Romans 5:12-19 and a selection from Megan McKenna’s book, Matthew, the Book of Mercy:
Everything that Jesus says and does, his very presence and his coming upon earth, is Mercy. Jesus is the mercy of God making us beloved children, beloved brothers and sisters, beloved communities that imitate the mercy and the love within the Trinity, who are Three and yet are One. And we who are many are on in the Body of Christ through mercy....Mercy makes sense of everything in the wisdom of God. And it is to this that we are all witnesses in the world. This is what the power of God gives us to spread and announce and exemplify with our lives. Thomas Merton once wrote of "mercy within mercy within mercy". It is a description of what Jesus' communities, of what church is summoned to be for all peoples, but most especially for those who cry out for mercy and have never even known justice. Mercy rules. Mercy is the kin-dom of heaven on earth. Mercy is what Jesus brings as good news. Mercy is Jesus' touch on every person's body.
I believe I understand at least one of the meanings of the temptation story. Jesus is tempted to use power for his own needs first. He’s tempted to use his power in a flashy display. He’s tempted to use power to gain control over other people’s lives. Those are certainly real temptations. But I always feel cheated a little bit by the gospel story of the Temptation of Jesus. Matthew tells us briefly that Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, and then devotes most of the story to describing the temptations. Command the stones to become loaves of bread? Right. I have a hard enough time commanding water, yeast, salt and flour to become a decent loaf of bread! That’s not my temptation. What I want to know is what happened during the 40 days in the desert? Those of you who’ve had the experience of an extended silent retreat know what a roller coaster experience it can be: physically, emotionally and spiritually.
a) So tell me, Jesus, what did you do on day 22? Were you having second thoughts about the public ministry you were about to begin? Any doubts about being able to make a difference in people’s lives? Were you even remotely tempted to just go back home to Nazareth?
b) Did you fall asleep late on night 28? Remember? That was the night you were scared to death by the thought of confronting the leaders of your people.
c) And was it on the final day, right before the famous temptations, when you came up with the suggestion to forgive those who harm us 70 x 7 times?
Well, I never get answers to those questions, but that’s all right, because it’s not so important what struggles and temptations Jesus faced. Walter Brueggemann tells us that the temptation story is an invitation both to the individual and to the praying community to reflect on the very real temptations that “keep us from being faithful” to the message of Jesus.
Of course we don’t need 40 days or 30 days or 8 days of silence for that reflection to take place. We just need to commit ourselves to a regular time to be still and to listen to the voice of God – to listen alone, but also to listen together.
And there are so many ways for this quieting to take place. The Worship Committee has offered for our consideration the Examen prayer of Ignatius of Loyola. In a nutshell I will summarize what I shared with some of you several weeks ago from my own experience of this form of prayer.
a) We begin by taking the time we need to be still, to quiet down from the busyness of our day.
b) We reflect first on the ways in which we have been faithful to the call of Jesus and recognized the hand of God in our lives – in the love of a partner, in the beauty of creation, in the kindness of a stranger.
c) Then we call to mind any times when we have failed to be the presence of Jesus to others. But don’t ever beat yourself up. Don’t dare wallow in guilt. Admit our weakness or failure, then let it go. Remember that God has no memory of forgiven sin.
d) We conclude by feeling the unconditional love of God for us.
The community’s prayer theme for this year (Nonviolence: Putting on the Heart of Jesus the Reconciler) gives us an opportunity to focus our reflection on a particular aspect of discipleship - the call to travel the pathway that leads from mercy to forgiveness to reconciliation to healing and peace. We know that is not always an easy road to follow, especially when the hurt and pain are deep.
I’ve been haunted over the past year by the stories of three people who shared with me their experiences of seeing their fathers and brothers executed in front of their eyes during the civil wars in their countries. One of the women, a young Somali co-worker of mine, was just a teenager when her father was killed. This is a woman, Peter King, whom I would trust with my life. She said to me: “Michael, I can still hear the sound of the bullet that took my father’s life.” I cry when I think of their pain and their memories, and I ask myself whether I would ever be able to forgive and be reconciled with a person who would take my father’s life.
I remember giving a homily a long time ago about Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. I thought I had prepared well and covered all the bases, but I got a call the next day from a friend who wanted to come in and talk with me. She shared with me that she had been sexually abused by a family member when she was younger, that she had not forgiven him, and that she was not ready to forgive him. We talked at length. As she was leaving, she said to me, “Maybe one day the time will come, but it’s not here yet.” It was a helpful lesson for me. I had implied that a follower of Jesus had no choice but to forgive, and that made my friend feel guilty because she had not reached that point in her journey.
I’m reminded of another Ignatian teaching. He writes about having “the desire for the desire.” So he might ask me, “Have you forgiven those responsible for the murder of your Jesuit brothers in El Salvador in 1989?” And when I say that I have not, he might ask me, “Do you have the desire to forgive them?” And when I say that I’m not sure, he might ask me, “Do you have the desire to have the desire to forgive them?” That is the seed of the experience of forgiveness and reconciliation, and like all seeds it needs time to grow.
We are told in the gospels on many occasions Jesus took time away from his ministry to be alone in prayer. I can’t help but think that during these times he may have struggled with another temptation – to abandon the desire to share God’s tender mercy with those who mocked and ridiculed him, and who continued to oppress the poor and needy.
Frederick Buechner reflects on an imagined meeting between Jesus and Judas in the afterworld on the evening of their deaths. It ends like this: Once again they meet in the shadows, the two old friends, both of them a little worse for wear after all that had happened. And once again there was a kiss, only this time it was Jesus who gave the kiss, and this time it was not a kiss of death but a kiss of forgiveness that was given. Can we put on the heart of Jesus the Reconciler?
Reconciliation is not an easy task. We need to help each other by telling our stories and our struggles. We are blessed to have Mary Johnson & Oshea Israel share with us after Mass today their journey “from death to life” through the grace of forgiveness.
Let us recommit ourselves during this season of Lent to what Joan Chittister calls “struggling our way to God.” May it include for all of us the journey from mercy to forgiveness to reconciliation to healing and peace.