Harrowing Of Hell
September 11, 2022

Particularity of Mercy (Return from Sabbatical)

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Good morning.

Happy Epiphany fall kick off. It is nice to be back in full swing with the full choir. I’m excited to catch up with you at the picnic after the 11:00 am service. There are a lot of things happening today. I am so grateful for each and every one of you. You are what makes this place such a significant spiritual center of gravity, and I’ve missed you.

For those of you that don’t know… this is my first Sunday back since June 12. I’ve been away on sabbatical, and it was a good sabbatical. One thing that makes a sabbatical good is coming back to see how well things ran while I was away. This is a very impressive Epiphany staff. They have grown closer together in my absence (probably because of my absence) and more systematically in-tune with one another.

After my last sabbatical I returned to find a great deal of physical change had taken place. You may recall it was after the 100-year building campaign. This time I’ve returned to find a great deal of operational change has taken place. The goals and plans and metrics we developed prior to my departure, are being lived into, adding operational liveliness and competency to this church.

Thank you staff and volunteer leaders for the good work done. In particular, I want to thank our Senior Warden, Kelli Martin, for her very active presence in the life of the parish while I was away, and also Nathan Kirkpatrick, a good friend, who I hope many of you got to know. By all accounts he was fabulous, and I am grateful to him.        

And to all of you, thank you for giving me an opportunity to go away to be refreshed and to come back here enthusiastic about the next chapter of our life together. I love this place, and God has put us together to do significant work for the Kingdom of God. I am deeply committed to being here and doing that work with you.

I was out of town for most of my sabbatical. I traveled a great deal, and along the way refreshed and renewed primary relationships in my life. I also caught a 22” Rainbow trout, I saw a big bull moose too close for comfort, and witnessed a giant Golden eagle glide across our river route as we floated the Big Hole. I swam in the Adriatic and climbed the holy mountain of Medjugorje, Herzegovinawith my son, who also graduated from High School, and whom we have now deposited at The College of Wooster in Ohio. Margaret, our daughter, Kristin and I visited her birth town. Kristin and I took a bike tour of Montreal, and I saw Mozart’s The Magic Flute in Vienna with my dad, and we played beach volleyball in Prague.

I also witnessed the assassination attempt of Salman Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institute in New York. That is for another sermon by itself. And now that Kristin and I are empty nesters, we are planning a home restoration project. I also read a ton, and thought a great deal about the soul…starting with my own.

I experienced an interesting oscillation during my sabbatical between my active travelling and the contemplation of my soul. It was sort of like star gazing – to see a star more clearly you don’t look right at it, but off to the side of it. For me, my sabbatical travels were like that. By attending to all of the necessities of getting from one place to another, and managing the adventures along the way, I kept seeing flashes of my soul…And since in sabbatical the excuse of being rushed or under pressure or having to respond to someone’s else’s issues goes away, the soul finds its way to the center. And what I saw suggested I need to do a bit better job attending to my soul.

Seems the Apostle Paul knows what I’m talking about. In his letter to Timothy he writes: “The saying is sure and worthy of all acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, Jesus might display the utmost patience… (1Tim 1:15-16 para)

Mercy is the word we are going to pay attention to today for it is an action that reflects the state of one’s soul. To get there, let’s return to my sabbatical. When I am in places that I am not familiar with (which is almost the definition of travel) I have a heightened sense of my surroundings, that provokes an alacrity that can be employed with sharpness. One way this manifest is always looking out for someone trying to rip me off. 

I’ll give you an example: We were at an ice cream shop in Berlin, right near the Berliner Dom. Some of you have probably been there. I’m with my dad, my son Desmond, and my niece Griffin. We drop in to get ice cream. My dad gets a cone, my son gets a cone, my niece gets a cone, and I get a cone. I pull out my Visa card to pay, and the proprietor says: “€10.” Now I can read numbers in German, turns out they are the same as numbers in English. And I see the sign that says €1 per cone. That’s €4.00 not €10.

I call out the mistake, to which the proprietor says when you pay with a credit card it’s €10…or at least that is what I think he said…really, his English wasn’t that good, and my rip off alarm starts to blare!

Now it’s a hot day in Berlin and we’re not the only ones in the shop, but I’m occupying the place in front of the cash register, and I take my ice cream cone, holding it aloft, and with dramatic flare in my louder than normal, fluent, English, I hand it across the counter to him proclaiming injustice and calling my family to do the same… They look at me, as they are licking their ice cream cones, as if I’m crazy.

Now let’s stop here for a moment and return to mercy. It is important to understand that mercy is inextricably linked to power. Mercy is an action that exists only in situations where power over a person can be employed but is not.  That is how I define mercy: Mercy is refraining from employing a justifiable corrective upon someone you have power over. And it is a word we hear used throughout the Bible. We hear it today in Psalm 51. It begins: “Have mercy on me O God according to your loving kindness, in your great compassion blot out my offences…” (Ps 51:1)

Now why would we ask God to have mercy upon us? Because we understand two things: first, that God has power over us, completely, by definition; second, that we have done things that offend the sensibilities of God. And so, in our wisdom (or maybe well-placed fear) we ask God for mercy, to not treat us as we ought to be treated based on what we have done.

And God has mercy. We know this because we are here, today, in this sanctuary.  If God has complete power over us, and God does not need us, and we have not lived as we ought based on God’s design expectations for us… and we are still here, then we know God’s mercy. That is the consequential antecedent of the Christian theology on mercy. We have not lived up to expectations, God has power over us, and we are still here. God is merciful.

Now our response to that mercy is two fold:

  • Gratitude in the form of Thanksgiving (Eucharist);
  • God desires us to be merciful.

Now if mercy can only be employed in situations in which we have power, then we must determine what are situations in which we have power. Do you have power at work? Over employees, customers, bosses?  Yes, yes, yes. Do you have power at home? Over spouses, or children, or neighbors. Yes, yes, yes. Do they have power over you?    Yes, to all the above.

Turns out there are no relationships in which we do not have some pressure point of power. That is the nature of relationships. There is always mutuality in some way. Even at ice cream parlors in Berlin.

As I’m standing there lording over the proprietor, from my bully pulpit at the front of the line, employing my economic power to return the cones, and exercising my social standing to shame him publicly, the proprietor has many choices. But the one he chooses to employ said very much about the health and maturity of his soul.

He gently takes the cone, while lightly taking my arm and leading me behind the counter.  He smiles, and in halting English, says he’s glad I’m here as he is plopping another scoop on my cone. Then he says that the cones are all free, and he is sorry I am so upset.

Who is the Jesus follower here? Who is the shepherd attending to the one lost sheep? Who is merciful? Who was caring for whose soul? Who might you have been in this story…I hope the ice cream vendor in Berlin. He wouldn’t even take my money, so I put a €10 tip in the tip jar… the Old Testament calls that a sin offering.

Friends, we are on this journey of soul care together to be people who habitually employ mercy. I’m on this journey with you, training to be a shepherd that seeks the one lost sheep. I am not there yet. But I’m going there, and I invite you to join me. It’s why we do what we do here at Epiphany. That is why Epiphany exists: To magnify and glorify the soul… and as ours is, so too will our neighbors be.

Join me this year in active and regular worship in gratitude for God’s mercy. Join me in serving our wider community. Join me in study and prayer. Join me this year and for years to come attending to our soul as the means by which we reveal the Kingdom of God and in doing so bring healing to our lives, to the community, and to the world.

That is our journey, I am so glad to be on that journey with you.