Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The God of All Mercy” (Psalm 51:1)
Ash Wednesday: February 10, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Every year on Ash Wednesday we are reminded of our mortality.  Ashes are literally imposed individually on each our foreheads in the shape of a cross with the words of administration, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This happens for each of us—young children who bounce off the walls with their energy, teenagers with “their whole life in front of them,” young men and women embarking on degrees or careers, middle aged people who are supposedly peaking in their careers, and the elderly who realize that most of their years on this earth are behind them—ashes to ashes, we all fall down.

And in light of our mortality on Ash Wednesday we are also reminded of the seriousness of our sin, the life-and-death seriousness of our sin, that as scripture tells us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

So in light of our universal identity as mortal sinners, what is the one thing we all need from God on Ash Wednesday?  Mercy.  Yes, on Ash Wednesday we are reminded that we are mortal and we are sinners—but we are also reminded of something else—that as we prayed in the collect a few minutes ago, we worship the “God of all mercy” who gives us mercy, “perfect remission and forgiveness.”

As mortal sinners we need mercy from the God of all mercy.

If we are honest with ourselves, we are aware of our need for mercy—and yet we live in a world where we would often rather see lex talionis, the law of retaliation, the law of revenge.  Something dark in us may actually enjoy seeing someone “get what they deserve,” because “it serves them right.”  How many novels or movies or television shows are centered on this very theme?  And in such a milieu mercy may be dismissed as too good to be true.  And yet, when it comes to ourselves, we long for mercy don’t we?  On Peter Gabriel’s classic 1986 album, entitled So, there is a soothing and mystical song called “Mercy Street” in which he expresses this:

Dreaming of Mercy Street
Where you’re inside out
Dreaming of mercy in your daddy’s arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Swear they moved that sign
Looking for mercy in your daddy’s arms

Last week I drove to Florida and spent an afternoon with Paul Zahl, an Episcopal priest, scholar and author.  Paul is someone I deeply respect, someone who exudes the compassion and understanding of the God of all mercy.  In his 2013 book called PZ’s Panopticon: An Off-the-wall Guide to World Religion (2013) he observes, “The only religion that will work for the dying is a religion of mercy.  Total mercy is the only thing that will work.  No evaluations, no comparisons, no critical assessments” (203).  He also highlights the fact that Christianity actually offers mortal sinners like you and me exactly that:

The message of 100% forgiveness is explicit in almost every interaction Christ ever had with people.  He said that people need to be forgiven “seventy times seven” times (Mathew 18:22).  He said that he “did not come into the world to condemn the world; but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17); and to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11) (40).

But as Paul Zahl also observes, such total mercy actually offends some people:

For quite a few people, there is something upsetting about the 100%-with-no-exceptions forgiveness that Jesus talked about.  It is a feature that upsets conservatives.  But it also upsets liberals.  There is something to offend everybody.  Except the person who needs it at the time (43).

Some people indeed are offended by the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, offended by the 100% forgiveness of sins.  And yet that is what the God of all mercy offers us in Jesus Christ.  Does that offend you?  Or do you need it at this time?

In both psalms from today’s service, Psalms 51 and 103, the mercy of God is front and center.  Psalm 51, which is attributed to King David who wrote it after coming clean with the prophet Nathan about his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and subsequent conspiracy to murder her husband Uriah the Hittite, opens with this plea: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses” (Psalm 51:1, BCP 656).  And Psalm 103 states, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness” and assures mortal sinners in no uncertain terms that God “forgives all your sins” (103:8, BCP 733).

This is also the case in other Old Testament passages.  Psalm 136 opens with, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever” and in each of the subsequent twenty-five verses the refrain “for his mercy endures forever” is repeated.  “His mercy endures forever…his mercy endures forever…”  And if that is not enough for you, Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations that “(God’s) mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (2:22-23).

But the 100% forgiveness of sins still offends some people.  It certainly offended the self-righteous Pharisees in Jesus’ day—but in Luke’s account of the gospel we read that Jesus told those offended by God’s mercy the following short parable:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”  But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other (Luke 18:10-14).

The tax collector understood his utter dependency on the total mercy of the God of all mercy, his need for “perfect remission and forgiveness” of his sins.  “God, be merciful to me a sinner”—that is the perfect prayer Ash Wednesday prayer.

A particularly powerful image of mercy is in the 1986 film The Mission.  Set in 18th century South America there is a scene in which a Portuguese slave trader, Captain Mendoza, played by Robert De Niro is doing penance.  His penance consists of dragging a net—like the one with which he used to catch aboriginal Guarani Indians to sell into slavery—behind him that included all his armor and weapons.  With the rope around his neck and shoulder Captain Mendoza drags these trappings of his old life through the jungle and up a cliff.  When he arrives at the top of the cliff he stumbles to the ground filthy, exhausted, utterly broken.

Several Catholic missionaries along with a group of Guarani Indians surround him.  One of the Guarani tribal leaders takes a large knife and approaches Captain Mendoza.  He pulls him back by the hair and holds the knife to his neck.  For a moment it looks like he is going to exact revenge for all the Guarani Indians Captain Mendoza had captured and sold into slavery.  For a moment it looks like lex talionis yet once again.

But instead the tribal leader gives Mendoza mercy, and he uses the knife to cut the rope connected to the net Captain Mendoza had been dragging behind him all that time.  After cutting the rope, he proceeds to roll the net with all Captain Mendoza’s armor and weapons off the cliff and into the river, where it is carried away.  As Captain Mendoza realizes that he has been forgiven, 100% forgiven by the very ones against whom he had sinned all those years, he begins sobbing.  As the Guarani gently surround him and embrace him his tears dissolve into laughter.

Jesus Christ’s message of total mercy, of “perfect remission and forgiveness,” of 100% forgiveness of sins was good news to many sinners, but deeply offended the religious leaders, so much so that they conspired to have him drag a cross behind him along the Via Dolorosa to the top of Calvary where he arrived filthy, exhausted, utterly broken.  And yet even then Jesus continued to offer mercy to those who killed him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  In other words, the total mercy of Jesus Christ—the God of all mercy—transformed the Via Dolorosa into Mercy Street.

This means all your sins have been cut away by the very one against whom you have sinned.  God has rolled all of it off the cliff and into the river.  You are 100% forgiven, and you are welcomed into your Heavenly Daddy’s arms again.

So while yes, on Ash Wednesday we are reminded that we are sinners who are all going to die—no exceptions, nevertheless there is also very good news on Ash Wednesday.  By his death and resurrection, you are also assured of total mercy, “perfect remission and forgiveness,” by Jesus Christ, the God of all mercy.