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Unforgettable Mercies – 11/20/2016

I don’t consider myself to be a very good giver of gifts. I had a friend once who would say to each of his friends, on their birthdays, “This is my gift to you this year: I didn’t get you anything. Now you don’t have to worry about getting me anything next year.” And I thought that sounded like a very amicable sort of arrangement. But every so often, I do manage to remember a holiday or a milestone, and send a loved one or acquaintance something appropriate to mark it with. And a certain small percentage of the time after that, something else happens, and no matter how many times it does, I never fail to be completely taken off-guard by it: that something, is that I get a thank-you note in the mail.

This always leaves me confounded and impressed – that someone had the level of organization necessary to execute such an intentional practice of gratitude. The unexpected is usually more memorable than the anticipated, and so acts of kindness and consideration can often feel more meaningful when they take on an unexpected form or come to us from an unexpected source. Let me give you an example:

In 1995, Tupac Shakur was one of the biggest names in hip-hop, in the whole of the American popular music scene, in fact. He was also in the midst of a nine-month prison stint. He was the first artist, in fact, to have an album reach #1 on the Billboard charts while incarcerated. A prison is, by its design and intent, a grim and unkind place. No matter the circumstances that bring a person to that place, it is a hard and painful thing, for a human being, to live in a cage. After his release, Tupac was asked in interviews about his experience in prison. He talked about the authors he’d read – Sun Tzu and Niccolo Machiavelli. He offered his thanks to the friends, family, and fellow artists who had supported him. But there was one name on that list who stuck out as sort of an odd duck: Tony Danza.

For those of you who don’t know, Tony Danza was a rather famous actor in his day – he’s still working today, in fact. He had a couple of very successful TV shows, tending to play big-hearted, quick-witted working class characters. He was not, however, someone you might have expected to find, in the mid-90s, in the orbit of the gangsta rap genre. But, like much of America, he’d listened to Tupac’s music, and knowing that the poet was then behind bars he felt moved to write to him. Not just a small note – long, deep letters, more than one. And receiving those letters, from a stranger he didn’t know from Adam, clearly meant something to Tupac Shakur. Up until his death, far too young and far too soon, Tupac continued to talk in interviews about his gratitude to and appreciation for Tony – a man he hadn’t known before, whom he now considered a friend.

It is said the teacher Jesus said, in the course of a story to his students, about the sorts of kindness most worthy of appreciation, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you came to visit me.”[i] Our gratitude is stirred most – or, at least, it ought to be – when we receive some mercy that we deeply needed. This is true even in the cases of an act of compassion we didn’t consciously know we needed, or that we could not have articulated the need for. It is also true – and this is particularly important – even when that unforgettable mercy is mutual, rather than one-sided. An exchange of grace that each of the parties to it needs as much as any other.

A friend of mine was generous to give me permission to share one of her experiences with you this morning. The scene unfolded earlier this week. That friend, Samira, was driving a long distance, late at night, and stopped at a nearly empty service plaza to pick up a few things for the rest of her trip. A lot of people, in this country, and some of us, here in this room, have felt less safe, and more on-edge since the election. Its outcome sent a message of hostility and unwelcome to many of us; it’s only natural for folks to be more guarded, and skeptical of strangers they encounter. Samira herself had had an unsettling experience on election day – a stranger, making an assumption based on her skin color, had muttered at her, “You dirty Muslim, we shouldn’t let you vote.” Samira is actually Jewish, but it’s tragically common for people of South Asian descent to be targeted on the assumption that they’re Muslim. One of the hallmarks of bigotry is that it rarely bothers to do its homework.

That encounter on Election Day, and what came after it, when a young boy who’d also heard the insult spoke up on Samira’s behalf, actually made it into an article in the Washington Post.[ii] But alone, at night, in the nearly-empty store, Samira found herself assuming that the white woman ringing her up had most likely cast one of the 60 million votes which had increased Samira’s sense of alienation from her own country. And then, she noticed that this woman was wearing a safety pin on her clothing. We talked about this last week. The symbolic meaning of this practice – an import from Great Britain – is that the person wearing it promises to extend safety to anyone else around them who might need it. To make sure that if someone is targeted or harassed for who they are, they will be there to do what they can, to intervene. For a very new practice, it has a lot of critics on both the right and the left. My counsel to you last Sunday continues to hold true a week later: the symbol is hollow unless you are determined to follow through on the commitment it implies.

Seeing the pin, Samira complimented the stranger on it, and that is when the store clerk’s whole demeanor changed. She shifted from a shallow, casual interaction to a much deeper one. The woman talked about how seriously she took the commitment of wearing that pin. She spoke about her identity as a veteran, coming from a military family. “This is America, and we are better than this. We have to be better than this…I can’t tell you it will be okay, but I can tell you that there are decent folks who will go down fighting. I put my life on the line to protect America, and it wasn’t for this.” When she wrote about the whole thing later on, on Facebook, Samira said this about it. That, “…for just a few moments, I was back in the United States in which I want to live.”[iii]

My friends, each of our lives depends each day upon a thousand or more acts of simple and meager kindness. The mundanities which carry most of us through life rarely get acknowledged by us, and to some degree that is alright. But there are still moments that come to us as benevolent surprises, unforgettable mercies. Such fragmentary instances have the power to reshape our lives and ourselves, if we are willing to open our hearts to them – and to the practice of gratitude which they stir up in us. The time of Thanksgiving this week is set aside in our national consciousness for us to reflect together on what is most precious in our lives and worthy of our gratitude. Even though it is beset on all sides, by the commercial encroachment of Halloween before it and the ever-widening juggernaut of Christmas-consumption, after it. Even under the all-too-real, all-too-terrible specter of the colonization of the native peoples of this continent, still there remains a crack in the door of our collective heart. Not simply wide enough for the smell of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie to waft through, but sufficient to allow in the light of wonder, and of hope, at the beauty and the possibility of this common world we share.


[i] Matthew 25:35-36


[iii] From Facebook, November 16th, 2016. Retold with permission of the author.


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