A Great Rush of Mercy
Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:15-25a; Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
(The sermon begins with Elizabeth singing a song from Rigoletto.)
That song is from the 1993 film Rigoletto, which is loosely based on the opera, a classic twist on Beauty and the Beast and the scapegoat motif. A teenage girl begins singing lessons from a reclusive, wealthy, irritable man with ugly scars. The town doesn’t like it. They refuse to believe that “that monster” can teach anything beautiful, and are sure he is responsible for the foreclosure of local businesses. I won’t tell you how it ends, and you’d have to buy a physical DVD to find out, but to this day, the music of Rigoletto has stuck with me. It’s all I remember how to play on the piano. And I sing it still because it is still aspirational—I’m still seeking that inner freedom and harmony.
The theme of our readings today is conflict and tension, and the search for serenity, especially within. The Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kirkegaard wrote, “To strive against the whole world is a comfort; to strive with oneself is dreadful.” To strive against the whole world is a comfort; to strive with oneself is dreadful.
We are probably all familiar in our own experience with the Apostle Paul’s lamentation to the church at Rome: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” This divided self, this fissure between conscience and the outward shape of our lives, is universally part of the pain of being human. It has prompted some to give up, to declare all morality hypocrisy, and others to unleash hell on earth trying to close the gap by force. As the story of the Tower of Babel teaches, heaven is not someplace we can get to by building an edifice.
Since at least the time of Euclid, we humans have had to face incommensurables: things that will never quite fit together, never quite make sense, never quite measure up. Not just lines and figures, but ourselves, and each other. And yet most of us treat life less like geometry, and more like algebra, which came much later. Indeed, we are taught to think this way, with our double-edged American optimism: Every problem can be solved! Every problem has one right answer! X can be isolated and manipulated into revealing what it really is! But what if sometimes it can’t? Can we for one second look at X, whatever X might be in our lives, in our society, and not see only a problem? Can we see a mysterious shape to live into?
I don’t mean that we shouldn’t seek the truth, or to make life better. Jesus told us to not grow weary in seeking and living the truth. But I think we need to learn to love the process, of growing and learning, wrestling, falling down, getting up again—others’ journeys, our own journey—as much as we love the truth. And this is so hard. We live in a proud and impatient culture. There seem so few spaces where one can be openly uncertain or complicated without being shamed. Either you’re going to hell, or you’re a bigot, or maybe both, depending on your conversation partner. But as Meghan Daum wrote at the end of her recent book on feminism, The Problem with Everything, “To be human is to be confused.” Even Jesus was conflicted, asking the Father to please not let him go to the cross, though he knew it had to happen.
I was telling my spiritual director last time we met, that even after several years of seeking a God who is love, I still don’t really understand God’s love. My spiritual formation as a young adult—though sadly I didn’t know the term “spiritual formation” then—was at an institution that worshipped a triune idol of Perfection, Certainty, and Control.
Every day lately I’ve read news sources with opposing interpretations of current events. I do this so that blind algorithms don’t make me blind as well, pushing me into what cultural critic Peter Limburg calls a “memetic tribe.” The effect, however, can be exhaustion, a feeling of postmodern cynicism that perhaps there is no such thing as reality, only raw meaninglessness up for anyone’s “spin.” So much of this spin is worship of this intoxicating triune idol.
I know there are obscurantists, who delight in making obvious things mysterious, and simplicists, who want to make mysterious things obvious. I think we have to learn to live with both the questions we don’t like, and the answers we don’t like. Alongside the questions and answers we do.
In our Stoic reading, Emperor Marcus Aurelius writes, “It is high time to understand what sort of whole you are a part of.” As I reflected on this, I recalled Dante’s hell, in which each circle is utterly oblivious that the other circles exist, much less the heavens. Everyone is fixated on their own pain. Everyone has become their own pain, has forgotten that transcendence is possible.
“Transcendence” is often spoken of as “a religious concept,” but I think it is hardly that. It is hope itself, change itself, wherever they manifest. Every time someone transcends poverty, addiction, racism, cruelty, that is transcendence. It is the Kingdom of Heaven. Its opposite is being stuck forever where we’ve been pushed down, just as Dante’s Satan is frozen at the icy center of hell. Heaven’s opposite is never understanding what sort of whole we are a part of.
I believe that you are more than the sum of your wounds, more than your failures, more than your inner strife. You are the center of God’s infinite love, warm and alive, and if that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s okay—it doesn’t make it any less true.
So, God calls us to live in tension. The Christian life is not at odds with a messy self in a messy world; indeed, that is a good definition of it! Love is authentic involvement. Neither indifferent nor coercive, love is willing to get down into the mess and tell it like it is—as Jesus did, on both counts. At present, on this front, I deeply identify with Paul’s frustration over knowing what he should do and not being able to bring himself to do it. I think the place to begin is by holding with love the microcosm of conflicts within my own soul.
Jesus’ famous promise, to “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” sounds pretty good about now. I think it’s important to remember, though, that this rest is not ultimately for ourselves. The purpose of rest is to be restored with energy to live out God’s call.
I first returned to God out of spiritual exhaustion. At age twenty-four, I understood experientially for the first time in my life what religion is for: Just like the body needs regular nourishment, else it weakens and finally starves, so does the soul. The soul needs a source of replenishment, of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. And my personal little “camel” stash was nearly out. I needed God, badly, lest I become a desperate leech upon things of earth.
Whenever I meet a person who claims to be secular and is neither insane nor evil, I know I am interacting with someone with privileged access to what I’ve come to call “God’s tributaries”—music, art, nature, meaningful work, and above all, human love. These things do nourish our inner life. It is when access to these tributaries is cut off, however, that we see most clearly the necessity of God—the necessity of being able to drink straight from the ocean. From that rushing mercy that can flow in the chasm between what is, and what ought to be.
I think there is a third way beyond nihilism and utopia/dystopia. That the gap can be filled with a great rush of mercy, that runs like life-giving water through a canyon. Can we believe there is such a great mercy at the bottom of every cliff? If there is, I understand why Paul breaks from his painful self-disclosure to suddenly exclaim, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
So for a time I experienced God as my capital-R Rest, the rest that kept me from descending into the delirium and bad judgment that comes from lack of rest. A few years later, however, sometimes God is what keeps me up at night. Sometimes God troubles me. How to hold these two poles—God as comfort, and God as what makes us uncomfortable?
I’d like you to try a brief exercise with me. First, remember something you’ve done that you regret. It can be large or small, whatever comes first to mind, or whatever you feel the bandwidth for. . . Now, remember something you’ve done that you respect yourself for, that you’re grateful to have been able to do toward some good, great or small, private or public. . . Now picture encountering Jesus. He tells you he already knows these things. He holds them both—holds you—in his embrace.
Sometime on your own this week I invite you to try this exercise with a twist: Think of some way in which God, your faith, Christianity—even your country—have nourished, strengthened, and comforted you, and on the other hand, some way in which you feel they’ve poisoned, weakened, or wounded you. See if Jesus can hold that as well.
The prophet Zechariah declares that the Messiah will “command peace,” and calls Israel “prisoners of hope.” We’ve all heard that peace begins within. But peace doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of friction. It just means the absence of despair.
The Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I matter. You matter. This is the hardest thing in theology to believe.” It is in this difficult meeting of conflicting needs and desires, that we learn to love and be loved. Peace is not pretending everything is OK when it’s not. Peace is the transcendent, that gathers up everything—the pain and healing, failure and virtue—in His arms.
Mother Theresa was once asked about her prayer life. The interviewer asked, “When you pray, what do you say to God?”
Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.”
The interviewer said, “Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?”
Mother Teresa replied, “He also doesn’t talk. He also simply listens.”
Let us pray...
God, you have made us creatures that strive to make sense of the world, to explain, to reconcile, to make things work. This is a gift, a longing for the wholeness you promise us, yet we twist it into the very refusal of wholeness. Teach us to live with incommensurables. To listen. To remember that no one—not ourselves, our friends, or our enemies—is merely the sum of actions or omissions. Help us listen beneath our regret and pride to the music in every soul, to the endless flow of your mercy. In Jesus name, Amen.