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You can listen to the sermon here as you read:
The book of Exodus describes how the Israelites were led out of slavery into the promised land of freedom. In response, Israel enters into a covenant with YHWH who gives them their laws and guidelines for worship.
Chapter 25 of the Book of Exodus provides very detailed instructions about building the Ark of the Covenant – a kind of container. In it, the wandering Israelites would carry the stone tablets of the 10 commandments, the heart of the covenant between YHWH and Israel.
The Israelites were also instructed to fashion an elaborate cover for this ark – made of gold, decorated with cherubs on either end that faced each other. This cover was called the Mercy Seat.
And in verse 22, YHWH says, “There I will meet you.”
God tells His followers, “I will meet you there, in the Mercy Seat.”
“I will meet you there.”
In today’s collect, we ask for God’s mercy. We’re asking God to “increase and multiply upon us God’s mercy.”
What does that mean to you? And what does it mean to receive mercy from God? What does it mean to ask for mercy from God? Or from another? And what might it mean for you to offer mercy to another?
The idea of mercy is relatively simple, yet it’s a hard one to grasp because mercy is something humans find very hard to receive, to accept for themselves. And, therefore, very hard to offer one another.
Mercy is sort of like the continuous offering of a free pass.
Mercy acknowledges the brokenness of the world and offers no judgment, only compassion and love.
Mercy accepts the mistaken actions and horrible deeds and yet demands no punishment, no payment, no retribution.
Mercy never insists on an apology but is always open, always ready to receive our brokenness, just as it is, because there is nothing wrong, nothing needing to be fixed or changed.
We’re always asking God for mercy during worship. In our confession during the summer, we pray to the “God of all mercy” and then I say the absolution, “Almighty God have mercy on you…”
Mercy is the relentless belief that we’re all just doing the best that we can. It’s a refusal to label others as evil, despite what they may do.
It’s a refusal of the idea that people must be deserving of God’s generosity and love.
It’s a part of the Exodus story because it’s about the movement from slavery to freedom.
But this idea is an affront to our understanding of what is appropriate and what makes people “good.”
Because mercy is the incessant believe that no one is outside the Reign of God. Everyone belongs. Absolutely everyone.
It’s no coincidence that the Mercy Seat is placed on top of the 10 Commandments. We are asked to follow guidelines and laws so that we might care for one another in community, but they are not what define us as human beings. They are not what characterizes our relationship with God.
What characterizes our relationship with God is our willingness to meet God in the Mercy Seat, where God is always waiting for us.
This Mercy Seat is a place set apart from the temporal world where we carry hurts and pain. A place set apart from time and space.
It’s a place where our hearts open to God and our souls are healed of the wounds we carry.
The Mercy Seat is the eternal place where God meets us. And sometimes, where we are able to meet one another. Sometimes, even, where we are able to meet ourselves.
“Show us your mercy, Lord. And grant us your salvation.”
Today’s reading from Hosea demonstrates what we typically believe about our relationship with God. Hosea contains some of the worst passages in the whole of the Bible, starting with a particularly brutal metaphor that has resulted in a deeply misogynistic understanding of God.
We don’t read it very often with good reason.
This man Hosea uses his own broken marriage as a representation of Israel’s broken relationship with God – hence the reference “children of whoredom.”
Who are called:
- Jezreel (the physical location where, after Solomon died, the line of kings was first broken through an unholy alliance)
- Lo-ruhamah (means, literally, “not loved” to articulate the belief that we are capable of losing God’s love)
- Lo-ammi (means, literally, “you are not my people” to articulate the belief that God walked away from the covenant)
The children are the metaphorical fruits our transgressions. And we truly believe this is the relationship we have with God:
- we do something stupid
- God stops loving us
- we no longer belong to God
It’s this belief that keeps us locked in pain, locked in the temporal world of trying to do whatever we can do get back in God’s good graces. Or, judge other people of being worse than we are so we feel better about ourselves.
This is why mercy is one of the hardest things to implement, to experience in our day to day lives, our temporal existence.
The daily judgments we make. The daily hurts and slights we feel.
The ways in which we become transfixed by our expectations of others and how they make us angry or sad.
How we tell ourselves our own story over and over again: I’m the one who is strong. I’m the one who is left out. I’m the one who can fix people. I’m the one who won’t be tricked. I’m the one who is smart. I’m the one who’s stupid. I’m the one who can’t sing. I’m the one who needs people to help me. I’m the one who never needs any help. I’m the one who can help.
Whatever our story is… this is what guides and shapes and determines our temporal life. It’s a trance that keeps us locked in the belief that we:
- Have done something stupid
- God has stopped loving us
- And so, we no longer belong
So we feel as if we need to do something to curry God’s favor again, something to prove we are worthy of belonging again.
I bet if I asked you to, you could list at least 5 things you believe are wrong with you. 5 things about yourself that you believe need to be corrected. 5 things that you believe are reasons that you aren’t deserving of love.
Perhaps it has to do with your appearance. Perhaps it has to do with how you live your life. The family you come from. The job you do. Your skills and abilities or your perceived lack of skill or ability. Perhaps it has to do with something that’s happened in your life. The death of a loved one. Something that happened to you. Something you did.
All of this is a way to keep ourselves locked in slavery – slavery to a notion of pain and fear. Because when we stop to think about it, we spend most of our lives trying to prove to ourselves how worthy or lovable or deserving or good we are.
We spend most of our lives trying to recover some sense of righteousness, or belovedness, or likeability, or specialness. Some sense of value.
And when we get really scared, we listen to anyone who sounds more sure of things than we are. And we blame and rant and scoff and build walls and make claims and become more entrenched in a battle stance, completely convinced that the evil over there needs to be eradicated.
And we keep the wheel turning, demanding that others fit a certain mold or expectation because we’ve forced ourselves into standards, further binding ourselves and one another.
And if they don’t fit our expectations, then we feel hurt or unacknowledged or disrespected. Or we label them as mean or stupid or selfish.
And we convince ourselves that the other person deserves our judgment. And then we go a step further and convince ourselves that the other person deserves God’s judgment.
We believe Hosea’s prophecy…
- that because we’ve/they’ve done wrong
- we/they deserve God’s anger instead of God’s love
- and we/they no longer belong
And that, is the very height of arrogance, to assign God the same judgments we have.
Because God doesn’t care about any of that. God cares about us, yes. But God isn’t interested in how we need to prove ourselves or punish ourselves or other people.
God doesn’t care about any of that because God is just waiting to offer us mercy so that we might offer it to one another.
How do I know that? Because Jesus teaches us this in today’s lesson from Luke.
His disciples ask him how we’re supposed to pray and it’s simple: “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
We pray this all the time… right after we’ve broken the bread at the Table of Reconciliation. We pray this all the time.
And we’re told:
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone – EVERYONE – who asks receives, everyone who searches finds, and everyone who knocks the door will be opened.
It’s just that simple. God has promised She’ll meet us there – in the Mercy Seat, where freedom can be found.
“Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.”
Mercy starts with ourselves. It starts with letting ourselves off the hook.
Because here’s the truth:
You can never do anything to make God stop loving you.
You have always belonged.
Mercy is the relentless belief that we’re all doing the best that we can.
Mercy is the incessant recognition that everyone belongs.
When we begin to believe that, we can start to help other people remember that too. And then, the Reign of God starts to manifest before our eyes.
There is a Persian poet that many people know about.
His name is Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī… or Rumi for short.
Rumi is the Islamic counterpart of our St John of the Cross or Theresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich or the Venerable Bede. The mystic poets of our respective religions – the spiritual centers where there is no extremism.
Rumi would spin as a form of prayer, meditating in motion as the temporal world and all its traps and hurts and expectations blurred around the still, silent center where he would hear God speaking.
And one of Rumi’s poems is his experience of meeting God in the Mercy Seat.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
“Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.”