September 11, 2011 | The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
September 11, 2011
Genesis 50:15-21, Matthew 18:21-35
“Seasons of Mercy”
Today is a Sunday with resonances that bounce all over these majestic, towering stone walls. Today is the first Sunday in our new academic year, and we honor that this morning by singing, “Earth and All Stars,” by giving a special welcome to our new students, an enthusiastic “welcome back” to our fabulous Chapel Choir and generally reveling in the joy of being all back together again: from wherever our summers have taken us. This Sunday is one of my very favorites, year after year after year. And, this year, this Sunday is also the exact 10th anniversary of 9/11, a date which commands the deepest heartfelt attention of all of us, given, if nothing else, the trajectory of international events in the wake of the attacks ten years ago today. We come together this morning with the weight of history and the levity of new beginnings on our shoulders - both at the same time. We mourn and we hope, we rejoice and we console, we take stock and we sally forth, we are prompted painfully to think about how we want to live in the world as we are prompted joyfully to think about how we want to live in the world. At first, upon looking at the calendar, I rued this confluence of these dates, but since then I’ve begun to thank God for this confluence of dates. Every ending means we are beginning something new. Many of those beginnings we do not welcome - they come at the end of something beloved. I do not mean to make light of our endings, but I do want to point to the grace of our new beginnings, something that I hope all who are new - and old - to Princeton are embracing fully now.
My husband, Jarrett, is also a pastor, and in recent weeks we mentioned to each other our worry that the biblical texts assigned to be preached upon today might be difficult, in light of the 9/11 anniversary. With great relief, I opened the schedule of readings to find that we have lucked into texts of mercy. Mercy! To me, this is the most appropriate theme for this September day. Joseph has mercy on those who wronged him - his own brothers, who had trafficked him into slavery. When he comes into a position of power he might retaliate, but he doesn’t. He weeps - he weeps over his long suffering, he weeps out his love for his very imperfect family. He sits with the intensity of the pain and the love and he chooses to move forward into a future without retribution. In our gospel text we are instructed by Christ to show mercy to others if we ever wish to receive it, to forgive others if we ever wish to be forgiven. To Jesus, mercy is not an attribute possessed by only the most saintly people among us; it is actually at the core of the Christian faith.
Yesterday afternoon, I returned from a two-week trip to Cambodia with 20 Princeton students; we were there to learn about religious responses to human trafficking. Two days ago, on Friday, we met with representatives of an organization that helps the thousands of people who pick garbage from the Phnom Penh dump. These people eke out the lowest of subsistence livings by pulling anything recyclable from the dump and selling it, and by eating the discarded food items also cascading down from these dump trucks (alongside medical waste, bathroom waste, you name it). Awful. These waste pickers are amongst the most vulnerable people in their society to being trafficked. The woman who greeted us, from this association of waste-pickers, among the least privileged people on the planet today, opened her greeting by expressing to us her personal condolences on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. We were so deeply moved. Here was a person of humblest circumstances who truly had noticed our own pain, and not because the day’s events were so dramatic. Her own deep well of suffering and compassion recognized our own, reached out to our own. She spoke to us out of her mercy, extending her small comfort in the face of pain.
Her words reminded me of something I read in the days just after 9/11. A journalist was travelling into Afghanistan to report on events there. His way into the country was by foot, over a high narrow pass that soon would be made treacherous by snow. As he made his way into Afghanistan on a narrow dirt path, a number of Afghan tribesmen and their families passed him making their way out. One of them stopped and said a few words to this obvious Westerner, presumed American. The man traced the outline of the Twin Towers with his finger and said, “Very sorry, us.” They were words of truest compassion, truest human kindness, truest mercy.
As this tenth anniversary has grown closer and closer, other memories have come to me from the shock of those first hours and days after the attacks, as I’m sure they have for you. Many of the images and words are brutal, but some are beautiful - memories of caring, of honesty, of mercy. I remember reading of an encounter between a first responder and a businessman who was covered in grey ash, still clutching his briefcase, and who seemed to the responder to be wandering cluelessly through the devastation, the moonscape of Lower Manhattan. The officer asked the dazed businessman if he could help him, did he know where he was, did he need direction, and the businessman looked at him, blinking through his ashy spectacles, and said, “I’ve never had more clarity in my life.”
Indeed, the devastations of our lives can give us clarity if we will let them. They can open our hearts and minds; they can knit us together to others who suffer. They can make us larger people; they can infinitely deepen our faith. They can instruct us about what truly matters. They can also shut us down, squash our hearts and minds, kill our faith, and make us mean. My continuing prayer since 9/11 has been that the suffering, the intense pain, the cataclysm of those attacks will be a source of clarity for us, and generate in our spirits bottomless mercy, as individuals and whole peoples. Knocked to our knees, we have the brutal and unasked-for opportunity to notice all around us a world on its knees - trafficked, cheated, addicted, attacked, violated. We learn to see the trash-pickers, the streetwalkers, the hungry, those who are mourning in our midst, those around us who grow quieter every year from accumulating disappointments. Now that we have the perspective on the world from our knees we reach out laterally from there. We become agents of mercy to all others who have been treated mercilessly. Then it is that we find that through the mercy we extend, and the mercy we receive in return, we are building a merciful world. Then it is that we find that we have become the Christians we have said we want to be - we have been converted to people who, like Christ, have mercy at their center, who see the last and put them first, and who lose their lives to save them - who let go of the possessions, status, and human measurements of a life in order to be freed to live the life that really is life. It really is about mercy.
So often we think of mercy as being only the concern of those who do evil - mercy as kindly alternative to just punishment. This is true, but it captures only a fleck of Christ’s meaning in his teaching to be merciful. Remembering that we are all sinners, Christ asks us to extend in every moment the mercy we wish for ourselves, to embody grace not retribution, to view every instance in which we are wronged as an opportunity to forgive, and to view every instance in which we are not wronged as an opportunity to show compassion. It really is about mercy.
The title of this sermon is a nod towards another one, offered on Christmas Day in 1640 by John Donne. “Seasons of his mercies” is one particularly cherished phrase for many, Donne’s beautiful reflection on the overarching mercy of God that cradles us in holy love from the beginning of our lives until after their end. Donne’s sermon begins, “The aire is not so full of Moats, of Atomes, as the Church is of Mercies; and as we can suck in no part of aire, but we take in those Moats, those Atomes; so here in the Congregation we cannot suck in a word from the preacher, we cannot speak, we cannot sigh a prayer to God, but that that whole breath and aire is made of mercy.” God’s mercy is all-enveloping; it comprises the very air that we breathe and walk through, that surrounds our bodies every moment of our lives.
“Be merciful as God is merciful;” as we read in the 6th chapter of Luke. Jesus invites us, like God, to inhabit mercy, to extend mercy, every moment of our days. Especially now as we rejoice in a new year together and a new chapter in life for our entering students, and as we remember and mourn on this 11th day of September, let us move to the center of our lives Christ’s commandment to be merciful - as comprehensively merciful as is our God. Let us show the gratitude for our joy by offering it up to God in acts of mercy towards others. Let us redeem our suffering by offering it up to God in acts of mercy towards others. In those times when we doubt we have such mercy in us, let us remember that God looks upon even that struggle with infinite mercy, and is awaiting our invitation to help. John Donne concluded his brief sermon with these words: “[God] brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light; [God] can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintered and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite [God’s] mercies, and all times are [God’s] season.”
Matthew, Douglas Hare, Westminster John Knox Press