God’s call to mercy and justice
A Sermon preached at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, August 8, 2021
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14, year B):
2 Samuel 18: 5-9, 15, 31-33; Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 (NRSV):
The king, David, ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword. Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on…
…And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him…
Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the LORD has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.” The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.” The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2 (NRSV): Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Welcome back and welcome home! It is wonderful to be back from summer breaks to start up ministry programs once again. School is starting up and church is getting back into the swing of things. After a year and a half of COVID interruptions, we are back to business, church, school and regular life. Right? Well, mostly regular…
Just as we’re winding up, the pandemic brings us a new wave of infections. So, we’re back to the uncertainty, the frustration with numerous agencies and leaders trying to figure out what best to do next. All that stress tugs at the impatience and frustration that we’ve been trying to manage in the last year and a half. Another wave stirs up more bitterness over all that continues to seem wrong to us. So, St. Paul’s words to us today are timely: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Notice that Paul begins by saying “Be angry but do not sin.” This follows his earlier direction to “Speak the truth in love” to each other. Paul asks thieves to stop stealing, and he asks that we forgive one another. There is something important for us to learn in these words. We are called by God not simply to seek justice, but also mercy. We are called not simply to kindness and forgiveness, but also to stand for repentance and for what is right.
Our culture, however, is not used to both mercy and justice. We’ve slipped once again into an age-old habit of polarizing and demonizing those with whom we disagree. We want vengeance, we want to eliminate those who stand in the way of what we know is right and good. The reactivity of social media infects our news and politics and business and relationships. But, really, it’s the same old temptations of human nature. We’ve just embraced them rather than push them back.
But COVID and politics this year brings this home. More conversations about masks and vaccinations, distancing and public gatherings. We encounter conflict among friends and family, classmates and friends in Christ, and tempers rise quickly. How do we disagree with those we love? Can we disagree and love? Can we love and disagree? If you have faced this tension in your own life, you know that there is so much more healing to be done—in us and through us. But this healing is indeed possible in Christ.
In Christ, love is not opposed to justice, mercy is not opposed to righteousness. This hits home hard when we face conflict with those we love. But of course, we are supposed to love even the stranger and even our enemies. So how can we both disagree and love? How can we both stand for what we believe is right, and stay in relationship? In today’s readings, we see signs of how hard this is, and also signs of how important this task is to God.
We’ve been following the story of King David in recent weeks. Today’s reading is a very condensed and abbreviated and chopped-up version of the story of David and his son Absalom. I urge you to read the whole story, from chapter 13 through 19 in 2 Samuel. It is full of family drama and tragedy. David’s son Absalom eventually sets himself up as a rival king, and David regroups with those loyal to him. David is deeply grieved. He knows that he has to fight his son’s rebellion, but he loves his son dearly. As they go off to battle, David tells his army and their commanders “deal gently with the young man Absalom.”
But Joab, the ruthless commander of David’s army, finds Absalom and kills him. Joab then sends two messengers to run with news to David. The first tells of the victory of his armies. But David only wants to know “is it well with the young man Absalom?” And the second messenger also brings news, and with it, news of Absalom’s death. David does not rise in triumph over his betrayer. Instead, he grieves openly: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
David had to deal with Absalom’s rebellion. But his goal was reunion with Absalom, and later he pardons those who followed Absalom. David would even have given his own life to restore his son, to be reconciled. Look carefully at David’s heart. David is called in the Bible “a man after God’s own heart.” Here, David shows the deep love that God has for us. We often turn away from God. God stands for what is right, but God still pursues our reconciliation. God looks at us at our worst and says “would that I would die instead of you.”
Of course, that’s what Jesus does for us on the cross. Jesus died for you and for me. Jesus sacrificed himself so that sinners like us could be reconciled to God. And Jesus rises again to new life, that we might have new life with him—forgiven and restored and renewed. God both stands against sin and for us sinners. God gives us both justice and mercy, both truth and love.
Jesus says of himself in today’s Gospel reading “I am the bread of life… and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus gives of himself to reconcile us to him. Jesus does what David could not do. Jesus shows us God’s heart for us. Jesus invites us to embrace this love and to share that kind of truth and mercy with others.
What would it be like for us to engage with one another, even across our disagreements and differences? What would be like for us to listen in the midst of conflict? To seek understanding first, and then to be understood? What would it be like to care for one another with respect, even when we still disagree? What would it be like to set boundaries against what is wrong and stay engaged in relationship? This has never been easy, but it has always been the life-giving way of Jesus and his followers. This has always been the way God’s grace and truth brings life to the world.
As we return to school and continue to navigate COVID policies and political conflicts, we also return to church. Even as the pandemic continues, we are rebuilding this Christian Community in fellowship and worship, in discipleship and prayer and care and service. Grounded in Jesus, we can become a community of justice and mercy, of truth and reconciliation, of forgiveness and renewal. The more we engage with each other and support each other in lives of grace and truth and reconciliation, the more able we will be to share God’s grace and truth in the rough and tumble of our daily lives. And the more the darkness of our world will be pushed back by the light of Christ.
Is this the kind of community you seek?
Is this the kind of community you are willing to help build, with God’s power?
This is part of why the psalmist writes “I was glad when they said to me, we will go into the house of the Lord.”
Welcome back, and welcome home. Welcome to a community where God’s healing of the world begins. Welcome to renewal and restoration in Christ in this Christian Community.