Terrible Mercy

A Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday

It's been a terrible week for our country. Explosions in Texas. Toxic letters from Mississippi. Bombing, lockdown and capture in Massachusetts. Not to mention legislative gridlock once again in Washington, D.C. Writer Anne Lamott said on her Facebook page this week, “I wish I could do what spiritual teachers teach. (I wish I could. . .) get my thoughts into alignment with purer thoughts, so I could see peace. . .in Newtown, in Boston. Next time around, I hope to be a cloistered Buddhist. This time, though, I'm just a regular screwed up sad worried faithful human being.”

In the midst of life's screwed-up situations – a deadly explosion, a terminal diagnosis, the end of a relationship – it's easy in terrible times to place our confidence in our first responders. Police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, chaplains, friends, other caregivers – they'll straighten things out! We may even think they hold all the answers we need. Without question, we need to thank God for the federal, state and local police who worked all week in the greater Boston area to bring an end to chaos and a beginning of justice. But all those human beings, wonderful as they were, cannot and do not, as that little, old spiritual song goes, have the whole world in their hands.

This week's compassionate caregivers are beyond reproach. All those good folks who rushed in to help after the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon – applying tourniquets, performing surgery, tracking down perpetrators – what more could they have done? We may even have seen God at work in the people there – and in those around us, especially those who help us in our own, traumatic times. But all those caregivers – to borrow the image for this Good Shepherd Sunday, all those shepherds – are not enough. All the shepherds in the world do not and cannot do everything on our behalf. Even those of us who are “official” shepherds – even we cannot give you all you want from life. In fact, human beings cannot give us everything we need.

Think about it this way for a moment. There is what we call the ministry of presence – just showing up and being there for someone, holding their hand, lending a listening ear, perhaps saying a few words, or nothing at all. What a wonderful ministry that is! And so many people – so many people in this parish and in our lives stand ready to offer this ministry of presence to you and to me, in our time of need, whenever that may happen. But you and I need more than that. There's another kind of need. There is also the need to be present: present to ourselves, and present to our God.

In our very own valleys of the shadow of death, where can we go for that other help? Where do we go to get our spiritual needs met? Where do we go to feed our souls? The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not be in want. In the midst of all the shepherds of this world, amidst all those caring, compassionate people in our lives, there is only one Good Shepherd. Christians call that Good Shepherd Jesus. In Jesus, we have all we need. Or as the Rev. Dan Matthews put it from this pulpit last October, in Jesus, we “have sufficient.” Jesus is our Good Shepherd. We shall not be in want.

And yet. . .and yet, sometimes, we just can't find our way to believe in Jesus that way. Sometimes, when we are feeling screwed up, worried or sad, when we are in the midst of another trauma, when we do NOT feel anything like a cloistered Buddhist, when we don't feel like we have even the slightest spiritual clue – sometimes, we may not know what to say or do or believe. Sometimes we feel paralyzed, and there are no words to describe where we are or how we feel. What do we do then? Sometimes, for me and for other people of faith, sometimes, there is only music. And poetry. And art.

In weeks like these, thank God for the music and poetry of the Psalms, especially the 23rd Psalm, and for the image of the Good Shepherd, expressed in so many ways through all the arts. I thank God for the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General Seminary, where I was confronted daily by a statue of Jesus carrying his sheep. Thank God for the music and poetry of the hymns, anthems and spiritual songs I came to sing or savor there, here and throughout my life. Thank God for all those people of faith and all the saints, down through the centuries, who have helped carry us along by time-honored tunes through our terrible times of suffering, loss and death.

Dear friends in Christ, if we are open to it, if let it happen, music, poetry and art can release our feelings, and then, our feelings can release the healing we truly need. Then, even in the midst of the worst of times, our words, flowing from the Incarnate Word of God, can finally come to us. They might be words like these:

I hear some people say / There's no burning cross
No holocaust / And we are not to blame
No trail of tears / No fallout here
No coming judgment day
I hear some people shout / There's no poverty
No undeserved disease / And no body counts
No toxic waste / No ozone rays
No sermon on the mount
Oh for ears to hear / And eyes to see
Terrible mercy / Terrible mercy
Lord I believe / Help my unbelief
I hear some people cry / There's no corporate greed
No slavery / And no one is denied
No justice due / No need for truth
No cross on which to die

“Terrible Mercy,” recorded by singer-songwriter Kate Campbell, points out the popular “solution” for the world's problems: ignore them. In no way did we ignore what happened this week in Boston, but there's a way in which we can quickly, easily forget or pretend away just how complicated our problems really are, how much help we truly need. We might even find ourselves saying something like this:

There's no more racism in our country. We have a black president! But we do need to send those illegals back where they came from. We can't have them taking our jobs. Not in my back yard, not in my community, not in my church, they don't.

This week I wondered about adding another stanza to Kate's song:

I hear some people claim / “We're the USA!”
No more terrorist threats / No violence craze
More ammunition's all we need.

And this week I wondered, as did a friend with whom I talked, just how many meals could be served, how many blankets distributed, how much medical care provided, if the money from all the lobbying groups was used instead for real human needs, instead of preserving our political positions. What if we could see ourselves as shepherds, like the Good Shepherd, of all sheep, not shepherds for just a chosen few.

Today, at the end of this week of chaos, we have prayed comforting, familiar words: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life. . ..” It may sound counter-intuitive, even ridiculous, but I believe mercy is the remedy to our virus of violence and prejudice. I'm talking about God's mercy, not ours. And what does God's mercy look like? Is God's mercy truly terrible, as Kate Campbell suggests?

“There's a wideness in God's mercy,” one hymn text puts it, “like the wideness of the sea. . ..There is welcome for the sinner. . .For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.” Terribly wide and broad, the mercy of God is. Wonderfully kind. God's mercy welcomes us, all of us, even terrible terrorists. Even peacemakers. Even the likes of you and me.

Let us pray. Come, Spirit of God, come stand with us in this, our darkness. Hold the fallen in your arms. Heal the injured. Comfort the broken-hearted. And if you cannot tell us why we do this to ourselves, show us how to love more deeply, so that this pain of ours will never be the final word; but rather, let the final word be your mercy, your terrible mercy, which, like your peace, passes all understanding and needs no explanation (adapted from a prayer offered this week by Native American Episcopal bishop Steven Charleston). AMEN.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
April 21, 2013