Mercy Street
February 21, 2022
Rev. Maddie Sifantus
Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula

“To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8)

REFLECTION: “Mercy Street Rev. Maddie Sifantus
Dreaming of mercy. Looking for mercy. Looking for mercy. And as the last words of Peter Gabriel’s song go,
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Where you’re inside out
Dreaming of mercy
In your daddy’s arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Swear they moved that sign
Looking for mercy
In your daddy’s arms
Anne, with her father, is out in the boat
Riding the water
Riding the waves on the sea

When I discovered that our Touchstones theme for February would be “Mercy”, the first thing that came to my mind was this song, Mercy Street. I have seen Peter Gabriel many times over the years, loving his voice, his musicians and especially what he writes about. On this tour in 2003 and 2004, his daughter was the backup singer, singing “looking for mercy in your daddy’s arms.” But it wasn’t until I was getting ready to speak about mercy this morning that I looked into the background of the song.
It turns out that Gabriel was inspired by a poem by Anne Sexton, “45 Mercy Street”. Her poem starts out:

In my dream,
drilling into the marrow
of my entire bone,
my real dream,
I’m walking up and down Beacon Hill
searching for a street sign –
Not there.

Sexton walking up and down Beacon Hill, where the UUA was located for a century, looking for Mercy Street. Looking for mercy. Can mercy heal the wounds of childhood? Can you find mercy on a street?

These dreamlike sequences spoke to me, even if I wasn’t sure what I was singing along to in my living room and at a stadium rock concert. Mercy. One of those old theological words that may have fallen out of use among many, and probably most especially for many UUs who don’t use any theological language. But it still speaks to me today, even as I focus on it during this pandemic time. How many of us are looking for mercy, dreaming of mercy, searching for mercy from the isolation, the economic insecurity, and the frustration of trying to sign up for the vaccine? How many are praying for mercy for those dealing with the cold weather, lack of water, power outages and more in a large part of our country? How about mercy for the asylees, those families at our southern borders and the farmworkers working our fields and providing food for our country in the midst of a pandemic? How about mercy for any of us struggling to make meaning in these times? How do we look for mercy and what is our part in bringing mercy to our times?

What do we mean when we shout out, “Mercy, mercy me” as Marvin Gaye did in one of his hit songs? What does it mean when someone cries, “Lord have mercy?”, even when they may not even say “Lord” in the normal run of things? What about those of you who are former Roman Catholics, thinking you have left behind “Lord have mercy on me.”

So let’s stop a moment here to think about what the word Mercy means. My dictionary informs me that mercy is defined as compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power. It can also mean lenient or compassionate treatment. Spirituality author Richard Rohr has said, “Mercy is like the mystery of forgiveness. By definition, mercy and forgiveness are unearned, undeserved, and not owned. If you don’t experience all three, then it is not the experience of mercy. If you think people have to be merciful or try to earn mercy then you have lost the mystery of mercy and forgiveness.” For Rohr, who is a Franciscan friar, “Mercy and forgiveness are the gospel in a nutshell.”1 What is our UU gospel in a nutshell? What does it mean to be looking for Mercy, or looking for Mercy Street, as Peter Gabriel and Anne Sexton did in their work? Mercy and forgiveness are tied up together and are “unearned, undeserved and not owned.” Perhaps it is that feeling of being back in your father’s—or mother’s—or grandmother’s arms again. Safe. Cared for.

As I said in my blurb for today, one of the most important texts that ungird my ministry and my life is from the Hebrew Bible, from Chapter 6 in Micah. “To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8) You can substitute walk humbly with the Spirit of Life or with that which has the most meaning for you, if you will. For me, this phrase from the prophet Micah is right up there with “love your neighbor as yourself” and the Prophet Isaiah, an adaption of verse 61 was read responsively in my Ordination back in 2002.

The spirit of GOD has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to comfort all who mourn;
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.2

Good marching orders to a newly ordained minister and especially meaningful to me at that time ministering with those nearing the end of life. Back to Micah and “To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.” Micah was an 8th century BCE Hebrew prophet from the village Moresheth in the Kingdom of Judah, which was the southern kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. He is considered a minor prophet, not because of the nature of his prophecy, but due to the shorter length of the Book in the Bible attributed to him. Micah reproaches unjust leaders, defends the rights of the poor against the rich and powerful, and preaches social justice; while looking forward to a world at peace. The book is short, but the enduring message of the book is contained in chapter 6 when Micah says, “And what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” In place of sacrifices and burnt offerings, Micah calls for ethical behavior.3 He calls for lovingkindness. What does our faith require of us in these times? Where do we look for mercy? Where do we bring mercy?

I didn’t study Hebrew in my years in seminary, mores the pity, but my wonderful Old Testament professor Greg Mobley taught us that mercy in the Hebrew Bible is the usual translation of the word hesed, also translated as lovingkindness. Jeanne Nieuwejaar in her lovely small volume “Fluent in Faith: A UU Embrace of Religious Language” suggests that lovingkindness is “something more than simple kindness, lovingkindness. Kindness might mean an action, but this is more than an act. It is action flowing forth from a deep feeling.”4 It is kindness that is not constructed but is an essential loving quality of the self. What those of us who may practice Buddhism call metta. In fact, I end each Meditation practice I lead with some words of the lovingkindness practice. Words like: may you be safe, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering, may you be well.

The Dalai Lama says his religion is kindness and adds that “Each of us in our own way can try to spread compassion into people’s hearts. Western civilizations these days place great importance on filling the human ‘brain’ with knowledge, but no one seems to care about filling the human ‘heart’ with compassion. This is what the real role of religion is.”5

For me, the Biblical sources and other great scriptures, along with theological language like mercy—grace, covenant and more—speak to core principles that can mean something to us today and are not just archaic, old-fashioned concepts. The founders of our congregation came from the Universalist tradition that put trust in the scriptures, so much so that the Bible is in one of our windows along with some scriptural texts. Since the building was built in 1891, many more resources were added to our Sources but there still is, I believe, a foundational aspect that these concepts and the roots in our historic faith can give us. Mercy’s compassion and kindness can fill our lives, can help us consider situations and circumstances. We can think of our regrets and shortcomings, bringing self-compassion to them. As we practice inclusiveness and seek justice, as the first two phrases of our mission ask of us, we can think of what Micah’s asking of us. Justice, mercy and humility together create a relationship that is worth exploring as we live what the Principles of Unitarian Universalism call us to do.

My colleague Alison Wilbur Eskildsen has said, “As an independent list of three, justice, mercy and humility stand on their own. To do justice means to act fairly in your own behavior and to further justice in social systems. To love mercy means to act with compassion, with feeling, and with kindness, to hear the cries begging for mercy and to respond. To walk humbly with your God means …that we should act without arrogance or ego and that we should remember there is something greater than ourselves, whether it’s a god or another ultimate value.”

These three sent me into ministry long ago and it was my grounding in my UU faith from the congregation I belonged to and served as Youth Director back in the day that framed the work I did in the world, especially founding the elder chorus I directed for 20 years and that sent me to inform that work in seminary. It was there that I could focus on the words like mercy. And I continue to lean into mercy, into lovingkindness with the humility and curiosity I can muster to keep the work of justice in front of me, knowing that there is something beyond me by whatever name which I can tap into. And tap into it I need to in these challenging times. Looking for mercy street.

BENEDICTION Attributed to the Talmud
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Love mercy now. Do justly now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. May it be so.
Lyrics of Mercy Street by Peter Gabriel
Looking down on empty streets, all she can see
Are the dreams all made solid
Are the dreams made real
All of the buildings, all of the cars
Were once just a dream
In somebody’s head
She pictures the broken glass, pictures the steam
She pictures a soul
With no leak at the seam
Let’s take the boat out
Wait until darkness
Let’s take the boat out
Wait until darkness comes
Nowhere in the corridors of pale green and gray
Nowhere in the suburbs
In the cold light of day
There in the midst of it, so alive and alone
Words support like bone

Dreaming of Mercy Street
Where you’re inside out
Dreaming of mercy
In your daddy’s arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Swear they moved that sign
Dreaming of mercy
In your daddy’s arms

Pulling out the papers from the drawers that slide smooth
Tugging at the darkness, word upon word
Confessing all the secret things in the warm velvet box
To the priest, he’s the doctor
He can handle the shocks
Dreaming of the tenderness
The tremble in the hips
Of kissing Mary’s lips

Dreaming of Mercy Street
Where you’re inside out
Dreaming of mercy
In your daddy’s arms again
Dreaming of Mercy Street
Swear they moved that sign
Looking for mercy
In your daddy’s arms
Anne, with her father, is out in the boat
Riding the water
Riding the waves on the sea

45 Mercy Street by Anne Sexton
In my dream,
drilling into the marrow
of my entire bone,
my real dream,
I’m walking up and down Beacon Hill
searching for a street sign –
Not there.
I try the Back Bay.
Not there.
Not there.
And yet I know the number.
45 Mercy Street.
I know the stained-glass window
of the foyer,
the three flights of the house
with its parquet floors.
I know the furniture and
mother, grandmother, great-grandmother,
the servants.
I know the cupboard of Spode
the boat of ice, solid silver,
where the butter sits in neat squares
like strange giant’s teeth
on the big mahogany table.
I know it well.
Not there.
Where did you go?
45 Mercy Street,
with great-grandmother
kneeling in her whale-bone corset
and praying gently but fiercely
to the wash basin,
at five A.M.
at noon
dozing in her wiggy rocker,
grandfather taking a nap in the pantry,
grandmother pushing the bell for the downstairs maid,
and Nana rocking Mother with an oversized flower
on her forehead to cover the curl
of when she was good and when she was…
And where she was begat
and in a generation
the third she will beget,
with the stranger’s seed blooming
into the flower called Horrid.
I walk in a yellow dress
and a white pocketbook stuffed with cigarettes,
enough pills, my wallet, my keys,
and being twenty-eight, or is it forty-five?
I walk. I walk.
I hold matches at street signs
for it is dark,
as dark as the leathery dead
and I have lost my green Ford,
my house in the suburbs,
two little kids
sucked up like pollen by the bee in me
and a husband
who has wiped off his eyes
in order not to see my inside out
and I am walking and looking
and this is no dream
just my oily life
where the people are alibis
and the street is unfindable for an
entire lifetime.
Pull the shades down –
I don’t care!
Bolt the door, mercy,
erase the number,
rip down the street sign,
what can it matter,
what can it matter to this cheapskate
who wants to own the past
that went out on a dead ship
and left me only with paper?
Not there.
I open my pocketbook,
as women do,
and fish swim back and forth
between the dollars and the lipstick.
I pick them out,
one by one
and throw them at the street signs,
and shoot my pocketbook
into the Charles River.
Next I pull the dream off
and slam into the cement wall
of the clumsy calendar
I live in,
my life,
and its hauled up

  1. Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World, St. Anthony Press, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1996, p. 136
  2. NRSV, adapted
  3. Touchstones Project, Worship Resources on Mercy, February 2021.
  4. Nieuwejaar, Jeanne (2012). Fluent in Faith. Skinner House, 139.
  5. From Love Mercy by Rev. Wendy Williams (excerpt, full text no longer online), from Touchstones worship resources for February 2021.