Sunday, May 22, 2011

sermon - "Models of Mercy"

Models of Mercy
All this month we have been talking about mercy from different UU angles. This Sunday I thought I thought it would be nice to cast a wider net on the topic, to explore some of the variety of ways different traditions celebrate the value of mercy.
To start out with, it’s helpful to get on the same page of what mercy is. We’ve talked about it a bit, saying that it takes a variety of forms as we care for one another with the tools that we have, and mercy starts with understanding and accepting a person where they are in their life. But before we dive into other religious traditions, I thought it would help to look at a secular definition.

According to the dictionary, Mercy is compassionate treatment of or attitude towards an offender or adversary, who is in one's power or care. Another definition describes mercy as the discretionary power of a judge to pardon someone or to mitigate punishment.

There is an element of power in mercy that we haven’t really talked about yet. It’s not just about being compassionate, it’s about exercising one’s power over another person in a compassionate way. And that’s just the way that most religious traditions talk about it.

I chose this morning’s hymn, “Amazing Grace” because it speaks so robustly about the type of mercy that Christianity embodies. The core of Christian theology is the idea of salvation from sin by the sacrifice and teachings of Jesus Christ. It’s all about God having mercy for humans. Christianity is about mercy.
Admittedly, it’s a little difficult for some of us to see the mercy in such a set up. The sin, damnation, and judgment doesn’t quite fit with our understanding of the world or ourselves. Most of us don’t accept the premise of original sin or eternal damnation.
But what if we did. Pause with me for a minute to explore a different world view. If in fact we were all sinners in the very core of our being, if in fact that would necessarily condemn us to Hell FOREVER. If in fact God gave his beloved son, Jesus to suffer a terrible death of torture to pay the price for our sins, Then that would be just about the most merciful thing in the world.
This is the great thing about looking at different religions. You don’t have to accept ever detail of the theology to be able to embrace the values that it represents. The core story of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is a story of mercy. The very mechanics of Christian theology hinge on the mercy of God.
And mercy arises in Christianity in another important way, a way that might be more accessible to us as Unitarian Universalists. Throughout his ministry, Jesus lived as a model of mercy. Encounter after encounter he spoke about and lived this value. I think the most prominent moment of mercy involves throwing stones. You all know this story.

John 8:1-11
1But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus taught about mercy. He taught that none of us are perfect, and our mutual imperfections, our brokenness, must lead us to mercy on one another. Whether with tax collectors, adulterers, the diseased or disenfranchised, Jesus sat at their side as a model of mercy.

But Jesus was not the only model of mercy. Islam is a religion of submission to the one true god, Allah. In fact Muslim loosely translated means one who submits. We shouldn’t be surprised that one of the key aspects within the faith is mercy. And like in Christianity, the value of mercy is both embedded in the actual theology of the faith, as well as exemplified in it’s rich stories.
We know that the Holy Quran is the sacred text of Muslims. It reads somewhat differently from the Christian Bible, in that it is not a continuous story of a people. Rather the Quran is composed of distinct and separate chapters.
Each chapter except for one begins with one phrase, the same phrase. You have probably heard this before if you have heard any readings of the Quran or any Muslims reciting prayer. Each chapter of the Quran opens with basmala, in English it is the phrase, “In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.” It’s worth keeping in mind that not only is the Quran a sacred text, it is also considered by many to be a book of legal code for Muslim society. We are familiar with sharia, or Muslim law and the way it has been portrayed in the West. Let us remember the next time we hear a description of sharia, that every single chapter, every single law is introduced with the phrase, “In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.”

One of the other pieces of Muslim life that is often familiar to us is the practice of prayer. Muslims pray five times each day. These aren’t extemporaneous prayers like you or I might think of, the Hey, God, how’s it going. Thanks for xyz, and by the way, I could use some help with this or that issue. No. When Muslims pray, it is a recitation of particular passages of the Quran. It is prescribed that they pray five times each day. This means each worshipper repeats the attribute of mercy in the phrase “in the name of Allay, Most Gracious, Most Merciful,” sixty-eight times each day. That’s a whole lot of mercy.

I said that the Quran is not a story or collection of stories. But, there is another source of stories in the tradition. Hadith are stories that are given great importance within Islam as the tradition is learned and laws are interpreted. According to a Hadith, the Prophet Mohammed told this story.

"A man was traveling along a road when he was very thirsty. He found a well, so he went down into it to drink. As he came up he found a gasping dog that was apparently so thirsty to the extent that he licked the dust. The man thought, 'this dog is now as thirsty as I was a short while ago'. Therefore, he went down the well again and filled his shoe with water. Holding it in his mouth, he came up and gave the water to the dog to drink. Allah rewarded him for his action by forgiving him.
“The Prophet’s audience asked: "Messenger of Allah, are we to be rewarded for kindness to animals?"
He answered: "You get a reward for every kindness you do to any living creature."

If you have ever been to my house, you have met my amazing beautiful, and quite nearly perfect dog, Lucy. I love dogs, but I didn’t write this story. Every story comes out of a particular context. It’s important to understand how Muslims, particularly in this timeframe felt about dogs. Muslims generally cast dogs in a negative light because of their ritual impurity, like pork. Some say Muhammad explicitly did not like dogs, and that angels do not enter a household that has a dog. Still today most practicing Muslims do not have dogs as pets. They are only kept for work, work, such as guarding the house or farm, or when used for hunting purposes.

This charming story from the lips of Muhammed encourages follows to show mercy to all creatures, even the most lowly and dirty ones. “The man thought, 'this dog is now as thirsty as I was a short while ago'. Therefore, he went down the well again and filled his shoe with water. Holding it in his mouth, he came up and gave the water to the dog to drink.” What a lovely story of mercy.

Before we come back to our own tradition, I want to look at one more. Buddhism is actually the first example that came to my mind on this topic. You have heard me speak a great deal about the role of compassion in Buddhism. That’s at the core of Buddhism as the Buddha originally shared it.
The Buddha’s teachings are not really theological, but practical, a lifestyle to ending the constant sense of longing in our lives. The Buddha taught people how to end their suffering by becoming more enlightened. And anyone can become a Buddha, anyone can become enlightened with the enough practice and mindfulness.
Or, one can become a Bodhisattva. Loosely translated, a Bodhisattva is a person who has achieved enlightenment, but who has not yet enjoyed Nirvana. Remember in Buddhism, the goal, Nirvana is basically an elimination of the self and all it’s karmic baggage. Nirvana is an end of one’s existence. So a bodhisattva is an enlightened being who focuses his or her energy on sharing enlightenment with other people. In much of Buddhist theology, it is thought nobler to become a bodhisattva, than to reach Nirvana. It’s better to reach enlightenment and stick around to share that knowledge with others, than it is to achieve Nirvana and essential check out from this world.
The best metaphore I can think of is the oxygen masks on airplanes. You know how they tell you, if you are traveling with a child or other person who needs assistance, you should first secure your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. Well Buddhism takes the opposite view. Once a being has achieved enlightenment, it’s best to help others to achieve enlightenment before you enjoy Nirvana yourself.
That certainly speaks to the kind of mercy we heard described earlier, using one’s position of power to show kindness and compassion to others. The bodhisattva then becomes the model of mercy within Buddhism. The bodhisattva is one who forsakes his or her own perfected state to help others out.

As we wrap up our month of mercy, I want to take a moment to address the place of mercy in our own religious tradition, in Unitarian Universalism.

The long and deep history of Unitarianism and Universalism is occasionally summed up by one witty saying. It is said that Universalists believed that God was too good to condemn them to Hell, and Unitarians believed that they were too good to be condemned by God. That’s what separated them from the rest of Christians. In a very, very small nutshell, that’s the history of these traditions.

We still largely hold true to those beliefs. The first our of seven principles is about the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Rather than embracing the idea of original sin, we believe the people are inherently good. And, although we have some variety of belief about the existence of God, as a religious tradition we tend to agree that the Universe we live in is a beautiful, wonderful magnificent place. And the creative force that is responsible for it, be it evolution, God, or something in between is pretty darn amazing. God, or what have you, is good.
We’re good; God is good. Well I don’t know about you, but I’m glad we’re all good. I’m glad we wrapped that little problem up. It’s all good, You and me and God and life, good, good, good.

Please excuse my sarcasm. I do believe that people are inherently good and that the world we inhabit is amazing. But there’s more to it than that. In the real world, some people make mistakes. And it’s no secret that some people have more power than others. Power to change lives.
But sometimes we’re afraid to talk about those realities. In a perfect world, mercy isn’t necessary because no one needs it. Perhaps that’s why mercy isn’t found anywhere in Seven Principles of the UUA. There is “compassion”, and “equality”, and “justice.” But mercy never comes up. I think we would do well to add mercy to the list. Of course that would require being honest that some people have power over others. It would require admitting that sometimes we make mistakes and need to be forgiven.
As a religious tradition, we still need mercy in our theology. Whether it is bringing water to lowly thirsty dog, or recognizing our own flaws match the flaws of others. Whether it is in the form of a committed spiritual teacher, for our tradition to be all it can be, we need to make room to think about, manifest mercy.


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