16 October 2011

‘Act justly … love mercy … walk humbly with your God’

Liverpool Cathedral ... the High Altar and East Window (Photograph: Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

Liverpool Cathedral,

Sunday 16 October 2011, the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

10.30 a.m., Judges’ Service:

Te Deum Stanford in B Flat; Jubilate, Britten in C; Psalm 99
And I saw a new heaven Bainton

Psalm 99; Exodus 33: 12-23; Matthew 22: 15-22.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I am very grateful, and feel privileged to be speaking here this morning at the Judges’ Service.

I once worked as a journalist with The Irish Times where two colleagues went on a job-share programme, while one studied theology in preparation for ordination and the other studied law for the bar.

“Ah!” quipped another journalist colleague, “so now we have a true partnership between the Law and the Prophets.”

But, as you know, the Christian qualities for those trained for Christian ministry and those engaged in the law are not mutually exclusive. We share a common interest in the values of justice and mercy.

The invitation to preach here this morning first came from Dean Justin Welby, after we had worked together earlier this year as chaplain and facilitator at the Anglican Primates’ meeting, and so I was delighted with his appointment as Bishop of Durham, and I can assure you he shall be in my prayers as he is consecrated in York Minister on 28 October.

But I have also enjoyed your warm welcome and hospitality here in Liverpool last night, and I am continuing to enjoy this today.

On my first visit to Liverpool as a teenager, I soon heard the old joke that this is the capital of Ireland. Of course it is. After all, at least three of the four Beatles had strong Irish roots through their parents and grandparents.

And, of course, we are one people. Sadly, this Merseyside truth was not recognised, nor was it respected, by the Warrington bombers, who murdered Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball in 1993. This was a tragedy that struck me personally, for Johnathan’s mother was Marie Comerford.

In 2001, the parents of these two young boys met Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness. After the meeting, Martin McGuinness declined to say whether he had apologised to those parents on behalf of the IRA.

The Warrington bombers never faced justice, and no mercy was shown to their victims by a man who is now a presidential candidate in the Republic of Ireland. Is it any wonder that Marie Comerford died of a broken heart two years ago?

Those people who fail to recognise that we are the same people, Irish and English, deride people, like my grandfather, who joined the British army, for “taking the king’s shilling.”

It is a mocking insult similar to the mocking insults cast at people who lived in Roman Jerusalem, insults that Christ may have heard often even before he was brought the coins with Caesar’s image and asked a silly question about coins and taxes.

Educational psychologists tell us there are two types of questions, identified in what is known as “Bloom’s Taxonomy.”

Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues differentiated between higher-order questions and lower-order questions. I teach, so please indulge me just for a moment or two while I explain why they are relevant to our Gospel reading this morning.

Lower-order questions ask what and how, and they usually elicit clear-cut, straight-forward answers.

Higher-order questions often begin with words like why, and require answers that go beyond simple information and the language and thinking behind them is more complex. They take learners into more abstract language functions, such as giving and justifying opinions, speculation, and hypothesising.

As an example, asking “What colours are in a rainbow?” is a lower-order or observational question. But asking “Why are rainbows important?” is posing a higher-order question.

Lecturers and teachers use lower-order questions to see whether students are grasping facts and figures. Higher order questions enable us to interpret facts and figures, to suggest solutions to problems, to explain why something is important, to give opinions, and to make comparisons.

We all hated history lessons when they were only about facts: when was the Battle of Hasting? Who succeeded Henry IV? We loved it when we were asked why did we think the Anglo-Saxons were not prepared for the Norman invasion? Why are the wars of the Roses relevant today? We could even joke then about Lancashire-Yorkshire cricket matches.

So you see the difference, and how the good teachers ask lower-order questions and the better teachers ask higher order questions. But the best teachers ask both, for knowledge without application is useless, application without knowledge is impossible, while knowledge and application bring wisdom.

If we apply “Bloom’s Taxonomy” to our Gospel reading, then we can ask who was asking “lower-order questions” this morning and who was asking “higher-order questions”?

It strikes me that the Pharisees and Herodians were pretty poor teachers, for they trained their disciples – the Greek word here (μαθητὰς, mathetas) means learners, pupils or students – to ask “lower-order questions” only, and they sent them to Jesus with “lower-order questions” that ask: “Is it … or is it not?”

“Is it lawful?” allows only a “yes” or “no” answer – either it is lawful or it is not lawful.

Had they taught their students properly, they would have gone with a very different set of questions. But Jesus confuses those who are sent and confounds those who send them by answering, not with a “yes” or a “no” answer, but – like a good teacher – posing both a lower-order and a higher-order question: “Why …?” and “Whose …?”

For in his approach to what is lawful and what is legal, Christ is more subtle and nuanced; throughout his ministry, he is concerned with what is lawful and what is right, with justice and with mercy.

Our Old Testament readings this morning remind us how God is the God who balances mercy and justice.

The Psalms speak of God as the God of justice, as the “Mighty King, lover of justice,” who has “established equity” (Psalm 99: 4) and “executed justice and righteousness” (verse 4), the God who gives us “his decrees and … statutes” (verse 7), but who also forgives and pardons (verse 8). The praises of God are a two-edged sword, bringing justice and mercy (Psalm 149).

But while God is the God of justice, this God is also the God of mercy. In the wilderness, when Moses asks God, nay, demands of God, to show his glory, God reveals himself as first and foremost the God who is gracious and the God who shows mercy.

It is such a core, central understanding of how God discloses or reveals himself that it is repeated throughout the Bible. God is constantly and repeatedly referred to as “gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy” (e.g., see Exodus 34: 6; Psalms 100: 5; 103: 8; 111: 4; 116: 5; 117: 2 145: 8; Jeremiah 3: 12; 33: 11; Joel 2: 13).

But God’s unbounded mercy is balanced by God’s unbounded desire for justice. A little later, God says to Moses that he is “merciful and gracious” (Exodus 34: 6), that his “steadfast love” endures for ever, that he is forgiving (see verse 7), but he by no means clears the guilty (see verse 7).

Mercy without justice allows licence without responsibility; justice without mercy becomes vindictive and vengeful.

Those who emphasise justice tend to ask questions such as “What did he do?” … “When did she do it?” … “What should we do?” – or lower-order questions. Those who emphasise mercy tend to ask questions such as “What makes someone do this?” … “How can we transform people like this?” … “How do we evaluate this situation with responsibility?” – or higher-order questions.

But both questions must be asked if, on the one hand, we are not to become hard-hearted, or, on the other hand, to become emotionally burned-out and powerless.

We need to show justice and mercy, and they are both demands for the Church and for the Law. They are not mutually exclusive, even though the Church tends to see mercy as our preserve and justice as the prerogative of the law.

In truth, the Church has not been good in the past in living up to its call and claim to exercise a ministry of mercy.

Pope Innocent III asked King John to annul Magna Carta as soon as it had been signed, declaring it “not only shameful and base, but also illegal and unjust,” to be condemned “on behalf of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

The Church was short on mercy throughout the Crusades, the Inquisitions and the Reformation, convinced it was giving its priority to justice. In 1566, the Council of Trent reaffirmed the morality of the death penalty, declaring: “The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to the Commandment which prohibits murder.”

Here in England, only one bishop of the Church of England in the House of Lords clearly supported the abolition of the death penalty in 1948. But mercy slowly began to win hearts, and by 1956 eight bishops voted for its abolition and one against; by 1969, 19 bishops voted for the abolition of the death penalty but, unbelievably, there was still one who voted against. By 1988, the Lambeth Conference called for the abolition of the death penalty.

Mercy and justice, justice and mercy, they go together as an inseparable couplet or pair.

When we serve both, we serve the God who reveals himself to us in the Law and in the Prophets, and who comes to be present among us in Christ Jesus.

The Christ who asks us to render unto Caesar what is his and unto God what is God’s does not say rendering unto one or the other is a mutually exclusive exercise or duty. When we give each their appropriate place, then we can expect to see “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5: 24).

For, as the Prophet Micah reminds us, what God requires of any of us is: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6: 8, NIV).

And so, may all we think say and do be to the praise honour and glory of God, who is just and merciful, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Some additional reading in preparation for this sermon:

BS Bloom et al (eds), Taxonomy of educational objectives: the classification of educational goals; Handbook I: Cognitive Domain (New York: Longmans, Green, 1956).
Naftali Brawer, ‘Face to Faith,’ The Guardian, 1 October 2011.
Judith Maltby, ‘Face to Faith,’ The Guardian, 20 August 2011.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 2011).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached in Liverpool (Anglican) Cathedral at the Judges’ Service on Sunday 16 October 2011.

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