Thirty-five years ago while completing my graduate studies in theology, preparing to be ordained into the Christian ministry, the importance of seeking and accepting God's mercy was brought home by a senior professor. He made the point by describing his conversation, years earlier, with a teenager. He was teaching a class for young adults and was talking about God's mercy, grace and forgiveness. A young woman, perhaps 16 years old, asserted that she had no need for mercy, grace or forgiveness. She was quick to clarify to the young pastor that she had not sinned. She assured him that she did not smoke, drink or "neck." Even though "necking" was an unfamiliar term to the learned professor, he was not deterred. She was going to hear about mercy.
The wise-in-so-many ways professor of historical theology was unaware that teenagers often referred to their intimate moments, usually conducted under the cover of darkness, as "necking." Yet, he proceeded to address her reaction. Frustrated by her condescending and self-righteous tone, he hammered home his point. If you really want to learn about God's compassion, love, mercy, grace and forgiveness - maybe you should get "necked" and experience the merciful God you assert you are too good to need. Getting "necked" probably never was clear to him, but getting "real" always was. No, the young pastor was not promoting irresponsible behavior. However, like the Pharisees of Jesus' time, there are those in our own day who define goodness on their own terms and miss opportunities to embrace the love that is the fulfilling promise of God.
It is my sincere hope that I will not be judged for eternity by my worst behaviors. When I miss the mark, fall short, yes, sin, it is clear to me that my faith provides forgiveness. According to our tradition, following an acknowledgment of our sins, we are reminded that "Almighty God . . . who of his great mercy has promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; are pardoned and delivered from all sins . . . confirmed and strengthened . . . in goodness . . . and brought to everlasting-life through Christ Jesus." Because we believe this to be true, we then say, "Amen." In I Timothy (1:15), "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." And what makes this section of St. Paul's letter to Timothy even more powerful is what follows: "I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost [among sinners], Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life." (I Timothy 1: 16)
A United States senator on a speaking tour through central California shared many of her ideas and ideals with a group of us on the Monterey Peninsula. One of the questions asked of her was how she would prefer to be remembered at the end of her life. She offered this: "I want people to say, 'She was neither as bad as her enemies said that she was nor as good as her admirers believed her to be.'"
Were you being asked that same question about how you would want to be remembered, what would you say? The writing of one's epitaph can be a powerful activity. You see, the epitaph is the magnetic destiny toward which we aspire. The clearer the vision the more easily and confidently we can make important decisions. Like setting any course, options are considered, alternatives chosen, and priorities acted upon. Choose this day whom you will serve. In the Book of Joshua it is written, "Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods of your ancestors served in the region beyond the river or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."
Regarding writing an epitaph, a memorial statement, please consider this: Open with these words, "It can be said by those who knew me best." What would you want those who knew you really well to think, feel and say about you? This memorial statement should define your actions, your interactions, your commitments and, yes, your intercessions, with God. Helen Keller said, "If the blind put their hand in God's, they find their way more surely than those who see but have not faith or purpose."
Acting upon commitments when times are tough is illustrated over and over throughout the Bible. Adam and Eve built trust and commitment, symbolizing the launching of love and loyalty from the Creator God. What are the obstacles for those who launch any enterprise? Father Abraham finds peace and establishes his legacy after risking all to build a new home for, first, an elderly wife, Sarah, and then for their miracle son, Isaac, and finally for all of his people. What level of faith and sacrifice for this older couple to start all over again in a new land? Noah constructed the ark to provide safety and security through devastating floods that were intended to cleanse the earth of all who were unrighteous. What demands for hard work, discipline and faith were placed on Noah over months and years? King David rallied his people, building the foundations for a great nation, set high on a hill, that it might become the beacon for renewing faith for the world. How can we even imagine the stresses of the child shepherd and warrior who would shoulder the leadership of separate and competing tribal groups?
Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Nehemiah challenged and assured the powerful and powerless. How easy was their yoke of responsibility that included afflicting the comfortable and powerful while simultaneously comforting the afflicted, the weak and those without power? John the Baptist, announcing the birth and ministry of his cousin Jesus, continued this sharing of the story. He was beheaded for his announcing of the coming of the Messiah. St. Paul became a believer, and alongside the disciples, continued to pass along the tradition that announced the love of God and the continuous presence of the Holy Spirit. How difficult were their lives, which led them to ridicule, rejection and, in most cases, violent deaths? Thank God, each stayed the course, fulfilling promises.
God fulfills promises to each of us. To the least, the lost and the last, Jesus teaches us to extend hope, direction and reassurance. The powerful, proud and arrogant are challenged to become more human, humble, sensitive and gracious. Jesus often brought into clear focus the hypocrisy and the vulnerability of the smug and self-righteous. For example, the Pharisees, spiritual powerbrokers of first-century Palestine, were challenged by Jesus in today's Gospel lesson to soften their criticism of others. He wanted them to learn more about the people who lived outside their rigid cultural and religious circle.
Down to today, with you and me, promises are still being fulfilled. Holy Scripture is no longer simply someone else's message; it is our story. And what are we to do with it? Fulfill the promise! We are to listen with care to those with whom we come into contact and remind them that they are welcome at our table. Twenty-eight years ago in Terre Haute, Ind., serving as the pastor of the First Congregational Church, a twice-a-year worshipper was to teach me a valuable lesson. His teaching was a special gift as well as a surprise. The surprise came from a gentleman who could be depended upon to darken the church door on Christmas and Easter, but seldom more. Over a quiet lunch, he suggested that we launch a coffee drinking session and invite a few of his fellow seldom-in-church friends. He turned down my offer for the early morning meetings to be held in one of the church's conference rooms. He was clear that we should, instead, meet in the annex of a local restaurant.
He was certain that the location would be less intimidating to those who might want to talk with and be around a clergyman, while making sure they could still avoid any minister-type intrusions. So, we met inside a restaurant's bar area. From three men, our group expanded. Some weeks 15 showed up, other times 75. Smoking and drinking in the restaurant bar had been replaced with a weekly coffee and orange juice discussion session.
The gathering was somewhat unusual. My friend, who inspired the sessions, announced the ground rules: There would be two topics to be avoided, period. The off-limits subjects were politics and religion. When he mentioned his rules, I asked why I was even to be there. Then he smiled and made his point. He reminded me that he knew that I was already knowledgeable about religious topics, possibly others, but theology to be sure. Politics was simply a matter of opinions, and that was not a constructive topic for this group. After all, his purpose was to help me to meet new people and for them to meet me. However, he believed that my understanding of God was big enough to include many aspects of life. For that reason he wanted me to be in position to listen to the concerns of folks I might seldom, if ever, meet. His clarity won me over. My role, I was to learn, was to be the message, not pronounce it.
In a few weeks, with these weekly conversations covering some fascinating topics, we chose a name for our group. The name I was allowed to pick made folks chuckle, think and then invite more friends to join. The mostly irregular attendees-who talked about crime, taxes, education, disease, health care, war, alcoholism, runaway children, parole violators and the cost of dying-these spiritual rebels became members of Club Matthew. Matthew, the sinner and tax collector, was the dynamic reminder that Jesus came to call not the righteous, but sinners. Here we sat and talked, as fellow travelers, human beings, imperfect, concerned and willing to listen. Club Matthew, through my friend Bob, was a door to those who taught me more than I taught them. Bob, in his own rascal-like way brought home the lesson that Jesus makes over and over: "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'" Sometimes the best teaching involves simply being the message, by showing up and listening.
As a management consultant, I have spent the last quarter of a century focused on addressing the leadership needs of senior-level executives. My promise to clients is to accurately identify and then effectively assess individual and organizational potential. My job is to teach leaders to listen, spread hope and exhibit constructive behaviors. For me, integrity means fulfilling promises and is always about character. Character was nowhere more powerfully illustrated that when Pope John Paul II visited our home area on the Monterey Peninsula. He participated in a worship service at the Carmel Mission Basilica. Because of the significance of his visit, all worshippers needed to be in the sanctuary several hours before his arrival, given traffic and logistics challenges. Seated in the same pew as a priest friend of ours were three young girls and their mother. The youngsters, ages 5, 6, and 7, grew restless during the four hours of waiting. Just before 11 a.m., the hushed conversations were silenced by the noises of the arriving helicopter carrying the Holy Father. With anticipation levels growing, the three children were uncertain what would be happening next. So our minister friend, who shared the pew and was seated on the aisle, motioned for the little girls to stand in the pew next to the aisle by him so that they might see the pontiff more easily.
Minutes later the doors of the basilica opened and the singing choir led the procession. Finally, Pope John Paul II appeared. Smiling, he paused at the pew with these three energized youthful faces. He saw them, touched each on the forehead and kissed them. Their mother burst into tears of joy, as did her daughters. Our friend who witnessed the moment, was himself overcome with emotion. The Holy Father had come from Rome to Carmel, where in the space of three seconds with an act of love and affection, stopping just long enough to kiss three children on the forehead, forever changed lives. He shared his soul, his spirit, and the Gospel. He gave what we all can give - our respect and love to others. Each of us can be about fulfilling promises all the time. Wrote the English poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850): "That best portion of a good person's life, those little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love." And as Robert Frost reminds us, "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep." - "Stopping by Woods on a Snow Evening")
Each of us has promises to fulfill. They are as varied as our roles in life: husband, wife, child, father, mother, surgeon, patient, taxi driver, waiter, actor, soldier, priest, counselor, teacher, student, friend, newcomer, stranger, worshipper, entrepreneur, and yes, at any age, always and forever, a child of God. He came that we might have a more abundant life, which is the fulfilling promise. Celebrating our success and acknowledging our shortcomings - grateful for his grace, we pray without ceasing, "Thanks be to God who came not to call the righteous, but sinners."
Let us pray.
God of our faith and sustainer of our lives, we acknowledge our need to confess our sins, accept your mercy and seek your guidance. Direct us to reach beyond our comfortable circles of the familiar, seeking more to understand than to be understood. Make us mindful, respectful and attentive to those whose lives are different from our own. Help us to be faithful. Inspire us to understand, appreciate and accommodate those with whom we come in contact so that their lives might be touched, taught and transformed by the love you have bestowed on us. Make us ever mindful of your grace and of our need to share your compassion. Grant us the courage to listen, the humility to change, and the commitment to fulfill our promises. Enable us to see, feel and accept your unconditional love, every day, with every meeting and encounter. Amen.