Sunday, February 21, 2016

After the Ashes: Mercy

I’ve been reminded lately: life is short. It’s easy to spend our days on things that don’t matter and find ourselves looking back to wonder: was there any fruit that will last?

If this life is all there is, then that license plate that says “He who dies with the most toys wins” is a reasonable approach (although I’d prefer more gender inclusive language). 

But I don’t believe this life is all there is. With Christians across the ages, I  “look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."

So this year, I’m spending the season of Lent asking God to focus my heart on things that will remain after the cleansing fire that burns off the wood, hay and stubble.

Rather than give up sugar, coffee, peripheral things, I’ve been praying God would lead me into seeing, living, loving the treasures easily overlooked, pearls of great price that too often stay buried.

In praying this, the word I’ve been given is “Mercy.”

“What does the Lord require of you,” the prophet Micah asked, “but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).

I’ve read and quoted that verse many times, but my focus has always been on justice, wondering what it means to do justice.” 

Somehow I never got around to asking: what does it mean to love mercy”?

I’ve said the word “mercy” thousands of times. It’s part of the liturgy, in some prayers repeated after every petition: “Lord have mercy.”

I’ve heard it, said it, sung it. I can even sing it in Latin, as I did just today, visiting St. Thomas Church in Manhattan: "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kryie eleison. " "Lord have Mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy." 

Yet I’m not sure I ever really heard the word mercy - focused on it, considered it - it until just a week or so ago, when I suddenly found myself surrounded:

A new PBS TV series called “Mercy Street.”

A Blue Bloods police segment (it’s one of the few TV series I watch) with discussion between priest and police chief about the tension between justice and mercy. 

It seems every hymn I've sung, every prayer prayer in since the start of Lent has echoed the word mercy. 

Pope Frances has declared 2016 the “extraordinary jubilee of mercy,” and has been speaking regularly on the theme of mercy, which he describes as “the very foundation of the Church’s life.”
All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers: Nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. 
That word “tenderness” reminds me of Christ’s interactions with so many who came to him in need: prostitutes, lepers, desperate parents.

Digging around in Hebrew and Greek, I find tenderness an appropriate word to use when trying to understand mercy.   

Hebrew offers three root words linked to mercy. One, "racham," is related to the word for womb, carrying with it a sense of family love, compassion, strong carrying weak, parent tenderly carrying a tiny child.  In the King James, “racham” was regularly translated “tender mercy.”

Another Hebrew word, "chanan," is sometimes translated pity, or generosity: those who have much giving to those with little.

The word most often translated mercy, “chesed,” or “hesed,” is also translated “steadfast love,” “lovingkindness,” “unfailing love,” “faithfulness.” Mercy is love that won’t give up, won’t let go, never grows tired. 

An Old Testament refrain insists: “For the Lord is good, his mercy (chesed) endures forever.” (Repeated in Psalms 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1-3; 1361 Chronicles 16:34; 2 Chronicles 5:13; 7:3; Ezra 3:11; Jeremiah 33:11

This is the unconditional love we can’t quite get our aheads around.

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love (hesed) for you will not be shaken.” (Isaiah 54:10)

“No one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love (hesed).” (Lamentations 3:31-32)
from The Life of Jesus of Nazareth,
William Hole, 1906, England

In the New Testament, the word translated “mercy” is the Greek word “eleos,”  from the same root as oil, “oil poured out”. Again and again, Jesus was asked for mercy and extended it in healing, in forgiveness and finally, in his greatest act of mercy, in conquering death through his own death and resurrection. 
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions (Ephesians 2:4-5)
I have to pause on that a moment: we so often think there's not enough to go around. Not enough love, not enough life. Yet God is rich in mercy, great in love, full of life even for those who are dead. 
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3) 
Who receives mercy?

Those who have found their way to the right church, the right creed, the confession of personal faith?

Who deserves mercy?

Those who know to ask for it? Those who know they need it?

Who decides who is worthy of mercy?

Certainly not me.

As I track this word through scripture, it occurs to me that much theological study has been spent trying to set boundaries on God’s mercy: Will unbaptized babies receive mercy? What about disabled adults who never articulate a reasonable faith? Desperate men and women who give way to suicide? People born in times and places where they never hear the good news of Christ? Gentle souls driven to disbelief or doubt by the hard-hearted hypocrisy of those called to be shepherds?

We are not called to put boundaries on God’s mercy, but to love it.

To live it.

To set judgment aside and cry for mercy – for ourselves and this broken, weary world.

To look toward a time when all will see God’s mercy: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:32)

To pray for forgiveness for our own tendency to judge, rather than give mercy. To live as agents of mercy, rather than voices of judgment: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)

To act toward, wait for, pray for mercy.

When the daily news disturbs us, when our colleagues discount us, when our own failures dismay us: “Lord have mercy.”
Earl Stetson Crawford, ca 1950, California
This is the second in a Lenten series.

Other Lenten posts:




From 2013: