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You all are very kind when it comes to comments about the sermon (at least the ones you say aloud!) However, that’s not always the case with every preacher. A parishioner came up to Jason Spears and said, “Coming from my other church and my former pastor to here listening to you is like going from filet mignon to ground beef hamburger meat.” Following the comment, he said, “Unfortunately, in my youthful insecurity, the next week I handed her a small bottle of A1 steak sauce and encouraged her to go back if she saw fit.”
Sometimes, preachers just aren’t sure as to how to take a comment: Jeff Chandler reports, “I was new to my first church and someone said: ‘You’re not like most pastors; when you say that you sin – we believe you.’” And Vince Torres said, “A guy in my church approached me after what must have been a personally convicting sermon and said, ‘Great teaching. But don’t you ever talk to me like that again.’” However, it was a comment made to Dan Donahue that got me to thinking. A parishioner told him, “I saw a documentary on Hell and thought of you.”
As I’ve shared with you in the past, I’ll go back and review sermons to see where we’ve been, so I took a look at these last few weeks, and although I’ll stick with the things I’ve said, there’s been a lot of talk about the “Son of Man coming as judge,” “Be prepared so that your not found lacking,” “The last day,” “Good soldier,” and so on. All true, but really just a round about way of telling you to get your act together or you’re going to Hell. Now, there are some of you that need to hear that on a regular basis (I’m not naming names, _____), but our Gospel reading today says that there is also a need for “the rest of the story.”
On the surface, we have a story of healing. Jesus sees a woman walking in the synagogue who has been crippled, bent over for the past eighteen years. So, Jesus, without being approached by anyone and asked to help, takes the initiative and says to her “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He then laid hands on her and she was healed, stood up straight and praised God. We are never told why she was bent over, but what happens next helps us to understand the larger point Jesus was making.
The president of the synagogue becomes angry with Jesus for healing the woman on a Sabbath, or put another way, he was angry with Jesus for working on a Sabbath which was against the Mosaic Law. Jesus responds to the accusation by saying to the president, “You as the religious leaders place huge burdens on the people. You weigh them down with all your rules and threats. You show more mercy to your animals than you do the children of God.” All you do is tell them that they’ve got it all wrong and they need to change or else they’re going to hell. You’ve weighed them down, bent them over, and you’ve forgotten to tell them the rest of the story. And what is the rest of the story? The same one that Jesus demonstrated to the woman and confirmed with his words: You have been shown mercy. “You are set free.”
Consider these passages of Scripture: Hosea 6:6 – “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings”; and James 2:13 – “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” The problem is that we can get so caught up in judgment and what to do in order to avoid hell, that our faith becomes about our actions instead of God’s actions; and God’s actions demonstrated and expressed by Jesus are all about mercy.
In The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis writes, “Pius XII, more than half a century ago, said that the tragedy of our age was that it had lost its sense of sin, the awareness of sin. Today we add further to the tragedy by considering our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven. We lack the actual concrete experience of mercy. The fragility of our era is this, too: we don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption: for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.” We need mercy because so much weighs us down that we live spiritually bent over lives, unable to stand up straight and give God glory. We become so bound up in our work to avoid hell that we no longer experience the freedom that comes through God’s mercy. Yes. We need mercy and the freedom that comes from it to live into the joy of the Lord. What is this freedom?
H&H is the short way of referring to the third oldest music society in the United States. It stands for Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, founded in 1815. In May of this year, the Boston Symphony was performing the H&H season finale concert, which was being recorded. I’ve never been there, but looked at pictures and the symphony hall itself, built in 1900, is magnificent. On that particular day, there were approximately 2,500 in attendance. As part of the program, Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music was played. It was a special day for everyone in attendance, but what made it even more so, was when that particular piece of music ended. In the silence between the last note and the time the audience begins to applaud, there was a very audible, “Wow!” It was clearly a child. The audience burst into laughter and applause. David Snead, President and CEO of H&H said, “It was one of the most wonderful moments I’ve experienced in the concert hall.” (Source) “The Handel and Haydn Society, America’s oldest performing arts organization, has been performing in Boston for 204 years and we can safely say that this was a first.” (Source)
The “Wow!” was such a sensation that the orchestra went in search of who the child was and eventually, through social media, discovered that it was nine year old Ronan Mattin, which makes the story even more fun. It turns out that Ronan is autistic. His mother says, “I can count on one hand the number of times that [he’s] spontaneously ever come out with some expression of how he’s feeling,” (Source)
What is this freedom that comes from mercy? It is the freedom to spiritually walk into one of the most prestigious symphony halls in the United States, during the recording of the season finale concert, put on by a 200 year old music society, listen to piece of music composed by a master, and in the silence that follows, say “Wow!”
The freedom that comes from mercy is to understand that you are a deeply loved child of God. A child who the Creator of Heaven and Earth desires to open to you all the joys of Heaven. Jesus tells us, “The Kingdom of God is now,” which means we don’t have to live hunched over, crippled in this life. Like the woman, we can stand straight and tall and give praise and glory.
Will there be a judgment day when the Son of Man returns unexpectedly? Yes. Yes there will be. Will we each of us be judged on that day? Yes we will be. Do we need to guard and care for our souls. Absolutely. But don’t get bogged down in Hell. You have been set free to live, to dance, to experience joy. You have been set free to say, “Wow!”
Let us pray:
Lord, we believe in you: increase our faith.
We trust in you: strengthen our trust.
We love you: let us love you more and more.
We are sorry for our sins: deepen our sorrow.
We worship you as our first beginning,
We long for you as our last end,
We praise you as our constant helper,
And call on you as our loving protector.
Guide us by your wisdom,
Correct us with your justice,
Comfort us with your mercy,
Protect us with your power.