In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible. Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying. This sermon, the seventh in the series, was preached on July 26, 2015.
A few days ago, I was out walking early in the morning, and I paused to pick up a piece of paper lying on the sidewalk. That piece of paper turned out to be a flyer or bulletin insert from a church – from Fairmount Presbyterian Church, in fact – and near the top of its listing of services and events, it said, “Experience the Holy!”
“Experience the Holy” – what a great invitation, I thought. What a wonderful way to think about why we come to worship – to experience the holy.
And what a marvelous way for us to think of today’s topic –mercy: as an experience of the holy.
As you know if you’ve been around this summer, we have been focused on water for a couple of months, thanks to our Bible Study, Come to the Waters. Did you know that water is mentioned over 800 times in the Bible? I learned that this week as well, since it was mentioned in another flyer – that one advertising the fact that the author of the Come to the Waters study will be speaking at Rocky River Presbyterian Church in August. 800 times water is mentioned – 800 experiences of the holy – and we’ve touched on only a few of them. Perhaps mercy encompasses them all.
I would guess that, for many of us, the first word that comes to mind when we think of mercy is forgiveness. Perhaps we imagine characters in a novel or film seeking mercy – seeking forgiveness from a ruler or a leader for some wrongdoing. Perhaps we think of someone pleading for mercy from the court as the sentence for a criminal transgression is being handed down. Perhaps we think of Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
The Lord’s Prayer is sometimes referred to as “the perfect prayer.” It is the prayer Jesus taught to his disciples as a model when they asked for instruction in prayer. A short prayer, with short sentences – and in this one short sentence, we ask God to forgive us, to show us mercy, as we do the same for others. This model prayer reminds us that we are always in need of forgiveness, and we are always in need of extending forgiveness to others.
Perhaps you think not? I know that some people resist the Prayer of Confession, which comes so early in our order of worship, muttering to themselves, “I’m a good person! I’m not a sinner!”
The two are not mutually exclusive. We are, on the whole, good people. And yet we miss the mark all the time. Someone we are oblivious, or careless, to the hurt we inflict. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometime we are intentional about causing harm, or at least dismay. How astonishing, then, that we are taught to pray for forgiveness. For mercy. For an experience of the holy.
But Jesus does not permit us to forget that we, too, are called to forgive. Isn’t that a bit more difficult? A lot more difficult? I recall a friend, having forgotten something he had promised to take care of for me, saying, “But you are forgiving.” “No, I’m not!” I thought silently, and angrily. It’s not easy, is it?
And yet forgiveness, extending mercy to others, is essential to our peace of mind. Do you know that even the Mayo Clinic website has an entry on forgiveness? Listen to what it has to say:
” . . . if you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn’t minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing the act. Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life.”
Or we might put it more succinctly: When we don’t forgive, we hurt only ourselves. When we do forgive, we experience the holy.
Jesus, although he speaks very succinctly in the Lord’s Prayer, knows whereof he speaks — from Scripture, and especially from the psalter, the Book of Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible. Listen again to the words from which he learned the healing power of forgiveness:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin (Psalm 51).
The Psalmist is using the imagery of water to describe what happens when God’s forgiveness is effected. God blots out our transgressions, just as we blot out a stain with a wet washcloth. God washes us of our iniquities, our wrongdoings – the holy experience of forgiveness is like the holy experience of standing under a warm shower, and allowing the dirt and grime of the day to be rinsed away. God cleanses us from sin – God’s cleansing is like a hot bath, with a scrub brush taken to those stubborn spots of mud.
Forgive us, as we forgive others – but forgiveness, whether we are the recipient or the giver, is not a simple exchange of words, or even of acts. Forgiveness is a deep, deep cleansing, a transformation of who we are.
But the mercy of God is even more than that – more than forgiveness of our errors, more than the grace by which we forgive others. The mercy of God is the water in which the entire creation is bathed.
Pope Francis, who has become an astonishingly popular religious figure for people of all faiths and none, is a passionate advocate for God’s mercy. In the quote on the front of your bulletin today, he recognizes the bridge between mercy as our personal experience of God’s love and mercy as an expression of God’s creative gifts, the mercy which the prophet Isaiah anticipates. When we listen to Isaiah’s Chapter 35 depiction of renewed creation, we get a glimpse of a world infused by mercy – by the goodness, the generosity, the extravagant hospitality of God:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom.
Mercy is not merely about forgiveness. Mercy is about growth and beauty – about the experience of the holy. When we seek and receive forgiveness, when we bestow forgiveness, the dry deserts of our angry and hardened hearts begin to bloom – with gratitude, with joy, and with peace.
waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
God’s merciful creation is God’s exuberant creation. God offers mercy and forgiveness because that is who God is, just as God pours water into our lives, from the waters of world creation to the baptismal waters of our own creation. God does not want the desert to remain a dry and weary land, not any more than God wants us to be parched by heartache and brittle with longing.
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
What are the burning sands in your own life? Where do you fear to tread because the soles of your feet will be singed? Where is the thirsty ground in your life? Where are the hard and cracked places, the places where nothing seems to cushion your walk?
In those places, promises Isaiah, in those places, quiet pools and gurgling spring will appear. Where you are tormented and exhausted, a pool, an oasis, of God’s merciful presence will appear. Where the work is too hard and the journey too long, springs of water will rise up to quench your thirst. God’s mercy saturates the earth and all of us who inhabit it.
One of the contemporary poet Mary Oliver’s most famous poems is called “The Summer Day.” It seems to me that her poem captures much of this vision of Isaiah’s, this vision of a world overflowing with the mercy of God. A world in which God’s gracious mercy goes far beyond forgiveness, and even far beyond personal transformation – a world in which wave after wave of God’s abundant love surges throughout our lives, offering us opportunity upon opportunity to experience the holy. A world which invites us to respond with our very lives.
Here is Mary Oliver’s version of Isaiah’s vision:
“Who made the world?
. . .
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Indeed, what is it that you are going to do with your one wild and precious life, in a world saturated by the love and mercy of God?
Image: High Falls, DuPont State Forest NC ~ August 2016