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The Gates of Mercy – 4/20/2014

We just heard the choir sing the words of Leonard Cohen, and they included these lines: “Behold the gates of mercy, in arbitrary space. And none of us deserving of the cruelty or the grace.” We live in – we are each a part of – a world that is made up of wonder and terror. At any given moment, our planet is saturated with both. A lost plane in the Indian Ocean, a ferry sunk in the Korea Straight, a terrible shooting in Kansas City, civil war in Syria and the Central African Republic, and the threat of more to come in Ukraine. At the same time, children are being born all over the world today, as scientists ask grand questions of the cosmos, artists at the canvass and the keyboard craft new things of beauty and imagination, while families and friends and strangers practice kindness towards each other in a million million tiny, precious ways.

The one side does not cancel the other out, in either direction. The good cannot justify the evil, just as the cruelty of life cannot desecrate the sanctity of its gift. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke considered this conundrum in our essential condition by asking what it is we gain by being human, rather than only a laurel bush or some other form of plant. He wrote:


Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely
in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on the edges
of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)–: why then
have to be human–and, escaping from fate,
keep longing for fate? . . .

Oh not because happiness exists,
that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.
Not out of curiosity, not as practice for the heart, which
would exist in the laurel too. . . . .

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
 for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.


The fleeting world keeps calling to us, to pass through the gates of mercy, to be, to become, again and again and again. For as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the great author who died this week, said “human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but…life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” We are eternally becoming who we are, so that life is less like a walled garden, where we enter by one path and exit by another, and more like a house of many small adjoining rooms, where we are constantly crossing over thresholds and under lintels, through doorways into new spaces beyond.

What we each shall find in the next room we enter is uncertain, and that uncertainty raises that nagging question of why. Good fortune prompts it just as well as bad. The story of Moses being saved as an infant is spectacular, all the hope and courage that made his survival possible is inspiring. But what of the other male children who did not have quite so many breaks in their favor. The story of Lazarus has been told for the better part of 2,000 years to inspire faith, and yet, could he have been the only person who lay dead in Judeah that day? Or his sisters the only grieving women in the world?

However you understand the world, whether it is with one God, or many, or none, it is plain that life gives us things that we do not deserve. And this places before us two choices for how we will go about living our lives in response: resentment, or gratitude. I hope it will surprise none of you that I am here to lobby for gratitude. I don’t mean to be grateful for every single thing that comes – for heartbreak or homelessness or HIV. But to be grateful for the gateway into life in the first place, and for the new doorway, always in front of us, into the next unknown room of the house of being.

The alternative is to stay put, hunker down and make a nest of our resentments. To refuse to take a risk on the next doorway out of spite and fear. To choose not to defy an unjust king, or to weave a little boat for an infant in danger, or to watch over our brother as he floats on the river, or not to take in a strange child who winds his way into our life. The choice of resentment means walling ourselves up in one of life’s rooms, and refusing to go any further. There is a word for a place such as that: we call it a tomb.

Look inward, with me, for a moment friends. Examine the chambers of your heart, the places where the deepest pieces of yourself reside. See how many of them are stopped up with bitterness, stifled rage or frustrated dream. Let us resolve, together, you and I, to cross through the next gate. Let today be a day when we pluck new hope from the river, when we stumble out of the tomb, and into the light. May we give birth to ourselves anew this day, and may all of us serve as midwives for each other.




First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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