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The Wideness of God's Mercy

Written by Pastor Dan Wilfrid. Posted in Sermons

Pentecost 11 (A)     Matthew 15:21-28

"There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in God’s justice which is more than liberty."

In a few minutes, we will all sing those words in a hymn that reminds us that God’s estimation of who is worthy of God’s grace and mercy, and whose lives matter, and who gets included and treated fairly and equally, is always wider and more expansive than ours, and that part of living in this world as people of God is to feel God pushing that expansion of his mercy and ours further and faster than we often want to push it.

We set up governments on principals of justice and liberty, but even when they function well, they remain poor shadows of what God intends. ("There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty.")

And when that government and its leaders don’t function as they ought to at all, the gap between God’s mercy and the mercy we exhibit as communities and nations and a world narrows dangerously. We divide into camps. We divide by color, by nationality, by belief system, by race, gender and whatever else, and before long evil forces like bigotry and racism and even Nazism are emboldened and emerge from the shadows to remind us that they’ve never really gone away, and can still be persuasive ideologies to many, especially those feeling unheard and alienated.

The events of last weekend in Charlottesville, and even more the inconsistent, muddled and defensive response of our President to them, has left it to others, including and perhaps especially leaders of the church to clearly and unequivocally denounce the hatred and bigotry of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in our country, as well as to confess the remnants of such evil that remain even in us and are still deeply woven into our nation’s political, religious and economic life.

This is therefore a good day to remember and to confess in song that: “the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind; and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind. But we make this love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify its strictness with a zeal God will not own.”

God’s estimation of who is worthy of God’s grace and mercy, and whose lives matter, and who gets included and treated fairly and equally, is always wider and more expansive than ours, and part of living in this world as people of God is to feel God pushing that expansion of his mercy and ours further and faster than often we are willing to push it.

In today’s Bible readings, we have three examples of that holy push to a wider mercy and inclusion of people previously assumed to be beyond the bounds of such mercy. The first comes from Isaiah. More than any other prophet, Isaiah’s words pushed God’s people beyond their understanding of themselves as specially chosen by God, to understanding that chosen-ness as God’s way to bless the whole world.

It was always easier for Israel to remember God’s choice of Abraham and Sarah than to remember that it was a choice intended to bless the world.  Especially after the exile in Babylon, which God’s people had rightly come to understand as God’s judgment on their unfaithfulness and worship of foreign deities, there was a strong appeal in voices that called for ethnic purity and a sharp separation of God’s people from foreigners. Just read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The way to stay holy is to stay away from the defilement of foreigners.

Isaiah’s voice stood out in contrast. “Foreigners who join themselves to the Lord and to be his servants…..these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer – a house of prayer for all peoples!” Through Isaiah, God pushed that cautious post-exile community to abandon the false limits they were setting on God’s mercy, and to let it widen as God willed.

And then Paul, after two chapters of agonizing over the evident reality that most of Judaism was not going to accept Jesus as their Messiah, and wondering if that would mean their eternal damnation, in the end, in the words of today’s second reading, Paul concludes that God has by no means rejected his chosen people. The promises God made to Abraham and Sarah, like all of God’s promises, are irrevocable. Even though he can’t figure out how, Paul accepts that the wideness of God’s mercy is wider than his own, and the love of God is broader than his mind could measure, and that somehow, the same wide mercy that welcomed gentiles, would in the end also welcome those who rejected their Messiah.

You see, when it comes to the wideness of God’s mercy, it’s always hard for God’s people to keep up with God. All through history, we humans drag our feet, we resist a wider welcome, we set false limits, even in and as the church, as God persistently pulls us toward God’s wider mercy.

Seven years ago this month, this congregation was thrown into turmoil when our council proposed that we extend a call to a young man named Aaron Decker to be our Associate Pastor. The turmoil wasn’t about his gifts for ministry or his theological grounding in our Lutheran tradition. It was about his willingness to simply be honest and open about being gay. Even though he fully met our denomination’s qualifications, as well as its highly moral behavioral expectations for all of its leaders, some here worried that calling an openly gay pastor was a wider mercy than even God would approve of. And they, of course, had biblical stories and passages that set clear limits on such mercy, limits that had made sense to God’s people for centuries, making their worry not only credible, but a deep issue of faith.

And during a month of deep and honest and often painful conversations, we wrestled together respectfully and with careful listening to discern whether we were wandering from our God or being pushed forward by our God. Difficult as those conversations were, I have never been prouder to be your Pastor than when so many of you so willingly showed up and engaged in them, and then voted by a wide margin to extend our call to Aaron.

And now, as we get ready to bid him a fond and thankful farewell and Godspeed next week, I pray that the awareness of how richly we’ve been blessed by that Godly push to a wider mercy, will make us at least a little less hesitant and resistant when the next one comes.
Because there will always be a next one. God’s vision of who is worthy of God’s grace and mercy will always exceed ours. And when we feel God’s unwelcome nudge, we’ll always be tempted by voices calling us to ignore it, or to fear that another’s gain will be our loss.

There will always be God’s nudge to welcome in those we’re much more comfortable leaving outside. Which is why it’s probably good to have a gospel reading today in which Jesus is cast as the one resistant to that nudge, and in which a Canaanite woman sees God’s vision even more clearly than Jesus does and challenges him to see it with her.

The only way to get around the fact that Jesus is cast here as being quite reluctant to help this woman because she’s not a Jew, and even calls her a dog unworthy of the children’s food, is to say that he was just testing her faith. But that’s a pretty weak excuse if you ask me, and one we’re better off rejecting especially today, so that we can see ourselves more clearly in Jesus’ shoes. We’re his church after all, and maybe seeing Jesus behave this way can help us see how easy it is for us to do the same when God comes to push us toward a wider mercy.

Might God’s mercy have been even wider than Jesus understood it to be at that point in his life and ministry? And if God used a smart-mouthed foreign woman to nudge even Jesus to a wider mercy, then maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised or even embarrassed and ashamed to admit that God still needs to nudge us as well. 

Evil and divisive forces like bigotry and racism never really go away. They will always offer a persuasive way to see people of other nations, races and beliefs as being dangerous threats, or less then human.  And they will always feel emboldened and emerge from the shadows when they get even the slightest hint of a sympathetic ear from people in power.

But it’s then that we can expect God’s firm nudge: the nudge Isaiah gave to Israel; the nudge that gave Paul hope for his fellow Jews; the nudge a Canaanite woman even gave Jesus. It’s the same nudge we get every Sunday to come to the table that is set for all, and where even the crumbs that fall to us are enough to heal our diseases.

“‘Tis not all we owe to Jesus; it is something more than all: greater good because of evil, larger mercy through the fall. Make our love, O God, more faithful; let us take you at your word, and our lives will be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.”    AMEN