Mercy, Mercy me.
This may well be the first time that a Motown hit has been sung as an anthem in this sanctuary.
Mercy, mercy me
Things ain’t what they used to be
Poison in the wind
Oil wasted on the seas
How much more abuse …
Can mother earth stand?
Motown artist, Marvin Gaye’s environmentalism was far ahead of his time.
He recorded that song in 1971, almost 50 years ago. I’m dating myself, I know. Many of you were not around when that song hit the top of the charts. And some of you who were, may not have been Motown or Marvin Gaye fans back then.
Marvin Gaye made his name singing more standard R&B fare, often with an explicit sexuality…”Sexual Healing” was one of his big hits.
That focus on sexuality played into deep stereotypes in the culture… sexuality has been bound up with being Black in the consciousness of the dominant culture since slavery.
Sexuality was predictable territory. Marvin Gaye was just a bit more explicit in his lyrics than most.
But to have a prominent African American take a prophetic stand for the environment…well, that was almost as shocking as Martin Luther King coming out against the Viet Nam war just a few years earlier. And Marvin Gaye, like King, was criticized for stepping outside his area of racialized expertise…that was the critique among whites…What do you think you know about the environment? And Black leaders argued that environmental issues could put progress on racial justice at risk.
Motown executives were just worried that it wouldn’t sell. But the album topped the charts.
MLK and Marvin Gaye, here, were moving toward a vision for the Beloved Community that was not limited to racial justice or to any single issue…they were moving toward a vision of the Beloved Community that embraced wholeness for everyone and for our relationship with the earth.
They were beginning to understand what we, today, call intersectionality. The interconnected web is the language from our UU Principles.
The criticism of Marvin Gaye was intense…despite the record sales. Concern for the environment…was, well, just not supposed to be a Black “thing.”
Have mercy! This gets deep quite fast.
Mercy is our spiritual theme this month. And mercy is a concept we liberal religious folks don’t talk much about.
Our theology centers on human agency…our ability to shape our world and our lives…our theology doesn’t leave much room for a God who might dispense mercy, even for the theists among us. And our belief in our strength and ability doesn’t seem to require much of a role for mercy either.
At a personal level, it can even be hard for most of us to acknowledge times when we might need some mercy. That would challenge our self-image of competence and our self-presentation of being in control.
Mercy is not much on our screen.
Anne Lamott, in Hallelujah Anyway, writes:
“Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgiveable. Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology…given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred…”
Mercy requires forgiving the unforgiveable. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the conclusion of the Jewish High Holy Days, ended yesterday.
From the Kol Nidrei prayer, which we recited in our Yom Kippur service on Friday evening:
“O Source of Mercy, give us the grace to show forbearance to those who offend against us. When the wrongs and injustices of others wound us, may our hearts not despair of human good. May no trial, however severe, embitter our souls and destroy our trust.”
It is a prayer for mercy, for forgiveness and for grace not to let the trials and tribulations of living, and our own failures, prevent us from moving forward with an open-heart and a sense of hope.
The need to receive and grant forgiveness is brought front and center in the Jewish tradition each year… regularly…religiously we might even say.
I think that we, too, need to be reminded. Even we, at times, need mercy…
Though, most of the time, we would much rather talk about justice. For all the importance of love in our theology, it is often easier for us to move toward judgment.
And, let me be clear, sometimes justice and judgment are necessary…
It has been hard to listen to the reports from Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, devastated the island.
Do we need to beg for mercy in a natural disaster? Is forgiveness what is needed?
Few of us doubt our complicity in global warming. These storms are getting more intense as the warmth of the waters from which they draw energy increases. Three 500-year storms in one year. Oh, global warming is real.
We can be criticized for concentrating populations in the path of these storms and for failing to build structures to withstand them. We can be criticized for responding to global warming itself so slowly.
But in the aftermath of the storm, it is the human failure, on the ground, that I believe requires the closest inspection. After 10 days, 90% of the residents, all US citizens, are still without power; half the island does not have safe water to drink; patients are dying in nursing homes and a significant collapse of public health is imminent. Meanwhile, thousands of containers of needed supplies sit on docks in San Juan with no trucks to move them and roads to the interior not cleared even if trucks could be found. Ham radios are still being used for communication in the interior.
Our President repeats over and over that relief efforts are going so well and that he is being praised by local leaders for his support. But the Mayor of San Juan is begging for more assistance. “You are killing us with your inefficiency.” His response is to attack, accusing the mayor and the citizens of Puerto Rico of not helping themselves.
We are now 10 days into this predicted and forecast disaster. And the federal support we have offered was dwarfed by that provided to Texas and Florida just weeks ago. Why, I wonder, might that possibly be?
I am sure there are prayers for mercy being said on the island, but my prayer is for action and accountability.
Oh, there are definitely times when judgment needs to be the order of the day.
But it is not just when we confront injustice…out there…in the world that our impulse to judgment kicks in.
On a personal level, we embrace high standards for ourselves. I do and you do as well. We expect ourselves to live with integrity and honesty. We live with multiple accountabilities to family, to co-workers, to friends and fellow congregants. And we expect our lives to help the universe bend toward justice.
Not only do we accept that our actions will be judged based on these high standards, we welcome that judgment…at least when things are going well.
My call to ministry came after a personal bankruptcy. This was almost 30 years ago. As a young man, I had had a successful career in the corporate world and then started a small real estate development business, on my own, in New York City.
I was doing reasonably well, when my mother became ill in Ohio and I decided to move the business there so that I could care for her. The Cincinnati real estate market was vastly different from Brooklyn.
Though I tried to get to know the market, I was still looking with New York eyes when I invested. I bought some properties that I couldn’t sell and had to hold.
And then interest rates went through the roof…10-12-15%. And there just was not enough cash.
There were no Russian bankers to bail me out. I had to declare bankruptcy. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
The bankruptcy court provided justice…and relief. For that I was thankful.
But even more than financial relief, I badly needed mercy. I had failed people that I loved, and failed myself.
The averages would say that I am not the only person in this sanctuary to have gone through a bankruptcy. There are about 900,000 a year. Our President has gone through several. I have wondered if he agonized the way I did.
It was my Unitarian Universalist congregation that offered me the first taste of mercy and the affirmation that I was still valuable and still loved.
Yes, of course, I should stay on the Board of Trustees. Yes, keep teaching in the church school. And, before too long…yes, we think you should become a minister. We can feel that you are called.
The mercy I received prevented me from staying stuck in self-criticism and self-loathing. At least, it helped me turn that first corner. The mercy I received empowered me to start the next chapter of my life.
I am sure that the congregants of First Unitarian in Cincinnati would not describe their interactions with me in grandiose terms. But their love of me was a powerful and merciful gift that helped me mend my self-esteem and move forward.
The title for this sermon, “Sadly in Need of Mending,” comes from Herman Melville’s famous novel, Moby Dick. Most of you will remember the story of Captain Ahab who is obsessed with the great white whale which had taken one of his legs. Written in 1851, the book is still required reading in many high schools and it is filled with allegory. Countless papers on good and evil, on redemption, and on mercy have featured Ahab, the white whale and the crew of the ship, Pequod.
The novel begins with the friendship of Ishmael, the narrator, who wants to join a crew for a whaling voyage, and Queequeg, a harpooner, native of a mythical Pacific island, covered in tattoos. They meet when they share a bed at a seaport inn.
Many a paper has also been written about the erotic nature of the friendship of these two unlikely companions. Their relationship is not overtly sexual, but it is close. They talk, in bed, through the night. Ishmael joins Queequeg in worshipping the small ebony wood figure he carries, called Yoyo. In fact, it is Yoyo who tells the two friends to sign on the crew of the Pequod.
This odd couple crossed boundaries of race and culture and faith. Their friendship required something far beyond mere tolerance. It requires the assumption of integrity and a humility about truth…religious and otherwise.
Ishmael writes: “Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterian and Pagan alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”
Moby Dick was a commercial failure. It sold fewer than 3,000 copies at the time. Melville finally took a job as a custom’s inspector in Manhattan and joined the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City.
Have mercy. Melville is one of ours.
Sadly in need of mending. That is the spirit of judgment speaking, of course. The need for mending implies brokenness. Sinfulness would be the language in traditional Christian theology. For us, the language of human fallibility and human shortcomings resonates more easily.
In this church, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This is the Universalist promise that each and every one of us is lovable and already loved.
But that promise never pretended that we were or would ever be perfect.
And it can feel like a contradiction to say both that we are all loved and that we are all flawed. But that is the tension we need to hold and the balance beam we need to walk.
Mercy is easy to think about as a warm and fuzzy forgiveness. But I believe that mercy is a discipline…a discipline of balance.
We maintain high standards for ourselves and we insist on high standards in our leaders. And we should.
But we need to find ways to allow the times when we fail, when we fall short, when we disappoint…not to paralyze us with guilt or self-criticism or shame.
We are all in this together. Marvin Gaye and Martin Luther King were right. Justice is ultimately indivisible. Wholeness is the goal. That is what the Beloved Community will look like and feel like.
And we will get there by trying and failing and trying again. We will get there by learning from our failures and our partial successes, seeing more and more clearly what justice calls us to do. That is why we cannot allow failure to paralyze us.
The Universalist promise is a promise of the power of love, not a promise of perfection. The Universalist promise is that we are loved even when we fail.
As the Yom Kippur liturgy intones:
“Create in us a clean heart…and renew in us a generous spirit. Keep before us the vision of a world at peace. Help us align our hearts and hands with truth, love and justice. … Remove from us the blindness which keeps us from seeing those who need us and the selfishness which makes us small. Fill us with love for all life and reverence for all being.”
When we fall short, when we fail ourselves or others, we need to find a forgiving heart that will not trap us in our past mistakes but allow us to point toward a hopeful future.
Mercy, received and granted, can free us to begin again in love.
Will you pray with me now?
Spirit of Life and of Love.
Help us hold both the demands of justice
And the need for mercy in our hearts.
Help us hold ourselves and our leaders
Accountable, but help us not hold ourselves
Hostage to our shortcomings.
Help us find the mercy that we need
To know how we fall short
But also to see a path toward hope.
And help us create in this community
The habit of affirmation
And the practice of forgiveness
Renew in us a generous spirit
So that the love in which we place our hope
Can flourish in our lives and in our world.
So may it be. Amen.