Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
March 6, 2016
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
The first three years of my ministry as a priest, I was working as a chaplain at Yale University, and also part time at a local inner city church in New Haven. Then I had the opportunity to go to a larger church in New York City that had this bustling children’s program. I was invited to do one of the classes, one of the Sunday school lessons at this program, and I was so excited because the assignment was today’s gospel, the story of the two sons. I thought that I had a way to really communicate the message of this gospel to children.
So I went out and I bought a large bag of wonderful cookies. I put them in the huge heaping – on this tray, I put this huge heaping pile of cookies. I hid the cookies in the chapel where we did the Sunday school class. I hid the cookies behind the altar. Then I got another tray and I put nine cookies on it. The children came in and I asked them all the take a seat on the carpet and a semi-circle around me. And I brought and I took the tray with the nine cookies and I put it in the middle of them and I said, “There once was a father who had two sons and nine cookies.
And one of the sons came up to him and said, “Father, I want three cookies now.” And so, the father gave him the three cookies. The son went off and ate the cookies. But then he became hungry. And so he came back to the father and the other son and said, “Look, if each of you give me one of your cookies, we’ll all have the same amount of cookies. We’ll each have two cookies.”
Do you think the father should do that? Should the father give one of the cookies from his own store and one of the older son’s cookies to the son that ate the cookies? Well, the children were just furious. They were clear. The fact that the son had eaten the cookies, that disqualified him from any more cookies. He had all the cookies he needed that the order in the universe, the way we live our lives justice would be upset if you allowed for more cookies to be given that selfish person.
So then I read the story and that I said to them, when you give out of your poverty, God blesses out of God’s abundance. Then I went behind the altar and I placed the large plate of cookies in front of them and I said, “Have some cookies.” And they hesitated for a moment and then they realize that it wasn’t just a joke. So one of them reached forward and grabbed one of the cookies and then the others went at it, and all of a sudden they were just kind of – the pandemonium broke out and the room, they’re all eating the cookies.
There was a moment in which they were resting a little bit like leopards after a kill. Then one of them said to me, “Do you have any milk?” I said, “Well, no. I don’t have any milk.” I didn’t think about that. Before they could get over that huge problem, suddenly, the sugar rush kicked in and they lost their minds. They began to run all over the chapel and I was there alone and I was trying to please them. But they paid no attention to me because they knew that I was obviously a Charlatan.
Nobody in authority would’ve given that many cookies to children. That was just ridiculous. And so, I could not control them. They were all over. I would say, “Come on guys. Come on! Come on!” And they were just running around. A parent opened the door of the chapel and she saw what was going on and she immediately turned and got reinforcements. Like a SWAT team the parents came in. Kids pressed against the wall. And then they all had to apologize to me afterwards.
It was just the moment of which I realize that the whole lesson had gone horribly wrong when one of those little boys had to say to me, “I’m sorry, Father Bill.” Oh my God! Clearly, children were not my charism. I can never read today’s gospel without thinking about that story. I suspect that each of us has a story or something in our minds when we read the story, we hear it and we think of all the ways that we’ve tried to enter into it as Christians over the years.
And one of the things I did like about this failed experiment is I think that I was trying to communicate a very powerful point because you see the story is an invitation to unlearn the basics. We live in a world in which we have expectations of justice and fairness. And whether or not this is knit within our psyches or something that we have inherited in our own cultural and social matrix, when that justice is violated, when that fairness is not observed, you and I tend to think that we have gotten a raw deal.
And yet, the point of this parable as Jesus speaks it is to say that God is not fundamentally just. God is not fundamentally fair. God is merciful. And at the end of the day, what we need more than anything else, more than justice, more than fairness, we need a God who is merciful. One of the things I’ve been doing this Lent is I’ve been reading a book by Pope Francis called The Name of God is Mercy.
The opening of the book is amazing. He says, “What is mercy for you?” And then he writes, “Etymologically, mercy derives from miseri cordis, which means opening one’s heart to wretchedness. And immediately we go to the Lord, mercy is the divine attribute which embraces. It is God giving himself to us, accepting us and bowing to forgive. Jesus said that he came not for those who are good, but for the sinners. He did not come for the healthy who do not need the doctor, but for the sick. For this reason, we can say that mercy is God’s identity card. God of mercy, merciful God. For me, this really is the Lord’s identity.”
I find these words powerful and I find them true. But I would only add the following; and that is that mercy is something that has a kind of dynamic movement to it. This is why when Jesus is trying to teach his disciples and others that God is a God of mercy that he tells us story in which there is a transformation.
Miseri cordis that Pope Francis identifies truly is the root of mercy. But that word itself is a compound of two Latin words. Miserere, which is to be wretched and cordis or cordia, which is heart. Mercy is a moment in which your heart is broken and transformed and your life is turned inside out and your world is turned upside down. And all of that is to welcome, include, forgive and reconcile.
In our reading from Joshua, we have that moment in which the people of God finally reached the promised land. And as assigned to it, the manna that they have been living on throughout their stay in the universe suddenly ceases and they can live off the land because they now would experience God’s mercy in the Promise Land. Where they once experienced it as manna in the wilderness as something that they turn to because they were starving and suddenly discovered sustenance. They now would experience God’s mercy on a regular basis.
And then our reading from 2 Corinthians, you have another moment of mercy where Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” And we entreat you, be reconciled to God. Jesus tells the story of the two sons because he wants to capture that moment – that moment in time in which mercy breaks in and bridges are built and walls come down. That is what it means to be merciful.
What is mercy for you? What story or moment in time or opportunity do you have in this time and this place? What opportunity do you have to be merciful, to experience God’s mercy, to know that you are beloved? And in turn, to love with the same love that has been shown you. To forgive as you have been forgiven, to know yourselves as God’s own forever and to see that sacredness and the people around you.
Today, I have two pictures of mercy. One that is painted with words and one that is painted with normal pigments. The first is by a monk who lives in Minnesota. He’s originally from Iowa. His name is Kilian McDonnell. Kilian McDonnell is in his 90s. He began to write poetry seriously when he turned 75. My kind of guy.
McDonnell wanted to write poetry that was not pious poetry. Not the kind of poetry that you would easily read in church. He wanted to capture some of the messiness, some of the challenges, some of the tensions that you see in the scriptures when you look at it from the right way. This is what he writes about today’s reading from Luke.
“But the way he swings his arms,
turns his head, slightly
pigeon-toed. I am out the door,
down the stairs, down the road,
running, arms outstretched.
My embrace, my tears, my laughter
gather in all the years,
my kiss stops rehearsed
genealogies of sin, outlawing the self.
Of course, you are my son.
Be quick, steward, clothe him
like the son of an eastern king,
the best robe from my chest,
wake the cook, load
the table with meats and wines.
Call in friends and foes,
blaze the night into day
with torches, push the chairs
against the wall, pluck the harps,
strike the largest timbrel.
When the dead come back you drink.
When the lost are found you dance.”
For McDonnell, mercy is a moment of reconciliation in which friends and foe are gathered. It’s a moment of celebration in which you drink and dance. It’s a moment in which you are made anew and made for each other once more.
The second is a painting by Frank Wesley. Frank Wesley is an Indian painter. He was part of a movement called the – oh my goodness. It’ll come to me. He’s a part of a movement called the Bengali Renaissance. The Bengali Renaissance started in the late 19th century and carried forward to about 1941. And the Bengali Renaissance was this idea that was animated by Indian intellectuals that they had to recreate the culture in India much like Europe had a renaissance. They needed a renaissance.
And the Bengali Renaissance was one in which the cast system was questioned and the status of women was questioned and colonization by Great Britain was questioned. This was a moment in which the Indian people would develop their own distinct culture, their own distinct style. They withstand and grow and see. And Wesley wanted to paint. He was a member of a family that had been Christians for generations. And he wanted to paint the pictures in the Bible in a way that would reflect a peculiarly Indian setting and the Indian context.
So this moment, this picture that he paints is the forgiving father. And in it you can see the kind of cast divisions in Indian society collapsing. You have the father who looks like a Brahman welcoming his son who looks like a Dalit, an untouchable. And instead of being repulsed or not seeing that the person – he is burying his head in his son’s neck, he is cradling him and caring for him. And that of course picks up on a major thing in this gospel that we tend to miss, which is that when the son went and fed pigs and had contact with pigs he became profane.
When the father welcomes him back, he was risking contamination. He was willing to set aside everything that would keep him from being able to welcome his son and name him as God’s beloved and his offspring once more. And so Wesley paints this picture because he wanted to see and experience and celebrate mercy as that which could reunite polar opposites that could bring together profane and sacred that could have truth and justice kiss in God’s loving embrace.
What is mercy for you? Is it manna in the wilderness? Is it the power of experiencing yourself as a new creation? Is it your ability to reach out and bring someone in you’re estranged with? Or visit someone you haven’t seen for a long time? Is it the willingness to repair a relationship? Is it the realization and revelation in time and space that you are God’s beloved? And God is willing to run to you and gather you in so that you might be reconciled.