A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 2, 2016
University Baptist Church
This is the second of three sermons focusing on the great words of the Prophet Micah: “What does God require of you, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” Last week we looked at walking humbly with God. We remember that we could use some humility not only in our political discourse, but in our interpersonal relationships. We need to struggle against the fallacy that we can accomplish great things by our own strength alone. We depend on God and we depend on each other. We are better when we are together.
Next week, we’ll talk about doing justice. That’s the hard work of making things right in our world. It’s hard work, but it’s easy for us to know who is on the right and wrong side of justice. We are not just supposed to like justice. We’re supposed to do justice. More about that next week.
The word for this week is to love mercy. Love mercy, embrace mercy, be enraptured by mercy. Sometimes “Mercy” is translated at “kindness”. We could use some kindness and mercy in our lives. Mercy is more than simply kindness. Those of us who have experienced Minnesota Nice know that it can be a surface kindness that hides contempt or indifference or downright hostility. I think Micah is getting at something deeper. What are we called to love anyway?
The Hebrew word for in Micah’s famous quote is one of the most important words in the Bible. It’s right up there with justice and humility. The Hebrew word is hesed. It means the love that is at the heart of who God is. It’s often translated as steadfast love. But here it’s translated as mercy or kindness. The Psalmist uses hesed a lot. God’s Steadfast love (hesed) endures forever. Earlier in the 6th chapter of Micah, God says, I desire steadfast love, hesed, not sacrifice. I desire mercy not sacrifice. Think about this in terms of our propensity to want revenge against those who have wronged us. We feel justified to get what is owed to us. We want them to suffer as much as they made us suffer. But God says, I desire mercy, not sacrifice—this when the death penalty was common.
Maybe it’s easier to think about what would be the opposite of hesed (mercy, kindness or steadfast love). Things like: envy, strife, enmity, racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, malice, meanness, bullying, unrestrained rage, hatred, revenge, violence. Love hesed, kindness, mercy says God through Micah.
Having the power to show mercy is something that people in positions of domination have and exercise, or don’t. Granting someone clemency is also called mercy. It’s more than simply kindness between equals. Mercy is granting something from a position of power. God’s mercy endures forever says the hymn. Another wonders “wilt thou forever cast us off, thy wrath forever smoke against the people of thy love, thy little chosen flock?” And we long for the mercy from God, whose capacity for mercy is greater than ours. We love mercy. We love receiving it. But it’s harder to give it than receive it. Micah is implying not only that we love the mercy God has given us, but to grant mercy as imitators of God. That’s the hard part.
We are not just to grant mercy because we are required to. We are to love mercy. We are supposed to grant it because it’s so compelling and it’s a piece of the way we survive as a community.
This love mercy idea is the theme of the book of Philemon. Now, we don’t often think of Philemon very often. It’s hard to find, sandwiched in between Titus and Hebrews. It’s a short letter. Almost like a letter of recommendation. Paul is writing it from prison and it is on behalf of another prisoner, a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus is being freed and is returning to Philemon’s house to continue his servitude. Paul tells Philemon to treat him well. Have mercy on him. Whether Philemon does so is not clear. We only have half of the conversation here.
By way of letter, Pastor Paul puts himself between two parishioners, Onesimus and Philemon and wants them to get along. This will be the hardest for Philemon, but it will probably be hard for Onesimus, too. Onesimus had become like a son to Paul during their recent prison stay. Paul had seen something in him that others had not seen, particularly Philemon. Paul affirmed Onesimus’ dignity. And he called on Philemon to not only show mercy, but respect.
What do we know about the characters? Philemon is wealthy and is wealthy enough to host a church in his very home. He’s the chair of the deacon board. The biggest giver. Pastor Paul wants him on his side.
Onesimus is a slave. We don’t know if he was a racial slave or more likely a debtor slave. People often paid off their debts back then by being indentured servants. We don’t know if he was paying off his own debt, his family’s debt or a generational debt. Regardless, he was the one with the least power.
Commentators have called Onesimus a runaway slave who has stolen from Philemon. There is no evidence of this in the letter, just the assumptions. He was in prison, therefore he must be guilty. Maybe he was framed. Maybe he was sent there on trumped up charges. Maybe the police planted evidence. We don’t know, but we do know that he had very little power. That was until he met Paul, also a prisoner, but also a man of influence. And Paul uses his influence to plead for mercy on behalf of Onesimus. Paul is actually using diplomacy to call on Philemon to embrace that ancient Hebrew concept, hesed. “If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to my account.” He doesn’t say he has wronged Philemon, only IF.
We are reading the book Just Mercy and we’ll start discussing it this evening. Overworked lawyer Bryan Stevenson starts visiting prisoners on death row in Alabama. Most of them are dark skinned. None of them had any money and all of them longed for mercy. The trials that put them on death row were often swift, using shoddy evidence, nonexistent defense, a presumption of guilt and a state and a society built for vengeance against this black underclass. Stevenson seeks to expose the indignity of the so-called justice system and shine a mirror on our own assumptions about those behind bars.
Paul notes that Onesimus has been useless to Philemon. But behind the bars of prison, Paul has seen something in Onesimus. They become devoted to each other. Paul calls him his spiritual son. He has become Paul’s right hand man. Onesimus, it seems is being freed from prison first and Paul wants Philemon to recognize Onesimus’ dignity and usefulness.
To add another level of irony, Onesimus means “Useful” in Greek. Paul exudes warmth in the letter, not the strident and sometimes misogynist tones of his other letters. It just goes to show you that people can be more than one-dimensional. Go figure. Bryan Stevenson states that people ought not to be judged based on the worst decision of their lives. There ought to be room for redemption, or at least examining the totality of their lives.
Paul is the master of persuasion. He plays on Philemon’s guilt. “I say nothing about you owing me even your own self.” It’s like Mr. Trump saying at the debate, I was going to say something insulting about your husband, but I’m not going to because Chelsea’s in the room. It’s a way of saying something insulting while trying to sound protective: planting the seed and then giving yourself plausible deniability. I didn’t say anything bad. I showed huge restraint, huge. Paul calls on Philemon to free a slave and to forgive a debt. “Philemon, notice that I say nothing about you owing me your soul,” says Paul.
Paul writes the letter to Philemon, but mentions all of the others in the community—the ones who are part of Philemon’s home church. It’s a private letter to be read in public. Why did the compilers of the Bible include this letter? It’s snapshot of Paul’s use of personal power to persuade on behalf of another. Maybe we are to remember the power that we have. We have power to grant mercy. We have the power to be kind. We have the power to appeal to a higher ideal. We also have the power to be mean, vindictive, selfish and brutish. How would Paul or even Jesus have us be?
Imagine Onesimus is an undocumented immigrant. And that Philemon is the local magistrate. And that Paul is the pastor of both. What would he have Philemon do? Deport Onesimus? Build a wall? Or offer mercy. It would be legal to deport Onesimus. But would it be Christian? Especially if deporting Onesimus would do irreparable harm to him, and his family. What if deporting him puts him in more danger than it does to keep him in this country? What is the Christian response?
What if Onesimus was a Syrian Refugee and Paul was in the same detention center after committing civil disobedience. And Philemon was a member of congress in charge of refugee quotas. How would Paul’s words on behalf of his Syrian refugee friend and compatriot land on the ears of Philemon? Would Philemon grant mercy? Would we? That’s the question.
Paul doesn’t call for an end to the institution of slavery, though we wish he would.
Bucking cultural trends, Paul treats a slave as an equal. Might we be willing to treat former slaves as equal? Might we be willing to treat former prisoners as equal?
I recently read a book about welcoming people who had been incarcerated back into the church community. How might we do that? How might we make our community welcoming and affirming of those who have experienced the criminal justice system? How do we hold them accountable and also hold ourselves accountable to the God who calls us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly?
Bryan Stevenson writes about speaking at a former prisoner’s funeral service. Here’s what he said: “mercy is just when it is rooted hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the underserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion…in the end it was just mercy toward others that allowed him to recover a life worth celebrating, a life that rediscovered the love and freedom that all humans desire, a life that overcame death and condemnation until it was time to die on God’s schedule.” (Just Mercy, 2015 p. 314)
My friends, we live in a broken world. We live in a world where we easily put people in categories, not recognizing the complexities of their lives. We prejudge and then rejudge people based on our sure assumptions. Loving mercy means playing with your absolutes. It means embracing a hope that is illogical. It means protecting yourself, but also protecting someone else. It means choosing to be kind, even when someone doesn’t deserve it. It means relying on hope because the opposite it just too much work. It means embracing Good News.
There’s another word for mercy, hesed, this loving kindness that is of God. It’s called grace. Grace, that sense that we are loved by God in spite of ourselves. Grace, that evidence that God exists when we love one another. Grace, that amazing movement of Spirit that saved wretches like us. Grace, that power that removes blinders and sets the prisoners free. Grace, that liberating power that reminds us that there is a greater power out there that seeks to restore us all to sanity. Grace, that power that is greater than fear, greater than doubt, greater than violence, greater than hatred, greater than indifference, greater than ourselves. This grace that finds the lost and seeks out the brokenhearted and points us toward a better tomorrow.
So, as we enter this month of October, this heated season of flashes of color and red-hot tempers, this season of deeper learning and midterms, may we ponder how we might not just be kind and merciful. May we ponder how we can love mercy: Mercy toward another, but also mercy toward that broken part of ourselves that withholds mercy from someone else. As we seek to love mercy, may we love that broken part of us.
We see people throughout our world who are like Paul, advocates on behalf of another. Or like Onesimus, people who have new leases on life, a new sense of purpose, a new sense of being useful. Or like Philemon, people of privilege who have a choice to offer mercy. We will encounter all of these characters. We might even be some of these characters. And in the end, we know, o mortal what is good. May we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. It will make all the difference.