Although our iniquities testify against us, act, O LORD, for your name's sake; our apostasies indeed are many, and we have sinned against you. O hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler turning aside for the night? Why should you be like someone confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot give help? Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us! Thus says the LORD concerning this people: Truly they have loved to wander, they have not restrained their feet; therefore the LORD does not accept them, now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins. Have you completely rejected Judah? Does your heart loathe Zion? Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us? We look for peace, but find no good; for a time of healing, but there is terror instead. We acknowledge our wickedness, O LORD, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you. Do not spurn us, for your name's sake; do not dishonor your glorious throne; remember and do not break your covenant with us. Can any idols of the nations bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Is it not you, O LORD our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this. Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." Luke 18:9-14
Many years ago, executives of the Time-Life publishing organization discovered that the company’s profit margin had shrunk to an alarmingly low level. Efficiency experts suggested that substantial savings could be made in the renewal department. So, 350 full-time employees began sending heartbreaking pleas to readers whose subscriptions were about to expire. For example, the letters said things like, "Will you dare face your children without "Time" magazine on your coffee table?" Enormous batches of these letters were prepared by hand. The company thought if there was a machine to replace the manual labor, millions of dollars in overhead would be saved. IBM came to the rescue with an enormous computer, delivered to Time-Life in a blaze of lights and fanfare.
The name of each subscriber was put on a little plate and run through the vast machine. Whenever a nameplate came along that was within six weeks of expiration, a series of dots and dashes at the top of the tab triggered an electronic impulse that caused it to drop into a slot. The name was then printed to one of the "heartbreak" letters which was then folded, stuffed into an envelope, labeled, stamped, and dropped down a chute to the basement where a United States Branch Post Office was set up--all without a single human hand touching the operation.
The system worked flawlessly, until that fateful, hot, humid, sticky day in New York City when one of the nameplates stuck in the machine. A few days later a lone sheepherder in Montana received 12,634 tear jerking letters asking him to subscribe to "Life" magazine. The sheepherder, who hadn’t received a letter in years, took his knife, carefully slit open one of the mailbags and began reading his mail. Three weeks later, red-eyed, weary and up to his hips in 12,634 opened pieces of mail, he made out a check for $6.00, filled out a subscription coupon and sent it to the President of Time-Life personally, with the following note: "I give up!"
I think about that story when I begin to wonder about whether there are limits to God’s mercy. Do we have to ask 12,634 or 1,000 or 100 times for it? Do we have to ask even once for it. Is God’s mercy is always there for us, no matter what.
Today we read two biblical texts about mercy, and they seem to answer the question differently.
In Jeremiah, the people make a confession of sin that seems thorough enough: "O God, our iniquities testify against us . . . our apostasies are many . . . we have sinned against you.” They know they’ve blown it. They fail to live up to the covenant. They fail to take care of the poor. They fail to be the people God called them to be. You’d think God would hear their sincere apology and respond with some mercy. God’s response, however, is not the expected announcement of forgiveness. At least not yet. The relationship between God and people is not restored. At least not yet. God’s speech highlights the growing distance between God and God’s people. God levels an indictment: My people have loved to wander, without restraint. The people cry for mercy, but God turns away. The time for pleas is over. Judgment has begun. There will be exile and agony before there is mercy.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells the story about someone asking for mercy. It’s a tax collector. Understand, the tax collector is the worst of the worst. Tax collectors would often add their own, “administrative fees” to the already exorbitant tax revenues they were gathering. They had reputations as corrupt and despised people known for their graft. Tax collectors were so distrusted that they were prohibited from testifying in a court of law. Banks turned away their business. Even their charitable gifts were refused. So Jesus tells a story about a tax collector who has put himself on the periphery of respectable society – a tax collector who, in a moment of clarity says, “God, have mercy on me.” And does he get it? All Jesus says is, “The humble will be lifted up, and those who lift themselves up will be humbled.” In other words, the tax collector was justified in asking.
So, what is this mercy he’s asking for? Where do you hear this word being used today? "Mercy” is the one expletives I hear from polite Southern women. – one of those all-purpose exclamations for times when people was too awestruck, befuddled or exasperated to say anything else. “Mercy me!” It works when you don’t have the right words to say.
Or, it’s what criminals do in sentencing: throwing themselves on the mercy of the court.
The Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek all those centuries ago had a hard time finding the right word for what we call mercy. For Hebrew and Arabic speakers, the idea of mercy is represented by the the root word םחַרַ֫, raham. Raham is a womb-like state of love. So five times a day, a devout Muslim falls to the ground and prays, “Bismillah hir rahman nirahim” The root word, םחַרַ֫, is used twice: In the name of Allah, the most beneficent, the most merciful. It’s one of God’s names in Islam: Ar-rahman nir-raheem. Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Mercy is kindness or good will toward the miserable and afflicted, joined with a desire to relieve them. It has to do with sacred nurture and loving care. Mercy is not a feeling. It’s not the same as pity, really. One can feel pity as one weeps on behalf of someone who is pathetic. Mercy is not a feeling. It’s a moral quality. Mercy is a reciprocal relationship -- a pay-it-forward relationship.
Greek speakers used the word ἔλεος to represent the idea of mercy. ἔλεος comes from a root word meaning oil that is poured out. So, when the Church sings the words Kyrie Eleison and Christie Eleison, we translate the phrases as, “ Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.” It’s a prayer asking for the merciful love of God to be poured out upon people, like holy oil from above. Mercy has to do with healing and restoration. When the tax collector Jesus parable says, “Have mercy on me, a sinner,” I hear him saying, “God, pour the oil of our love on me. Restore our relationship. Don’t just give to me because you feel sorry for me. Give to me because I need to know that you have me covered.” The Biblical concept of mercy is to show the same kindness towards “the other” that God has shown us in our own “otherness.” It means having a pain in your heart for the pains of others, and taking pains to do something about their pain.
And let’s be honest. At one time or another, we have all made ourselves outsiders. We’ve all done things we regret. We’ve all had times when we wish we could go back in time and do something over again. We’ve all had to make amends. We’ve all been broken. Getting in touch with our own brokenness helps us understand the agony of other people and the pressures they experience. When we do that, all of the sudden it’s not as hard to show some mercy.
The truth is, we all want mercy. And it’s there for us. God extends mercy and comfort to all. But mercy is not given just so we can feel better. It’s not pity. God offers mercy as a way for us to restore our relationships. God offers mercy so we can extend mercy to others. It is not only for ourselves. Mercy focuses our attention outward. Mercy is a continual outpouring to others.
Do you remember what Jesus said about mercy? Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. You know what he did not say? Jesus did not say “Blessed are those who are shown mercy, for they will be merciful.” In other words, Jesus does not say you get mercy and then you give it. Just the opposite. Mercy is the primary intentional act. You are blessed for being a person who commits compassion. You are get mercy once you give mercy.
I think that’s part of what churches are supposed to be -- communities of faith that give mercy before receiving mercy. Sometimes we get it wrong. Last week I read news story about a luxury-loving German Bishop who has just been suspended by Pope Francis. The Bishop has become known as “The Bishop of Bling.” At the center of the controversy is a $42 million price tag for the construction of a new bishop's residence. Many German churchgoers are outraged that their offerings were used to fund sleek black leather furniture, satin bed sheets and fine Italian bathroom sinks. By suspending this bishop, Pope Francis is sending a strong signal about a change direction for the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope really want his Bishops to put greater emphasis on helping the poor and marginalized peoples of the world. He wants them to show mercy.
At one time, churches were known as The Defender of the Poor. The church was defined by the quality of its mercy – its ability to restore and humanize those who need to know kindness. I don’t know if we could say that much anymore. It’s not that we don’t show mercy. But I don’t know if it defines us. In America, churches have turned the job over to the government and other non-profits. We have professionalized, specialized, institutionalized, and even secularized caring for the needy. The result . . . we have churches filled with people who look, smell, and think all the same — the so-called “normal” people, while the most vulnerable and destitute remain separate and alone. This seems to be the exact opposite of how Jesus taught us church-life should be! The local church is seen as a place of worship, prayer, Bible study, reflection, and political action. Is it time for the local church to become relevant in “mercy ministries” once again? Is it time for us to be known in the community as “Defenders of the Poor?” Hospitals of Healing? Refuges of Rescue? Will we receive and share mercy – the womb of compassion, the reciprocal restoration of right relationships?
It is time. As people of faith, we must be people of mercy, pouring the healing oil of kindness, nurturing others in the womb of love. We must lessen our judgment and increase our compassion, just as our God so often does with us. We give mercy. Then we receive mercy. God, help us make it so.