Unfair Mercy

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                    March 31, 2019

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

The elders of long ago were great story tellers. They would talk of the Sasquatch, of the Trickster who changed shapes, of the turtle and the bear.  The missionaries came and dismissed these stories, calling them superstition. Instead, they said, you should learn from the Bible. But the curious thing is that the Bible is also full of fanciful stories of lions and lambs who lie down together, of ferocious beasts who will terrorize the world and of cities with streets lined with gold.

The best teachings of any tradition come through stories and legends, laden with symbolism and wisdom. Even though the missionaries had their own (at times strange) stories from the Bible, they could not hear the wisdom in the stories of the First Nation elders. If only they had met wisdom with wisdom, story with story, we would all be the better for it.

Jesus knew the power of story and he told one after another to teach us about God and God’s world. The story of the prodigal son teaches us about mercy and the failure of fairness.

As the oldest child, I was all about fairness. I watched very carefully to make sure that my brother’s slice of cake was not a crumb bigger than mine. And when my bedtime was extended, I was outraged when my brother’s bedtime was also extended to the same time. “He should go to bed earlier because he’s younger,” I pronounced indignantly. That was my first inkling that my sense of fairness may be different than someone else’s.

The older brother in this parable was brought face to face with the unfairness of dedication, hard work and faithfulness. Why should his younger brother receive undeserved royal treatment when he had never been fêted in such a way? The older brother was so fixed on fairness that he couldn’t see mercy. The father, on the other hand, could only see both sons through the eyes of unmerited, merciful love.

This is a story of wisdom that teaches us the danger of following the letter of the law in order to treat one another fairly. God’s mercy has a habit of turning our carefully crafted rules and morés upside down.

There’s an old hymn called There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, written in 1854 by Frederick William Faber, an Anglican priest in 1854 who converted to Roman Catholicism. Our hymnal has 5 verses, but there were 13 verses in the original. Listen to these words that are not in our hymnal:

There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss.

But we make [God’s] love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify [God’s] strictness
With a zeal [God] will not own.

In 2003, the Guardian noted ironically that, just after the Church of England synod voted down the appointment of openly gay Canon Jeffrey John they then sang in nearly perfect harmony this hymn with these verses.[1]

In our zealousness to do the right thing, we are sometimes blinded by justice and cannot see mercy. At the end of June, you will be treated to a fascinating sermon by Paul Edwards, one of our beloved lawyers of this congregation, who will be helping us struggle between the legality of justice and the mercy of grace.

The escalation of violence and intolerance in our world, our country, our city provokes many of us to righteous anger, no matter which side of the political spectrum we are on. We call for gun control and tighter laws. We call for retribution and longer sentences. We try to control and deter with a heavy hand, but I wonder if we are simply reducing the vibrant colours of our world to greyed-out black and white?

I am all for law and order—I’m a good Canadian who believes in peace, order and good government, along with gun control. But will stricter laws alone bring what we want? Somehow, somewhere, mercy must be shown. Mercy is not fair, mercy is not just or law-abiding. Mercy does not give us what we deserve. Rather the opposite. Mercy is a law-breaker and a leveller. Mercy is colour blind and compassion-bound. Mercy can make us crazy, but she can also make us human again.

Mercy dabs her finger in the ashes of last year’s dried palms and makes the sign of the cross on each of our foreheads: “From dust you have been created; to dust you shall return.”

Mercy is not concerned with what we have done; only that we have returned—returned to our humble beginnings as a naked, vulnerable baby, lying alongside another. Mercy is God’s companion of grace, who embraces each one of us, regardless of what we have done or left undone, through the unconditional love of Christ.

Some time ago, back in the days of pay phones, a seminary student “went jogging with his father in their urban neighborhood. As they ran, the son shared what he was learning in seminary about urban ministry, and the father, an inner city pastor, related experiences of his own. At the halfway point in their jog, they decided to phone ahead for a home-delivered pizza. As they headed for the phone, however, a homeless man approached them, asking for spare change. The father reached into the pockets of his sweat pants and pulled out two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said to the homeless man. “Take what you need.”

The homeless man, hardly believing his good fortune, said, “I’ll take it all,” scooped the coins into his own hands, and went on his way.

It only took a second for the father to realize that he now had no change for the phone. “Pardon me,” he beckoned to the homeless man. “I need to make a call. Can you spare some change?”

The homeless man turned and held out the two handfuls of coins. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”[2]

[1] The Guardian July 14, 2003 as recorded in http://cathythinks.blogspot.com/2006/04/theres-wideness-in-gods-mercy.html

[2] Tom Long, https://www.christiancentury.org/article//surprise-party .