Mercy, we say when the going get’s tough, or when we hear a really awful performance. Like have mercy on my ears. Luckily we don’t say that around here very often, except at times in response to a sermon.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy. Thank God, because we need that wideness to catch all of us wayward folks.
Mercy shows up the Bible a good 276 times. It focuses on everything from steadfast love to acts of charity.
It shows up as the 5th beatitude in Matthew’s Gospel, “blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” We need to give it if we want to receive it. We say it every Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer, forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors. Grant us mercy as we grant mercy.
The Hebrew word for mercy is hesed. It’s also translated as Steadfast love. The word hesed expresses God’s loving attitude toward each of us. Psalm 136 says over and over again, God’s hesed, God’s steadfast love, God’s mercy endures forever. We are told in Micah 6 to do justice love hesed, mercy, and walk humbly with God.
Jesus was constantly asked to have mercy on those whom he would heal. “Son of God, have mercy on us.” And Jesus always did.
If having mercy means to grant healing, how have we done that?
What do you think of when you think of mercy?
Mercy is a lot like compassion. But there’s a power dynamic to it. We have compassion on someone and we walk the road together. When we have mercy on someone, we grant them something. Mercy implies a power imbalance. One needs to give mercy and one needs to receive mercy. It’s like a mercy-or and a mercy-ee. In Biblical terms, we ask God to have mercy on us, like a judge in an ultimate courtroom. Have mercy on me. Save me from the pits of hellfire and damnation. Or if not that, have mercy on me and save me from the person who really annoys me which can feel like hell.
In the 16th chapter of Exodus the people of Israel were starving as they were making their way to the Promised Land from their recent liberation from Egyptian slavery. God heard their stomachs growling and told them to expect food in the morning, for I, YHWH have mercy on my people. You know what happens, in the evenings, quails came and covered the camp giving them sufficient meat. In the morning, when the dew went up off the ground, a fine flake-like stuff was left on the ground kind of like frost. They made this into bread and called it manna. God promised to have mercy on them and they had food in the wilderness. Moses gave only one command: “don’t save any of it.” But the people didn’t trust God enough and the saved up manna was full of worms the next morning. They needed to trust that God would have mercy upon them every day and unless they trusted their mercy they would lose their mercy from God. An ancient use it or lose it, or is it receive it and believe it?
Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.
Today’s scripture speaks to the important work of mercy. In the three-year lectionary cycle, there is only one time that Leviticus comes up, even though it contains more words purportedly from God’s mouth than any other book. On top of that, it shows up here in the 7th Sunday after Epiphany. Many years there are only six or even five Sundays after Epiphany, depending on when Easter fits into the calendar. (It’s April 20th this year). So Leviticus is given even shorter shrift on those years.
Now, I know many of you bristle when you hear the word Leviticus. It’s true, there are some pretty restrictive scriptures in its pages, especially when read out of context. The context is always important. Today’s scripture comes from what is known as the holiness code of the Torah. At the core of the holiness code is the concept of Mercy. Jesus quoted it in all three synoptic gospels when he said that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). But Leviticus 19 goes on to say in the 34th verse, “the alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” How’s that for Biblical immigration reform?
Leviticus 19 is a reworking of the Ten Commandments, with some commentary laws thrown in there for good measure, for mercy’s sake. Show mercy to your neighbor. Don’t harvest everything in your field. Leave some for mercy. The gleaners will come after you and pick the veggies that you have left behind. Same thing with the grapes on your vines.
I remember when we created a community garden here a few years back, growing beans and tomatoes, and corn and beets and squash. The sign in the garden said help yourself. It was a mercy sign. I remember someone telling me that someone was stealing from our garden. I told her that we planted it for the community, tended it for the community and were glad that the community was eating from it. She said, “but, but, they are stealing from your good work?” And we said, “it’s not stealing if you give it away.” It’s being a part of the community.
The scripture goes on to say, don’t steal, don’t lie and don’t defraud. It is no accident that this comes right after the verse about leaving fruit behind for the gleaners. It’s not yours. It’s theirs. Mercy is how you will be known. To not show mercy is to steal. Imagine if we believed that the gleanings belonged to the poor, the outcast, the alien?
There was a cartoon on Facebook this week that had Jesus in the field arguing with his disciples. They said, Jesus, if you feed all of these people, it will take away their incentive to feed themselves.
First John 3:17 asks: “How does love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
Victor Hugo’s epic Les Miserables hinges on the question of who deserves mercy. Most of us are familiar with the story if not the play or the movie. Have you noticed how many times mercy is invoked? Look down and show some mercy if you can, sing the beggars in the Paris streets. And just to add a dig, they add, Look down look down upon your fellow man. Double entendre intended.
Javert seems to think that no one deserves mercy, except him. He receives it from God because he is doing God’s duty as an enforcer of the law, which he sees as coming from on high.
But Grace and Mercy mess with everyone’s world view and change the course of history. The Bishop who is a victim of theft shows mercy on Valjean. Valjean knows he doesn’t deserve it. But maybe he can understand God in a new way: the giver of mercy who calls us to give mercy in return. Valjean spends the rest of the story granting mercy to whomever he can, including Javert, his nemesis. But he cannot, it seems grant mercy to himself. He lives with a terrible secret of his old identity. Of course those around him see his true identity—his mercy for those around him. Ultimately, he receives the mercy in the arms of this loved ones beyond the grave, the heavenly reward of a life lived with mercy. And we are left to make our own choices about how to live a just and merciful life.
Our sacred work is to do justice, live by compassion, make the choices that matter, grant peace, and show mercy. When we do all of that sacred work, swimming upstream against the prevailing tide of human selfishness, then we are approaching the world God envisions for us. And we are approaching a clear example of our place in that world.
Psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote: “The best way to prevent a nervous breakdown is to put on your coat, turn the door knob, go across the tracks and find someone to minister to.”
On Thursday night, Kim and I went out to shovel the snow in our driveway. We did the first round at about 5pm. The second at 7:30 and it looked like we hadn’t done it at all. Then the plows came through. We were resting inside while the lights flickered on and off and we heard the roar of a snowblower. It was not an uncommon suburban sound. We don’t have a snowblower. We have shovels, and kids. But the sound got louder. Our neighbor Eric showed mercy on us. He was out there hacking away at our crusted and blocked apron. Note to self, send him maple syrup. Another neighbor brought her two kids over to help shovel us out a few weeks ago. I guess they take pity on us old people.
On Friday, I saw plenty of people pushing cars that were spinning and stuck. It’s not mercy so much as it is being in Minnesota. It’s how we survive, by the grace and mercy of others.
Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia Farms in Georgia said that the merciful are “those who have an attitude of such compassion towards all (people) that they want to share gladly all that they have with one another and with the world.”
So how do we show mercy? We need mercy in our lives. We are attracted to mercy.
Mercy is what powerful people do. And we are powerful. We have the power to grant mercy. We have the power to be generous. And being truly generous, truly merciful expects no return on the investment. We do it even without expectation of thanks or gratitude. That’s when we know we have been truly merciful. We have the power and the duty to love our neighbor as ourselves. And when we do that, we are changed and it is good.
The mystery of God is that God’s mercy endures forever. We have already been redeemed by God’s mercy. And yet we still cry out “Savior, Savior, hear our humble cry…” It’s the human condition to recognize that we cannot solve all of the problems of the world on our own. We need a higher power that can restore us to sanity. We need God to hear our humble cry. We need the mercy of God. Our prayers for and our work for mercy is our sacred work. So on behalf of ourselves and others we sing, “Savior, Savior, hear our humble cry. While on other thou art calling, do not pass me by.”