I preached this morning at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in East Haddam, Connecticut. They are a wonderful congregation. The text was Luke 1:67-79: Zechariah’s words after his son, John, was born. Here’s what I had to say.
Our scripture this morning picks up in the middle of a story, which I guess is the case most any Sunday morning. In that way, our worship is a lot like our lives: we are always in the middle of the story—and we don’t have time to catch up on all of the context, otherwise we would be really late for lunch. But let’s look at a couple of things.
Zechariah was a small-town priest and also a new father. He was married to Elizabeth who had just given birth. Their son would grow up to be John the Baptist. Because they were both older, Zechariah had responded skeptically when the angel told Elizabeth she would have a baby, and, as a consequence he had been mute for her entire pregnancy. Elizabeth had nine months of silence, as far as he was concerned—which may not have been bad news, necessarily. Zechariah kept everything bottled up until the baby appeared and, when asked what the boy would be named, he scribbled, “His name is John” on a tablet. Then, according to the verses we read, he just kept going because his heart overflowed with thanksgiving.
The first part of his song, as it’s often called, is a history lesson recounting how God acted in the lives of David and Abraham. But when he gets to the second verse, he talks directly to his new son, telling him that he will grow up to be a prophet and lead people to find forgiveness and then, in most translations, he says,
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
That’s the part that got me this week: the tender mercy of our God.
One of the dictionaries I looked at said the word mercy has fallen out of use over the last couple of hundred years. It is not a word we use much, other than in church. It means “showing compassion or forgiveness toward someone that it is in your power to harm or punish.” Some of the synonyms include generosity and kindness. The root of the word comes from the Old French word merci—the word they now use to say thank you. From the start, it seems, mercy and gratitude are connected.
If you think that’s interesting—and I hope you do—let me tell you what I learned about the Greek word translated as “tender.” It literally means intestinal. I’m guessing you didn’t think that is what I would say. But where we think of the heart as the seat of our emotions, the Hebrews talked about the bowels–the gut—as the, well, heart of everything. Maybe that’s why the Bible doesn’t contain many great love songs.
When I hear the word tender, words like gentle, soft, or delicate come to mind. Not heavy-handed. But I don’t think that is what Zechariah was singing about. He was talking about the visceral, gutsy compassion of God. John the Baptist was the one who was going to prepare the way for Jesus, the Word Made Flesh. The hope Zachariah saw in his little boy was earthy and tenacious. God was not sending good wishes from afar; God was landing right in the middle of us like a stomach punch.
I was at a Christian festival last summer and saw someone wearing a t-shirt that said, “Compassion is Badass.” Maybe that is the modern translation of tender mercy. We are living in a time when what passes for public discourse is damaging and dehumanizing. It feels like almost everyone one is talking, even shouting, and few are listening. It takes guts to do more than shout at one another or label one another. It is risky to reach out. It is costly to be generous. It takes courage—or maybe faithfulness is a better word—to be vulnerable. And to be grateful.
Our worship guide reminds us that in the lectionary calendar today is “The Reign of Christ Sunday”—the last Sunday before Advent begins, and we start telling the story over again. It’s hard not to hear the title as ironic in some sense. We have lots of hymns that sing about Christ as King, but what monarchs do and what Jesus did seem far removed from one another. Jesus ate with people and walked with them and talked with them. He listened and wept and told stories. He didn’t raise an army or garner power or play to his base. Instead, he showed what visceral compassion looks like in everyday life.
Pádraig Ó Tuama is an Irish poet and theologian who has spent his life waging peace. I want to lean into his words this morning in a poem called “Shaking Hands.”
Because what’s the alternative?
Because of courage.
Because of loved ones lost.
Because no more.
Because it’s a small thing; shaking hands; it happens every day.
Because I heard of one man whose hands haven’t stopped shaking since a market day in Omagh.
Because it takes a second to say hate, but it takes longer, much longer, to be a great leader.
Much, much longer.
Because shared space without human touching doesn’t amount to much.
Because it’s easier to speak to your own than to hold the hand of someone whose side has been previously described, proscribed, denied.
Because it is tough.
Because it is tough.
Because it is meant to be tough, and this is the stuff of memory, the stuff of hope, the stuff of gesture, and meaning and leading.
Because it has taken so, so long.
Because it has taken land and money and languages and barrels and barrels of blood.
Because lives have been lost.
Because lives have been taken.
Because to be bereaved is to be troubled by grief.
Because more than two troubled peoples live here.
Because I know a woman whose hand hasn’t been shaken since she was a man.
Because shaking a hand is only a part of the start.
Because I know a woman whose touch calmed a man whose heart was breaking.
Because privilege is not to be taken lightly.
Because this just might be good.
Because who said that this would be easy?
Because some people love what you stand for, and for some, if you can, they can.
Because solidarity means a common hand.
Because a hand is only a hand; so hang onto it.
So join your much discussed hands.
We need this; for one small second.
Whomever we come in contact with today or tomorrow or next week, we will walk into the middle of their story. We won’t know all the context. But when the checkout person is gruff, or the customer service representative appears not to care, or the server makes a mistake; when our kid gets a bad grade, or a friend disappoints us, or things are tense around the Thanksgiving table because we don’t know what to talk about, remember we are created in the image of our God, who is a God of visceral compassion, of gutsy generosity, and we can live into that image by shaking hands, or maybe by just passing the potatoes instead of passing judgment.
Let us join hands. The world needs this. Amen.