Saturday, February 23, 2019

Grace and Mercy, Year C, Epiphany 7, Luke 6:27-38

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Mercy is to show compassion or forgiveness towards someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.
And the simple truth of today’s Gospel lesson is this:  That because God has shown mercy to us, we are to show mercy to others.  Period.
We are invited to live in the realm of grace and mercy, not the law and condemnation.
Yet it is our tendency to ask questions of Jesus.
Show mercy.  Ok.  But to whom?  And under what circumstances?  And in certain circumstances won’t it do more harm than good.
I struggle with these words of Jesus.  Which is to say, I find it difficult to be as merciful as God is merciful.
Give to everyone who begs from you”, Jesus says, and then later follows it up with “for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
When I was an intern in the inner city of St. Paul, MN it was my responsibility to listen to those who came begging for assistance, and usually they wanted money, and then to politely say “No.”
We had a food bank, and we could offer food, but definitely no money.
The practice hasn’t stopped.
We have a phone here at the church.  You know what it is used for?  The vast majority of people who call our number do so looking for assistance.
Very early on in my ministry I got very cynical regarding offering assistance to those who beg for it.
I had gotten deeply involved in the life of one homeless family that came asking for assistance and what I learned in that process shaped the rest of my ministry.
One of the things I learned is that there is an entire counter culture of people in this country who choose to live lives dependent on charity.
Sanders County in Montana where I served my first parish was listed in underground newspapers as one of the best places to go for public assistance in the nation.
Because there are those who calculate the ratio of public assistance levels to the cost of living and Sanders County has one of the most positive.
In other words, you don’t want to be on welfare in Seattle, because the cost of living is so high.  But if you move to a place like Thompson Falls you can do much better.
And as I said, there are underground newspapers that share that information.
Just say no.
Drug addicts are quick to ask for money, and to give it to them is to enable their addiction.
Furthermore, we don’t have the resources in the church to meet the need and satisfy the requests that are made of us.  If you give out assistance to people the word quickly spreads and more and more people will come.
Another experience.
In Baker our ministerial association decided to pool our resources that we had to help the transient people who came through town.  The method we came up with for offering this charity was that we established a fund with the Sheriff’s office, and we’d refer requests to him.He would then, in turn, run a background check on the individuals requesting aid prior to offering it.  When he needed more money he’d ask us for it.
He never asked.
No one would submit to the background check and they simply went down the road.
“Give to everyone who begs from you.”
“Lend, expecting nothing in return.”
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
My cynical side says that such sentiments are simply naïve.
Oh, but wait.  It is Jesus who is saying this and perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus who has been with God since the beginning, and is God, and through whom all things came into being, perhaps this Jesus, the Lord and Ruler of the Universe, may not in fact be naïve.
I’d even go a step farther and say that perhaps Jesus is even wiser than I am.
And it is Jesus that says “give to anyone that begs” and also, “be merciful.”
But maybe the times have changed.
I found myself asking my colleagues at text study a question.
“Were the beggars in Jesus day morally superior to the beggars in our own day, and hence, more deserving of charity?”
Would Jesus have said “Give to everyone who begs from you” if he saw how people abuse charity today?
What about those who abuse our welfare system, who make a living having children so that they can get more money from Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and the Women, Infants, and Children programs?
What about the drug addicts?
What about the mentally ill?
What about those with a criminal record?
What about those who have made homelessness a way of life, living in Walmart parking lots and other places?  By the way, did you know that Walmart parking lots are the largest homeless shelter in the country?
I see all this and I want to shout out to God “Be cynical even as I am cynical.”
But maybe Jesus is smarter than me.
And no, Jesus didn’t say “Be cynical, just as your Father is cynical.”
He simply said “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
There’s one thing we could rightly add to Jesus’ words.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful to you.
When I am most cynical about all these people who need assistance, I need to remember that I too, once needed assistance.  It came in the form of the Church’s disability program.
I got my first job when I was in second grade and have been employed ever since.
I mowed lawns, raked leaves and shoveled snow.
I had a paper route.
I worked as a box boy, cashier, and butcher.
I worked in a lumber yard, and as a carpenter.
I've been a custodian.
I’ve had a cabinet making business.
I’ve been a pastor.
And I’ve been disabled, not able to do any of that.  Disabled by a mental illness.  Rendered unemployable.
But God showed mercy.
God showed mercy through a disability program sponsored by our church and into which my congregations had paid throughout my ministry, and which you still support to this day.
Were it not for that I might have been begging for assistance.
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
We shouldn’t miss the point that our Father in heaven is merciful.
God’s not naïve.
He’s merciful.
And he cares about people simply because they are people.
My eyes were opened to the humanity of the homeless in a big way a while back.
We sent four kids from our congregation in Sandpoint to New Orleans for the national youth gathering, including my daughter.
They got the crazy idea to get up early the last day in town and go watch the sun rise over the Mississippi River.  So up they rose, before dawn, and without a chaperone walked through the French Quarter to the River.
The French Quarter is not where you want your kids in the middle of the night.
They were approached by a homeless man.
“You shouldn’t be here!” he said.
“What are you doing?”
They told him where they were going and what they wanted to do.
He said, “Alright then, I can keep you safe on my street, but when you turn the corner you make sure you young men are on each side of her.”
A homeless man showing compassion and mercy and protecting my daughter.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Be merciful.
We feed the hungry, not because they deserve it, but because they are hungry.
We cloth the naked because they are naked.
We offer shelter to people because they are homeless.
We give expecting nothing in return, because people are poor and have nothing to return.
We provide for other people’s need because we have been blessed to be able to do so.
This is the way of grace.
Jesus isn’t naïve.
Jesus cares about people, including us.
So be merciful.
How can we be most merciful to those in need?
That’s where we need to show wisdom.
Handing a drug addict a twenty dollar bill might not be the merciful way.
Creating a welfare state might do more harm than good.
Jobs programs and a livable minimum wage might be wise.
Treatment programs and adequate mental health addresses those needs.
For some of the world’s poor, maybe all they need is a flock of chickens, a couple goats, or a cow. . .
Pardon the ad, but our fundraiser for animals is one way we show mercy. . .
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”, Jesus says.
And then he gives us a brain to figure it out.
What he doesn’t give us is an excuse NOT to do it.
And remember, we are merciful because we have first received grace and mercy.  Amen

No comments:

Post a Comment