As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Compassion in human relations;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence.
Our theme for the month here at First Unitarian is mercy. As Rev. Bill shared last week, this is a concept we Unitarian Universalists often shy away from exploring.
And yet, every week in this very sanctuary, we talk about practicing love.
Love – is that not the root of mercy?
I propose that we, in fact, aspire to mercy through our principles. Through our commitment to compassion, respect, and love.
Mercy is that kind word freely given, the offer of assistance, the care imparted.
It is our willingness to forgive a child for a mistake, the bandage we place over a wound, the action we take to help ease the pain of families who lost a loved one last week in Las Vegas.
Mercy is love in action.
As you likely know by now, I am Crystal Zerfoss and I am blessed to serve as your intern minister this year. Thank you all for such a warm welcome to the church.
Being that this is my first Sunday sermon with you, I was invited to share a little about myself. So I want to begin by sharing with you a personal experience I’ve had with mercy.
It starts with a picture, a self-portrait really.
That’s me, “gracefully” crashing in Seattle a few years ago. (Actually, I took that picture a few blocks from here, but it’s an accurate depiction what I looked like.)
I was downtown on my way to meet a friend for lunch. I turned onto a block where the streetcar ran, my thin bike tires running parallel with the sunken tracks. This picture shows you what happened when my front tire slid into the track. I joke that I looked “graceful” as I flew over the handlebars, and as funny as it is now, I assure you it was frightening and painful at the time.
When the accident occurred, there was a car directly behind me on the road.
The driver slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting me. She then got out of her car to check to see if I was okay and offered to help me.
One of the definitions of mercy is the compassionate treatment of those in distress.
I was clearly in distress and this driver showed me mercy. There are so many other ways she could have responded in that moment. She could have yelled at me for delaying her. She could have honked, cursed, or swerved around me violently, indicating her frustration or anger. She could have just stayed in her car, waiting for me to drag my crumpled bike and bleeding knees onto the sidewalk.
Instead, she chose compassion. She chose caring.
I don’t know her story, what was going on in her life. Maybe she was having a rough day having just learned some sad news of a friend dying, or maybe she was glowing, recalling her date from the night before that had gone so well. Maybe she was late for an important meeting, or on her way to pick up a sick child from school, or maybe she, too, was meeting a friend for lunch.
However she was feeling, whatever was going on in her life, she stopped for me. She took time for me.
Her caring questions, the look of concern on her face were genuine, and they reflected back to me the same type of Love I try to live into the world.
That, is mercy.
I believe each of us knows what mercy is, instinctively.
There is something deep within us that compels us to turn toward, rather than away, from someone suffering.
Perhaps we’ve muted this over time, or forgotten it, or even actively chosen not to embrace it, but it is part of what makes us human.
There is something inside you that motivates you to act with compassion.
But why? Why do you care about another?
Maybe it has something to do with relationship. We are relational beings after all, living together in communities and families. You care for your loved ones, hence “loved” ones.
Perhaps you resonate with what someone is going through, because you understand the feelings of loss, pain, fear. You empathize.
Maybe your tendency toward mercy stems from your spiritual convictions, from your deeply held religious beliefs.
The depth of your self-knowledge allows you to tap into the well of compassion within.
Many of us have been taught to love your neighbor as yourself. Yes, and, the question I often ask is, what happens when you don’t first love yourself?
How can you love others without loving yourself? How can you show mercy to others and not show mercy to yourself?
Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, writes, “It is unconditional compassion for ourselves that leads to unconditional compassion for others… Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
Our shared humanity. Sounds a lot like what we call interconnectedness.
I want to share another story with you. This one is about a study conducted at Princeton Theological Seminary. Students studying to be ministers were asked to reflect on the Good Samaritan parable from the Bible and then give a short speech about it.
This particular parable tells the story of a man beaten by robbers who was left by the side of the road bleeding. Two men of importance, one, a rabbi, crossed the street and passed by the hurt man without helping him.
Then a third man, a Samaritan, someone who was a foreigner in the place where the story was set, stopped and helped the injured man. He cared for the man’s wounds, took him to a place for rest, and paid for food, housing, and medical care for him.
These ministry students at Princeton were being set up for an experiment they didn’t know was taking place. The students were sent rushing from one building on campus to another to give their prepared speech about this parable on mercy. Unbeknownst to them, they were set up to pass an injured person in need of help along the way, and the researchers were curious to find out how many of them would actually stop and help.
I’ll report to you, that although there was some variation based on whether or not the students were given extra time to make the trek, few actually stopped and helped the injured person.
Think about that for a minute.
On their way to share their theological reflection on this biblical story of helping others, most of these future ministers walked right past someone in need. In fact, one of them even stepped over the man.
Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we can get so caught up in what we feel we need to do in the moment, we tunnel our vision so finely that we miss the hurting man lying in the street. We miss the need that is right in front of us.
We can lose touch with our shared humanity.
And we can justify our actions, or our inaction, by claiming responsibility only to a certain few.
Maybe we ignore or neglect other people in favor of caring for people we like.
Maybe we hold allegiance to fellow citizens of our country while holding people from other countries at arm’s length.
Maybe our compassion extends only as far as to those who look like us, sound like us, think like us, vote like us, believe like us.
Who do you hurry past in your impatience? Who do you climb over or grumble around as you head off to what you believe to be the most important thing you must do? From whom do you withhold mercy?
Another definition of mercy is showing compassion to someone whom it is within your power to punish or harm.
Put another way, mercy is loving those whom you do not have to even think about.
It is the absence of avoidance or indifference to another’s suffering.
We show mercy when we intentionally turn toward, not turn away.
To live in mercy is to care for all who suffer and to work to end their suffering.
Is this not what our principles call us to do?
What if the man in the parable who was victimized had fought back? What if, after being brutally attacked, he had only done x,y,z? What if he was carrying a club or mace or a gun?
What if I had chosen a different street in Seattle to ride my bike? At the very least, retired to the sidewalk when I found myself on a narrow lane with tracks?
Such victim-blaming questions demonstrate our refusal to examine why it is we chose not to show mercy, why we chose to work against our own loving nature. If we project onto another, blame or justification for their suffering, we in some way strive to absolve ourselves of any responsibility to that person and their needs.
How is that honoring our interconnectedness? Honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person?
Mercy and compassion don’t need justification. We don’t need a reason to do the right thing, to care for another – the fact that this is another person hurting is reason enough.
Writer Ijeoma Oluo shared recently in a facebook post regarding the ongoing attack on undocumented immigrants,
“I will not exceptionalize our immigrant friends and family.
I will not tell you about all the amazing things they bring to our society.
I will not invoke our immigrant doctors, lawyers, teachers & soldiers.
I will not tell you stories of hardships overcome and certain death escaped.
I will not regale you with stories of how loved and needed my brother is.
I will not remind you of where my father came from and that the one gift he was able to give me was my life here.
I will simply remind you that they are human beings.
That should be enough.”
I want to be treated with Love, dignity, respect, and compassion. I, therefore, strive to treat each person I meet with Love, dignity, respect, and compassion.
My faith informs what my conscience already knows.
Each person is worthy.
We are all interconnected.
Compassion is key to our relationships.
When another is hurting, so, too, am I.
I suggest to you that the core of mercy, the central element that calls us to compassion in human relations, comes from deep within. This source may be defined as suits your understanding: G-d, Spirit of Life, Divine Love, inner wisdom, reason, enlightenment, a Wellspring of Love.
Our capacity for mercy comes from this source, this inner well.
And it’s in our humanness where this well resides.
There is vast breadth and depth of spiritual understanding in this community; each one is rooted in humanity.
If you are created in G-d’s image, your loving compassion stems from such deep love built into who you are.
If what you perceive is all there is, your loving compassion is innate in the structure and make up of being human.
The source of mercy, whatever that may be for you, flows from you like the water of a fountain bursting forth in your words, in your actions, in your love.
And when the well is full, you enjoy an abundance of Love that you freely share.
But when the resources within your well run short, that is when you come to fear scarcity and begin to withhold your mercy, to withhold your compassion and your forgiveness.
So how do you tend the well that lies deep within? How do you refill it when the water runs low? If the rope affixed to your bucket is fraying, how do you repair it?
Perhaps you pray to G-d, raising your questions and seeking your guidance from the divine wisdom of a loving, creator G-d.
Or you beseech the insight of goddesses and gods, taking many forms and imparting wisdom through a variety of rituals and symbols.
Maybe you gather in community with other seekers, questioning aloud, together, how to best use this life, to be the most loving, most humanly compassionate you can be.
Or perhaps you garner wisdom through science, using the expanse of your analytical mind to rationalize mercy, to comprehend how human emotions drive compassionate response.
Maybe you rely on the values that you hold most dear, internalizing our Unitarian Universalist principles – every person inherently has dignity and worth, we are all interconnected, striving to be compassionate in our relationships.
Wherever you find this deep wisdom, trust into it.
Do what you need to do to ensure your well stays full.
Care for yourself and extend that caring to those around you, to those you already love and to those you can chose to ignore.
Your well runs very deep, sourced deep in your humanity, and the mercy that lies within you is a gift for the world. I implore you to offer it.
Because, my friends, truly I tell you,
It is always possible to love more.
May we do so.
Amen. Blessed be.