Text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
“More often than not, the North Star that guides me through the darkness is the Old Testament prophet Micah,” the writer confesses. “He must have looked like a complete stoner or a Game of Thrones extra, and smelled like a goat, yet nearly three thousand years ago, he spoke the words that often remind me of my path and purpose: ‘What doth God require of thee but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’”
The person who penned these words, Anne Lamott, follows with this:
Oh, is that all? Justice, mercy, and humility? That’s nice. Right off the bat I can tell you that “walk humbly with thy God” is not going to happen anytime soon, for me or my closest friends. Arrogance R Us. My humility can kick your humility’s butt. What Micah is talking about is grad school curriculum, while, spiritually speaking, I remain in junior high school, superior and cringing at the same time. And “to do justice” may be a trick, since we all think we do this anyway. We think that if our values aren’t the correct ones, we would have other ones, which would then be the correct ones… (But) how can you not love mercy – kindness, compassion, forgiveness? It’s like not loving dessert, or cheese.”
If you’ve read any of Anne Lamott’s books, you know that she has the rare gift of being very funny and deeply inspiring at the same time. In her newest book Hallelujah Anyway, her chosen topic is mercy and once again, the Gospel According to Anne is good news.
This morning we gather with dozens of reasons for being distressed – and possibly feeling a bit short on mercy. This week there was a victory in the city of Mosul where ISIS has suffered a critical defeat. Of course, civilians and soldiers were hurt or killed in the process and there isn’t much city left. I’m sure the environment took a huge hit as well. Here in the good ol’ USA, the Senate continues to struggle with its health care bill as individual Americans live in fear and insurance companies and hospitals operate in limbo regarding where our health care system is headed. Worker’s rights, voting rights, and human rights are all casualties of an insatiable greed for money and power. Then there’s the Russia thing, which I won’t even touch. In one of her witty but razor-sharp assessments of our predicament, Lily Tomlin suggests, “Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it.” I know those of you who are in this sacred space today are in touch with reality and it’s often hard to find good news.
In the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew we find yet another agricultural metaphor used by Jesus. Here he tries to teach his followers what God’s commonwealth looks like and what they are to do to hasten its arrival. He says a farmer sowed seeds in the hope of a good crop. But he or she was a bit careless, so some of the seeds landed outside of the plowed field. As a result, the birds and the thorns and the sun ate or choked or burned up some of the seeds. Luckily, the farmer’s aim wasn’t totally bad and many of the seeds fell into rich soil, producing a bountiful harvest even accounting for the errant seeds. Unlike most of his parables, Jesus goes on to explain this one. The seeds are “the word of the kingdom,” he says. Some people understand it and are able to hold onto it; for others it slips away. But the impact of the harvest is great for God’s kingdom and those who can understand and hang on through hard times.
This morning I am going to take as a given that all of us here are working hard to plant good seeds. We know what’s at stake for our sisters and brothers and the planet in these tumultuous days. We’re trying to explain what God wants for the world in the most effective ways we can even if we’re not using that language. We want desperately for others to “get it” even as we agree with Kayla Chadwick, who recently wrote an article for Huffington Post, entitled I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People. In it she says this:
I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see…Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters…I can’t debate someone into caring about what happens to their fellow human beings.
A friend sent me this article and it resonated with me. How can there be so many people who at least appear not to care whether their neighbors have food or livable wages or healthcare? One of our illustrious Congressional representatives said this week that we should take money from the SNAP (food stamp) program to build the wall. A lot of poor people are obese, he reasoned, so we should prevent them from having too much food. It never occurred to him that this is true because SNAP benefits aren’t enough to buy most healthy food.
So it’s a given that we are frustrated and angry at much of what is happening in our nation today. “How can anyone with a heart not be?” we ask. Well, I want to suggest to you this morning that not all of the people we disagree with are heartless and we’re called to love even those who are. And I want to say that Anne Lamott is on to something. As we plant our seeds of justice, our world and also our souls desperately need a lot more mercy.
“Mercy” is an old-fashioned word, so much so that it was often replaced with “kindness” when the King James Version of the bible was revised. We’ve kept it in our vocabulary, though, in old-time expressions some of us grew up with, like “mercy me!” and “merciful heavens! In April, our church database password had to be reset on a particularly hectic day just before 450 Alliance of Baptists friends descended on us. In that stressful moment, Brooks decided the new password should be “LordHaveMercy!” But otherwise, most of us don’t use the word much at all.
Although there are variations in its meaning, for many centuries the term “mercy” in English was understood as a “disposition to forgive or show compassion.” One of the constant refrains in the historic liturgies of the Church is “Lord, have mercy.” That’s not just a request for God to be kind. Mercy does include kindness, but it’s more than that. In our common vernacular, “compassion” might be a better replacement than “kindness” because compassion is feeling with another person and not just being nice to them.
But mercy also includes an element of forgiveness. It’s a feeling of compassion shown especially to an offender. This means “loving kindness” in Micah 6:8 is more than being nice to people or even charitable toward them. It’s about not responding in kind to one who has hurt us or others, including when that “hurt” is disagreeing with our heart-felt beliefs. Mercy includes an element of generosity as well. It’s about doing more than what our day-to-day world might expect in response to the harmful words or actions of another. According to Anne’s gospel, “Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgivable. Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten.” Actually, I think mercy is more like grace than kindness or even compassion.
I’ve titled this sermon “Streams of Mercy” because I’m coming to believe that this generous, gracious, forgiving way of responding to our neighbors is what we need to water the justice seeds we’re planting. While I certainly feel the frustration Kayla Chadwick named toward people who don’t seem to care for their neighbors, I know that I can’t go around being angry all the time. My soul can’t take it and I’m hearing this from some of you as well. I also think being merciful toward others is a way of being merciful toward ourselves. As Anne Lamott suggests, mercy softens us ever so slightly so that we don’t have to condemn others for being total rats (she uses another word), although they may be that. In the words of Father Ed Dowling, sometimes heaven is just another pair of glasses. Mercy is another lens through which to view our fellow human beings and ourselves. Mercy toward others and radical acceptance of ourselves buys us a shot at a warm and generous heart. “Do you want this,” Anne asks, “or do you want to be right?”
The hard part in all of this, I think, is to marry passionate work for justice against the powers of injustice with a merciful heart toward the people behind the injustice. Can we learn to be merciful toward oppressors who feel merciless to us? Can we recognize that those who oppress others are usually very wounded themselves? It’s not about making excuses for unjust people, but looking at them through softer eyes. Being generous and forgiving toward the perpetuators of injustice isn’t something that comes naturally. And in fact, if we offer even a smidgen of mercy toward the unjust, we’re often accused of not standing strong for justice. Now I’m very aware that we First World, majority race citizens of the richest country in the world hardly have a clue about the depth of oppression and violence some people experience. So I can’t speak for others who have suffered terribly nor judge them. But my heart tells me that I am called to be more merciful. The problem is that I don’t really know how. This feels like one of those lifetime challenges for serious people of faith. But I believe Anne is correct when she says mercy is something in us that we access by use, like a muscle. We just try it again and again and again.
We hear or read about amazing stories of mercy…Jews who forgave their Nazi prison guards; Amish parents who extended mercy toward the wife of the man who murdered their child; families who ask that the killer of their loved one not be executed because they don’t want to see another person die. An example of mercy happened this week at Panama City Beach when two young boys got caught in a rip current. The other swimmers could have criticized them for going too far into the water or their parents for not watching them more carefully or resisted responding because it felt dangerous. Instead nearly 80 total strangers made a human chain that saved the lives of two children and 7 adults, one of whom was elderly. All of these are dramatic examples of mercy.
What I’m asking us to ponder are examples more common in day-to-life: a driver who lets another person in line ahead of her even though the other driver ignored multiple flashing signs saying the lane was closing; a busy person who responds to rudeness with a smile; Pullenites who encounter the far-right views of family members or friends and find ways to engage with them lovingly anyway. Being merciful is a learned skill for adults. Young children are much more inclined to put up with the quirks and challenging nature of others than we are. Just watch the way they tend to include children who are different from them, welcoming characteristics that in an adult would probably be shunned. It seems we come into the world with generous hearts, but along the way self-preservation and the need to be right kick in.
Pope Francis says the name of God is mercy. Ours was, too, says Anne, until we put it away to become more productive, more admired and less vulnerable. We tend to forget it’s there because our made-in-God’s-image human nature gets lost along the way. But mercy can build on itself in ordinary human ways in the grocery store line or at work; on the highway or in hard conversations. It’s a gentler way of seeing, a less rigid way of thinking. It’s about being rather than doing. It’s an attitude we can embody in our work for justice-love.
I am inspired by the image of gentle streams of mercy watering the seeds we are trying to sow. I take heart that with a baptism of mercy, even the seeds that fall in thorny, parched places might produce something life-giving. Says Anne, “mercy means we no longer constantly judge everybody’s large and tiny failures, foolish hearts, dubious convictions, and inevitable bad behaviors. We will never do this perfectly, but we can do it better. We can try to mostly hold people we’ve encountered with the understanding of a wise, caring parent who has seen it all, knows that we all struggle, knows that on the inside we’re as vulnerable as a colony of rabbits. That’s how God see us.”
So your takeaway from today’s sermon is my strong encouragement to keep planting your seeds. But as you sow them, I hope you will also consider offering mercy when it isn’t deserved – even in tiny ways. And do it not just once, but again and again. For in Hebrew, the language used to tell Micah’s story, the word for “mercy” is always plural.