A sermon by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, December 10, 2017
How many of you occasionally struggle with negative self-talk? How many of you are guilty of looking at someone else’s life and thinking, “If only my life were a bit more like theirs, then I’d finally be able to X?” How many of you have been robbed of sleep or a relaxing evening with friends and family because your thoughts and emotions are consumed with matters beyond your control? How many of you have felt like a failure before? What about undeserving of kindness and mercy?
The morning our topic of discussion is mercy, not only mercy that we offer to others, but the mercy we must offer to ourselves if we are to live full lives.
I don’t know about you, but I find it easier to give mercy to others than I do to myself.
But before we get into that, some explanation is in order. Mercy is not only offering someone leniency, it is doing so with compassion; put simply, mercy is compassionate acceptance.
It is my conviction that mercy isn’t a mode of thinking, I don’t even think it’s something we do necessarily; I believe mercy is a way of being. It is a mode of living in the world. Much of the talk about mercy, here in the U.S., is coupled with stories found in the Bible. Many of us probably have the stories of the Prodigal Son and Joseph and his Technicolor dream-coat and his forgiveness of his terrible brothers memorized. There’s also the wonderful story of Ruth and Naomi, but I’ll save those stories for another day; I’ll try, instead, to do this Unitarian-style. So, bear with me.
During my 9 years in Saint Louis I served, in varying degrees, each of the 3 UU churches. And, as you might imagine, each of them are unique and fun in their very own ways.
In each church, as in all UU churches, there are Buddhists and Pagans, ex-Catholics and ex-Methodists; there were cradle UUs who are so rare and magical that I’ve come to regard them as “unicorns”; and of course, there were Christians and Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics. And, believe it or not, every single one of those churches had a small contingent of registered Republican, quiet and Prius-driving as they are.
Each of the churches had several special qualities about them that I loved to observe. As diverse as the members of the congregations are, each of the churches shared something so very similar: a hope that one day things will be different, that the work they were engaged in, individually and collectively, will leave the world just a bit better than it was when they inherited it; despite all their efforts to do and be good, the people, individually and collectively, conveyed how they often felt plagued by doubt and fear.
So often I heard people characterize themselves in such awful lights – in small groups and over coffee we’d talk about addiction, our inability to be consistently kind to our parents and children and lovers, not to mention ourselves.
We’d swap books about leadership and mindfulness, and share articles that affirmed our deficiencies and encouraged us in spite of them.
During my time as the intern at First Unitarian St. Louis I made it a point to attend the Practical Buddhist Meditation Group, which mostly consisted of graduate students from the business school at Washington University. The organizers wanted to offer a space to be silent without having to follow some meditation guru or religious shaman. They wanted a space that never moved beyond the realm of beginners, even though a couple of the attendees had come for several years.
Usually there were about 6 of us who, together, sat in silence, for 30 or so minutes, once a week. Most of the time someone brought a salad or some vegetarian soup to share afterward. Later, over a healthy meal, freed from the expectation of silence, we’d talk about the news and gossip about this or that. But at some point, we’d move deeper, and talk about how hard it is to find quiet within ourselves.
Most of us talked about how, in meditation, we’d start of really strong – for like 46 seconds – and then we’d start making mental to-do lists. Then, as a result of the shopping list we’d just made in our minds, we’d fight to calm the swell of negative thinking about our mental weakness and Westernized obsession with shopping and consumption. And then we’d spend the remaining 20 minutes trying to convince our self that what we’re doing is actually worth our time.
After lamenting this with the other Practical Buddhists, one of the guys who regularly attended pulled a book out of his backpack called Buddhism for Dummies, turned to me and said: “I think this might be helpful for you.”
If I remember correctly, the first chapter defined Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. In sum, “The Four Noble Truths comprise the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, [but even so, so] much [is] left unexplained. They are the truth of suffering, sic the cause of suffering, sic the end of suffering, and sic the path that leads to the end of suffering. More simply put, suffering exists [. . .] The notion of suffering is not intended to convey a negative world view, but rather, a pragmatic perspective that deals with the world as it is sic. The concept of pleasure is not denied, but acknowledged as fleeting. Pursuit of pleasure sic only continue[s] what is ultimately an unquenchable thirst. sic In the end, only aging, sickness, and death are certain and unavoidable.”
In other words, life’s a drag, and then you die. In Buddhism though, you don’t stop there. You live fully holding on to these difficult truths. You love while knowing you’re vulnerable to heartbreak, and you accept that most of your life is actually beyond your control. It’s hard to admit that much of our lives are beyond our control, but it’s undeniable, in fact our minds are designed to forget just how vulnerable we really are.
I went to my friend David’s colloquium after he had defended his doctorate in Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology. What David’s research revealed was that a sizeable portion of our lives is lived under the illusion of safety and control by a psychological mechanism called self-deception.
This is something done mostly unconsciously. Most of us believe we’re safe in our cars, all the while ignoring the fact that we’re traveling 70 MPH 12” away from bone crushing blacktop on highways populated with people texting their friends pictures of cats and steering with their knees. We think we’re secure in our jobs, while ignoring the fact that business and organizations close without warning all the time; just ask the previous employees of Gander Mtn. or Borders Books about job security if you need reminding.
Self-deception is a tool for survival; it helps us deal with the risks inherent in things as mundane as driving and working. For as powerful as self-deception is, it’s virtually powerless when it comes to protecting us from obsessive doubts and fears. It fails to insulate us from the mercy we withhold from others and ourselves; it’s just so easy to be cruel. So, when self-deception fails, we distract ourselves, ordering up a bit of numbness from the pain and doubt in chemicals, consumption, and digital avatars. But these responses are temporary at best; the plagues of emptiness and pain stand waiting.
When the world closes in around you and the hurt in your heart anchors you to doubt and fear, it will not be willful distractions that come running, a slight of hand will not calm your aches, nor will it be a mode of thinking that lifts you up; your phone won’t run its fingers through your hair as you await an MRI, and Amazon.com won’t return that voicemail you left at 3 o’clock in the morning as you talked through your sobs. It will be your friends and your true loves who will do that.
And it is from these people that we receive mercy and forgiveness, even when we think we’re unworthy.
And when the light hits us just right and our wrinkles and age and regrets show so terribly, it is mercy that beholds us in our marvelous weakness and loves us all the same.
It is mercy that accepts us for all we are, in our brokenness and secret truths, and then reaches out still, not with offerings of charity or advice, but with human presence, two hearts beating. Mercy reaches through hell and darkness and says, “I’m here; you are not alone.”
With the news, we get each day it’s easy to overlook stories of kindness and mercy all around us. So, let this story serve as a reminder of the goodness that still exists. I don’t know much about the young woman who narrates this story, but I assume she’s a young millennial, not unlike my youngest sister, Molly. The young woman tells a story about the best customer she’s ever had. She writes,
“I work in a decent-sized local indie bookstore. It’s a decent job, 99% of the time, and a lot of our customers are pretty neat people.
“Any-who, middle of the day this little old lady comes up, she’s lovably kooky. She effuses she loves the store and wishes she could spend more time in it, but her husband is waiting in the car. “Oh! I better buy him some chocolate!” She piles a bunch of supplies on the counter and tells me how my bangs are beautiful and remind her of the ocean; “whoosh,” she says, making a wave gesture with her hand.”
“Okay, I think to myself, awesomely happy little old ladies are my favorite kind of customer. They’re thrilled about everything and they’re comfortably bananas. I can have a good time with her so we chat, and it’s nice. Then this kid, who’s been gathering his school textbooks, comes up in line behind her. She turns around to him and out of nowhere demands that he put his textbooks on the counter.”
“He’s confused, but she explains that she’s going to buy his textbooks. He goes sheetrock white. He refuses and adamantly insists that she can’t do that, it’s like $400 worth of textbooks. She, this tiny older woman, bodily takes them out of his hands, puts them on the counter, and turns to me with an intense stare and tells me to put them on her bill. This kid, at this point, is practically in tears, he’s confused and shocked and grateful.”
“Then she turns to him and says, “You need chocolate!” She starts grabbing handfuls of chocolates and putting them in her pile. He keeps asking her, “Why are you doing this?” She responds, “Do you like Harry Potter?” and throws a copy of a Potter book on the pile. Finally, she’s done. I ring her up for a crazy amount of money she pays and asks me to give the kid a few bags for his stuff.”
“While I’m bagging up her merchandise, the kid hugs her; we’re both telling her how amazing she is, and what an awesome thing she’s done. She turns to both of us and says probably one of the most profound, unscripted things I’ve ever heard someone say: “It’s important to be kind. You can’t know all the times that you’ve hurt people in tiny, significant ways. It’s easy to be cruel without meaning to be. There’s nothing you can do about that. But you can choose to be kind. Be kind.”
“The kid thanks her again and leaves. I tell her again how awesome she is. She’s staring out the door after him and says to me, “My son is a homeless meth addict. I don’t know what I did. I see that boy and I see the man my son could have been, if someone had chosen to be kind to him, at just the right time.”
“I bagged up all her stuff and, at this point, I’m super awkward, and feel like I should say something but I don’t know how. And she turns to me and says, “I wish I could have bangs like that, but my darn hair is just too curly”; and leaves. And that is the story of the best customer I’ve ever had. Be kind to somebody today.”
Living with mercy is deep living. It is found in human relationships, in the spaces of our lives we share with others.
Mercy isn’t one simple thing, it takes many forms: it is there in life-long relationships; and equally so in the depths of active addiction, and even at the end of a path of destruction; mercy manifests when we are revealed for all we are, and invited into someone’s loving kindness just the same.
So many of us struggle with resentment, holding onto our own and others’ weaknesses and failures. Some of us do so as if our very lives depend on it.
Mercy is not just a way of living for others; it is a way of living for yourself.
In the words of Anne Lamott, “Forgiveness and mercy mean that, bit by bit, you begin to outshine the resentment.”
In this season, so full of sparkles and lights, I urge you to outshine the resentment. Be at home, be at peace, be kind. Amen and Blessed Be.
 Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017), 170-171.