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I Desire Mercy

Matthew 5:7
David A. Davis
April 26, 2020
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The call came in one the main number at the church. When we closed the church office weeks ago we placed a message on that number asking people to leave their message right there as staff members take turns checking that number every day. We have found that surprisingly few messages have been left. Some folks inquiring about ArmInArm. A few sales calls. And then a call came in not long ago from someone who lived just a few blocks from the church. The person that was unknown to us had a specific need. The explanation was a long-standing medical condition that required treatment at home which involved distilled water. Food and other supplies were being delivered but the water was needed much sooner. One staff member took the call. Passed it on to another staff member who responded. Water was delivered a few hours later with a second delivery happening a few days later from a member of our Nassau helper team.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful…”

When we began this sermon series in our shared preaching life back in February, I made  a couple of comparisons and contrasts to Luke’s version of the beatitudes commonly referred to the Sermon on the Plain. You remember Luke doesn’t just stick with blessings. He tosses in some woes too. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-25) In Luke Jesus doesn’t speak about the poor in spirit. The blessing comes to those who are poor. Not those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, but those who are hungry now. Luke doesn’t refer to those who mourn, but to those who weep now.

Jesus never mentions the meek in Luke, or the pure in heart, or the peacemakers or the merciful. It is uniquely Matthew. It is as if Matthew’s beatitudes take a turn at mercy. A turn away from the similarities to Luke. From mercy on, it’s all Matthew. Matthew turns on mercy and heads for the pure in heart and the peacemakers and those who are persecuted for righteousness.

“Blessed are the merciful” Jesus says in Matthew, “for they will receive mercy.”

It’s not like Luke is mum on mercy. We spent too much time with Luke in Lent, Palm Sunday and Easter to arrive at that conclusion.  Early in Luke, Mary sings of God’s mercy in her Magnificat. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist sings that wonderful line, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.” Luke isn’t soft on mercy; whether God’s mercy or a call for our mercy. A bit after the blessings and woes in the Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s Jesus could not have been more clear when he proclaims, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” And at the conclusion of the Good Samaritan, the one who was a neighbor was the one who showed mercy. But there is something about Matthew and his unique, succinct, crystal clear Beatitude. “Blessed are the merciful.” There is something about Matthew and Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as the Great Teacher. There is something about Matthew and Jesus and mercy. It’s Matthew’s invitation for us, the gospel’s call for us, to stop and ponder it: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Beyond our backyard that is behind me, is Smoyer Park. It is a beautiful park that the town of Princeton purchased with funds gifted by a Nassau member years ago. Smoyer Park is named in memory of Stan’s wife Barbara Smoyer. Since it is a municipal park, it is still open. We walk back there with Rooney three, four, five times a day these days. It’s still open but the restrictions and the notices have gradually increased. No gatherings. Keep distance. Fields closed to play. Playgrounds closed. Equipment fenced off or taken way. This week the signs went up requesting people to mask when walking in the park. We were walking back there in the rain the other day. Along the path, I could see handwritten signs taped to trees every so often. After reading various things online about “distance shaming” and dog walkers being the worst offenders, I expected all the signs to be reminders from neighbors to mask and distance. The first sign said, “We will get through this”. The next said “We’re in this together.” There must have been a half dozen or more. Written in crayon with pictures that looked like they were added by children. My favorite, “Don’t lose hope.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” The Apostle Paul called them the fruits of the Spirit. Jesus said “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  Matthew’s Jesus, ever the teacher, wanting to stop and have a lesson about mercy. Matthew expects the church to stop and think about it once in a while. To think about mercy. Maybe especially right now. Pondering mercy. Especially these days when it is more common to be fearful than merciful. When it is easier to be angry than merciful. When the blame and protests gets more attention than all the mercy, the abundance of mercy, the incredible mercy. Matthew’s call to think about mercy and forgiveness and kindness. So timely, so compelling. Matthew’s call to think about and to ponder, and to preserve even the most ordinary act of compassion.

A church member wrote a wonderful thank you note a few weeks ago to a person who was on staff at the facility where a loved one now lives. The member shared that upon receiving the note at work, the staff person immediately picked up the phone and called. Every one of us can imagine the stress and anxiety rushing through the veins of caretakers and all members of staff caring in every sort of place caring for our seniors. The staff member called right away with such gratitude and maybe some tears to say thank you for such an act of kindness. A most ordinary act of compassion.

Jesus says “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

One with a narrow theological imagination might be drawn to the conditional, if-then, sound of this fifth beatitude. If you are merciful you will receive mercy God. If you are kind to others God will be kind to you. If you show compassion, God will show compassion to you in this life and in the life to come. But that understanding is just another version of works righteousness. You have to earn your salvation by works of mercy. You will deserve God’s favor if you are merciful. But Martin Luther taught us salvation could not be earned. John Calvin taught us we can never be merciful enough. And the Apostle Paul taught us that by faith we have been saved through faith, and it is not our own doing, it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2). God’s mercy is a gift we don’t earn. As my teacher and mentor Tom Long puts it in his commentary on Matthew, “True mercy grows not out of intrinsic human goodness, but from the grateful awareness that God is merciful; those who discern that God is merciful are freed themselves to be merciful.”

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” 

There was a clue in last Friday’s New York Times crossword puzzle (a Friday puzzle; one way to know Dave is staying home). The clue was “product of a teachable moment.” The answer was “life lesson”. The Great Teacher in Matthew is the teachable moment maven. In Matthew chapter 9,  Jesus sits down with sinners and tax collectors. It was one of those dinners in the gospel that catches your eye because you figure you might have made the guest list too. The Pharisees raise their eyebrows and try to triangulate the disciples. Jesus hears it and responds with the memorable verse about the well having no need of a physician but rather those that are sick. “Go and learn what this means”, Jesus says, “ I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The Teacher was quoting the prophet Hosea on mercy and sacrifice. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6) the prophet said.

Jesus and the teachable moment. Jesus and the life lesson. Jesus looks for the opportunity to turn every conversation, every occasion, every relationship into a classroom conversation about the life of faith. Because of course every conversation, every occasion, every relationship matters when it comes to living in and responding to God’s love. Every occasion, every occasion, every relationship matters when it comes to thinking about and to pondering and to preserving even the most sacred, ordinary acts of compassion. Every conversation, every occasion, every relationship comes with the invitation stop and ponder the mercy of God and to hear the call and expectation of Jesus that you are to be merciful.

Friends in Christ, never forget that the volume of your piety ought not distort the tone of your compassion. I don’t have to dignify the current numerous examples by naming them. Any attempt at perfection and arrogance in your faith practice best not erase your recollection that the followers of Jesus shall forever be defined by their efforts at forgiveness and love for others. Mathew, Jesus and the call to think about and to ponder, and to preserve even the most ordinary act of compassion. A life lesson for today. Mercy.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”