Wednesday, September 14, 2011

God's Mercy is Greater Than God's Justice

By Nathaniel Katz
The following sermon was delivered at the Sunday Night Service of The Memorial Church at Harvard University on September 11th, 2011.

Today has been a day for remembrance. And it is fitting that we are here tonight as a community to remember and to worship in a building constructed for precisely these two purposes. But this building was intended to be more than a church. Behind me is a dark, empty space. In official church terms, we might refer to it as a nave or a sanctuary. There are hundreds of names on the darkened walls behind us. 

Those names serve as a memorial to those who gave their lives for something greater than themselves. One has to admit that their presence is a bit macabre. But these names are not meant to induce fear. Instead, they are meant to inspire us to live lives of meaning – to make their sacrifice meaningful by picking up the torch they left behind – by making our lives count, here at Harvard and beyond.

Tonight we remember those who lost their lives at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in a field in western Pennsylvania. Ten years later, we as individuals and as a nation are still struggling to make sense and to make meaning out of the horrific events of September 11th. Ten years later, it still seems too overwhelming a task to figure out what that meaning might be and what we are supposed to do about it.

The good news is that we are not alone in this struggle. We are not the first to experience this type of deep questioning. And we have a long and rich tradition to lean upon for strength and wisdom in the church and in our faith.

Our scripture lessons tonight provide us with a fairly resounding answer to our questions – that we are meant to exercise mercy and forgiveness. We see this lesson played out in the story of Joseph and his brothers. The story of Joseph is fairly well known thanks to the theatrics of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and their musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

It’s not hard to see why they were inspired by Joseph’s story. There is jealousy on the part of Joseph’s brothers towards him for his most-favored status in the eyes of their father. There is the intrigue in Joseph’s ability to have and interpret wildly important dreams. There is betrayal, as Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and lie to their father, Jacob, telling him that a wild animal had slaughtered Joseph. Ultimately, there is triumph as Joseph rises to prominence as the trusted confidant of the Egyptian Pharaoh and uses his newfound power to rescue his family from starvation in the midst of famine. High drama, indeed.

But at the end of the day, the true power of Joseph’s story lies in his ability to forgive. Joseph certainly didn’t have to forgive his brothers. Even in the passage that was read tonight, Joseph’s brothers didn’t make forgiveness an easy task. In actual fact, his brothers don’t actually ask Joseph for forgiveness. Instead, they read a message from Jacob, their now-deceased father, which asks Joseph to forgive his brothers for their heinous crimes. Joseph’s brothers clearly don’t think they deserve forgiveness, and they don’t expect Joseph to carry out Jacob’s dying wish. Their own actions tell us as much, since they offer to become Joseph’s slaves. They expect Joseph to act with justice. They expect Joseph to take vengeance by taking an eye for an eye. It would only be fair, given what they had done to him.

We can sympathize with the brothers, can’t we? We know all too well the shame that comes in asking for forgiveness. Their cowardice in deferring to their father’s words is more than a little reminiscent of the kind of non-apologies we’ve become accustomed to hearing from celebrities and public officials – the kind that never actually express regret for the wrong they have done and, in the end, don’t actually acknowledge their need for forgiveness. We can spot the phonies a mile away – and of you’re like me, you may have ceased to expect anything more from those in positions of power. And would we begrudge Joseph for choosing to exact revenge upon his brothers? I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve fantasized about letting our tormentors in this life get their just desserts.

But thank God for Joseph, whose example reminds us that it doesn’t have to be this way. His response carries an important message to us across the millennia – that mercy is greater than justice. This idea was one of Professor Peter J Gomes’ favorites. He used to say that justice is nothing but a cold lunch. But mercy…He never finished that sentence. The implication was enough. Justice is the cold lunch that will fill the deep, primal hunger we may feel on a bitter, wintry New England day, nothing more. But mercy nourishes our soul by reminding us that we are cherished, valued and loved. That experience is one that transcends words, so why try to capture the ineffable? Mercy speaks for itself.

In the days immediately following September 11th, 2011, there was a common headline found on the front page of newspapers around the world – “The Day Everything Changed.” The idea that the world changed on September 11th became a point of conventional wisdom in the days, weeks, months and years after the attacks. Today, with ten years of hindsight to pull from, that idea seems a bit hollow. For those who lost friends, family, colleagues and loved ones on that day, the world did change that Tuesday morning. Their lives were ripped apart, and many are left with emotional wounds that may never fully heal.

But on a global scale, the truth is that not much has changed. We lived in a violent world on September 10th, 2001. The only difference was that the violence took place far beyond our shores. We still live in a violent world today and we are still living with the reality of the longest war our country has ever fought.

I’m not going to spend much time editorializing on global politics. That wouldn’t do any of us much good. But I do think it is worth pondering the question – what would change have looked like?

I believe that the world would truly have changed if we had chosen as people and as a people to respond to the events of 9/11 with mercy and forgiveness. Forgiveness is the message we receive from Joseph. It is the command we receive from Jesus in the Gospel passage tonight. And forgiveness is at the heart of our Christian faith. We believe that the world was changed on Good Friday through the horrible act of the crucifixion. Through that act God reoriented the universe towards forgiveness. Jesus’ suffering was an act of compassion, so that we might know that our God understands the reality of human suffering. And through his sacrifice we receive the great gift of ultimate forgiveness.

This is not meant to glorify violence, as we humans do so often and so well. But it is meant to demonstrate that God was willing to show mercy for us through the means our greatest human weakness – violence. We humans are addicted to violence. We are fascinated by it. We can’t take our eyes off of it – whether it’s a war movie or a car wreck on the side of the road. And violence takes many forms. It’s not just physical. We can be violent through the use of words, or through manipulation. Violence is at the heart of the human experience. It is through violence and in the midst of violence that God reaches out to us and offers us his unconditional love through mercy and forgiveness.

God’s forgiveness is transformative. The greatest of all transformations – Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is fueled by God’s love through forgiveness. We as Christians are meant to be catalysts for transformative change, with mercy and forgiveness as our only weapons. God sends us out into the world armed only with the power to disarm and we are meant to use it. It goes against reason and our better judgment to use these weapons because they make us vulnerable, but that is our calling.

There is great irony in the fact that God calls upon us to use the power of forgiveness. The Bible is filled with vivid stories of God’s fury when we humans try to become like God. Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden when they eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge. The Tower of Babel is destroyed when humans try to inhabit the heavens. Ultimately, God destroys creation on account of humans’ desperate attempts to become God-like.

In our scripture passages tonight, we are given license to use this one godly power that God has given to us. In our Gospel lesson tonight we are, in fact, commanded to act with mercy and forgiveness. I have to admit that I am disturbed by the threat of divine punishment we find at the end of the Gospel passage, if we do not choose to exercise forgiveness. I’m mostly at a loss for how to explain it.

My best guess is that the Gospel writer felt so strongly about the need to forgive that he (most likely) felt compelled to put it in violent terms that we humans seem to understand so well. We must always remember that our scriptures are human texts struggling to comprehend the God we so desperately want to know.

So, my friends, we have a choice. We can choose how to respond when we encounter pain, violence and suffering. Ten years ago, in his first sermon after 9/11, Professor Gomes suggested that, “Inner strength is what is required when in the midst of turmoil we do not know what to do with our outward power and our outward might.” The inner strength that is required comes from God and takes the form of mercy and forgiveness. These are the pillars on which the Christian life rests.

We must resist the temptation to exact revenge. We must not settle for the cold lunch that is justice. Instead, we are called to lives of mercy. We are commanded to forgive.

And when it seems hard to forgive, we must remember that God has forgiven us. My childhood pastor used to say that the most important part of any worship service is confession and absolution. He used to tell us that he didn’t care if we walked out on his sermon as long as we stuck around to confess our sins and be forgiven. I extend that same message to you, and by now you may be wishing I had said that at the start of my sermon. But Confession is meant to remind us that mercy and forgiveness are at the center of our lives as Christians. And through the forgiveness of our sins here, we are meant to be empowered to go out into the world to use this great power of forgiveness that God has entrusted to us.

As corny and naïve as it may sound, we can change the world. And we can honor the memory of all those lives memorialized on the wall behind us. We have the power. God has granted us the power…the power of forgiveness. May we all have the courage of Joseph to choose mercy and be brave enough to answer God’s call to forgive. Amen.

Nat Katz is the Epps Fellow for Undergraduate Ministry at The Memorial Church of Harvard University. Katz completed his Master of Divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School in May 2010 and is currently seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church. An avid choral musician, cook and traveler, Katz has taken a keen interest in the ways that all forms of culture influence contemporary politics.

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