The Mercy Rule
Every summer our church fields a softball team in the YMCA league in our area. We are competitive with most teams, but it seems every year there is at least one team that is head and shoulders above every other. One year there was a team comprised mostly of 20-somethings who had played baseball in college just a couple of years earlier. No member of our team has hit a ball over the fence of the field where we play, but it appeared almost every member of their team was capable of hitting one out whenever they wanted. Our group of mostly 40-somethings was no match for this team.
Thankfully the YMCA has a rule commonly called the “mercy rule.” If one team is ahead by more than 10 runs at the end of any inning after the third, the game is over. It saves us the humiliation of having to continue when the score is 23-2. While we never like to be mercy ruled, it sure beats going out to play another defensive inning with little hope of stopping the other team.
With that understanding of mercy, one might think when Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful,” he is saying, “Blessed are those who are so successful, so dominating, that other people give up trying; who allow the defeated to surrender.” Jesus has a much different understanding in this morning’s Beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7 NIV). As last Sunday we had to recover the biblical understanding of righteousness, this morning we need to recover what Jesus meant by mercy.
I want to share with you a recent viral video from one who calls himself “Kid President,” which shows a more biblical understanding of mercy. There is a lot here to share, but I especially want you to hear what he has to say in the about life being a game, and what we are called to do for each other.
“A Pep Talk from Kid President to You”
“If life is a game, aren’t we all on the same team?” he says. “I’m on your team. Be on my team.” Then later in the clip he says, “If we’re all on the same team, let’s start acting like it.” This young man is onto something. Mercy, in the way Jesus uses it, is not about one team dominating another. Rather, mercy is knowing we are all on the same team, and acting like it. It is knowing we are all children of God, called to work together for the good of one another, and not just toward our own benefits.
Years ago, when I was serving my first congregation in Southern New Jersey, I met a woman named Henrietta, one of the saints I have been privileged to know throughout my ministry. Henrietta taught me a lesson about mercy.
One Sunday morning, a young man in the congregation who had recently lost his job, began telling me a story. He, his wife, and their two children, had enjoyed dinner the night before in Henrietta’s humble home. He told me how sweet Henrietta was, how good the food was, what a great time they had, and how much fun his kids had with this older woman. “Then,” he said, “as we were leaving, she led us into the kitchen where there were bags of groceries. She said she bought too much, and wanted us to have the excess.” He got choked up just talking about it.
I was bowled over with Henrietta’s generosity. I knew she was not a wealthy woman, but a widow living on a fixed income.
Over the next several weeks, other young families who were struggling financially told me similar stories. Each had been to Henrietta’s house for dinner, and each had come home with bags of groceries because Henrietta “bought too much.”
Her daughter-in-law, also a member of the congregation, then asked me to visit with Henrietta. The daughter-in-law was concerned she was doing too much, and couldn’t afford to be so generous. So I met with Henrietta in her mobile home in the local trailer park. Over coffee she told me how blessed she was. She told me about her deceased husband, whom she wished I would have known, and how blessed she was to still receive checks from his pension and investments. She told me how she had more than enough, and thought God would want her to share what she had.
In the midst of our conversation, Henrietta taught me a phrase you probably know, but as a young pastor, I had never heard before. She said whenever she saw someone in need, she thought, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
I don’t think Henrietta knew it, but she was sharing a quote I have since learned is attributed to a 16th century English pastor, theologian, and reformer named John Bradford. Bradford is said to have had great empathy for those who were struggling. Once, when watching criminals being led to the scaffold, Bradford was heard to say, “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” In that moment, he could see himself in the lives of those criminals, if it were not for the grace and pardon he had received in Jesus the Christ. I don’t know if Henrietta knew Bradford’s story, but she was following his legacy.
She talked quite a bit that day about how richly God had blessed her – with a wonderful husband, a family who cared for her (she had wonderful things to say about the daughter-in-law who asked me to check on her), the church I pastored which meant so much to her, and those pension checks. She also told me about the early days of her marriage when she and her husband struggled financially. She remembered the kindness of neighbors and church members, who invited her to dinner and brought food in their time of need. Today, she said, she was blessed to have enough – a roof over her head, food on the table, and money to pay her bills. She wanted to be sure others had enough as well, so she did what she could. By inviting those young families over for a meal and some groceries for the rest of the week, she was giving what had been given to her many years before. When she looked into the eyes of those young families she said, “There but for the grace of God, goes Henrietta.” She knew we are all on the same team, all members of God’s family. So she was merciful.
This is what Jesus means by mercy – acting out of the understanding of how blessed we are, and being able to say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Or in the words of Kid President, “I’m on your team. Be on my team.”
Mercy & Forgiveness
When I read this week’s chapter in The Kingdom Experiment book on “Blessed are the merciful,” I was a bit disappointed. I think the authors leave the impression that mercy is the equivalent of forgiveness. While I agree mercy and forgiveness are closely related, I don’t believe they are the same thing. Acts of forgiveness are acts of mercy, a subset of activities within the realm of mercy. But not every act of mercy is an act of forgiveness. Henrietta’s mercy had nothing to do with sin and forgiveness. It was empathy and love in action.
The key to this broader understanding of mercy is to notice the connection between this week’s Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful,” and the previous one which we looked at last Sunday, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6 NIV). Righteousness, you may recall, is not about following religious law, or simply doing the religious thing, like coming to church, participating in a covenant group, or spending hours praying and reading our Bibles. Instead, we learned the word righteousness is probably better translated “God’s justice.” Jesus calls us to hunger and thirst for the day when God’s justice will be reality for all people, when the world will be put to rights.
In today’s Beatitude, Jesus moves us to the next step. Beyond longing, yearning, hungering and thirsting for this justice, he now calls us to act upon this hunger and thirst. The merciful are those who live as citizens of God’s Kingdom which will come in fullness at the end of the age by offering forgiveness and mercy to everyone, and are called to live it out today.
In this context, mercy is recognizing that the person you don’t like was also created in the image of God and deserves your love and respect. Mercy is knowing the one on the other side of the gun control debate is also one for whom Jesus died, then treating them as such. Mercy is looking in the eye of a homeless person in the streets downtown, and genuinely knowing, “There but for the grace of God, go I,” then acting on it. Mercy is seeing yourself, the image of God into which we were all created, in the life of another.
Mercy as restoration
As I sought to comprehend the biblical understanding of mercy this week, I did a word search with an online Bible. I searched the Gospels for “merc” so the words mercy and merciful would both appear in the results. As I read them, I noticed Jesus was not the one who used the word “mercy” the most. Instead, mercy most often occurs in the gospels on the lips of those in need. “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” (Matthew 9:27) cry two blind men as they approach Jesus to ask him to restore their sight. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Matthew 15:22) cries a woman whose daughter is demon-possessed. “Lord, have mercy on my son” (Matthew 17:15) cries a man who is troubled by his boy’s seizures. In each story Jesus shows mercy by healing the one in need.
In some sense then, mercy has to do with healing, wholeness, and restoration. Jesus shows mercy by giving people what they need – the restoration of sight, the casting out of demons, and other healings. Mercy is working for God’s justice, balancing the scales for those who struggle.
When Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful,” he is calling us to give what we have to those in need; to empathize with the poor, the needy, the victim, the punished, the hurting. Blessed are those who know they are no better than their neighbor who is struggling, who can see themselves in the same situation under different circumstances. Blessed are those who recognize we are all on the same team and can say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
As you have heard in previous sermons, The Beatitudes as we know them, appear in Matthew 5, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount which continues through chapter 7. As with many stories in the Gospels, there is a parallel telling of the Sermon on the Mount in another Gospel. In Luke 6, we read a very similar story.
Just after calling his disciples, Jesus stands on “a level place” (Luke 6:17), and begins to preach. He begins with familiar words, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20 NIV). Luke then records several other sayings that sound very much like some of the Beatitudes in Matthew.
Immediately after his telling of the Beatitudes, Luke records the passage we read earlier in the service this morning. These are some of what have been called the hard sayings of Jesus. They are hard sayings, not to because they are difficult to understand, but rather because they are hard to follow.
Jesus says, love your enemies and bless those who curse you. He tells us when someone slaps one cheek, we are to turn the other. He tells us to not only to give our coat to someone who needs it, but to also give our shirt. In this passage he gives those words that run through my mind every time I pass someone at an intersection asking for money, “Give to everyone who asks you” (Luke 6:30 NIV). Finally Jesus shares what we call The Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31 NIV).
In the verses that follow, Jesus expounds on those thoughts, telling us when we share love with those who love us back, we are only doing what even the worst sinners do. Jesus says his followers should instead be known by their generosity of love and respect toward everyone, even (and maybe especially) those who will not or cannot reciprocate.
After saying all this about loving and giving, Jesus sums up the teaching with these words, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36 NIV). So mercy is loving your enemy, doing good to those who hate you, blessing those who curse you, and praying for those who mistreat you. Mercy is turning the other cheek rather than fighting back, giving your shirt to one who has taken your coat, and giving to everyone who asks without expecting repayment. Mercy is doing unto others as you would have them do to you.
Mercy is seeing young families in need, remembering your own need, then inviting them over for dinner and giving the groceries because, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Mercy is recognizing, we are all on the same team, and helping the other get back up when they are down. Mercy is seeing one in need – physically, emotionally, or spiritually, – and doing something about it, even though it is not your problem. We are called to be merciful as God is merciful. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
One of the things I deeply appreciate about The Kingdom Experiment book is how it encourages us who read it to do more than fill our head with knowledge about the Kingdom of God. Instead, it includes ideas for how you and I can practice living into what we are learning, what we profess as Christians. These “experiments,” as they call them, are sometimes easy and comfortable. Other times they are difficult and make us squirm.
Among this week’s experiments is one the publishers used as the basis for a promo for this series. Take a look:
A Hard One
This Kingdom experiment appears in the book under the heading, “This is a hard one.” It reads:
Many communities have a Web site where you can locate sex offenders who live in the area. Find out where an offender lives near you, and anonymously send that person a gift certificate to a local restaurant. Include an encouraging letter (Nuffer loc 298).
Calling this experiment “a hard one” is a gross understatement. This is not just hard. This cuts at our hearts.
I cannot think of anyone more undeserving of a free dinner and an encouraging note than a registered sex offender. These are people who take advantage of the innocent and powerless, whose actions affect the lives of their victims forever. They deserve all they get for what they have done, no matter how difficult it may be. We should reach out to the victim not the offender.
Mercy Is Not Fair
That makes perfect, human sense. But remember, as we have said throughout this series, this Kingdom living is upside down. It goes against our natural tendencies, like fairness.
Human beings are hard-wired for fair. Don’t believe me? Just go hang around some pre-schoolers for a while. It will not be long before you hear one complain about something being “unfair.” My wife, a former preschool teacher who has since graduated to elementary school, has never told me about a lesson she ever taught on justice. She taught letters, numbers, manners, and the weather. Without having to be taught, the kids already knew when they were being treated unfairly. She can tell many stories of kids crying foul when a friend got the toy they wanted, or a classmate’s cookie was bigger than theirs. They cry, “That’s not fair!”
Each of us has a justice meter deep in our DNA, that sounds an alarm whenever we feel someone is getting away with something, getting something over on us, or doing better than us. When we are on the wrong side of justice, we are indignant and cry out. When we are on the privileged side though, the alarm doesn’t seem to sound as loudly. We justify our blessings. We believe we deserve them.
This is what makes mercy so hard for us. We are hard-wired for fairness, and mercy is unfair. Jesus tells us his kingdom is filled with this kind of unfairness. We call that grace. We call it mercy. We call it the Kingdom of God.
How grateful we are that God has shown us mercy. Our action, our sin, should disqualify us from a relationship with him. Yet God has shown us mercy, and Jesus reminds us to “Be merciful, just as [our] Father is merciful.” “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says, “for they will be shown mercy.”
Henrietta knew about mercy. She had more than enough. She was blessed. She knew her blessing was a call to help those in need because she knew we are all on the same team.
Give the World a Reason to Dance
I can’t get Kid President out of my head. I love the way he concludes is Pep Talk: “I don’t know everything. I’m just a kid. But I do know this. It’s everybody’s duty to give the world a reason to dance. So get to it!”
How about you? Maybe you can’t give the world a reason to dance, but I’m certain you can give someone a reason to dance. Not someone who deserves it, but someone who doesn’t. You have the power to make someone’s day. Give them a gift. Look them in the eye. Listen to their hurt. Offer a cup of cold water. Because there but for the grace of God, goes you and me.
Blessed are those who give someone else a reason to dance.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Get to it. Amen.
Nuffer, Bruce, Liz Perry, and Rachel McPherson. The Kingdom Experiment: A Community Practice on Intentional Living. Kansas City, MO: House Studio, 2009. Kindle.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.