17th Sunday after Pentecost Sermon

September 24, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

In the novel Howards End, set in Edwardian England, Margaret is delightfully free of societal constraints. She looks at the world around her though a different set of eyes than most people do – a generous set of eyes, ready to believe in her neighbor’s worth. Midway through the story she becomes engaged to Henry Wilcox, an older widower who’s wealthy, stuffy, and conceited. But shortly before the wedding, she discovers that in his first marriage he’d been having an affair. And when it comes out, Mr. Wilcox is ashamed and embarrassed. He intends to release Margaret from her betrothal because she shouldn’t be saddled with someone so shameful as himself. But she considers the matter overnight, and in the morning chooses to offer him grace and her continued love. He’s grateful and relieved. But a day later – with all that unseemliness behind them – he carries on, totally unchanged.

Later in the story, Margaret’s sister, Helen, has a one-night fling and gets pregnant. And when Margaret extends to her sister the same grace she’d shone her husband… well! Henry Wilcox is incensed. She’s a public scandal; she must be punished and censored. And when Margaret reminds him of the grace she’d shown him for the same transgression, he’s outraged. He thinks she’s trying to blackmail him, when she was doing nothing of the sort. She was simply saying, “You who have received mercy should be the first to appreciate it when you see someone else receiving the same.”

And you know – there’s something of a Henry Wilcox in all of us. We’re quick to welcome mercy when it is shown to us, but slow to commend it or approve of it when we see it shown to others, of whom we disapprove.

When it comes to ourselves we have a very high respect for our own interior complexity. Although we bemoan our weaknesses and are ashamed of our failures, we believe that somewhere – buried deep within us – is a “better us.” We may not understand what’s gone wrong or why we do what we do, but we sense that we could be otherwise. And when someone – be it God or another person – shows us mercy in the face of our failures, we experience them drawing forth our truer self and helping us to be restored.

So we believe this of ourselves. But all the while, we remain smugly confident of our characterizations of other people. Someone annoys us (or we think they’re tacky, or small-minded, or whatever it is about that person that’s caused us to write them off) and we give total authority to our interpretation of them, certain we’re right, that they are worthy of our dismissal.

We like to think of ourselves as a kind of stone that can be cracked open to reveal some beautiful amethyst crystals on the inside, but that neighbor of ours ain’t nothing but an ugly chunk of rock, through and through.

Now here’s the thing: Their behavior may truly be annoying. It may be tacky and small-minded. But if we believe in our own complexity, and in the true, redeemable self that yet resides within us, doesn’t it stand to reason that the same is true of them…and everyone else on this planet? And – if that is true – how else can those true selves be discovered and released except by the mercy shown them?

Everyone is lovable – not merely tolerable or pitiable – but truly lovely. Glorious, even. But a glory that has been covered up by so much hurt and confusion and fear. But when mercy enters, it discovers and lifts up what has always been true.

That is the genius of God and the Kingdom of God. And it is to that godlikeness we are called. Which means a call towards relationship – towards those whom we would prefer to keep distance, buffered by the justification of our own opinions and characterizations of them. But should we venture closer, with an intent of compassion, the more possible it becomes to glimpse their true beauty. For the safer they find themselves to be with us, the more likely they are to begin revealing their true selves. Our intent is not to change them, but to love them. And however that love may become translated into their lives – well – that’s not a responsibility we carry.

Sometimes, though, we do need to foster this spirit of love from a safe distance.

I’ve been thinking about prayer lately, and what it is I am doing or experiencing in prayer. And the best way I have to describe it is that prayer is like a room of sorts – a room that God enters and a room that I enter. But the “I” who is entering there is the truest, made-in-the-image-of-God “I” that I truly am. God is holy. I am holy. I don’t need to wallow before God or try to impress God. All that is left outside the room. In this sacred space, I am trusting that God’s love and knowledge of me and forgiveness of me is total and complete. And when I pray for others, it’s like opening a door for them to enter that room, too. And the “they” who enters is also just as holy, just as restored, just as lovely. I might not be able to perceive the details of that loveliness, but it is enough to know that God does, and I’m in God and they’re in God and together in God, we are one, in peace.

They still may function in broken ways in this life. Just as I do. But in this place of prayer – this place of union with God and all God loves – God is training us to see and believe the power and totality of God’s mercy. And in turn, God is growing those things in us.

And should we be so formed – seeing others as equal to us in brokenness and equal to us in mercy received – then shall we be as those who walk hand-in-hand into the dwelling place of God, the “last made first” together.

But so long as we retain our disgust – presuming God rejects the same people we reject – so long as we retain the narrative of our acceptability and their rejectability, we dare to spurn the substance of God’s grace itself; we dare to presume that we know better than God. We’ve lost sight of truth; we’ve lost sight of God and the Kingdom of God. The glory fades and we become the first who are now last.

It’s not to say that God has demoted us, but that our perception of God is now so skewed, it’s as if we’ve bought the cheapest seats in the highest tier of the theater and simply can’t see what’s happening on the stage.

Everyone is lovable. But the version of ourselves that’s on display is distorted. Our truest self is only revealed when it is fed a steady diet of love…over a long period of time.

And the church should be a place where such revealings are most likely to take place. Yes, we’re all broken. Yes, we’re all still novices in this way of grace. And yet, what gathers us as a church is the expectation that everyone here shares this value – that we desire to be a community centered on God, rooted in mercy, and stepping into the hope of a lived redemption. Or to say it more simply: a place where we experiment with grace.

After all, if God’s grace is generous beyond measure, what burden is it to us to be the ones who are so privileged as to be able to share that grace with others? It’s like taking someone shopping on someone else’s credit card: Say, “yes” to everything!

The church is beautiful when it becomes a place where the generosity of God flourishes. For this spirit of giving is the exact opposite of the world in which we live. We are an inherently self-centered people. Our tendency is to look at the resources around us – be it money, or people, or experiences – in terms of how they ought to be benefiting us. The money can buy us things, the people can serve us or enhance our prestige, the experiences can amuse us or give us bragging rights. There is something of a hoarder in all of us that feels outraged if we sense someone else is getting something better.

I saw a video the other day of two monkeys in a cage. They were each trained to do the same simple task. And when they did it successfully, they were each rewarded with a piece of cucumber – which apparently is a perfectly fine treat for a monkey. But then (!) one of the monkeys started to receive a grape for the same task. And when the other monkey saw that he was like, “What!? A grape?” So he quickly does the task again, and is given a piece of cucumber, and he loses his mind. He flings the cucumber across the room and starts banging on the cage.

It’s like us, waiting in line at Safeway. It’s all tolerable until a new register opens up and the person behind us jumps forward and gets there before we do and we lose our mind at the injustice of the universe.

But Jesus has entered this world and turned it on its head. He gives himself to the world. He gives mercy. He gives his life. He gives us the Kingdom of God and draws us in to become part of it. It is selfishness that hoards, and Godlikeness that delights in seeing others blessed, and delights even more when we are so dignified as to participate in God’s blessing.

Our possessions are not our rights to hoard, but God’s bounty to share.

Why should we be the end-point of God’s generosity? Why should it stop with us? Why not rather receive whatever gifts God has given us – material or relational or any other good thing – and share them with the next person? For then we become conduits for the Kingdom of God; we are now participating in the heart of God.

For is this not how God is living with us? Every bite we eat is from the bounty of God’s table. Every breath we take is of God’s spirit animating this world. Every good and necessary thing by which we live and move and have our being is of God. As are we. And so we, too, become God’s good and necessary thing to bless this world.