Tuesday, March 11, 2014

At the Corner of Mercy and Grace

Isaiah 55
Psalm 23
Matthew 5:7

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Mercy is a full, evocative word with several definitions. The idea of mercy touches us in different ways depending on our experiences in life. It can mean “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power; lenient or compassionate treatment.”[1] This definition certainly had traction in Jesus’ community where justice was meted out in the form of “an eye for an eye,” armed soldiers patrolled the cities and roads, and slavery and tenant farming were foundations of the economic system. Many listeners in the crowds that followed Jesus hoped for and often depended on the mercy of those who wielded real power over them. Jesus has encouraged the powerless to claim their inheritance. Now he instructs those with power to act with kindness and consideration.  

I’m going to share something with you that just seems too perfect an illustration. I am an adjunct professor at Seattle University. Those of us who are adjuncts, part-time, and non-tenured professors have been invited to join other adjuncts in similar universities in joining a union. I’m not going to get into any details here, other than to say that I have been a union worker and I have managed union workers and I see both the attraction and the limitations of unions. The truth is, that when employers use ethical standards and treat their employees as a valuable resource and asset, union organizers don’t have any sway because they are not necessary. But when employers make an unfair profit on the backs of their employees and treat them poorly, unions become a tool for justice. Adversarial labor relationships arise from a lack of fair, compassionate treatment and an unwillingness to share the full benefits created by the industry of all participants. The adversarial climate in the school I love makes me so uncomfortable, especially since it is a Christian institution that prides itself on its promotion of justice. I’m hoping that we can talk calmly, and listen deeply—that we can be kind to one another as we work towards justice without having to resort to an adversarial relationship for negotiations.

I wish that I could preach as eloquently about the growing economic and social inequities in our country and the disregard for the working poor as Dr. Cornel West did at The Well last night. You’ve read the statistics. There is no mercy in our economic systems right now. The social safety net has been stripped over and over again until there is almost nothing to meet the needs of those who lose a job, or whose medical bills exceed insurance limits, or who have not been able to get insurance, or who cannot care for themselves because of mental illness, or who run from domestic violence. There are not enough beds or shelters any night for those who want or need them. A young medical doctor stood up last night and asked Dr. West what we do about the effects of poverty that he sees in babies born with low birth weight because of hunger in our region. The answer was that we have to work together to change systemic disregard for human life in the quest for profits. We must become merciful and our mercy must have legs because we serve God “who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45b).” If God waters all the earth, then all the people should get wet.

Can we bring the need for mercy closer to home; a way that we might enact mercy today or tomorrow where we live? We might soften this first definition of mean “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power; lenient or compassionate treatment” in our time to say that mercy means “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly.”[2] Think of all the different people who could be treated harshly. I think of servants, service workers, menial laborers, disobedient children, and phone solicitors. Our son was a phone solicitor once because that’s the only job he could find in a tight labor market. He taught us that phone solicitors need love too. I try to picture my son on the other end of the phone when I get one of those calls.
I believe the essence of this definition rests on recognizing and honoring human dignity. One of the bidding prayers that I use in our cycle of pastoral prayer, gives thanks to God for the treasure stored in every human life. Jesus ate with tax collectors and fishermen; he touched people with leprosy and other diseases that were considered unclean; he held children on his lap—unheard of in his time; he spoke to women and healed foreigners. Trevor Hudson, in A Mile in My Shoes, shares an African proverb that begins with a conversation between a wise old spiritual master and his disciples.
Once he asked them, “How can we know when the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming?”
The disciples were quiet for a moment, and then one answered, “When we can see a tree in the distance and know that it is an elm and not a juniper.” Another responded, “When we can see an animal, and know that it is a fox and not a wolf.”
“No,” said the old man, “those things will not help us.”
Puzzled, the students asked, “How then can we know?”
The master leaned over and said to them quietly, “We know the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming when we can see another person and know that this is our brother or our sister; for otherwise, no matter what time it is, it is still dark.”[3]
The deep respect we extend to one another because of our kinship as children of God undergirds an understanding of mercy. This is where God’s grace relies on human mercy.

A third definition is “kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation; compassionate treatment of those in distress.” This is where charitable acts of kindness fall; “works of mercy among the poor.” While we work for justice that eliminates poverty, we respond with immediate aid. Immediate aid is of little value without addressing systemic injustice that perpetuates poverty.

          We stand at the corner of mercy and grace as the people who have experienced God’s unconditional love and kindness. The question is whether we will recognize another person as our sister or brother and extend mercy, forbearance, leniency, and kindness toward each person, whether we think that person deserves it or not—that’s grace. Will we go another step and work for social justice in our society—that’s mercy? At the corner of mercy and grace—that’s where I’d like to see our church planted.

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mercy, accessed March 8, 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Trevor Hudson, A Mile in My Shoes; Cultivating Compassion (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2005), 45.

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