The following is an adaptation of a sermon preached on Saturday, November 7, 2015 at the FutureChurch liturgy “Celebrating Women Witnesses of Mercy” in Milwaukee, WI. The readings were: excerpts from Pope Francis’ March 13, 2015 homily; Dorothy Day’s “The Scandal of the Works of Mercy;” Psalm 33; and Matthew 25:31-45.
Mercy! What is it we are talking about when we talk about mercy – about God’s mercy, and our prayer to be merciful as God is merciful? And how, in the words of Pope Francis, might we “rediscover and make fruitful” the mercy of God? Pope Francis has said that mercy is “the very substance of the Gospel message,” and “the mission of the Church to be a witness to mercy.”
Where does mercy live? Not in our heads. It is not something we can think ourselves into. Mercy resides in our hearts – think of God telling God’s people in Ezekiel their hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh. Mercy is in our bodies. There are two words – one Hebrew and one Greek – which show us something about the nature of mercy.
The Greek word splanknon and the Hebrew word racham. Literally, splanknon can be translated as “guts” or even “bowels” or “entrails” – in the ancient Near East, this was the seat of passions and deep emotion. In our time in English, we speak about knowing something in our gut – that deep, intuitive, visceral place within us.
The Hebrew racham – found primarily in the writings of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea – translated as “compassion” or “mercy” is closely related to the Hebrew word for “womb.” It is another very bodily image – and a profoundly feminine one, as well. In Isaiah 29, the prophet compares God’s mercy to a mother’s unconditional love, rhetorically asking “can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have mercy on the child of her womb?”
As these two Scriptural words illustrate, mercy is deeply physical, something we do with our whole selves. More than a matter of orthodoxy (right believing or right thinking), mercy is about orthopathy (right feeling) and orthopraxy (right action). A matter of heart and soul and hands more than head. Indeed, Matthew’s gospel seems to imply the measure of salvation is not in believing or thinking correctly, it is in acting correctly – in a way which honors that those most in need embody God’s presence. It is acting out of a depth of feeling. Think of Jesus weeping with Martha and Mary at Lazarus’ tomb, and then raising his dear friend from the dead.
Mercy involves a willingness to be broken-hearted – which is not easy to do. There is a temptation to numb out – either by shutting out what is happening in the world around us and pretending tragedies and loss aren’t happening, or by somehow making ourselves believe that those who suffer and don’t share our privilege are less human, or fundamentally different. Keeping our eyes open to the uncomfortable truth of suffering is just that…uncomfortable. This is where we turn to our cloud of witnesses, finding countless women and men who have courageously lived out mercy.
Sr. Karen Klimczak is one woman witness of mercy in our time. She ministered to women who were incarcerated and to ex-offenders, and was active in promoting peace and non-violence in Buffalo, New York. In 2006, at the Halfway House she helped to run, one of the men she accompanied murdered her while under the influence of crack cocaine when she caught him attempting to steal her phone. Poignantly, she was murdered on Good Friday – like the merciful Jesus she followed. Her life of service to those viewed with scorn and suspicion is a powerful embodiment of Francis’ words that no one is excluded from the mercy of God. “We must love to the point of folly,” said Dorothy Day. Karen certainly did so – and paid a much higher price than the loss of her wallet.
Our acts of mercy may often look like folly, as Dorothy said, they tax our faith. Providing food or shelter to a chronically homeless addict who might never escape his chains of addiction. Forgiving someone who has harmed us over and over. Investing our time and energy in a person who has no ability to repay us in any tangible way. Only through the eyes of faith, only through transformed and converted eyes, only when we (as Pope Francis says) “look beyond and not stop at the surface of things,” do these acts make any sense. Matthew 25 doesn’t just tell us to love the deserving poor or those who express gratitude – it simply and powerfully tells us that anyone in need is in fact the face of Christ in our world.
The extraordinary witness of Sister Karen is a grand act of mercy – we can think of other grand gestures of mercy, like a stay of execution for a death row inmate or the courage of a murder victim’s family member who develops a relationship with the offender in a restorative justice program. In reality, most moments of mercy are smaller, less newsworthy, and more daily. There are countless opportunities each day to choose to give another the benefit of the doubt and to release resentment; to be charitable instead of exacting and compassionate instead of judging with that noisy neighbor, that annoying coworker, that trying family member, that other driver on the interstate, that person in line ahead of us at the grocery store. And, of course, mercy towards ourselves when we inevitably fall short of our own hopes and expectations.
We know that lives of mercy, that is to say authentic Christian lives, aren’t easy. We don’t do this alone. We do this in community. Equally as important, we daily choose to live mercy in union with Christ, and out of a deeply contemplative place. This stance of open-heartedness (which inevitably leads to moments of broken-heartedness) only makes sense in these contexts: human community and deep union with God nourished by prayer.
We commit ourselves – our full selves, bodies, hearts, hands, minds, splanknon and racham – to the works of mercy. Inspired by Sister Karen and countless women and men who witness to God’s endless mercy, we say “yes” yet again to do mercy – to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, bury the dead, shelter the homeless – even when it looks like folly. We pray again for our eyes to see Christ in those in need and for our hearts to be tender to their needs. May we – with Dorothy Day, Sister Karen, and countless others witnesses – walk the road of spiritual conversion and so enflesh God’s extravagant, endless mercy.
About the author: Rhonda Miska (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities.. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press). A native of Middleton, WI, she lives in Dubuque, IA.