Follow Me – Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
“Love God, Neighbor, Enemy: Show Mercy”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
March 12, 2023
Our Follow Me curriculum theme for today is “Show Mercy”. “Mercy” is “the compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”
Jesus, who embodied the mercy of God, had told the crowds: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
As we approach Holy Week this Lenten season, hear the Word of God from the 23rd chapter of Luke.
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’
And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
From the cross Jesus showed mercy to those around him. He could have chosen hate or derision or even punishment for their actions, but Jesus chose love.
Jesus chose to act with love even when he must not have felt very loving. Jesus chose to act with love even when those who mocked him and beat him were fully undeserving of his love.
Jesus chose to act with love even towards soldiers and criminals he do not know, who were not of his own people.
Jesus chose to act with love towards those who had harmed his loved ones, and who remained a constant threat to all he held dear.
To show mercy is to love as Jesus loves even when revenge is justified.
To show mercy is to return love for hate, compassion for abuse, care for neglect.
Blessed are the merciful, Jesus taught, for they shall obtain mercy. (Luke 6:36)
Be merciful, Jesus had preached, just as your Father is merciful.
And so, from the agony of the cross, Jesus cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Showing such mercy can be incredibly difficult. Showing mercy requires looking beyond our first impressions of those whom we encounter. Showing mercy requires looking beyond the harm that a warped person may have caused us for years, and begin to see them through God’s eyes, to try to remember who they are and who we are in the eyes of God.
Do you remember what do military units would do when they wanted soldiers to be able to kill the enemy? They would dehumanize the enemy. They would create names for the enemy which made them seem less than human. They would encourage young soldiers not to see the basic worth in other human beings; and convince themselves of the inferiority of the other.
And when human beings begin to consider themselves entitled or superior, and when we convince ourselves that the other is inferior, all manner of atrocities ensue.
Those who follow Jesus are called to a different way of life, a different way of seeing, a different way of being human in this world. Most of us will not find ourselves on the front lines of a war.
Thankfully, most of us will not called to one of the most desperate conditions of humanity, fighting for one’s own life and the life of one’s peers. But each of us will find ourselves in a variety of human relationships, some of which will cause great pain and sorrow.
Vernon Gramling wrote in his blog this week that, “Offering mercy requires radical vulnerability and a determination not to return evil for evil. Receiving mercy requires accountability, humility and gratitude.
Mercy flies in the face of our entitlement and our desire for an orderly world. Mercy may be admired but it is risky to implement.” (Vernon Gramling, blogpost, 3/9/23)
Our Associate Pastor, Tully Fletcher, is in Israel this week. He will experience firsthand some of the deeply ingrained conflicts of the region. The Israeli-Palestine conflict is the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet writ large. The Montegues and the Capuluts simply would not accept one another, and certainly would not accept an in-law from the enemy’s camp.
Such tragic tales always seem to end with the death of innocents and lifelong, complicated grief for both sides, both families, both nations. Hate, revenge, bitterness, lack of mercy… all result in terrible outcomes for human beings over time.
Not too long ago, we watched that wonderful old musical, “West Side Story”. This rich, tragic, and yes, contemporary musical spins the tale of two young souls who fall in love, only to be torn apart by the prejudices and violence of their families and peers.
Within the story, we witnessed brief moments of mercy from a few of the characters – like the shop owner where the kids hung out, and Maria’s friend, and even the local policeman. These brief moments of mercy brought a bit of hope to the story, making the viewer wonder if, one day, the stark divisions between the Sharks and the Jets could be healed.
Do you remember the enmity of Police Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”? Javert ensures with passionate ferver that the protagonist in the story, Jean Valjean, will endure prison, and poverty, and persecution because Valjean had stolen some bread when he and his family were starving.
Javert will not give any mercy or seem to know that such compassion is even possible. Jean Valjean, on the other hand, experiences the gift of mercy and finds his life transformed.
(Follow Me Curriculum, Adult Reflection Guide: “Love God, Neighbor, Enemy”, page 32)
How many lives could be transformed if human beings open themselves to the possibility of mercy? Yes, risk themselves and their communities for the sake of mercy.
One of the more hopeful developments in the criminal justice system over the last 30 years has been the initiatives of the diversionary courts. For non-violent, first offenders, diversionary courts keep young men and women out of prison and offer them a merciful alternative accountability that gives them a chance toward a better life.
Many of you are familiar with Bryan Stephenson and his work with the Equal Justice Initiative. Our former member, Bo King, worked with Stephenson in Montgomery for a few years. Their work was “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting the basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”
This effort to reform our broken justice system has been described as “mercy in action”. Far too many souls are languishing now in prison cells due to a lack of mercy, and not only a lack of mercy, but a lack of basic human empathy.
The Equal Justice Initiative has enabled dozens upon dozens of poor, black men to be released from prison sentences for crimes that they did not commit. Stephenson’s book on his efforts – Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption – how now been made into a movie.
What struck me in reading the book is how many capital murder trials were a complete sham, and how many men were on death row for decades for murders they did not commit. The first aspect of choosing mercy is to look in the mirror, to acknowledge our own sin, to remember that we have been shown mercy by God. If we do not first recognize our own sin and acknowledge when we have been shown mercy by God or by others, then we are far, far less likely to show mercy to others.
Being merciful begins with recognizing one’s own shortcomings. The prayers from the psalms teach us how to pray:
Psalm 23 – Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life…
Psalm 40 – O Lord, do not withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.
Psalm 51 – Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.
Psalm 119 – Let your mercy come to me, that I may live.
A second aspect of choosing mercy is choosing to have a short memory, doing our best to forget, or at least let go of, the harm done to us by others. We may never truly forget, but we can forgive, by God’s grace.
Third, developing a thick skin. This is one of the prerequisites for pastoral ministry, by the way, or at least it should be. If a pastor does not have thick skin, if a pastor cannot take criticism, then they should not try to lead a congregation. We will never please everyone all the time. There will be negativity. There will be criticisms, constructive and otherwise; it simply comes with the job.
The same goes for many professions, as well as for the parenting of children. The fourth aspect of showing mercy is to see the hurt in the one who is hurting others. I have found it difficult to be merciful to people who are mean, and to people who have truly harmed another person or their reputation.
I have little patience for ongoing conflicts that escalate into years long strife. What I have tried to remember is to seek first to understand. I often discovered that if I learned about the pain that was behind someone’s strife, I could deal with the person with a bit more compassion.
As many have said before me, “Hurting people hurt people.” So let us listen for the hurt; let us seek to understand the pain that is leading to another’s pain, which perhaps then will lead to show mercy more readily.
Showing mercy is not an easy task, writes Anne Lamott. “I wish it was being able to figure things out, at which I am very good, or to assign blame, at which I am better, or to convince myself of the rightness of my ideas…But no…” mercy is not an easy task, but it is the way of Jesus.
(from Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, New York: Riverhead Books, 2017)
Once again from Vernon Gramling: “In real life, anyone who has been in a significant relationship has received mercy. We have all hurt the people we love and we have all been hurt. Such pain is unavoidable. The issue shifts from ‘Have we hurt others?’ to “How often have we hurt others?’.
Whether intentional or completely unintentional, we need mercy. Likewise, there is no question that we will (eventually) be hurt by people we love; the question is how often. Those are the times we need to extend mercy.”
As Vernon wrote: “We cannot survive the hardships of intimacy without receiving and offering mercy. The best we can do is seek to be accountable for the hurt we have caused and offer mercy out of gratitude for the mercies we have received.” (blogpost, 3/8/23)
So, Vernon writes, Live in gratitude for God’s mercy. Remember always we are all broken creatures. Be accountable for our own wrongdoing. Receive mercy, and show mercy.
I will close with the words of a wonderful old hymn, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” by Frederick William Faber. Listen for the grace imbued within these words…
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.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings Have such kindly judgment given.
There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good.
There is mercy with the Savior, there is healing in his blood.
But we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own,
and we magnify its strictness with a zeal God will not own.
For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind,
nd the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful ,we would gladly trust God’s word,
and our lives reflect thanksgiving for the goodness of our Lord. (hymnary.org)
If our “love were but more faithful”, to whom would we then show mercy? May God enable us to be merciful, just as God has been merciful to us.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
March 12, 2023