The Quality of Mercy

A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter
Readings for this Service: Luke 13.10-17

Those of you who have read the flyer, for our Autumn Lecture series will have seen that our theme is the quality of mercy. Mercy feels a slightly anachronistic word today, in a culture and political backdrop which often appears to be one of blame, hostility and increasing division. It is Shakespeare’s Portia who speaks of the quality of mercy she says that mercy blesses the one who gives and the one who receives and that “it is the attribute of God Himself.” A society without mercy becomes ever more polarised and decisions ever more binary- for or against, leave or remain, like or hate, friend or unfriend- there is no room for complexity, subtext, levels of understanding, ambiguity, variance,  in fact no room for redemption,  and truth itself can often become the thing that is sacrificed. This autumn’s theme turns  away from the shrill and the accusatory tribal politics of our time and searches in literature, in art and poetry, in prayer and in Christ himself for a deeper reflection on humanity. Our autumn lecture series aims to listen to prophets, preachers, poets, story tellers, artists, musicians and actors to rediscover the truth of mercy. That’s what I hope to do today, by reflecting on two dramas that both give insights into our Gospel reading and the nature of God’s mercy and sometimes our lack of it.

It seems like Billy has blown it- his interview has not gone at all well, he’s even had a fight with another boy. “Can I ask you one last question Billy” Those of you who have seen award winning film Billy Elliot or play at the Victoria Theatre will no doubt remember this moment. Billy against all the odds, from a mining village in County Durham, has been given an audition before an august selection panel at the Royal Ballet. It’s the middle of the miners’ strike- fierce divisions, their whole mining community is threatened and there’s precious little mercy. For Billy himself it’s been a huge struggle against prejudice and privilege to get this far with dancing which seems to the world of wealthy privilege and questionable manhood- But its dance that has excited Billy and somehow this lad has had the courage and giftedness to win over his family and the support of this mining community- but now at the audition he seems hopelessly  intimidated out of his culture and depth.  You can see it in the way he’s been sitting unable to look the panel in the eyes, awkward and bent over himself. Then, just as he is about to walk out rejected and with no hope of return there is one last question, one last chance of mercy:

“Can I ask you one last question Billy? What does it feel like when you’re dancing?”

Billy turns around, there’s a pause, we think he’s not going to be able to reply and then he says haltingly

“Dunno, … it’s sort of feels good. But once I get going I sort of disappear.” In the play its this moment that Billy who has been bent over with nerves and awkwardness slowly straightens, looks up and begins to sing:

“I cant really explain it

I haven’t got the words

It’s a feeling like you can’t control

I suppose it’s like forgetting

Losing who you are

And at the same time something makes you whole

Its like that there’s a music, playing in your ear

And I’m listening and I’m listening and then I disappear

And then I feel a change like a fire deep inside

Something bursting me wide open, impossible to hide

And suddenly I’m flying, flying like a bird

Like electricity, electricity

Sparks inside of me

And I’m free, I’m free!

And then suddenly this young boy does break free, all the awkwardness is gone and Billy Elliot is standing tall and is somersaulting across the stage, leaping high and spinning in the air  and dancing with a complete harmony, energy and balance. Its like he is flying. Its one of those spine-tingling moments of theatre when afterwards everyone can’t stop clapping and cheering. Because what we’ve seen is someone in the act of becoming who they really are.

I also think it’s a brilliant description of what can happen when in your life you really encounter  Jesus of Nazareth. Like Billy sings it’s hard to explain it. We haven’t got the words . It is like forgetting losing who we are and yet at the same time something makes you whole. It’s like there’s a music playing within you and your listening, and your listening and then you, you disappear. And then a feeling of change like a fire deep inside, something bursting you wide open impossible to hide, and suddenly you are no longer tied down or caged but flying, flying like a bird, a new Spirit sparks inside of you, and you are free, you are free. Billy does not disappear. But he becomes so one with the dance that he forgets himself and  its as though the life within expands to fill and encompass the whole stage. He is no longer bent over himself in fear and awkwardness he has become part of a bigger movement- he has been set free to become more than himself.

That’s what happens in today’s gospel. I woman who comes to Jesus who for eighteen years who has been bent over and unable to stand straight. 18 years is a long time to suffer in this way and it’s  an imprisoning thing. We are also told that it is a spirit that has crippled her. And perhaps we are not just hearing of the healing of one woman by Christ but the healing that all of us who are bent over ourselves, by oppression or guilt, or memory or sickness, or grief or violence or injustice.  Bent over by that painful spirit of rejection, a prisoner trapped in our victimhood. And what does Jesus do- he does not just show mercy he becomes it- Jesus sees this woman and calls her and speaks words and healing and freedom to her and he lays his hands upon her and immediately she stands up straight. And Jesus sees us, and calls us and speaks words of freedom to us too. I wonder if in that encounter we too can become unknotted, no longer tied up in ourselves, or in our past or in our fears. Free, yes free- free to look, to hear, to see beyond self, freed by God’s mercy to become the instruments of grace .

But that’s only half of the Gospel. Look at the second half- how the so-called religious authorities in fact fear that mercy, and rather than celebrating want to prevent it. Their argument is of course absurd. Jesus they say is not allowed to cure people on the Sabbath. They are arguing for a religion that does not heal or free but binds and oppresses and keeps its subjects bent over. Jesus names this for what it is:

“You hypocrites” he calls them- “Ought not this woman and daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years not be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

How often it is that the very thing that was meant to bring freedom and life is used to oppress life. Religion and so-called righteousness, can oppresses rather than liberate.  Jesus is the one who longs for us to stand tall and see and hear and touch and know the beauty that is around us and beyond us. The mercy of Christ is the opposite of oppression it is a deeper listening, a deeper unity, a deeper trust- it is not a crippling but an enlarging of the soul- yes like Billy’s song

Mercy like a change like a fire deep inside

Something bursting you wide open, impossible to hide

And suddenly you are flying, flying like a bird

And you are free, you are free.

I saw another story this week. It’s the opposite of the Billy Elliot story its like the second part of our Gospel story. It’s the story of how mercy is ruthlessly destroyed. It’s a riveting piece of drama at the Almeida theatre- one of the best I’ve seen in years. The play is called The Doctor  and the doctor is played brilliantly by Juliet Stevenson who will be coming to speak in this year’s Autumn Lecture Series about the quality of mercy-I think she will have much go share because in this drama she receives no mercy.  Juliet Stevenson plays  Ruth Wolff, a secular Jew who runs a prestigious health institute. But when Ruth prevents a priest seeing a 14-year-old girl dying from a self-administered abortion, because she believes her patient too vulnerable and ill the incident acquires a toxic publicity. The girl dies without absolution. The girl’s parents are Catholic. The priest happens to be black. Ruth who has a reputation of brilliant but stubborn integrity finds herself accused first of religious prejudice and then also racism. The argument goes viral on social media, provokes petitions and TV debates, and jeopardises not only Ruth’s future but that of the institute where she has pioneered research into dementia. The more Ruth tries to show her integrity the more she is accused of prejudice. “I don’t belong to any group” she argues, “I’m just a doctor.” Yet the more she tries to clarify her case the more she steps into the minefield of identity politics and the more hostile those around her become and the more tribal in their vendetta against her. She’s offended the catholic church, she’s offended people of colour, she’s the enemy of the pro-life group, she has jeopardised the work of the hospital and its future. She’s undermined her colleagues. She’s accused of unconscious  bias and arrogant privilege which has led to an unforgivable breach of ethical practice. The incident blows up into a frenzy of accusations and becomes an ever more poisonous nightmare. Facts become ever more distorted- she’s  not just anti-Christian and racist- on social media they start saying she carried out the abortion herself, that she’s  killed the 14 year old girl, and she’s part of a corrupt cult trying to get money for her institute. Her home is attacked, her car sprayed with a swastika she’s vilified in anti-Semitic abuse.

I tell you this story because as we well know and recognise in this story the hypocrisy we meet in our Gospel is still alive and kicking. Our own present divisions and  tribalism can sacrifice mercy on the altar of our own causes. Condemnation and prejudice can be  stirred up  into a media storm: we quickly discover that this is not  about freedom of speech rather truth itself has been and manipulated and justice perverted. The common good, the health and healing that was the point of it all, has been sacrificed to defend position, interest or party. We become bent over and tangled up in our own fears so that no longer see the mercy of God. We no longer know how to stand up, heal division or set free, we only see how to pull down and condemn.

That’s what happened at the crucifixion the shouting of a lynch mob became the expression of the common good. Our encounter with Jesus Christ shows us shows a different way. The crucifixion of course does not end our story

In the words of Shakespeare:

The quality of mercy is not strained

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

It is an attribute of God himself

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice

Or in the words of Billy Elliot we can still be free- free

“The Quality of Mercy”…. to be continued in this church, this autumn. Don’t miss it!