it right, whatever the issue is in our lives.  I think that this is part of what Jesus is trying to teach us in his parable of the shepherd who finds that one lost sheep.

            The parable is one of three that are told back-to-back; the others concern the woman who searches for a lost coin, and the prodigal son.  Each proclaims the mercy and love of God for all who are lost, through no fault of their own, or completely through their own bad choices.  They are told to a crowd that comprises three cohorts – first, the disciples, who believe in Jesus and want to learn more; second, the religious authorities, who are appalled that Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners (it’s one thing to say hi to them but if you eat with them you signal that you accept them); and third, those tax collectors and sinners, whom Luke says are “listen(ing) to him.”  They are hearing Jesus; they are taking his words to heart.  Uh oh!  Maybe those disgusting people will decide that they are fit to eat with any of us! 


            The believing, the righteous, and the lost – Jesus needs to shape his teaching into words that each can hear.  He tells three beautiful stories of God’s love and mercy.  There is nothing that can happen to us - either randomly, absent-mindedly, through others’ ignorance or cruelty, or anything- that can diminish the infinite value and love that we have in the eyes of God.  There is no amount of stupid choices we can make, bad people we can hang out with, or hideous things we can do that can diminish the infinite value and love that we have in the eyes of God.  As any parent will tell you, when a child comes back home saying, “I blew it and I’m sorry,” the refrain is “thank you, God!”

            Two thousand years ago, a letter was sent to a church leader named Timothy that declared, I have received mercy from Jesus Christ” and “I have received patience from Jesus Christ.”  And so, we are to understand, we must show these same things to every person, because we are followers of Jesus Christ.  The writer says that he is foremost among sinners.  He can’t judge others, he can only invite them to redemption, labor for their redemption, pray for their redemption.  Who is he to cast aspersions on any who have fallen short?  Who are any of us to do so?  When we live with a healthy understanding of our sinfulness it prevents us from judging others for theirs.  How many times in scripture does Jesus tell us “do not judge.”  It’s the moral of the story about the human being we call “The Woman Caught In Adultery.”  It’s at the center of our parable for this morning.

            How to live mercifully with one another?  It was clearly a challenge in Jesus’ day – he keeps referring to it.  How do we all lurch forward – and sometimes backward – on the journey of our lives, sinners all, while we cheer on the ones (as in the Japanese classroom) who struggle to get it, while we try to get it ourselves?  God seeks out every invaluable lost soul.  “God crawls into the holes we have dug for ourselves;” Christ teaches us to do the same for all God’s beloved children.  We are to extend mercy to one another. 

            Are we indeed tainted by the company we keep, as so worried some who listened to Jesus?  No, we are blessed by every person in our presence, no matter how fallen.  We go find them.  We do our best to be what they need on a journey towards redemption.  We even eat with them.

            If love and mercy are extended to others, will we perhaps miss out on redemption that could happen to us?  No, there is no zero-sum-game when it comes to the compassion of God.  God is the universe and there is a universe of love and mercy to go around.  The heart of God only swells when those who were lost are found and so should our own hearts rejoice. 

            How can we go about undoing the shame that binds so many people, including ourselves?  I’ve read that when sheep find themselves lost or vulnerable they curl up in a ball and hide, trying to protect themselves from predators.  They don’t bleat, they don’t look for home, and in the end, they make it harder for their shepherd to save them.  I think that shame does the same thing to human beings.  It becomes even harder for us to hear a word or see a gesture of compassion – an invitation to a new way to be.  If all we could do for one other person is unwind their knot of shame, that would be magnificent.

            Today is the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, and I think that brings added depth to Christ’s teaching to live mercifully with one another.  Are our hearts any wider than they were on that bright blue morning in 2001?  There has been so much more suffering and violence since then, and in response – including several wars.  Are we perhaps less merciful than before?  What could it mean to show mercy in these fraught times?

            An example that leaps quickly to mind is of some beautiful people who worked for many months to get a young Syrian refugee into the U.S. so that he can finish his high school education.  That refugee, Mohamad, has ended up with my family as his host family, and I hesitate to share Mohamad’s story now because the point is not that my family are moral exemplars – it’s the people who got Mohamad to the U.S.   They worked for a long time to get him a full scholarship to a Quaker school in Philadelphia.  They did the paperwork to get him a U.S. visa.  They tried again and again when they were thwarted.  They raised the money to pay his travel expenses.  They recruited a host family.  “They” are an American couple and a British woman who met Mohamad in Istanbul, where he fled three years ago, at 14, with his mother.  They involved him in a writing workshop at a refugee center where they were volunteering.  They saw a gifted, bright kid who wasn’t going to high school because of the war, and they decided to make sure he got a future.  I’ve never met these people, Christian volunteers among refugees, but they have my abiding respect.  One of them wrote of Mohamad, “We love him very much.”   It shows.

            Living mercifully with one another – love and mercy in action – we need it so badly.  On this fifteenth 9/11 anniversary, I find myself thinking that we honor best those who died by acting mercifully in their name, in their memory.  We extend compassion to those around us who, in infinite ways, are lost.  We meet human needs.  We stand up to bigotry – to hatred and intolerance in all its forms.  We let ourselves remember the shock and pain of 15 years ago and let it open us up to the pain of, as we say in our communion liturgy, “a broken and bleeding world.”  We let Christ move us to greater love.  We eat with tax collectors and sinners.  We give one kid a chance, someone else’s kid.  And then another kid.  And then another.  And when we all do this, holy love and mercy conquer all.


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