A pious elder stated to a group of us twenty somethings many years ago, “God’s mercy is exceeded only by God’s justice.”
A rather lively exchange of views was going on at the time.
While theological debates of this sort may not play out much in classrooms, dorm rooms and bars anymore, our attitudes and resulting behaviors toward one another are frequently determined by what part of the equation we land on.
Our scripture today gives us an entrée into these competing points of view.
In particular, I think it has application to how we balance the needs of individuals and the integrity of the community.
The apostle Paul wants to travel to Rome to see firsthand the Christian Community established there by others.
The exhortations we find in today’s passage are not focused on problems he has seen firsthand in Rome. Rather, Paul draws on his decades of experience in establishing Christian Communities throughout Greece and Asia Minor and offers generalized advice and encouragement.
What interests me today is the context of the letter.
Paul is now a “veteran” apostle.
He wants to visit Rome, but also needs to visit Jerusalem first to deliver in person the money collected from the Gentile Churches he founded so that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem will know the solidarity the gentiles feel with them.
One can only imagine the various feelings Paul has at this time.
The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem will have long memories of the former Jewish Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, who persecuted them before becoming the self-proclaimed Apostle to the Gentiles.
The Apostle Paul has truly made his life since then a “living amend” for the pain and suffering he caused and was complicit with.
But still, he feels he must go, hat-in-hand, to personally deliver a collection from the Gentile Churches.
Does this not illustrate for us one of the key elements of reinforcing the integrity of the community when great harm has been done?
Making amends for harm done frequently requires both ongoing demonstrations of change and very practical gestures of affection and care.
Building trust when it has been violated takes effort on the part of everyone.
The gospel account today also guides us in restoring and reclaiming relationships.
This passage might be easily “weaponized” by the self-righteous in an effort to bring one or more persons in line with doctrine, dogma or narrowly defined social norms.
However, the passage is sandwiched into a section of the gospel that emphasizes forgiveness and reconciliation.
The prophet Ezekiel provides us with a vibrant image on which to hang our hats today.
Ezekiel had a reputation for communicating through mime and God seemed to prefer hallucinations as means of communicating to Ezekiel.
I imagine Ezekiel as someone who was often exhausted by the creativity required of him.
The passage we hear is among the more tame in the rather lengthy 40 chapters of the book.
God needs the prophet to act as a sentinel for the community, to stand on the high ground and warn when God’s enemies are threatening the covenanted people.
The enemies during the exile in Babylon are not necessarily who popular opinion would guess them to be.
The evil ways are deceit, lies, conniving, injustices that trample the poor.
Many of the Jews Ezekiel addresses are the more well-off people whom the king of Babylon forced into exile so that the rest of Palestine would be more easily subjected to his rule.
These more well-off individuals represent the ruling class of every age which arrived at its position by luck of birth, cunning, and nepotism (which today we sometimes call “networking” and legacy admissions).
What can we take from all this and apply to right here, right now?
It is every bit as true today as it was 200 centuries ago and 250 centuries ago, that the message of God’s love for God’s creation is best transmitted by a community that itself demonstrates love for one another and love for the other who is on the margins, the periphery of society.
Therefore, the prophet of every age must call to task the community ruling class for its short comings and presumption of salvation.
Covenanted people must do thorough soul searching to see clearly how they harm others not only by sins of commission but also by sins of omission.
Our malicious behavior is frequently not overt.
We lose sight of the pain around us because of distractions, self-indulgent behaviors, and rationalizations.
We live and work and play and pray and retire in comfortable enclaves that vaguely resemble self-imposed exile.
What to do?
I offer suggestions here based solely on my own shortcomings in the past.
Show mercy, show mercy, show mercy.
Be slow to judge; be slow to judge; be slow to judge.
Give others the benefit of the doubt; give others the benefit of the doubt; give others the benefit of the doubt.
Hold back the cutting remark; hold back the cutting remark; hold back the cutting remark.
Ask in prayer for the gift of joy when others are met with good fortune; ask in prayer for the gift of joy when others are met with good fortune; ask in prayer for the gift of joy when others are met with good fortune.
Recognize that God call us friends at this Table of Thanksgiving; recognize that God calls us friends at this Table of Thanksgiving;
recognize that God call us friends at this Table of Thanksgiving.
Spirit of Christ, dwelling within and among us, show us the way to build communities that value cooperation, that drive out fear, and that welcome the stranger, we pray …
Creator God, you embodied hope in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Free us from unnecessary fear, distress, worry and anxiety as we go about our daily tasks in furtherance of your reign, we pray …
We lift up and commend to you, O God, the peace makers in our world and all those who work for a more just and equitable society. Prosper the work of their hands and count us among their number, we pray …
Please take a few moments now to lift up the needs of those whom you carry in your hearts, speaking those names quietly. For these and all those written in our book of intentions, we pray …
God of all compassion, be with the oppressed, free the captives, console the sorrowing, feed the hungry, strengthen the weak and reveal in us the victory of your cross. We make these prayers in the name of Christ Jesus. Amen.