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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
February 24, 2019

Sermon: The Fibrillating Heart of the World

The writer Anne Lamott is one of my spiritual mentors for many reasons. This week it’s because she accidentally took her dog’s medicine instead of feeding it to the dog. She is fine, nothing bad happened except the panic when she realized she had swallowed two Benedryls for the dog’s allergies and one large pill meant to treat her dog’s elderly incontinence issues. About this incident, she wrote:

How this happened is kind of a long story: suffice it to say, once when my son was 9, I was dragging him behind me along the docks in San Francisco on my way to do a live interview, holding a (giant) stack of papers, a heavy purse slung over my shoulder, and inevitably I dropped some papers, which blew in the wind onto the bay, the tarry pilings, and …some rather startled pelicans. My son stopped in his tracks and yanked on my arm. “Mom,” he said fretfully, “You’re carrying too much and you’re going too fast.” These were also the conditions on Monday, when I took the dog’s medicine.

These are, in fact, the conditions a lot of the time — carrying too much on my heart and my mind, going too fast, caring for so many people, trying to get just one more thing done before I have to be somewhere, pummeled by the data stream of terrifying political news… The second I’d swallowed them, I said out loud, to God, “Please don’t let me have just taken the dog’s pills.” God rolled Her eyes, sighed, helped me find my phone. I called the vet, and said Oh well, hah-hah, you must get this all the time. She said, very nicely, No, it was kind of a first. And that the dog’s incontinence meds had been banned by the FDA for human use twenty years earlier, so I really needed to call my doctor.

My doctor said I needed to watch for signs of hypertension and a racing heart beat, but that the odds were good that I would live (and be just fine). She said, “Maybe just take it a little easy today, until the Benadryl wears off.”

She did not yell at me for operating heavy machinery while on anti­histamines. She did not suggest I get a complete cognitive work-up at Stanford. She didn’t think she needed to urge [my son] Sam to pro­ceed with his research on [the nursing home website called] www dot Place for Mom dot com. (This is a real website, by the way, just in case you are looking.)

I was so happy! I had a whole, sunny day ahead of me, to live, to be, to savor, to move about more slowly, and attentively, to take special care with myself, checking in with my inside person more often, gently. That’s exactly how I aspire to live, (with attention and gentle­ness and mercy) and it’s the secret of life, but I need to be reminded from time to time. [From Anne Lamott’s Facebook page, Feb. 2019]

As someone who has driven cheerfully away from the gas station with the gas hose still attached to the car, and walked out my front door having forgotten to put on a skirt, I could relate, though in my defense, those incidents didn’t happen on the same day. Though, just yesterday I walked into the men’s changing room at the gym by accident. It isn’t the first time I have done it, but always before I have realized my mistake at the door. Yesterday, I must have been more distracted than usual and I strode confidently all the way in and let’s just say everyone involved was surprised.

So often, we are carrying too much and going too fast. We make mistakes and forget things and the voices in our heads, at least if yours are anything like mine, are not at all kind. We need reminders to live with attention, to move about more slowly, and most of all to have mercy, including for ourselves. Because, of course, we have done far worse than take the dog’s incontinence pills or stumble into naked men in the locker room by accident. We have made bad decisions with painful consequences. We have broken trust, broken promises, broken relation­ships and those breaks cannot always be repaired. And we have also been hurt in ways that may never fully heal. All of us have found ourselves in need of mercy and all of us have had and will have again the choice, the chance to offer mercy to someone else.

The Hebrew Bible prophet Micah says that to live in this world you must be able to do three things: to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly. They are all really, really hard but mercy and what it means and how we love it may be the one we know the least about.

What is mercy? It isn’t a word we hear or use a lot. Christian theologians in particular spend a lot of time defining the words mercy and grace and distinguishing between them. In traditional Christian theology, mercy is the quality that God shows in not punishing us for our sins. Grace is the way God blesses us and gives us good things despite our sins. But those distinctions depend upon an understanding of God, humanity and sin that many of us don’t share.

I believe that mercy, grace, compassion and forgiveness are all closely related. Mercy depends upon compassion, it requires the capacity to feel with another, to open ourselves to another’s experience, and especially to their pain. And mercy is similar to grace, if we understand grace as unexpected and unlooked for kindness, grace as breathing room or the way we are somehow helped even when we feel quite sure there is no help available. Mercy is love when you don’t expect love and yet you receive it in ways that are bigger and deeper than you could have imagined. Mercy is forgiveness when you did not ask for it or do anything to earn it and feel you don’t deserve it and yet forgiveness comes anyway. Mercy is a choice we can make — choosing to be kind when we could easily be cruel; choosing to be gentle when we could be harsh, choosing not to humiliate or hurt when we have the power to do that and others would probably understand if we did.

I think about the families of those who were killed at the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston SC 3.5 years ago, when a white supremacist killed 9 people at a Bible Study, including 2 of the ministers of the church and a state senator. The young man had been welcomed into the bible study and then he started shooting. At a court hearing the relatives of the dead testified to their loss, to their grief and rage and then they forgave the man who had caused their pain and prayed for him. This is mercy at its most advanced level; this is the Olympics of mercy. Most of us are not at that level — we may be more at the training wheels level of mercy, not even sure if we would recognize it if we saw it. But think about it for a moment….

Think about a time you showed mercy for yourself. Can you remember a time when you stopped punishing yourself for a mistake you made, a time when you truly let yourself off the emotional hook? Mercy doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences or that the mistake doesn’t matter. It means that we aren’t holding that mistake over our own heads, keeping it to use at some further date when we need to be reminded of our unworthiness. Showing ourselves mercy never makes things worse and I suspect it makes us kinder and more likely to extend mercy to others. Think about a time when offered mercy to someone else — when you could have been self-righteous and judgmental with good and justifiable reasons and you just weren’t. Think about a time when you chose kindness when you could have chosen something else. Mercy always brings us into connection with others; it brings us closer; it makes us more human to one another.

Anne Lamott says:

To have a merciful heart means your heart has been softened by the meat tenderizer of grace so that even if somebody is wrong or has wronged you…. You get it. You get that they have suffered. You get what an effort it is for them just to get through the day. She also says how can you not love mercy? It’s like not loving dessert, or cheese. [From Hallelujah Anyway, Rediscovering Mercy]

But the truth is that mercy is hard.

I have been practicing mercy a lot lately since my 15 year old son recently decided to passionately support political and social values which are, how shall we say, radically and distressingly different from my own. He has always had passionate and well-defined political opinions — it is just that those opinions used to be the same as mine. I know that some part of this is he is rebelling against the values he was raised with and he readily admits he finds it truly satisfying to upset me, which takes about 30 seconds of words like trickle-down economics and free market capitalism . He just spent three days at home on vacation and we were arguing before we left his school’s driveway. I was using words like disappointed and devastated. He said he just wanted to have reasonable, rational discussions about the crisis at the southern border and abortion and could I stop being so emotional. I told him we better not talk about politics anymore. This is actually really sad for me since we used to talk about politics all the time, except we agreed on things.

So we mostly did not talk about politics and we found some new things to talk about. My love for my child is deeper than his opinions and beliefs despite how much as I hope this is a phase. That part is not a surprise. The surprise was to realize he is offering me as much mercy right now as I am offering him, that he too is willing to love me beyond my opinions and beliefs. Because of that love we are finding new ways to be together, despite our mutual disappointment in each other.

Anne Lamott says that mercy is always our salvation. Our hope of renewal and restoration will never be found in being right, as enjoyable as this is, or in assigni­ng blame or even in a great political leader who no doubt shares our opinions. Our hope is in mercy. Our hope is in the choice of mercy, difficult and beautiful, the beating heart of this world.

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1 Powder House Road … P.O. Box 457 … Groton, MA 01450-0457 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Created 2019-03-05