Sunday, March 3, 2024
Lamentations 3:22-24 & Matthew 5:7
Rev. Dr. Troy Hauser Brydon

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My encounters with the word “mercy” began at an early age. In 1986 the band Mr. Mister released their second and final hit titled “Kyrie.” I remember really liking that song as an 8-year-old, but I also recall thinking, “What in the world does kyrie eleison mean?” It was Greek to me, quite literally. I found out later that singing along to this song helped me learn Greek, since kyrie means “O Lord” and eleison means “have mercy.” So, I should thank Mr. Mister for my first Greek lesson, as I sang along with the band, “Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel. Kyrie eleison through the darkness of the night. Kyrie eleison where I’m going, will you follow? Kyrie eleison on a highway in the night.” It’s a great song.

Let’s fast forward a decade. I’m now a college student at Calvin, where students were really encouraged to engage deeply with faith. I can’t recall the exact circumstances, but there was an opportunity to take a Spiritual Gifts test. These quizzes are based on gifts found in the Bible. Gifts include things like administration, evangelism, giving, faith, teaching, and mercy. They try to help people identify how they are gifted so they can focus on using those gifts well. The quiz has simple statements like “Encouraging others is a high priority for me” and “I enjoy doing the little things that others do not,” and you’re supposed to rate these on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being never and 5 being always. So, in college I took one of these. I can’t remember what my gifts were, but I do clearly remember that I scored the lowest possible on “mercy” as a gift. Not a good look!

Mercy matters. Why? Because mercy is part of the very character of God, and because God created us in God’s image, mercy should be a part of our character too. It’s worth taking a few moments to dig deeply into mercy. It has two main thrusts. First, it’s related to forgiveness. Second, it’s about compassion. I’ll take these in order. 

So, mercy is related to forgiveness. Think of a courtroom scene, where the defendant has been judged guilty, but when it comes time for sentencing, the defendant pleads with the judge for mercy, for a lesser sentence because they’ve learned their lesson and promise never to break the law again. In a secular way, that is asking for forgiveness. Or think of a time when you did something bad. Let’s say your mom made some cupcakes for a party later in the day and told you not to touch them, but you snuck one anyway, hoping she wouldn’t notice. When she does — parents do have a way of knowing what their kids are up to! — you turn on the waterworks, crying, “I’m so sorry! It just looked so good. Don’t punish me! Have mercy on me!”

As Presbyterians, we should be very aware of the ways mercy is connected to forgiveness. In our first service, we always sing a kyrie as part of the confession time. Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us. Three pleadings for mercy, once for each person of the Trinity. We begin our worship services asking for God’s mercy, and of course being assured that God’s mercy is available and real for all who seek it. 

So, mercy is present in our everyday lives. It is present in our worship. But it is also something that is essential to each and every person. We need to be merciful. This is where my low score on mercy on the spiritual gifts inventory was troubling. If Jesus is merciful and if I’m supposed to imitate Jesus, then my lack of mercy reflected really poorly on me. Blessedly, I think I’ve learned a lot more over the years on how to be merciful, so at least I’m heading the right direction! 

Forgiveness can be hard to give, and it can be hard to receive. But failing to forgive is self-destructive. Also, failing to receive forgiveness is also self-destructive. Here’s how Ken Bailey puts it, “To show mercy or forgive is extremely difficult for those who have been deeply wronged. But the alternative is self-destruction through nursing grudges or seeking revenge. Such grievances are often passed on from generation to generation and become a destructive force in the lives of individuals and societies. The bless-ed escape these self-crippling cycles, for they are merciful.”

So, mercy is about forgiveness. The very rhythms of our lives reinforce whether or not we’re willing to live mercy-filled lives or not. 

Second, mercy is also about compassion for those in need, as well as enemies. I think this is the harder one for most of us. On some fundamental level, most of us are willing to give and receive forgiveness most of the time, but our compassion for others runs into limits all the time. Honestly, this is the side of mercy I struggle with far more than the forgiveness side. It’s easy to have compassion fatigue because needs are so great. It’s easy to start thinking, “You know if this person just changed this or that, then everything would get better,” but in doing so we fail to recognize how complex every person’s life actually is. And with enemies? We don’t even want to think about them or even humanize them. They just become something other, not worthy of our attention. 

That’s not the way of mercy. That’s not the way of Jesus. To put it another way, mercy has some teeth. To be merciful is bold because it ultimately grates against what is normal or socially acceptable. I like how Scot McKnight describes this, “The word ‘merciful’ does not describe the ubiquitous and shallow virtue of ‘niceness’ or ‘tolerance’ in Western culture, but concrete actions of love, compassion, and sympathetic grace to those who are oppressed or to those who have sinned.” Mercy goes beyond “nice” and “tolerant.” It actually moves in the direction of the downtrodden and of those needing forgiveness. Mercy takes the first step. 

Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Those out of step with Jesus might warn against such a way of life. They might say, “Woe to the merciful, for they shall be taken advantage of.” Woe to you extending grace to someone who keeps hurting you; you’ll never win them over. Woe to you who give your time to help someone who keeps messing up; you’re wasting your time. There’s no winning in mercy!

But Jesus says God has already blessed the merciful. It’s the only beatitude where what one is is also what God gives more of. The merciful will receive mercy. Why? Because they already recognize their need for mercy, and because they know that there is no end to mercy. We will always want more. 

Lord, have mercy — we all need more of it. Christ, have mercy — the world needs it. Lord, have mercy — we will always need more of what God has in endless supply. For, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”