Cardinal Walter Kasper begins his book Mercy: the Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life with a discouraging recitation of the calamities of the young 21st Century: 9/11; the Ebola plague outbreak and spread; Boca Haram in Africa; the constant threat of terrorist violence in the West, like the Boston Marathon bombing; the distrust of and discrimination against peaceful Muslims in Europe and the U.S., the persecution of religious minorities throughout the world; the exploitation and enslavement of women in Africa, Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan; the deaths of innocent, civilian women and children from American drone strikes; the rise of drug addiction and of fear of our neighbors; the billions spent on armaments and privately owned firearms; the degradation of the environment; the random, recurrent mass shootings in the U.S., the increasing disparity of wealth between the rich and the rest; the 30,000 children in the world who die every day from the effects of poverty and easily treatable disease.
In view of all this, Kasper writes that the greatest theological question in the world today is not whether God exists, even though Kasper recognizes that the number of atheists and agnostics are increasing. No, the greatest theological question today is whether a God of mercy exists. He even quotes Odo Marquard, a contemporary German philosopher, that in light of this really diabolical outbreak of evil, we are obliged to deny the existence of God for the sake of God’s greater honor.
But we believers still hold hard to two basic theological propositions in the face of the rampant evil in the world: that God is almighty, and that God is merciful. But in order to be realistic, it seems that we must somehow modify one of those two statements. I mean, Marquard is correct, isn’t he? Given that there is so much real evil, how can God be both almighty and merciful?
So…I believe that the only true and worthy calling of the Christian today is to witness to the world that God is indeed merciful, all appearances and experiences to the contrary, and that this mercy of God is overpowering in our own lives. In light of all the suffering and evil in creation, it just doesn’t matter if we build another church, or install another organ, or improve another sanctuary, or stage another entertaining and attracting worship service. It just doesn’t matter if we increase our church attendance and giving, or vindicate some theological perspective on scripture, or hold to some “true” doctrine, or show each person the way into heaven and out of all this evil, or to comfort us complacent and protected rich in our posh cocoons. ALL that matters, at all, is that we who believe in a powerful, merciful God bear that mercy powerfully to a suffering world. Indeed, we who are graced with this belief are largely responsible for the world’s doubt in a powerful, merciful God, because of our bourgeois pre-occupations with matters that do not matter, and our failure to bear and witness to that mercy powerfully, with and through all our lives.
Last Sunday, I re-introduced our DiscipleChurch service to the “Jesus Prayer,” first recorded in Christian writings in the 5th Century: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer has been a Christian mantra through the centuries, the source of much inspiration and a vehicle of encounter with Jesus. I myself have taken to reciting it over and over when I wake up in bed the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep, worried over some of our justice ministry families. I find the prayer very centering and reassuring, as have millions of Christians through the Christian ages. The key to the prayer, of course, is the word “mercy.” The “mercy” I am asking God for in the middle of these nights is the power to hold off despair in the face of so much hardship and fatigue. The power to hold onto hope and faith after nine years of dealing daily with family violence and child abuse and poverty. The power to forgive…myself for my limitations and mistakes of the previous days and forgive others for their mistakes. The power to leave it in Jesus’ hands until dawn, to go back to sleep, and then to go back to work the next morning.
But the prayer seems so incomplete, as powerful as it has proved to be. The prayer seems so much about the one praying, about me…”have mercy on me…” So we in DiscipleChurch are adding to it: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy through me, a sinner.” As you who know me well…well know, I am not a naturally merciful man. But Jesus is. And Jesus needs and uses us sinners to bear his mercy to this lost, suffering, evil-oppressed world.
What does must this mercy include? We’ll talk some more about that this Sunday.
In the meantime…“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, sinners that we are. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy through us, sinners that we are.”