s043g99 Somerton Park 6/6/99 Sunday 10

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice" Matt 9.13

It would be very easy, from the words that "they laughed" at Jesus, to paint the flute players and the crowd making the commotion - as villains and skeptics; and to portray Jesus as the bashful miracle worker, derided and misunderstood. After all Christian tradition has spent centuries magnifying Jesus ... and putting down humanity ...

I am grateful to Molly Wolf (of "Sabbath Blessing" fame) for telling a story recently, which went: "A Sunday School teacher says to her class "I have a riddle for you, children. I'm thinking of an animal, and it's small and grey and has a big bushy tail and eats acorns. Can you tell me what it is?" There's a long, long, LONG pause. Finally little Anna puts her hand up. "Yes, Anna?" says the teacher, and Anna says, very hesitantly, "I know the answer should be 'Jesus', but it sounds like a squirrel to me.""

Sometimes laughter comes, I am told, when people are in particularly excited or "emotional" states. Such laughter, as is described in our story, may well not be because the crowds were mocking Jesus. It may just be one of those occasions when someone who is experiencing some sort of inner emotional turmoil, and someone else says something which triggers in the other a bout of crying or laughter ... It is quite independent of the surrounding event and it's appropriateness or inappropriateness in the circumstances. It expresses simply an outpouring of pent up emotion and is not directed "against" anyone or anything. And I can recall (unfortunately - yet characteristically - still quite vividly) a couple of occasions in my life when this has happened to me, much to my chagrin.

One of the things that motivates me in my life and ministry is to find a consistent picture of God. It is not that I am searching for what God wants or has in store for me in the next week, month or year. I can only, like everyone else, "do my duty in that state of life it shall please God to call me" (cf the Catechism) - and that is to live and love as best I might.

But God's message has to be consistent. God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, cannot be capricious. I insist on this principal, because it saves me from arbitrary (and ultimately endless) debates about what God wants in particular circumstances. In mean the issues are endless - the ordination of women is but one. I cannot conceive that God is the slightest bit interested in the gender of ordained persons. Sometimes I wonder if these sorts of debates are generated to keep us interested in "Church".

In fact, I firmly believe that the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity - the identification of the Son being "of one substance" with the Father, and the Holy Spirit "proceeding from the Father (and the Son?)" is to reinforce in the strongest possible terms, the identical purpose and being of the three persons of the Trinity. They are never at "cross purposes" or at "loggerheads". And it is for this reason that I have no difficulty whatsoever reciting the Creed each week. Indeed I rejoice to recite it, for this unity of purpose is a great safeguard against going down all sorts of endless wild goose chases. Wild goose chases are fine if they are enjoyable and even better if one catches a plump goose in the end. But they don't bring us any nearer to the kingdom of God.

So the text "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" that Jesus draws to the attention of the Pharisees, is one of those eternal expressions of the nature of God - and it is a phrase pregnant with meaning.

God desires mercy - but for heaven's sake why? God is already merciful. We don't have to remind God to be merciful, tell God to be merciful, or beg God to be merciful - either towards ourselves or others. When I read some of the old prayers of the Church, I think that this is what the ancient liturgists believed. However I suppose that they lived a much less secure existence than we.

Of course, usually we implore God to be merciful to us but to not be merciful towards others; or we implore God to be merciful to us and neglect the fact that we continue to be merciless towards others. I suspect even begging for mercy in these circumstances will be of no avail. And I mean here that our "Christian" faith has been taken to implicitly imply that those of other faiths and those of little or no faith are "damned" unless they become "Christians" like us. "Lack of mercy" dressed in the guise of "orthodoxy" is no less merciless. God desires us to be merciful not orthodox.

We are NOT more merciful than God, for God has already got enough mercy without us adding anything to God's store.

I suppose God sometimes might want some respite from the continuous and conflicting prayers humanity directs toward him / her. In this sense God might want "mercy" from us :-)

And God does not want sacrifice - so we don't have to "give up" anything - and we don't reflect God's wishes when we demand of others that they give up things that we think are incompatible with "Christianity". Neither bulls or goats, which at least seem possible. But nor some of those things we expect others are able to give up, like their particular form of sexuality. Do we demand of others celibacy if they are not able to live up to our view of what is "normal"? Giving up sacrificing goats and bulls might be possible but is it possible for anyone to deny their human nature? And anyway - is this a sacrifice demanded of them? - when the words are quite plain that God does not want sacrifices ... but mercy.

The reality is that Jesus reminds the Pharisees - the religious authorities - that they need to be merciful towards those who do not share their religious devotion or the intricacies of their faith.

So these words remind us that we, as the "religious" authorities, firstly too need to be merciful towards those who have perhaps not been able to live up to our level of religious devotion and intricacies of our faith. When I say God doesn't ask us to sacrifice anything, I should reiterate the message that the only thing God does ask us to give up - is our lack of mercy towards others.

There are a number of places in scripture where God "mocks" the nations (eg Ps 59.8) and this could conceivably be interpreted as mocking those who do not follow the Judeo / Christian ethic. I suspect however that it is our human propensity to think that everything depends on us that God mocks - and not to put us down - but to try to relieve us of the burden that this outlook engenders.

As I read these lessons, the passage from Romans and the story of the raising of the dead girl both have the themes of the presence and power of God in people "as good as dead" (Rom 4.19). It is rightly the experience of some that God is found in the "desert" - in the times when we are alone - and in places where there is nowhere else to turn. I would indeed agree that God's presence is not restricted to times of success - to our mountain top experiences - when we feel "successful". We don't have to become "fully convinced" (Rom 4.21) like Abraham is reported to have been, before God can act. Actually, God acted before Abraham and Sarah believed. So telling others to believe in Christ and everything will be all right, is to perhaps lead them away from where God wants to reveal him / her self to them.

However I would caution against looking at others as needful of a "valley of the shadow of death" experience "like us". The Advent promise is BOTH that the hills will be levelled AND the valleys filled in (Isaiah 40.4).

God is gracious, and that which is needful for all persons to come into the kingdom will be, and indeed has already been, supplied. Anything which is lacking will be given, quite freely as a gift.

We are coming to that time of the year when we consider our personal financial stewardship, and one of the themes of stewardship is to laud "sacrificial" giving. But God wants mercy - not sacrifice. If we give and grumble about the level of what we give - surely what God would want is that we give less and be joyful about it. Unless of course we enjoy grumbling :-) If we give and grumble about what we perceive as the little that others give - (not that anyone other than the recorder, but last of all me, has any idea of who gives what) - then surely God would prefer us to stop our grumbling, give less, be happy and be merciful towards others.

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