Sunday, September 11, 2016

God have mercy

A Sermon preached on Pentecost XVII, 11th September 2016 at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Exodus 32:7-14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

Today is the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Some 2,996 people were killed when terrorists flew hijacked planes into New York’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in Washington and when a fourth plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as passengers tried to regain control. Today we remember those who suffered and died on and after 11th September 2001, and in all the conflicts that were a direct or indirect result of that fateful day: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now the terrorist war with the so-called Islamic State. Later in the service, during the prayers, we will have a time of silence as an act of remembrance.  
The readings we heard this morning all had mercy and forgiveness as their theme, which is perhaps difficult to think about on an anniversary like today. Immediately following the 2001 attacks one US senator said: “God have mercy on the souls of the men who did this, because we won’t.” Although that was certainly not that senator’s intention, his statement actually has a lot to do with our readings this morning, which are all about the difference between our understanding of mercy and forgiveness, and God’s.

We often try to project our understanding of right and wrong, and our sense of right behavior, our ideas of justice on to God. We try to remake God in our image, rather than what we should be doing – becoming more like the God in whose image we are made. This is what is happening in the first lesson, from Exodus. I don't believe that God needed God’s mind changing so as not to destroy the people God had rescued from slavery in Egypt, and to whom God had promised a new, better future. But it was impossible for the authors of Exodus to imagine that God would simply forgive the most heinous of all sins: worshipping other gods and so only Moses’ persuasion can have got God to “change his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”(Exodus 32:14) In fact the mind being changed was Moses’. He was beginning to see God as a merciful God more than as a wrathful God. God had not changed, God’s nature – love – is changeless. It was Moses’ perception of who God is that was changed in this encounter. 

In the second lesson, from the 1st Letter to Timothy, we heard about another change of perception and perspective after an encounter with God. St. Paul confesses his past life as a man of righteous violence. His confession comes in the context of giving thanks for a changed life. The God he met in Jesus Christ is a God of mercy, a God whose grace overflowed for him - formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. (1 Tim. 1:13) This came as a complete surprise to St. Paul who had after all thought he was doing God’s will in persecuting Christian Jews for that great sin of worshipping other gods. Paul asks to be used as an example for other Christians: not for what he did, but for what was done for him and for us all by God. After all, the argument goes, if God can save and transform me, Paul, the foremost sinner, then there can be no one outside of the reach of God’s patient mercy and no one incapable of being transformed. 

Finally, in Luke’s Gospel we run into a group of people with very fixed perceptions of who God is and what God will allow, and for whom there are plenty of people outside of the reach of God’s patient mercy. The tax collectors and sinners for example. For the scribes and Pharisees the fact that Jesus was welcoming sinners and eating with them was beyond the pale. In his two parables, Jesus proceeds to turn their expectations upside down. It is completely counter-intuitive to leave 99 sheep to their fate just to look for one lost one. Unless a real shepherd had an assistant to look after the flock, he would write that one lost sheep off. But God doesn’t, Jesus says, God is more concerned for the lost sheep and will rejoice more when it is found, than for the other 99. The only value of the sheep is that it was lost. It was not better or bigger (or more righteous) than the others, it was just lost and needing to be found. We have the same situation with the coins. We can relate a little more to this story – I’ve often lost something valuable like a coin or necklace, but never a sheep. But the point is that the one lost coin not more valuable than the others, it is just lost and needs to be found. 

All three readings are therefore about who God is, and intended to change our minds and our perspective. God forgives even the greatest of sins and sinners. God gives no one up. We need to know that the true God has always been a merciful God. It is we human beings who sometimes make God out to be a punishing, or wrathful God. Just look at how God responded to our violence in Jesus Christ, to the torture and murder of God’s innocent Son. Not with revenge, but with forgiveness. The God we come to know in Jesus Christ is a God of mercy and love.

What does this tell us about how we should react to terrorist attacks like 9/11 or the many more recent atrocities? As I have said on other occasions, I am not a pacifist. Some of the military responses were and are necessary. Going into Afghanistan, not to punish, not for revenge, but to prevent further attacks and to prevent it being a base for Al Qaida was necessary.  Unfortunately, we did not stop there. The ideology behind the 9/11 attacks was not Islam, but hate and fear. Neither is unique to Moslems, we find many self-declared Christians driven by hate and fear: the Westboro Baptist Church is an extreme example. In our reactions as societies, as countries, we must ensure we are not driven by the same emotions as those who strive to do us harm, nor must we give up those standards of tolerance and freedom that are under attack. If we target a group just because of their race, faith, or even their clothing, then we are being driven by hate, fear, and prejudice.  

As individuals and Christians on the other hand we are called to follow Jesus Christ and his way. And according to our Gospel, it is through Jesus Christ that we most truly get to see who God is. The God we know in Jesus Christ is a God of mercy and love. We can act to protect ourselves. We can and should bring terrorists to justice – which for me can never mean any form of judicial killing. But if we want to become who God intends us to be, if we want to be fully human, then we cannot just leave mercy and forgiveness up to God. We must be ready to forgive – not forget - even the greatest of sins and sinners, we must be willing to give no one up, we must assume that anyone can repent, and we must always to be ready to show mercy. It is God’s will for us, also for our own  gogood, because anything else will just lead to an ongoing spiral of death and destruction. Jesus says: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7) That is very good news indeed, especially as we may be the one, and not the 99.

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