God's mercy

There is no economy in the Divine mercy, which is as inhuman, as alien and as uncomfortable as we can imagine. "You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God," says Graham Greene.

All of which is a fancy way of saying that God is not “fair” or “just”. How can we conceive of a compassion and mercy which sees no distinction between murder and petty theft, between stealing paper clips and genocide? I always feel, when I look over the cliff of God’s mercy, a strange sense of vertigo, of being off-balance.

It is human to long for boundaries, for rules, for order; for all that which defines and makes clear and safe. We want distinctions, levels of sin. We are uncomfortable with the idea of a forgiven Stalin, a reconciled killer. We are unhappy with too much chaos, without answers ready to hand, without structure.

But there is no economy in the divine mercy. It is not enough to forgive seven times. Instead it must be seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven. Regardless, the effect is the same: there is no time when we can cease forgiving. It is hard to imagine even the most Type-A personality, the most obsessive person counting to 490 and then ceasing to forgive, and that is the point.

The kingdom of heaven which has come near is like the king who has the unforgiving servant. The poor slave is in a bad way. He owes his master 10,000 talents, so vast a sum as to be unthinkable. My bible helpfully notes that a talent is worth more than fifteen years of labor. Which means that the poor slave would have to work for more than thousands and thousands of years to pay his debt off. It is another unthinkable, impossible number. And so the king forgives him his unthinkable debt and his reckless stewardship. It is an unforeseen, munificent act which takes no notice of the size of the servant’s sin.

It is impossible however to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation without talking also about sin. And so I’m going to do something slightly risky, because you haven’t known me for very long, and I’m going to preach about sin. If that makes you slightly uncomfortable, it should. The Church has never been very good at teaching or preaching about sin for most of its history. The Church has tended to shame and alienate people, to burden them with vast amounts of guilt, or to use sin as a method of exercising social control. And the Church has been explicitly sexist, racist, and homophobia in what it has label “sin”. People are justified when they start to get skeptical or antsy when the topic of sin comes up in church.

One of the main ways that the Church has failed when it comes to talking about sin is making sin into something which is all about the gossip pages: about actions, about acting wrongly or failing to act; about money, sex and power. Not only is that a minor part of sin, but it makes sin into a completely individualistic state. I sin by doing X. I repent. I am absolved. But sin is communal, it affects our nearest and dearest, our communities, the very fabric of our life together.

Yet we know that sin is present around us. We feel it in our own hearts and minds, and we see it in the world. There is evil in the imagination of our hearts, and when we look in the mirror when we are shaving or doing our makeup, what we see is (according to one theologian) “at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob.” We see it when we walk past the homeless man sleeping in the doorway. We see it when we watch the news and see the unremitting violence and cruelty of humans, one to another. Sin is abundantly real in our lives.

And so when we talk about sin today, I want to preach about sin not as the gossip pages kind: who lost their temper with whom, who is sleeping with whom, etc., but in the wider communal sense.

I want to tell you about a friend I made in Arizona, who taught me a good deal about sin. His name is Francesco, and he lived about a block away from us. He was a Native American man, in his fifties, and his life had been very sad. He was in prison for a time, for violence. He was a raging alcoholic who would get sick if he didn’t have a drink first thing in the morning. He was constantly fighting with his girlfriend and they were perpetually yo-yoing between being together and not. He used to mow our lawn, to earn a few dollars, generally when he wanted to buy a bottle of malt liquor. He’d come round on Saturday morning; I’d be drinking my coffee and he would be drinking a forty. As you might imagine he was not the most reliable gardener. Often he would mow part of the lawn, and then start drinking and half the lawn would go unmowed for another week.

As I got to know Francesco, I became aware of a divide or split as I experienced him. In the middle of his wreck of a life were all sorts of sins that he was living in and desperately needed forgiveness for (his drinking, his temper, his miserable relationship, his lying and stealing). But the context for his sin, the background to his wreck of a life was also sinful and it wasn’t Francesco’s sin: it was my sin and the sin of my culture and of my forebears. Part of the sin which was infecting Francesco’s life began when Columbus landed in North America. Part of the sin was the theft of his ancestors’ land and the destruction of his culture. Part of that sin was the underfunded education and the culture of violence, of alcohol abuse and of poverty that he grew up in. Part of his woundedness was communal and systemic and deep beyond the simple failures of individuals. Francesco is bound and captive to the sins of our age and culture.

Even as Francesco lives in the midst of abiding communal sin, we too live in deep webs and structures of sin and we desperately need God’s forgiveness and reconciliation.

It is sin, for us to make so much money and yet to have a quarter of the population in this country without health insurance.

It is sin, for us to spend vast sums of money for war and destruction, so that we can temporarily sustain a way of life which cannot ultimately survive.

It is sin, to live in a culture of increasing obesity and gluttony while millions around the world starve.

It is a sin, which is almost perfectly lifted out of the Gospel this morning for us to increasingly sink into national debt, while at the same time holding onto the debts of countries in the developing world; debt which is crushing and gut-wrenching, keeps millions in abject poverty and condemns many to premature and preventable deaths.

We are tainted by sin every time we turn on our cars, every time we invest in a company which participates in standard business practices, every time we buy a product. We even sin by eating food, which in this culture is overwhelming raised on vast corporate farms, doused with fertilizers and chemicals which pollute the planet, and harvested by migrant workers who are paid a pittance. When we eat we are feasting on sin, eating and drinking damnation unto ourselves. Our whole way of living is that sin which is ever before God.

We are trapped, as my friend Francesco is trapped; caught and drowning in sin, and the vastness and the systemic nature of our sin seems impossible to change.

But there is no economy in the Divine mercy. Although we owe ten thousand talents, although we go through everyday sinning profusely and unconsciously, yet still God is abundantly merciful and compassionate. The only way that we can avoid that strange, intense mercy and forgiveness is when we are unable to forgive in kind. When we grasp our fellow by the throat and insist on the pennies that we are owed.

Let us therefore go through our lives working for deep systemic change and casting forgiveness all about us. Let us forgive foolishly, recklessly, uneconomically; that our God and King not mistake us for the unforgiving servant but instead pour out upon us that appalling mercy and forgiveness.


Preached by the Rev'd Andrew Ashcroft

14 September 2008

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia


Posted on September 16, 2008 .