Just Mercy: A Homily for Ash Wednesday, 2016


“The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness” Psalm 51: 9

I’ve been reflecting on mercy these past few days as I’ve made my preparations for Ash Wednesday and Lent. On Thursday evening a week ago, I sat in this nave with more than a hundred people, state senators and reps, as well as legislative staff, clergy, family members, advocates, men and women who had been incarcerated, as we listened to stories and statistics about the broken prison system in our state. Teenagers sentenced to life imprisonment; men who had spent decades in solitary confinement, those eligible for parole who had been denied it again and again, it’s a horrible litany of injustice.

We are a merciless people, a merciless nation. It’s not just that we confine millions to prison with no possibility or hope of restoration to society or their human flourishing; it is that we condemn millions who live among us to lives of hardship and need. We worship success, the almighty dollar, celebrity, and all those who fall short of those impossible ideals are barely noticed. And we seek and revel in the downfall of our celebrities.

When we ourselves fail, we are quick to despair, to blame our selves, notice our limitations, and often punish ourselves for things that are quite beyond our control. We are merciless, to ourselves and to others.

Bryan Stevenson, in his powerful book Just Mercy, in which he chronicles his experiences as a lawyer on behalf of men and women condemned to death or to life imprisonment. It is a powerful, enraging, sad book. After one of his clients, who had a severe mental disability was executed, Stephenson expressed the despair he felt about the futility of his life’s work. And says this:

“Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others, in a moment of anguish and heartbreak it also exposed my own brokenness. … We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”

This day, Ash Wednesday, is a day when we are challenged to confront our mortality, our broken-ness, our humanity, in all of its complexity. We are stripped of all our defenses. We remember that we are dust and that we will return to dust. We are forced to our knees. To admit our sin, our fallen-ness, our broken-ness is no easy thing. But it is not the end, the point and purpose of what we do here. Rather, our purpose is to lay ourselves bare, to strip our selves of all our defenses, our false pride, the false selves that we hide behind, and to open ourselves to God.

You may know that Pope Francis has declared this year the Year of Mercy. He published a little book recently entitled The Name of God is Mercy. It’s really the product of an interview with a reporter. Like so much of what Pope Francis says, it is quite simple yet utterly profound. I’d like to share a few things from that book with you on this day when we acknowledge our sinfulness and encounter God’s mercy and grace.

“I have always said that the Lord precedes us he anticipates us. I believe the same can be said for his divine mercy, which heals our wounds; he anticipates our need for it. God waits; he waits for us to concede him only the smallest glimmer of space so that he can enact his forgiveness and his charity within us. Only he who has been touched and caressed by the tenderness of his {God’s] mercy really knows the Lord. For this reason I have often said that the place where my encounter with the mercy of Jesus takes place is my sin.”

“Mercy will always be greater than any sin, no one can put a limit on the love of the all-forgiving God. Just by looking at him, just by raising our eyes from our selves and our wounds, we leave an opening for the action of his grace.”

What Pope Francis is telling us is that acknowledging our sin, our fallen-ness, our broken-ness is a first step. The point is not to wallow in pity, shame, or self-hate. Rather, the point is to open ourselves up fully, to God’s mercy and grace. When we do that, we begin the process of healing. When we do that, we can experience the wholeness of God’s love, and the pure joy that ensues. When we do that, we can say with the Psalmist, “Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice.”

We may be broken, we may be dust, but when we acknowledge who we are, we open ourselves up to God, to God’s mercy, God’s grace, and we cn experience the joy of new life and new possibility. When we acknowledge who we are, when we receive God’s mercy and grace, we also say yes to the joyful possibility of God remaking us in God’s image. When we say yes to God, when we experience God’s mercy and grace, we become agents of God’s mercy in the world, offering to others, to the world, the possibility of hope and new life in Christ.


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