For Sunday, March 13, 2016, 5th Sunday of Lent
I recently saw the small independent film, The Lady in the Van, starring Maggie Smith, otherwise known as the Countess of Grantham for all you Downton Abbey fans. (As I write this, the series finale is about to air here in the States.) The true story, which is comical and at the same time sad, surrounds Mary Shepherd, an old woman who was homeless, except for her van in which she lived. Due to some twists and turns at the start of the film, she ends up parking her van permanently in the driveway of British playwright, Alan Bennett, for an entire fifteen years. We find out as the story develops that Mary had been a novice in a convent, had been a classically trained pianist, and still had family living outside the area. This woman certainly did not have a background that one would think could lead to such an existence. However, one event truly changed the trajectory of her life. She had hit and killed a young man on a motorbike with her van, and even though she did not realize she was not at fault, she fled from the scene in panic. She lived with a guilt that consumed her and essentially drove her crazy.
Mary Shepherd was a Catholic who would pray constantly for forgiveness, going to confession over and over again to confess the same sin. The movie depicts a priest in the confessional trying to get her to understand that she has already been absolved and there was no need for her to hold onto this burden, let alone confess it again and again. The kindness shown to her by Mr. Bennett, others in the neighborhood, and even her brother who she was able to occasionally see during those fifteen years, did little to ease her paranoia and shame about this wretched event. She was held captive by her actions and fear and, sadly, could not see any possibility for forgiveness and mercy.
How many people do you think live as prisoners because of their sin and inability to believe in the power of mercy? The answer is simply, “Too many!” They believe somehow they are not worthy of love and that not even God can bear to look in their direction. They have bought into the lie of a God of wrath who would rather see his sons and daughters suffer than forgive them and see them reconciled.
This Sunday’s Gospel reading, unless you are present for the third Scrutiny and hear the story of the rising of Lazarus, features a woman caught in sin and facing a possible stoning at the hands of the scribes and Pharisees. If I imagine myself there in the story, I see a woman’s face much like that of Mary Shepherd, taken over by a sense of despair and fear at her current situation. Surely she has seen or heard others before her suffer the same dismal fate that seems to lie ahead. She is trapped and hope is only a concept that no longer has meaning.
But this time is not like the other times. Jesus is present. He stands between the condemnation of these religious figures and the woman who has sinned. The scribes and Pharisees, sensing this is no ordinary situation with Jesus present and filled with hope that he might say something so contrary to their interpretation of the law that they can bring charges against him, question Jesus about what should be done. Of course, Jesus does not disappoint them, for he has brought a new law, one tempered with mercy and love. His questioning of whom among them is without sin surely aggravates and scolds them at the same time. Jesus brings no condemnation to this woman, but instead mercy and compassion. He does not overlook her sin, but he tells her that from this point on she is to engage in this sin no more. The choice is hers and if she chooses to follow the way of life that Jesus brings to her, there will be mercy instead of condemnation, compassion instead of disdain, and life instead of death.
Jesus changes the equation for all of us. Without Jesus the wages of sin are death, but now a new life is possible where our sins are forgiven and our failings are met with mercy and love. This Year of Mercy reminds us, and all the Mary Shepherds of the world, that no transgression is so great that it can keep us from the love of God. We need to come out of the tombs we create from our guilt, shame, and fear, into the Light that gives and sustains life. We must not fear that those who are blinded by their own sin will hurl stones at us. Jesus stands between our accusers and us and brings us redemption. Finally, we must forgive ourselves for what God has already forgiven. Mercy comes not only to lift us up out of our sin, but also to liberate us. This is good news and this news is too important not to proclaim to the ends of the earth, during this Year of Mercy and beyond.
Tracy Earl Welliver, MTS
Loving and merciful God,
through your Son’s death and resurrection,
mercy flowed over all creation,
making all things new.
During this Jubilee Year of Mercy,
may many hearts turn toward you,
seeking the mercy you freely offer,
leading to a peace passing all understanding.
Increase our capacity to love,
and as we seek to offer human mercy to others,
may you shower your Church and the world
with your divine compassion and consolation.
We ask this through the power of your Holy Spirit,
and in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
—A Prayer for the Jubilee Year of Mercy