3
Apr

Talking about Mercy at Rochester College Chapel, April 2, 2013

Mercy

We used to play a game in elementary school that we called Mercy –  where kids would see who could stand having their hands folded backwards the longest.  So, after you couldn’t take it anymore, you would say, “mercy!” – and they had to let go.

Mercy – We talk about in sports too.  If a team gets ten goals ahead in soccer, there’s a mercy rule, and the game is called early, to be merciful to the losing team.

When I was growing up in the south, we would say “mercy me” when we meant “wow” or “I’ll be darned.” A friend of mine stepped out onto her back porch one time, and a poisonous copperhead snake wound around her foot and ankle.  She kept her calm and stood perfectly still until it slithered on without biting her.  The appropriate response to that situation, “Mercy me,” and I remember saying it on that occasion.

A mercy pass is when a student is so close to passing that the teacher passes him or her in the class, even though the grade is not technically a passing grade. Don’t get any ideas.  That does not happen around here.

Mercy -I learned this on the internet –  is the brand name of a hangover prevention beverage.

You’ve probably visited a hospital with the name Mercy.  Mercy hospitals abound.

Kanye West raps about Mercy.

The urban dictionary defines mercy as the one thing Chuck Norris does not know the meaning of.

With all these nuances of mercy, it seems like we ought to know what it means.  But, what would you do if God told you – Go and learn what this means:  I desire mercy.  Where would you look for it?  How would you define it?

There’s a scene in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus tells some religious folks to go learn what mercy means.

In the situation, we’re at Matthew the tax collector’s house. Tax collectors were the worst of the worst kind of people.  Just look who they get lumped with in the Gospel.  Tax collectors and sinners here in chapter 9 and again in 11. Tax collectors and pagans in chapter 18.  Tax collectors and prostitutes in chapter 21.  They were hated.  They were dirty. They were bad people.

I imagine what it was like to be Matthew: One day he was sitting at his tax collector’s booth, wearing fancy clothes that he bought with poor people’s tax money, he looks all devious and calculating. He’s used to being invisible to “the good people”– perhaps sometimes he goes an entire day without one person greeting him, except apparently for an occasional pagan or prostitute.  He bears the weight of the hate.  He’s an outcast.

But, then Jesus, a rabbi, one of the good people, comes along and calls him to become his disciple; it’s Matthew’s chance to completely redefine himself and be in a class with good people.

And for some reason, Matthew actually says yes – he walks away from it all –he joins Jesus, a penniless do-gooder.  I think in our quest to find mercy – we’ve found it in Matthew.  The love and acceptance and new start he received from Jesus was merciful. And the first thing Matthew did was throw a party to celebrate the mercy he was experiencing.  He’s no longer sitting in the hated tax-collector’s booth – he’s sitting at the feet of a rabbi, learning what mercy means.

The neighbors were watching the comings and goings at the party at Matthew’s house.  Sharing a meal was a crucial occasion because it declared a person’s class – and this was a society where class mattered. And, Matthew’s “class” of people was not acceptable company for a rabbi.  All the neighbors were stunned to see Jesus there, and they whispered from house to house.  “There’s a rabbi at the tax collector’s house.”  “He’s actually eating there!”  “Matthew the tax collector has gone and got himself some religion.”  It was the talk of the town.

Jesus eating at the home of a sinful tax collector.   We have to understand how outrageous that was if we want to understand mercy. Only Jesus would think of calling such a bad sinner to follow him, eat with him, to be in his intimate group. Only God does mercy like that.

But in the story, there are some other people, the Pharisees, who are confident that they know what mercy means, and they don’t see it as a “mercy party,”  they see it as a riff-raff party.  So they demand to know what Jesus is doing there.

And  Jesus responds not with defense – he gives them a challenge – he tells them – Go learn what mercy means.

Mercy: there’s no simple definition for it.  How can we explain a word that can have the connotation of a hangover beverage and at the same time describe the action of God?

I tend to think of mercy as God’s long, tender strategy to reconcile with us, his loving kindness extended to human beings.  By the mercy of God, we are reconciled – and we become ambassadors of reconciliation.

I’m the daughter of an Arkansas farmer, and here’s a metaphor for mercy that works for me.

I’ll never forget what it was like when my Daddy taught me the miracle of gardening. I told him I wanted to grow something, so he went to the kitchen cabinet in his straightforward, no-nonsense manner and broke open a plain old bag of pinto beans and showed me how to get my dirt ready and make straight rows with haybail twine before dropping those beans into the dirt. I was hooked a week or two later when those beans had morphed into plants that broke through the ground and opened their little green arms to the sun.  I gave them names.  My little babies.

bush-bean-seedling

But, then, that particular year, the spring rain stopped.  And the scorching Arkansas sun beat down on my little miracles, and every day they looked more and more pathetic.  My sister got sad when cows died; I was sad when my little garden was thirsty.

One night was cool, and we got a light drizzle, so in the morning, the plants perked up a little.  But, by noon the hot sun came back and burned away the moisture – it was like the plants were frying in the sun – worse than before the misty rain.  My Daddy explained how that little bit of rain couldn’t soak down to the roots. It was a shallow remedy, a deceptive drink of water.

That’s how some people show mercy, says the OT prophet, Hosea.  Like morning dew gone before noon, shallow mercy, false mercy, mercy that doesn’t cost anything, mercy that stays on the surface and doesn’t soak in deep.

But, the kind of mercy God is looking for – it soaks to the roots.

God’s mercy is not for shallow people who take shortcuts when they show mercy.

It the old days of Hosea, the Israelites would get dressed up in religious clothes and walk to the temple with a religious walk and talk the religious talk and make a religious sacrifice in the temple.  Then they would leave the temple and exploit and manipulate and hate their neighbors.  Their mercy was like dew on the grass gone by noon.

People still do it today.  They think that if they go to church on Sunday and give their money in the offering and avoid drinking too much or associating with the wrong people, that is what it means to live a righteous life.

I’m still learning what mercy is – part of the definition of mercy is that it’s a deep, ongoing, experience of God’s loving kindness – and we learn better what it is when we do it.  So, we are continually learning more about it – But, I know this – Mercy is not some Sunday morning sacrifice that’s forgotten by noon. God’s mercy has to soak in so deep that it oozes out of you into the lives of your neighbors.

There are people in this community right now who devoutly attend church on Sunday and thank God for his abundant mercy and then by noon, by they time they are eating lunch in the cafeteria, they are putting people into “in” and “out” categories just like the Pharisees did.  There are people in this community who some of you won’t (or at least don’t) eat with.

Mercy like dew on the grass gone by noon.

In my classrooms, there are people in this community who aren’t chosen to be in a group when I tell my students to break into groups.  And they feel left out, so at a Christian college, I sometimes have to assign groups so my students will not pair up only with their friends.  In Bible class.

Mercy like dew on the grass gone by noon.

In this very community, there are people who feel that they cannot openly share who they are – their past and present struggles – for fear of being judged and excluded.  I have students who write about that feeling every single semester.

Mercy like dew on the grass gone by noon.

There are people in this community who are quick to accuse those who step into leadership of being manipulative or being self-aggrandizing, and ironically they do not seem to remember the mercy they’ve been shown time and time again when they made efforts in leadership.

Mercy like dew on the grass gone by noon.

Make no mistake: we have a wonderful community here.  I could have mentioned innumerable acts of mercy among us – I certainly see them, but some days the message is supposed to be a hard one, some days it is supposed to confront us.  I love the way we gather around education at Rochester College, around learning, around growing, around expanding our minds. But may we never become comfortable with mercy. May we never forget the mercy we’ve been shown by God.

Sometimes the message has to be this: Never stop learning what mercy means.

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