Harrowing Of Hell
September 17, 2013

Mercy and a Stone in the Pond

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, 19 then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Last week I was strapped with a gospel that spoke of hating people, this week we have “been born wicked from our mother’s womb.”

Psalm 51, I must admit is one of my favorites, but as much through association as content. You see, it is the Psalm appointed for Friday morning prayers in the Hour by Hour prayer book that so many of us use.

There was a Friday morning Minyan for a while, that the now deceased yet still deeply beloved Charley Bush was part of. Every time, and I mean every time, we got to verse 6, Charley would give an audible “Uggh” or “Give me a break.”

I look forward to this psalm every Friday, because it reminds me of Charley. In him I am reminded of a man who danced with God. The old Shaker hymn jumps to mind, Tis’ A Gift To Be Simple. The refrain being, “When true simplicity is gained to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed, to turn, turn, will be our delight till by turning, turning we come round right.”

I think of it because it captures for me the dance we dance with God.  We are sought by God, and we draw away from God, we turn back to God, and we draw away from God, we turn back to God, and the speed at with we turn back is the measure of our spiritual maturity.

Which is why I guess I think of Charley Bush. He was like a spiritual whirling dervish.

It is a challenging psalm and our impulse may be to skip over it, but I believe it is in the tension of scripture that we find deeper meaning about the kingdom of God.

So we are going to take a look. It is what we do here at Epiphany, because we are people that seek the kingdom of God. We look for it; we study it; we take on habits to engage it; because we know that when we understand how the kingdom of God works we are better able to dance with the divine and that brings us joy.  And who doesn’t want a little more joy in their life?

The themes we find in scripture today are judgment and mercy. We know what judgment means, I imagine.  Many of us have the capacity to employ it at will, myself included, I might add, as my children often tell me. Mercy, on the other hand, gets a bit more airtime. It comes from the Latin word merced, as in merchandise,

as in a commodity exchanged in commerce. Jesus sums up this exchange of mercy best in the Beatitudes when he says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” In other words, those who act mercifully will be treated with mercy.  In other words, those who act kindly will be treated with kindness, and kindness is a commodity exchanged in equal measure in the kingdom of God unless, of course, it is disrupted by judgment.

So, today we will look at mercy and judgment, and how mercy can be freed from the disruption of judgment. To do this we need to understand one thing about God’s divine economy. That is, how things are valued.

To understand value is to understand what I call the stone in the pond principle. Every time we throw a stone in a pond it causes a ripple; the bigger the stone, the bigger the ripple. That is just the way it works.

In God’s divine economy there is an economic constant woven into this stone in the pond principle. It is a rule or a given, if you will, that all stones thrown, irrespective of size are of equal value. We can draw an analogy for how this works from physics. If you drop a stone and a feather while standing in a vacuum they fall at the same speed. In this case, it is the gravity, not the weight of the object that determines the speed of its fall. And so, the feather and the stone are of equal value to the gravity.

That is the idea behind the stone in the pond principle. It is about value, and when we know how to value things in the kingdom of God, we become less judgmental, and more merciful, which means we act kinder and that is worth dancing about.

So let me demonstrate this stone in the pond principle through three examples including Dennis Rodman, the building project, and a gardener.

A few years back Dennis Rodman had a little altercation. You may remember him as a forward for the Chicago Bulls. During a game he was knocked out of bounds and while sitting on the floor kicked a photographer next to him. The league suspended him for eleven games and fined him $200,000, which was a surprise to him.  After all, he said, “It’s not like I punched him in the face.”  In Rodman’s judgment there is clearly a hierarchy of sin, where some sins are judged to be worse than others.

Which naturally leads me to King David from the Old Testament. I bring him up, because tradition has it he wrote Psalm 51 after being confronted by the prophet Nathan for having slept with Bathsheba and then having her husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed to cover up the fact that Bathsheba was pregnant.  That is pretty bad.

Now the ripple effect of Rodman’s action and the ripple effect of David’s action are different.  Rodman’s sin is just a quick reel on You Tube punctuated by some of his editorial comments, not worth watching I might add. While David’s infidelity is something we’re still talking about 3000 years later. Which means it is probably better to have your sins captured on the Internet than in the Bible.

Irrespective of the size of the ripple, both transgressions equally separated these men from God. That is the point of the stone in the pond principle. Irrespective of the ripple size, separation from God is separation from God is separation from God. And separation is valued equally in God’s divine economy.

Which bring us to our building project here at Epiphany. I have said, and fully believe, that all gifts are equal. That is to say, when a gift is given from the heart, through prayerful consideration; when a gift is given out of the abundance God has given us; when a gift is given in true thanksgiving; then the gift whether $500 or $5000 or $500,000 or $5M has equal value in God’s divine economy. The ripple effect of these gifts may differ, but the value is the same. The generosity is equal. That is the stone in the pond principle.

Which bring us to the gardener and the equality of our God given talents. When our greatest passions are fully employed for the glory of God, they are equally celebrated by God and equally draw us into deeper relationship with God.

While the impact of a teacher may have a greater ripple effect than a gardener, both passions are equally valued in God’s divine economy. Don’t look at the ripple, look at the rocks. They are of equal value. Sin irrespective of the ripple effect equally separates in God’s divine economy. Gifts given irrespective of the ripple effect are equally generous in God’s divine economy. Talents shared irrespective of the ripple effect are equally glorified in God’s divine economy. The value of the rock tossed in the pond is the same, no matter how big the ripple it generates. And knowing this, knowing how to value things, allows us to be more merciful and less judgmental.

So we return to King David and psalm 51. It begins with David crying, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness.” Another translation reads, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your mercy.” Which is the sentiment Jesus shared in the Beatitudes.

After taking responsibility for his crime, David moves on to say, “God, you alone are the judge.” We cannot judge. No, it’s more personal than that for David. “I cannot judge.”

How easy it might have been for him to say to Nathan, “Oh yes, about Bathsheba.  Have you seen her? She is beautiful!  If she hadn’t been lying out there sunbathing I would never have approached her.   It is really not my fault.”

But David knows better, because he knows the value of things. He knows the principle of the stone in the pond, which is why the Bible says, “David is a man after God’s own heart” (1Sam 13:13-14) It is not that he doesn’t make mistakes, it is just that he turns back quickly; and he does so because he is a student of God’s divine economy, just like we are.

And so he turns toward God and in the turning he immediately finds God. God is not only right there, but God has been out there looking for him. God has been searching for the lost sheep. God has been scouring the floor for the lost coin. And when the lost is found, God throws a party!

And the dance begins, and the psalm goes on to say, truth is revealed; wisdom exposed; cleansing occurs – this is what happens when we understand the value of things.  And when this happens joy and gladness return. And who doesn’t want a little more joy in their lives? God grants David mercy, freeing him to do so in like measure. “For blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.”

And the stone plops in the pond.  Where separation is separation is separation – valued equally; where generosity is generosity is generosity – valued equally; Where passion is passion is passion – valued equally; and judgment falls away irrespective of the size of the ripple and mercy emerges.

The joy returns and the music plays and we turn, turn, turn in delight, until in turning, turning we come round right.