“I Want Mercy”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 28, 2017
University Baptist Church
On this Memorial Day Weekend, we laid a gravestone at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Maplewood for my nephew Lewis. The grief is still raw in some places, but it’s more familiar now. It was once an unwelcome guest. Now it’s taken up residence in our souls, always there. Not always dominant, but always there.
We laid the stone near the place where Lewis spent many a day. He loved the graveyard close to his house. It was where he rode his bike with his sister and our daughters. He fished in the pond and looked out for the wildlife. He even befriended a family of foxes that lived in one of the thickets. He would stay there for hours just to watch them peak their noses out their holes.
I thought yesterday about the last graveyard I visited. It was the American Graveyard in Normandy overlooking Omaha Beach. Over 9000 white crosses in straight lines. Like they were marching in formation. Our tour guide would occasionally stop and we all stood at attention as Taps was played in the distance. I remember the somber reflection that always happens at a graveyard. Have I done what I can in my life? What must it have been like to have been my fallen comrade? How shall I live my life? How can I honor your sacrifice? The tune that we heard in the background of the museum was “Children of the Heavenly Father”. It’s not a triumphant hymn. It’s not a hymn to glorify sacrifice. It’s a hymn seeking mercy from God.
Mercy. We’ve talked a lot about that this year. It’s become our measuring stick. Is this merciful? Am I being mercy-challenged? How about our leadership? I spent some time at the state capitol this week during the special session. I was advocating for mercy to be a part of the state budget. God says in today’s scripture reading, “I want Mercy, not sacrifice.” That sentence, that concept was so important that Jesus repeated it twice in the gospels. I want mercy, not sacrifice.
Mercy, not sacrifice. The death penalty is about vengeance and it is also about sacrifice. If the person who committed a crime dies, then it is supposed to make the victims feels better. It’s supposed to rebalance the relationships in the world. But it seldom does. Mercy is better. Sacrifice is what you do to appease an angry God. As if God wants more violence to erase initial violence. Hosea’s and Jesus’ God says, “I want mercy, not sacrifice.”
Here’s what Bryan Stevenson said about mercy at the funeral of one of his clients that he was able to get off of death row. “Mercy is just when it is rooted in 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)
God said to Israel in the second chapter of Hosea, "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know God."(Hosea 2:19-20) But the people went astray. They found another lover, another focus of their devotion. For them it was their wealth and their status.
What takes your time, your energy, your devotion? In what ways have you gone astray?
In the 11th chapter of Hosea, God speaks as a longing parent.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them the more they went from me; they kept…offering incense to idols.”
Plenty of us have done things we wished we didn’t do. We have uttered words that hurt and that meant to hurt. And we hope and pray that we can resolve these conflicts on this side of the grave.
You can hear God’s longing, like a parent at a graveside.
“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk.” God uses a pet name for Israel.
“I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” I thought of this as I watched my sister-in-law kiss the urn of ashes yesterday. The last kiss of a grieving mother.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the holy one in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
In Hosea’s reckless imagery, God is said to be emotionally caught in a relationship with us. We who are endlessly distracted, who have other lovers. And although God knows better and knows of our faithlessness, God can’t give up on us.
If you have ever felt lost and alone, remember that God is as close as the person sitting next to you. God is always seeing through our shortcomings and pretenses. And God wants to restore our relationships. God is even there in our grief.
We want to be restored to our former relationship. We want a do-over. But we cannot go back completely. What has happened has happened and we can’t act like it didn’t happen. So how do you get back into God’s favor? That’s the question of Hosea.
One of the ways to get back is to double down on their piety. It’s like a bargain. I’ll go to synagogue even more often. I’ll listen to the rabbi. I’ll memorize scripture. I’ll pray more, honestly I will. I’ll make sacrifices of animals. I’ll study my Leviticus and make offerings. I’ll double my tithe. All of that is a normal way for us to react. I’ll fast during the daylight hours for a month a year.
We make those kind of bargains, too. I’ll live my life more fully. I’ll make my relationships count. I’ll make something of myself. I’ll change. And we mean it. It’s easier to say it at a graveside and harder to live it out later.
But God says, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I desire steadfast love. Mercy is the way you live a life of faith. Another does not have to die, human or animal to win my favor, says God. Instead, be merciful. That’s how you win my favor. “I want mercy, not sacrifice.”
God says in the Koran, “My Mercy is greater than my wrath”
"For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings"(Hosea 6:6).
God does not want sacrifice, for us to live our lives forever surrounded by sackcloth and ashes. God extends the ever-patient, everlasting arm of forgiveness and grace.
So, we stood around the gravestone yesterday, no longer seeking answers that cannot be known. We stood at the grave, wept and remembered the mercy we had received: the people who had embraced us, the people who brought us meals, who companioned us, who laughed with us, who cried with us. Who didn’t say, “I know what you’re going through.” Or “God wanted another angel.” Or “it was his time that God had chosen from before he was born.” No, these people were offering mercy. And I thank God for them and for you.
Today is Ascension Day. We know from the scripture that after the resurrection, Jesus visited with the disciples and stayed with them for several weeks. But his earthly life was over and they needed to start anew. I wonder what his last instructions were.
What words of wisdom did he impart? Did he help the doubting Thomas’s make sense of their world? Did he give them assurances that everything would be easy? Because it wasn’t. Most of the disciples would be killed, crucified even.
I bet that Jesus reminded the people that it is not about him. It is not about the virgin birth or the miracles. It’s not even about the sacrifice on the cross. All of those are important, but they are not what it’s really about. It’s about mercy. I want mercy, not sacrifice. Don’t go around killing in my name. Don’t go around creating great institutions, unless they are for providing mercy for the people. There is enough bloodshed and enough awfulness in the world. What the world needs is mercy. Give them that and you will be carrying on the mission of my life. It’s not just about me. This mission of mercy is as old as the Exodus, the prophets, the return from exile. It’s the longing in the wilderness, the dancing of the psalms, the knowing glance on a loved one’s face. Yes, it was in my life and it can be in your life too. I want mercy.
We want it too.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice
Which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of our mind
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.