Mercy, Mercy, Mercy

Passage: John 15:9-17
Date: October 04, 2009
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
Guest Preacher:

Having trouble playing the audio? download the mp3

Sermon

“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”
Psalm 26:1-3; Hebrews 4:16
Rev. David Hutchinson
Sunday, October 4, 2009

In the Oregonian on Tuesday, commentator Ken Goe wrote the following statement about the Oregon Ducks: “The Ducks probably are neither as good as they looked against Cal, nor as bad as they looked against Boise State”.  Well that was Tuesday.  But I think that since then, the statement only grows more interesting.  For those of you who don’t know, the win against Cal has really big.  So big, that one fan I know wondered if there shouldn’t be a ‘mercy rule’ in college sports - which basically ends the game early in a lopsided situation.  After yesterday’s 52-6 win I have to say I might agree.  On the other hand the loss to Boise State was followed by an outburst by a Duck running back that led to a suspension.  So not only was it a loss, but it was ugly.  The ongoing controversy has only continued.  And depending on what you think of Chip Kelly’s new announcement, things are either better…or worse.  So the statement by Ken Goe has gotten me thinking about a lot of things:  things way beyond the realm of college football.  Is it possible that things can be, neither as good, nor as bad, as they sometimes seem?  And if so…so what?  The ‘so what’ has something to do with what we might deserve, or not deserve.

John Conzano, another commentator said that after the game against Cal in which the Ducks won by that huge margin of 42-3, that the defensive coordinator deserved to be driven around in a golf cart, instead of having to walk, because of the amazing win.  But does he really deserve that?  Do we deserve things when we’re good, and not when we’re bad?

Jack Benny made a comment once that asks a similar question.  When accepting an award for his charity work, he said, “I really don’t deserve this award.  But, I have arthritis, and I don’t deserve that either”.    So…

Does an amazing win mean we deserve praise?

Does an amazing loss mean we deserve judgment?

 The Duck’s loss to Boise State was the game where LaGarrette Blount punched someone in the face, and was then suspended.  And the suspension is still being debated.  Was the suspension an act of justice?  Was it merciful to let him keep his scholarship?  What about the guy who provoked him?  Would it be merciful to let Blount play again before the end of the season, and end the suspension early?  Or would that be an act of injustice?  What is justice or mercy when the rules are unclear?

The same sorts of questions arise for me when considering the Duck’s win and their loss, as when thinking more deeply about theology, or trying to negotiate life in the church.  How do we balance judgment and praise…how do we balance justice and mercy?

And the thing is, these are difficult enough as theological questions, but they are even MORE difficult, I think, when we try to figure out how to actually live them out in real life.  What choices do they lead to?  For a coach?  Or for a pastor?  For a parent?  Or for a friend?

Words like ‘justice’ and ‘mercy’ can be so misused, to support all sorts of agendas.

But now, to put these questions about judgment and mercy in a slightly different perspective, ask yourself this: what would you rather experience, judgment or mercy?

The psalm for this morning is basically a prayer for judgment.  I have to tell you, to pray for judgment scares me!  Anyone else scared?  Or does that just reveal a little too much about me?  Do I really want to be judged?  Do you?  And what would lead someone to pray that prayer?  Listen to the words of the psalm and see what you think:
        [ read Psalm 26:1-3 ]

The assumption seems to be that the person praying is innocent.  Maybe they have been wrongly accused.  Maybe they have been attacked.  Maybe they have been hurt.  These are words of lament.  And I believe they are rooted in a desire for a kind of judgment as justice.  They long for a fairness that they don’t see. 
So there seems to be an important place for judgment and for justice.  And this prayer comes from a place where the injustice has not yet been acknowledged.  Justice has not yet been done.

But when does judgment become judgmental?

I know there are times when I really want to be judged correct; especially when I experience pain or hurt.  I want the pain or hurt to be judged wrong.  I want to be vindicated.  I want to be able to hope again.

But then, when I really look in my heart, I also long for mercy.  I know there are some things about myself that I really don’t want judged.  Do any of us really want all of our thoughts and actions held up for judgment?  Is there really anyone among us, who has not made a mistake?  Are any of us really innocent?

Throughout the month of October the lectionary chooses texts from the book of Hebrews.  That book has as one of its central ideas, the role of mercy, in redemption.  The book offers us the image of Jesus in the role of high priest, seeking mercy on behalf of humanity.  The word that Hebrews uses to describe the “mercy seat” on the top of the ark, is that same word Paul uses in Romans to describe Jesus’ action to atone for sin.  And our response to all of this is described in the 4th chapter in this way, listen to the other reading for today from Hebrews:
        [ read Hebrews 4:16 ]

These words make me wonder if there is a way to be bold, about mercy.

The words ‘boldness’ or ‘confidence’ often evoke feelings in me, that are quite the opposite from the feelings I get when I hear the word ‘mercy’.  But maybe there are ways to be bold and be merciful.

Maybe the song we heard today as the prayer of confession is an example of how to take mercy into popular culture.  Could it be that there really is a longing in our culture for mercy?  Or is the culture around us only interested in naming winners and losers?

And if there is a longing for mercy in even a part of our culture, how does the church intersect with that longing?  Is the church perceived as a place of mercy?

I don’t want to depart from that question too quickly, but I want to consider one bold move that could be seen as an act of mercy.  We celebrate Jubilee today, as we remember the countries where international debt has been forgiven.  Most of those countries are in Africa, and several are in Latin America.  Of the 24 countries, 21 are African.  The languages spoken today in the prayer of confession were from those countries.  The word “mercy” is written in those languages on the banners, and on your bulletin cover.

As I consider this movement toward global debt forgiveness, I am aware of two competing feelings within myself.  On the one hand, there is the desire to do something real and tangible to bring justice and mercy into the world.  On the other hand, there is the awareness that all human efforts are incomplete and imperfect.

On this World Communion Sunday, as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper with Christians around the world, there is so much in the world that is not yet as I believe God would intend it to be.  There is so much injustice.  So many places where there is a longing for mercy.  So much that is not yet reconciled.

And yet there is so much beauty.

So many acts of love.

In the past few years as I have worked toward my Doctor of Ministry, I have spent a lot of time exploring the work of reconciliation.  I haven’t figured out any quick fix.  What I have become convinced of is that one key lies in trying to stay in relationship.  Which is not easy to do, especially when there is a sense of injustice.  And which is probably impossible without some mercy.  I have also become convinced that our human work is only a reflection of what God is doing.  Ultimately reconciliation is the final chapter.  And it is only complete when we sit at the heavenly banquet with God.

So what do we do in the mean time?  How do we make decisions that will bring us closer to God’s intentions for us rather than further away?

In this interim time at Westminster, we face a lot of unanswered questions.  What does the future hold?  Who will the new pastoral head of staff be?  Who will the new music director be?  What will happen financially as we struggle to rebound in economically challenging times?  How will we get this elevator finally built?

My hope is that we can all find hope in one another. 
My hope is that we can be merciful with each other.
My hope is that we can find it within ourselves to stay in the room together, so to speak.  May we come together as a community and try to listen to one another.

May we listen to all the voices.

But may we also find something we can do together. 
Some place we can go together. 
Some way to honor the promises we have made to each other.
              Some way to honor God together.                   Amen.