A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on November 21, 2021
Deuteronomy 5:6-11 I am the Lord your God. . .
Luke 10: 25-37 …what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Well, I was all set to share with you some thoughts about tradition and Thanksgiving, giving thanks and recognizing mercy…. right up to Friday afternoon, when the verdict came out on the Kyle Rittenhouse case, and my Facebook feed exploded with outrage.
If I’d had any doubt about the political leanings of my friends, they were cleared up rapidly. The pain, the anger, the frustration were pretty much overwhelming.
There’s a lot that could be said about the Rittenhouse case – and over the next few days, a lot will be said and written. We might meditate on the firearms laws in Illinois which allowed a teen-ager to purchase such a weapon. We might critique the laws of Wisconsin which have such an expansive view of self-defense. We could complain that the laws which protected Kyle Rittenhouse did not protect the people he killed. We could meditate on the differences which mean that abused women rarely find self-defense a defense or which mean that a Black person carrying a rifle into a demonstration would likely not survive to the trial.
We might wonder where God is in all this. We might wonder what mercy means.
We might wonder what mercy means to us, to God, to those who’ve been hurt and want recompense.
What is mercy? What does it mean to be merciful? And, today, is mercy a free pass to do it again?
The words we read together from our Pilgrim Hymnal, the words we know as the Ten Commandments, outline for us an ethic for living, are a set of guidelines for our lives. They look really simple, don’t they?
Don’t have any other gods before me. Sure, ok.
Don’t swear on God’s name. Yeah.
Observe a sabbath. Hmm…. but when will I do this, or that?
Honor our parents. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t covet.. Don’t try to take what belongs to others.
They look easy. But they’re not. We put our work before our God. We put keeping things simple before our God. We act like we’re in charge, not God. We work too hard, we lie, we steal, we cheat on our spouses… That’s the reality of life.
And being holier than everyone else isn’t going to keep us from stepping out on the wrong path, or refusing to take the right one. That’s what Jesus’ story about the good Samaritan is really about. Being a good person, having a job of high responsibility doesn’t mean that all your decisions will be good ones.
Our world is filled with justice, with the administration of laws, but justice without mercy is nothing but a little bookkeeping, and these days, perhaps the kind of imaginative bookkeeping which can cause you to be a guest of the state for a number of years.
We can’t fix what we think is wrong with the laws in Wisconsin, and we can’t change the verdict in the Rittenhouse case. So, let’s think about what we can do, and can do right here. You’ll know the problems on the ground much more clearly than I do, but here’s a couple.
We can continue to work to tighten up the ways firearms can be purchased and used in this state, in this city. I was horrified – a couple of interims ago – to discover I had two parishioners, each in the early stages of dementia, who owned and used firearms. One of them had a Massachusetts concealed carry license, and we discovered he always wore a gun to church. This led to productive conversations, first, about how to deal with gun owners as they developed impairments, and secondly, did we want to have a rule about guns in our church. The rules say, don’t kill…. so what can we do to make it less likely that someone will do so?
We can continue to speak out about abuse. One of the memes I kept seeing over and over yesterday said something like, “thousands of women who used self-defense as their defense in their murder trials would like to be treated like Kyle Rittenhouse”. What are we doing about domestic abuse? How do we support those who live in fear for their lives?
These are not the only things we can work on; and working on them would not take anything away from our commitment to be involved in racial justice issues, because each of them is steeped in the pervasive stink of prejudice.
Mercy, if it is to be an active word and not just a passive feeling, is so not about Kyle Rittenhouse. It is about us. It is about how we interact with the rough places in our world. My guidance would be different if I were the pastor in Kenosha, Wisconsin, today, but I’m not, and that’s not where we are, either. Today, here in Connecticut, the challenge is before us.
We can demonstrate, we can express our anger, and then we have choices: we can give up on our system and devolve into cynicism or we can show mercy to our world, and work to make it better, work to make it closer to God’s vision for this world.
So, where will we be? How can we be the merciful people in our world… how can we be the people who bring mercy to the bar of justice? Which side are we on?
© 2021, Virginia H. Child