As I begin the homily this morning, I invite everyone to take a moment to make a mental list of what you are grateful for.
In this morning’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, St. Paul tells his young protégé that he is grateful. Grateful for what? Grateful for God’s mercy. I am not sure how many of you thought to include God’s mercy on your list of things you are grateful for. I know mercy did not appear on mine . . . probably because because we do not think much about the role God’s mercy plays in our lives. Or, because God’s mercy is so much a part of our very being, we take it for granted.
St. Paul, however, did not take God’s mercy for granted. Throughout his post-conversion life, Paul carried with him the knowledge that he had done everything possible to incur the wrath of God. Now he didn’t do this intentionally. Actually, for most of his young life as Saul, he thought he was doing just the opposite. As a Pharisee, he was a staunch defender of God’s law. In fact, he prided himself on being the Torah Police. I don’t think anyone got away with the tiniest infraction against Torah on Saul’s watch. And Saul had no problem stoning those who blasphemed the God he assumed he was serving.
Of course this was Saul’s prideful life until that fateful day when he was confronted by the resurrected Christ on his way to Damascus. Here, he learned that all of what he was doing in the name of God was actually working against God. Humbled and blinded by Christ, Saul literally saw “the light” and discovered a new life in which he no longer needed to defend the Law, but to share the love of God with all.
It is because of his past that Paul “humbly” declares himself to be the foremost of sinners. (Well, I guess he still needed to work out the pride thing a bit more.) Paul’s pride aside however, what Paul comes to realize through his conversion is something most of us are barely conscious of, that God’s mercy is not a given, it is not something we are entitled to, and it is not something we earn, instead, it is a gift from our creator, freely given to us and waiting for us to accept at any time.
One of the issues of living in a consumer driven world is a pervasive sense of entitlement. It seems the more one has, the more one feels entitled to. I recently read an article that indicated those who are ultra-wealthy and ultra-powerful often lose a sense of accountability, they see themselves as so entitled they actually come to believe that the law does not pertain to them.
From what I can gather, none of us fall into that category, but as middle-class Americans we still live lives of entitlement. And for the most part, we often view our relationship with God through the eyes of Saul and not through the eyes of Paul. Maybe one of the reasons we fail to be grateful for for mercy is because we are not aware of when we have experienced mercy in our lives. This might be because not all of us have had the good fortune to be struck by a spiritual two by four in the way Paul was. No, instead, mercy, like conversion, happens more subtly, almost imperceptibly for most of us.
Experiences of mercy happen more often in those quiet moments of grace, when forgiveness abounds. Last Sunday, we celebrated our tenth anniversary together, it was a wonderful moment in our life together. And it happened because we have experienced God’s mercy through each other.
Ten years ago you took a risk calling me to be your rector. I had only been a priest three years, and had never been a rector. I came with energy and enthusiasm, filled with ideas as to what we could become. As I look back over the past decade, I realize a lot of mistakes were made. Recently, I have often thought of how different things would be if I had known then what I know now. Unfortunately, hindsight is always 20/20. And luckily we are a parish that has been willing to forgive, to learn from our mistakes and to move on.
On his way to Damascus, God forgave Paul and offered him a second chance to make good on his intentions. The path we have forged this last decade has been smoothed and made straight because of forgiveness and second chances. But there have been those times when second chances were not possible and mercy abounded through you.
As many are aware, I put my heart and soul into planning and celebrating funerals. I know we only get one chance to say good bye to a loved one. But as the saying goes, timing is everything. Not only is it emotionally difficult to lose a loved one on a major holiday, it is often a logistical nightmare as well. On Christmas, News Years and even Fourth of July, essential services, funeral homes and churches become ghost towns as staff, like everyone else, squeeze in time with their families. This reality can, and often does lead to breakdowns in communication which can cause the organizing and planning of a funeral take far longer than it should.
On Christmas Day last year, George Mayer died at a local nursing home. I had visited with him and his daughter early on Christmas Eve and expected to hear he had died sometime Christmas Day. That call never came. It was three day after Christmas when I checked in with the family, after returning from being with family in Connecticut, when i learned George had died. I felt awful that one of our families had waited three days after a loved one had died before hearing from me. To make matters worse, because New Years is so close to Christmas, we had to rush into planning the service so we could have everything ready before the office was closed again for the holiday.
Fortunately the Mayer family is a gracious family and was willing to work with me despite a difficulties. But that was not the last of our set backs.
I rarely get sick. I think I have been too sick to work only three times in ten years. Wouldn’t you know, to make an already difficult situation worse, I came down with the flu on New Year’s Eve. And it was not a twenty-four hour version. It lasted five days. What I remember from the day of the funeral is planning Tylenol and taking cough drops at planned intervals in order to be at my “best” for the service. I got through the service only to go directly to my office to lay down while the reception was taking place in the Library. While lying in my office, I kept telling myself to get up, the family deserves better. When I did get up, it was as the family was leaving and this is when the moment of grace occurred. As I said good bye to Gloria and again apologized for not being fully present, she just looked at me with a warm smile and said “love ya”.
When St. Paul tells us that he is the foremost of sinners, in his mind, he is not exaggerating, he knows during his days as a Pharisee how he treated others in the name of God was truly evil. But on the road to Damascus, he came to know what I learned through the Mayer family, that even at our worst, God is still willing to forgive, to love and to accept us as beloved children.
Like Gloria, each and every one of us has the ability to offer the transforming love and mercy of God. Over the years, what I have found at St. Luke’s is that God’s grace and mercy abound. Many have shared how they have arrived carrying the burdens and embarrassment of their past and found love where they expected to find judgment. Because of how we understand the love of God, we have alleviated the spiritual worries and burdens of parents with gay children. And because we have learned not to take ourselves too seriously, we have learned to make room for those with disabilities.
This morning, St. Paul tells Timothy that he is grateful for the mercy of God. This morning, I too am grateful for the mercy of God. For the mercy of God that I have experienced through this congregation these past ten years, and for the mercy and love of God you extend to each other and to the strangers who come into our midst and are now a part of us.