Does God pray? And, if God prays for what does He pray?
According to the Talmud, the fifth century collection of rabbinic commentary on the Midrash, this is God’s prayer:
May it be acceptable before me,
may it be my will,
that my compassion will overcome my anger
and may prevail over my justice,
so that when my children pray to me
I may deal with them mostly in mercy and in love.
This bit of rabbinic wisdom captures succinctly two traits of God, both of which are embedded in the psalm we sang this morning, the two readings and the story told by that other rabbi, Jesus, as relayed by the gospel writer Matthew.
First, it implies that God struggles within himself between anger and mercy when dealing with us. Secondly, it tells us that we are not protected from the consequences of our shortcomings, but God will never let us be overwhelmed by the consequences of our actions; in the end, mercy always releases us from all the repercussions we were expecting.
The excerpt from Psalm 103 we sang together lays the foundation for our understanding of God’s nature. The Lord’s ways are not what we expected. God does not deal with us according to our sins. God can put our failures out of his mind and heart. God indulges us as a parent dotes on a child. God’s love for us is as steady as anything can be, sings the psalmist.
Now we can believe this or not, but the ramifications are pretty important. What is being claimed here is that in the universal scale of justice, we know we come up short, individually and collectively.
We have not been pure in our most intimate relationships. We have cunningly crafted some amazing psychological and social conventions that allow some to live to the hilt while others starve to death. One way we measure our success is in the accepted ways we can cut corners in our daily work and still be regarded as an average person. If we got what we deserved, our lives would be in a shambles and our world in chaos. And when the final reckoning is done, we would be so far in debt we would be crushed. But here is the always shocking news: God puts his thumb on the scale and tips the scale in our favor, not because we deserve it but because God loves us. This is not our understanding of justice and even God struggles with it sometimes, according to the Talmudic prayer, but there it is: this claim of the psalmist and prophets and Jesus is that God is just like that. While God does not allow us impunity—we do experience the consequences of our self-centeredness and greed and dishonesty in the messiness of our lives and in the chaos of the world—the claim being made here this morning in Scripture, prayers, hymns and anthems is the ancient claim that God does not allow us the full consequences of our failures and never will. God’s unmerited mercy renews the world.
This is a bold claim. Let me and you be clear about that. Indeed, let me emphasize the boldness of such claims about the miraculously merciful nature of God by noting a revelation of a new believer. This spring, Nora Gallagher published the candid and gentle story of how she wandered into an Episcopal church, Trinity Church in Santa Barbara, as a non-believer several years ago and now is on the vestry of that parish. In her book entitled Things Seen and Unseen, she describes an important Sunday in her conversion: “What if this religion I’ve been practicing and this Gospel I’ve rarely read, but heard from the priest…is not a metaphor but a description of reality?”
For you here today, on this Sunday in your life-long journey of conversion, what if this claim that God, out of love, never allows us to experience the full impact of our failures; God always fudges the books in our favor is true?
What if what I am telling you today is not metaphor but reality?
If it is true, there are two expected reactions.
The first reaction to God’s unmerited mercy is stated flat out in that passage from Ecclisiasticus and is the whole point of that story Jesus told. If you really believe that God deals with you always in your favor and not as you deserve, then you ought to treat others the same way. “Do not be angry with your neighbor.” Remembering how God treats you, “overlook the faults of others,” Jesus ben Sirach, the author of Ecclesiasticus, wrote.
Or to put it more colloquially, accept God’s forgiveness and pass it on.
When the history of our century is written, I believe Hannah Arendt will be remembered as one of the most important philosophers of our era. She was trained as a philosopher at the University of Heidleburg under the great Karl Jaspers. A refugee from Hitler, she fled to the United States and was the first woman to be appointed a full professor at Princeton University. In the American tradition, she applied the rigor of her philosophical training to the current problems of the day. After World War II, she sat in the gallery day after day at the Nuremberg Trials, listening to the testimony of those who had carried out the Holocaust. Her work in the problem of human evil is remarkable. In her 1958 reflection on The Human Condition, she made this penetrating observation, which is all the more stunning because she was writing as a secular philosopher and a Jew. Here is what she said: “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously.” Here is how she describes the power of forgiveness: “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we would never recover.” Forgiveness, she says, breaks the cycle of retaliation, which if it were not for unmerited mercy, none of us would ever escape. I will conclude for now with her powerful reflections on forgiveness with this insight from Hannah Arendt: “But trespassing is an everyday occurrence…and it needs forgiving, dismissing in order to make it possible for life to go on by constantly releasing men [and women] from what they have done unknowingly.”
Does any human relationship survive if one does not forgive the other, not once or twice, but over and over and over? Does not every child who flourishes flourish only because her parents treat her with more love than judgment? Is not any human society paralyzed when it concentrates more on punishment than opportunity and rehabilitation?
Accept God’s forgiveness and pass it on.
God is always tipping the scale in our favor means we ought always to do the same for others. That is the first reaction to accepting this reality. But I said there were two reactions.
At the conclusion of Psalm 103, from which we sang a portion earlier, there is a summons to doxology. If we accept the reality of God’s forgiveness of us, not once or twice but over and over and over, thanks to God is irresistible.
Accept God’s forgiveness, pass it on and thank God.
Worship is the primary means by which we remember God’s reality and together thank God. Or, as Annie Dillard has written, liturgy is “the set pieces…of certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without getting killed.” The words of Scripture and prayers, ancient and modern, the words of hymns and anthems and, even occasionally, a sermon are the words that teach us how to pray and how to express or gratitude to God.
Worship is polemical. It declares a reality over and against the conventional wisdom by which we live most of our lives. For at least its duration, it reminds us of the way things ought to be, how God wants them to be and the role we might play, no matter how unevenly, in making things happen as they ought to be.
Worship is the voice of hope. It rose up in the throats of slaves in Egypt when they stood on the safe side of the Red Sea, then among exiles in Babylon when they were promised that they would go home, then a teenager in Nazareth, then shepherds out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night and even in our voices here this morning.
Worship is temporary unity, giving us a hint of heaven. The fourth century bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, preached this to his listeners: “The psalm which we sang together blended all voices together and caused one single, harmonious chant to rise; young and old, rich and poor, women and men, slaves and free, all sang one single melody…. All the inequalities of social life are here banished. Here we make up a single choir…whereby earth imitates heaven.”
Here today the unmerited love of God is proclaimed in the words of worship; an always new reality is presented. And if you need more evidence, there is always the memory of God’s love on Good Friday and the power of forgiveness to renew and rejuvenate that which was dead on Easter morning. It is not metaphor; it is reality. You are invited to accept it, pass it on and then join with others united in praise and action in the world.