Last Sunday, I preached the most difficult sermon I have ever written and confessed my heart to the church, unfiltered. Add ugly tears…okay sobs, (like snot draining uncontrollably from both nostrils..someone brought me not a tissue but a kitchen napkin to help dry up the nostril flood), lots of hand gestures and trembling voice as I force the difficult parts out and you have my sermon. Albeit the messy and vulnerable delivery, it was beyond freeing. I’ve written plenty of well written sermons that were engaging and thoughtful. I have always been terrific at wrapping and gussying everything up in a nice little package to be neatly delivered. But this was not that. I couldn’t do it one more time. I couldn’t pretty up the truth and to free myself I had to be honest and true because Jesus called my bluff. I hope that in doing so, I gave others the permission to do so also.
I said a lot, but I also left a lot unsaid too. And I will have to continue my story with making some very difficult decisions in the coming weeks. I’ll be needing a lot of mercy and grace as I (we) move forward and even though I will try my best to be gracious in my letting go, I know myself better and predict some spectacular stumbles and falls along the way. Anyways, enough pre-sermon. Here it is, warts and all:
Lord, Have Mercy
October 25 2015
Upon seeing this week’s theme, I smirked. I smirked because I tend to over use this phrase, usually with sass when I’m over done. It’s sort right up there with that southern passive aggressive “Well, bless your heart” and the less passive and more aggressive “Ya’ll need Jesus.” And because of this, for me, the word mercy has been watered down, overused so much so that it had lost its’ startling and outrageous nature.
When I looked over the sermon helps and commentary the world church offered, I’ll be honest: I was a little disappointed to find the word “tender” accompany mercy. My experience with mercy has never been tender. And when I speak about my understanding of mercy, I must speak about my understanding of grace. For me, they go hand in hand and must be spoken about together. And neither, unfortunately, have come to me in the ways of tenderness. Instead, they’ve broken me apart, split me wide open and kicked me in the ribs for good measure. And when I look to the people that hung around Jesus, grace and mercy was never a picture of water colored rainbows and harp music. Instead it was disturbingly raw, unfiltered, ground shattering business. So unfortunately, my story I am sharing with you might be more annoying than comforting but I still hope that you might be able to find a sense of “peace” and be able to nod along and whisper “me too”.
I always seem to be scheduled to preach during times I feel the most ill equipped. Unworthy and downright the last person who should be up here. Perhaps, that’s because I always am those things. This season of my spiritual season has been one of the most difficult stretches I’ve faced. Even more so than my days studying religion at Belmont. And I assure you that Dr. Curtis, my spiritual formation professor and Dr. Byrd, my greek professor didn’t make my spiritual journey easier- in fact, I’m quite certain it was in their job description to break each religion student into a million pieces upon entering the classroom. And yet, this season of my journey is tougher.
So, I’m being vulnerable with you and confessing that church is one of the most difficult places to be when you are in the wilderness. And that isn’t soley the church’s or my own fault: it’s just that it’s hard to be in such a place of doubt and show up and sing hymns and act none the wiser. And I’m sort of over that part of my life that fakes it to make it, right? Like I’ve done that really, really well for a long time. As someone who is very (and overly) independent and someone who who likes to be right and annoyingly so, who really likes being and having control (a coping mechanism to deal with my anxiety), I’m just plum exhausted. It’s exhausting to exert so much energy and time commitment to portray the illusion that you’ve got it all together. Do you feel that? I can’t be the only one. And sometimes we feel the need to be everything to everyone because we want to protect others from our inner mess- right? We want to shield others, we want to please them, so we continue the act. But it is all a big lie to ourselves and to others. We might be all great actors and put on a terrific show but I’m learning in such a difficult way lately, that that mode of operation is not life living and it is not life giving. It’s not life giving- and Jesus is always the annoying one. Right? Jesus is always the annoying one, calling out your bluff. It’s always Jesus. Being honest, being authentic, shining light on the painfully annoying truth.
Lately, Jesus has been annoying the hell out of me. I have done my very best to shut him up, run away, dig my head in the sand, close my ears and sit with my arms crossed tightly. Spoiler Alert: that works but only for a hot second. And this is my story. While sitting there I had become so cynical, so angry and bitter about Christianity and the Church. I’d become disillusioned with the lack of transparency, the hurt done in Christ’s name, the double standards and I had become so tired of the good fight, I sat out.
Rachel Held Evans is a published writer and pastor right here in Tennessee. Her story is my story right down to the tacks. In her book, “Searching for Sunday” I read my story as she told hers and it deeply resonated with me when she said “I knew exactly who I was: the church girl, the girl who always had a place in her youth group family, the girl on fire for God. I’m not sure I can ever calculate the value of that community, that sense of belonging and of being loved. It never even occurred to me that such a fire could be washed out.” Me too, I scribbled with pen next to her words. You know, it’s one thing for others to surprise you with their actions and words but it’s a whole other thing when you surprise yourself. It’s scary, right? So when I ended up in the trenches of this utter faith crisis, instead of doing my usual introspective digging and pursuing, I shut it down. I think part of that response was partly due to a practical reason of becoming a mother. I just didn’t have the mental capacity or energy to welcome this heavy load of doubt and unbelief this time. So, I shut it down and did my best to bury it. It’s painfully obvious now in retrospect what I was doing but at the time, I was blind to it.
I could easily berate myself for this part of my journey, but I’m trying this thing where I don’t shame myself for the road I’ve walked. Instead, I want to honor it because it’s okay and even arguably necessary to challenge your belief and way of thinking. If I hadn’t been in a dark, lonely place Mercy wouldn’t have been able to swoop in and kick my butt.
Let’s turn to Mark 10:46-52.
46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
I am uncomfortable with the truth that I can identify with the disciples in their lack of seeing. I think that often we are much like the disciples in that we are blind to our own healing. The thing is, you can be witness to Jesus’ and God’s mercy over and over again and still be blind to it. It isn’t until you are broken wide open and doused over the head with it that you can begin to understand its’ radical and disturbing power.
While I was just beginning to come up for air during my faith crisis, I prayed for a lighthouse. I prayed for someone to gently shine light upon the darkness that surrounded me and help me navigate the murky waters. My lighthouse came in the form of Nadia Bolz-Weber. I read her books and right after I finished them she actually came in town to speak about her latest book “Accidental Saints” so I went to hear her speak too. Her voice of authenticity was what I truly and deeply needed in that dark space. I’m not sure I could have heard anything else but authentic and transparent words. I needed to hear someone who wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is, to call out the bullshit and be unapologetic about it. For a Lutheran pastor, she’s a bit rough around the edges but that’s why I connected with her story so I want to share quite a bit of it here with you. Her understanding of mercy is much like mine:
But what do we mean when we say, “Lord have mercy”?
Some may say we’re asking God to not punish us for our sin, to not rain down fury and violent retribution on us. And maybe there’s a place for that. Maybe asking for God’s mercy is like saying, we beg you for your mercy to be with us, because ours is not enough. We ask for your wisdom to be with us, your loving- kindness to be with us, because we just don’t have enough of our own. And we keep messing everything up. It seems that we are especially moved to beg this of God in situations where we are overwhelmingly aware of our shortcomings and smallness. (pg 157) Peter surely understood this need for mercy if anyone did. He had been a common fisherman when Jesus walked by and said, “Follow me.” Peter dropped his nets and everything he had known and followed this Jesus of Nazareth. And with him, walking the road together, Peter had seen great things. Miraculous wonders, healings, acts of power and grace. Peter was the first to call Jesus the Messiah. He was, above all, earnest in his devotion.
And yet, when it came down to it, Peter, like so many of us, was unable to live up to his own values and ideals. When the hour of Jesus’ betrayal and death came, Peter did not bravely stay by Jesus’ side. He chose instead to anonymously warm himself by a nearby charcoal fire. But you just can’t warm feet that have gone that cold. And he did not go unnoticed, as he had hoped, because three times he was asked by passerby, “Wait, you know him, don’t you?” and three times Peter said, “I do not.” He loved Jesus, yet in Jesus’ hour of need, Peter denied he even knew him. He was tested and he was found wanting. Kyrie elieson. Lord have mercy. … (pg 158)
But God is a God of Easter. When Peter jumps into the sea and encounters Jesus on the beach grilling fish over a charcoal fire, I imagine Peter has an olfactory-triggered memory of another charcoal fire. A charcoal fire around which he warmed himself with his own self-protection and fear. Denying his Lord and warming his hands. His own smell of shame. (pg 159)
But the resurrected Christ does such an unbearably loving and merciful thing. He does not rebuke Peter for failing him in his time of need. Instead he gives Peter breakfast, and then he gives Peter three chances to proclaim his love, one for each of his denials.
“Do you love me, Peter?”
With the smell of charcoal in his nostrils, could Peter possible have answered “yes” without tears in his eyes?
“I have failed you, Lord, and denied you in your hour of death despite everything in me that knew it was wrong, but yes. Three times yes. I love you, Lord. Have mercy upon me.”…
The adjective so often coupled with mercy is the word tender, but God’s mercy is not tender; this mercy is a blunt instrument. Mercy doesn’t wrap a warm, limp blanket around offenders. God’s mercy is the kind that kills the thing that wronged it and resurrects something new in its place. In our guilt and remorse, we may wish for nothing but the ability to rewrite our own past, but what’s done cannot, will not, be undone.
But I am here to say that in the mercy of God it can be redeemed. I cling to the truth of God’s ability to redeem us more than perhaps any other. I have to. I need to. I want to. For when we say “Lord have mercy,” what else could we possibly mean than this truth? (pg 160) And to say “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have Mercy” is to lay our hope in the redeeming work of the God of Easter as through our lives depended on it. Because they do. It means that we are an Easter people, a people who know that resurrection, especially in and among the least likely people and places, is the way that God redeems even the biggest messes we make–mine, Peter’s, Bruce’s.” (pg 161)
Then Nadia later brings a comparison I have never heard before and one that is truly enlightening and empowering.
After Peter denied Jesus, he experienced Easter, but after Judas betrayed Jesus, he bought a field, tripped and fell, and his guts burst open. He died alone in a field of blood. He died knowing that he was a sinner and perhaps thinking that God did not want him.
There was no Easter for Judas. There was no Resurrection. (pg 164) There was no light shining which the darkness could not overcome. Judas never got to be filled with joy and disbelief at Pentecost like those in the upper room. He never got to stick his fingers in the wounds of God. He never got to eat sacramental broiled fish on a beach, served to him by the resurrected Christ. Judas never experienced the defeat of sin and death revealed in the breaking of the bread. He chose death before seeing that death was done for. Our brother Judas.
But was what he did so unforgivable? How is it that Judas, who betrayed Jesus once and was filled with remorse, became the villain, while Peter, who denied Jesus three times and wept bitterly, became the rock on which the church was built? When it comes down to it, what is the difference between Peter and Judas? Well, maybe nothing. And maybe there’s not a whole lot of difference between us and them too.
But we get to share something with Peter that Judas never got to experience and it’s the thing that could have made all the difference. In Judas’ isolation, he never availed himself to the means of grace. Judas carried with him into that field the burden of not experiencing God’s grace because he was removed from the community in which he could hear it. In Judas’s ears there never was placed a word of grace. And let me tell you, that’s not something the sinner can create for him or herself. It is next to impossible in isolation to manufacture the beautiful, radical grace that flows from the heart to God to God’s broken and blessed humanity. As human beings, there are many things we can create for ourselves: entertainment, stories, pain, toothpaste, maybe even positive self-talk. But it is difficult to create this thing that frees us from the bondage of self. We cannot create four ourselves God’s word of grace. We must tell it to each other. It’s a terribly inconvenient and oftentimes uncomfortable way for things to happen. Were we able to receive the word of God through pious, private devotion– through quiet personal (pg165) time with God–the Christian life would be far less messy. But as Paul tells us, faith comes through hearing, and hearing implies having someone right there doing the telling.
Sometimes this comes in the form of someone reminding us of God’s weirdly gracious nature–like when my friend Caitlin said, “Nadia, Jesus died for our sins. Including that one”– and sometimes it comes in the form of a spoken confession and absolution. But sometimes, I believe that God’s word of grace can also come through simple, imperfect everyday human love. (pg 166)
What would it have looked like for Judas if he had experienced the resurrected Christ? What if we allowed ourselves to join Peter? For the first time, I’m beginning to understand and experience, painfully the blunt instrument of mercy. I was blind and… then Jesus, Nadia and Rachel Held Evans hit me over the head with a mercy stick–a get real stick. It was in the immense burden of doubt and denial that I experienced a death. One that was painful and awful and disturbingly honest. It wasn’t until I stopped pretending and my heart was broken wide open that I joined Peter around the fire and experienced resurrection.
But here’s the thing–Mercy isn’t a one and done thing. It’s constantly breaking me apart and reminding me of how much I need it. Every single day. I need it to get by and the grace I receive knocks me off my feet and gives me a little courage to keep being honest, humble and vulnerable. It’s by mercy’s account that I am sharing vulnerably with you today when my true heart of hearts wanted to find a substitute because the lie of self doubt and unworthiness to share with you was loud. But mercy steps in and kills that noise and resurrects something new in its place. For me it is being honest and resisting the urge to clean up my story and make it sound that I’m better put together than I really am. Lord, have mercy. On you, on me, on all of us.
If you haven’t heard a thing I’ve said today, please hear what I am going to read you. Again, I want to share with you Nadia’s words because we need to hear them. I need to hear them. She talks about the Beatitudes and proposes that maybe instead of being instructive they were meant to be performative. She talks about how the people who had come to hear Jesus talk on the mount were the ones who needed to hear blessing over their lives and who probably believed that blessing wasn’t in their cards. But she envisions a Jesus who just lavishly throws out blessings left and right to the ones who were scorned by society- the misfits and lowly. So, she decided to write her own version of the beatitudes to read and bless over her congregation and I think we need to hear them too.
Blessed are the agnostics.
Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still be surprised.
Blessed are they who are spiritually impoverished and therefore not so certain about everything that they no longer take in new information.
Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.
Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
You are heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.
Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears could fill an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.
Blessed are the mothers of the miscarried.
Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.
Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else. Blessed are the motherless, the alone, the ones from whom so much has been taken. Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.”
`Blessed are those who mourn.
You are heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are those who no one notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at hospitals. The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers.
Blessed are the losers and the babies and the parts of ourselves that are so small, the parts of ourselves that don’t want to make eye contact with a world that loves only the winners.
Blessed are the forgotten.
Blessed are the closeted.
Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented.
Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek.
You are heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard, for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them.
Blessed are those without documentation.
Blessed are the ones without lobbyists.
Blessed are the foster kids, and trophy kids and special ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are they who know there has to be more than this.
Because they are right.
Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people.
Blessed are the burned-out social workers and the overworked teachers and the pro bono cask takers.
Blessed are the kindhearted NFL players and the fundraising trophy wives.
Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak.
Blessed are they who hear that they are forgiven.
Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t deserve it.
Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.
May the Lord continue to have mercy on each one of us. May we feel and know it in its most uncomfortable manifestations in our lives. May we continue to flesh out what is means to be people of mercy and grace. Lord, have mercy.
The ridiculously large portions of Nadia Bolz-Weber words I used are from her spectacular book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the Wrong People. Pick up a copy now and thank me later.