October 28, 2001
Used with permission: Rich Diesslin
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I would like to begin with the cartoon in the bulletin. The old hare and tortoise story now has a point to it beyond the simple moral that such fables usually have. The way we have usually seen and heard this story ends with those words, "Slow and steady wins the race."
The question we seldom ask such common parts of our culture is, "What race are we in?" This is an important question for us to be asking not only of our self but of our nation and our world.
What race are you in?
For the rabbit in the cartoon it seems to be a race to heaven. At least that is what the rabbit says it is about. Think about it for just a little -- how will you know you have won? that you had arrived at heaven and weren't still running?
What do we know about heaven? Golden streets, opulent walls, gem studded doors, and St. Peter at the gate? That is concrete imagery, but it probably has nothing to do with heaven. In this regard I hope you remember the old story about the rich man having died and bargaining with St. Peter to be allowed to bring his riches to heaven so that he could continue to be in the best of positions. It turns out he was allowed to bring a suitcase of his finest gold and when he got there the angels asked why he had bothered to bring along paving material. What was valuable on earth was of no particular account in heaven.
What might he have brought along that would have pleased the angels and gotten him a pat on the back instead of the accusation of being silly? Well, we are told the angels rejoice when a sinner repents. What if he had insisted on seeing that some no-account made it to heaven? Doesn't this bring a whole new picture of what heaven is about? -- not gold, but mercy!
Going back to the story Jesus told, heaven is when the self-righteous don't rank them self first but know they won't get the mercy they need until they see that everyone else also gets mercy. And, guess what, this changes the race to heaven into a race to see that heaven is in our midst.
The whole world gets turned upside-down with this Jesus story.
The philosopher Bergstrom once said that wherever egotistical people are present there is a laugh waiting to happen. They have set up tight limits about what is acceptable and then along comes real life to trip up all their best-laid plans. They essentially do a pratfall and everyone laughs when they get turned upside-down.
The comedian John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, goes on from here to think about Jesus being someone who is very light-hearted about boundaries and is quite flexible when it comes to living well. In the cartoon we can see Jesus in the tortoise. His little comment about "a really novel concept" puts everything in a new perspective. Heaven is not about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by, but about living well with each other right now.
We can catch a bit more about this when we consider the story Jesus told about the supposedly good Pharisee and the supposedly bad tax collector as a snapshot in time. The question can be raised about what happened on their respective ways home.
Suppose on the way home from prayer the Pharisee found his market share greatly diminished, his family destroyed by terrorists, etc. In other words he fell flat on his high nose. How long would it be before he prayed as did the tax man -- "Lord, have mercy."?
Suppose on his way home the tax man found an idea for a new tax that would increase his income at the expense of the whole Pharisee class. In other words he was able to profile and dismiss the Pharisee. How long would it be before he prayed as did the Pharisee -- "I'm glad I'm not like him."?
And where are you on this pendulum of life experience? If you were to measure your prayers by the number of times you said, in one way or another, "I am thankful for all my blessings and that I know right from wrong and am not like some other people I know," and measure that against how many times you prayed, "Forgive me; Have mercy," which would come out ahead?
I know this next part is dangerous for me to say in a time of patriotic fervor, but I can't help but wonder how this applies to whole nations.
If you were to listen to this story with Americans and Afghans instead of Pharisees and Tax Collectors who would be where and for how long.
I must admit that my experience in the world leads me to see Americans mostly doing the Pharisee prayer -- "I am the wounded innocent here so I must be the good guy in all things. I'm glad I'm not in the Taliban cause they're going to get their ass kicked by my God." In our mourning we do get a little bit of grieving in by asking for mercy for the dead, but we would never be caught asking for mercy for the living.
It's like we are doing rabbit thinking and the only thing that is important is to come in ahead of someone else, to beat someone else, to be number one.
I wonder how long we will need to go before we can hear the tortoise talking and wake up to a new way of measuring our goal.
If it is democracy we are after in the world it must be recognized that we need to act democratically with others whether they act that way toward us or not. We can't beat people into democracy or otherwise impose it because then it would cease to be democracy.
If it is heaven we are after in the world it must be recognized that we need to act heavenly with others whether they act that way with us or not. We can't shame people into heaven or otherwise impose it because then it would cease to be heaven.
If it is heaven we are after then we need to pay attention to the qualities of heaven which challenge us. We don't need a fancy picture of golden streets to motivate us, because that is a very short-term motivation. As we mature we know the value of our resources is really in the joy they can bring to others not in how big a pile we can reserve for ourselves to leave behind to who knows who.
If it is heaven we are after we need to pay attention to the issues which Jesus raises about the nature of heaven. In this story it is the quality of mercy which stand out. If mercy is not present, we are not in heaven. We won't miss golden streets, but we will miss mercy.
We will note in other places that mercy is not an easy out for escaping the consequences of our actions. But mercy is a most mysterious gift that makes any given action relative mercy. Where usually we think in terms of either good or bad, this new tortoise thinking moves away from measuring our actions in terms of good or bad and moves us to see our actions in relationship to the quanity and quality of mercy that is set loose in the world.
For instance, if the Pharisee in the story changes their tune they will receive mercy. If the Tax Collector becomes pharisaical the mercy they received won't stay will them. If the Taliban recognize the error of their ways then mercy will be theirs and they can be an important part of the world community. If America tries to get away with claiming human and mechanical error for more and more deaths in Afghanistan the mercy of democracy will be further terrorized.
Mercy means not mistaking one act for eternity. The worst sin you have committed and not yet repented for can still be mercifully dealt with. September 11, 2001 doesn't mean forever any more than the devastation of Germany and Japan after World War 2 stood forever. The Marshall Plan back then was merciful and we need to find another mercy for our day.
In light of the most usual Islamic prayer form which begins, "Merciful Allah," let me challenge our hearts by asking what qualities need to be shown in our personal and national life in order to get us out of the trap of running a race for heaven and move us to find what it takes to live heavenly lives right now? Somewhere in our answer we will have to wrestle with the issue of mercy -- mercy for ourselves and mercy for our enemies. To do less will be disappoint Jesus and the tortoise.
The issue of mercy has not been an easy one at any time in history, but it is a key to a heavenly future.
We heard a story about prayer, so let us pray.
Copyright 2001. Wesley White, Pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church. 1022 Caledonia Street, La Crosse, WI 54603.