Love Mercy. Or Not.
This morning we continue our series on doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. I think that if we, as individuals and a congregation, if we focus on doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, if we do those things to the best of our ability, we will find lasting joy and we will heal the world. Finding the lasting joy we all want and participating in God’s work of healing the world. That’s the point.
Last week we talked about the first part of the statement, how God’s justice is not blind justice. It is not idealistic or theoretical, it is actual and practical and dare we even say partial towards those who need it most. God’s justice doesn’t try to be fair to everybody. It tries to right the wrongs. On one hand we long to be part of this, part of righting the wrong. And on the other hand we feel torn because we know that really doing justice is going to inconvenient and messy, and it’s going to take longer than we want. But we are not called to do it alone. We do justice in community so no one has to figure it out or face it on their own.
This week we are going to talk about the second part of the statement, the love mercy part. Do justice is communal; love mercy is interpersonal; wal humbly is individual — it’s all spiritual. Love mercy is what we do for and with one another.
This little word “mercy” is a deeply meaningful word in the Bible because it is listed as one of the core attributes of God. We talked about this last fall on November 29 if you want to go back and listen to that podcast. In the Old Testament there’s a statement that shows up over and over, almost like an ancient creed, describing who God is. It goes like this: “The Lord (the god whose name is Yahweh) is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy and truth.” Abounding in mercy. That’s the word we have here in Micah’s description of what God requires of us, to love mercy.
Let’s read the passage again. This is from the Old Testament prophet Micah, who was a man on the margins speaking truth to power. God’s people had not been living like folks who are blessed to be a blessing, and in Micah chapter 6, God calls them on it. The first section reads like the beginning of a court case, which is a typical style of writing in the ancient world. But listen to the words and notice that where we might expect anger, God instead sounds sad and truly baffled by what is happening.
Hear what the Lord is saying:Micah 6:1-5
Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains;
let the hills hear your voice!
Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord!
Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!
The Lord has a lawsuit against his people;
with Israel he will argue.
“My people, what did I ever do to you?
How have I wearied you? Answer me!
I brought you up out of the land of Egypt;
I redeemed you from the house of slavery.
I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.
My people, remember what Moab’s King Balak had planned,
and how Balaam, Beor’s son, answered him!
Remember everything from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you might learn to recognize the righteous acts of the Lord!”
And now we hear the people’s response. They know they’ve done wrong but their response is not contrition; it’s over-the-top bluster. They are going to be to try to bargain with God, to buy God off.
With what should I approach the LordMicah 6:6-7
and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him
with entirely burned offerings,
with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased
with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Should I give my firstborn for my transgressions;
the fruit of my womb for the sin of my spirit?”
But listen to this. Instead of answering the question, “What does God want in exchange for my transgressions?” this speaker reminds the people of what God wanted in the first place. Apparently God is not interested in being bought. God is interested in something else altogether.
God has told you, human one, what is goodMicah 6:8
and what the Lord requires from you:
to do justice,
to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.
This is the word of God for all people.
Thanks be to God.
What God requires of us is mercy. Small English word, but big meaning in Hebrew. The Hebrew word is hesed. This word shows up 247 times in the Old Testament and half of those are in the Psalms. This is a word that defies translation. We just don’t have an English word that captures all the meaning. Bible translators choose the words mercy, or kindness, or goodness, or favor, or loyalty, or steadfast love, or loving-kindness. If you could combine all of those meanings together, you would get close to what that Hebrew word hesed is trying to say.
Here’s how Dr. Mark Leuchter from Temple University describes hesed. He says hesed is “the enduring, steadfast, and loving loyalty of God for humanity, emerging in diverse forms throughout the unfurling of our relationship over time.” The enduring, steadfast, and loving loyalty of God for humanity, emerging in diverse forms throughout the unfurling of our relationship over time. First and foremost when we try to understand mercy we have to recognize that the source of mercy is God. Most often in the Bible, God is the one doing the mercy. Mercy is the core of God’s covenant with God’s people. Mercy is the heart of the relationship between God and humanity, beginning first with God’s people in the Old Testament and now extending to all of us. Mercy is how God treats us.
But because mercy is how God treats us, mercy is also how we can treat one another. Because God has been merciful to us, we can be merciful to one another. We can treat one another with steadfast loving-kindness. To love mercy means to do unto others as God has done unto us.
This is a big deal because friends, God is infinitely merciful to us. In fact, the word translated as “mercy” in the Old Testament is usually translated as “grace” in the New Testament. God treats us with grace. Some of you aren’t sure of that, because you’ve read parts of the Old Testament. And you are thinking that God doesn’t seem very merciful. But let me remind you of the whole story. God chooses Abraham and Sarah and says all their descendants will be blessed in order to be a blessing. Generations later their descendants are made slaves in Egypt. God delivers them. They wander through the wilderness, complaining and trying to make God do what they want. And God still graciously leads them to the promised land. For hundreds of years they go through the cycles we all go through of following God and then following their own desires, serving God and then serving themselves. And God is merciful, even as God keeps trying to get them going in the right direction. Eventually they build up so much violence, greed, and religious hypocrisy that they are invaded and conquered and their elite citizens are carried off into exile.
Which, frankly, is what you would expect. They had a covenant with God. And when covenants in the ancient world were violated, the violator paid the price. God is a just God. BUT God doesn’t just make them pay the price. God is merciful. God continues to love them, continues to woo them, continues to call them, and eventually brings them back. Maybe not in the way they hoped for, but our choices have consequences. But they are restored. In the end, God’s mercy always outweighs God’s justice. In fact, maybe we could say God’s mercy always out-waits God’s justice. In the end, with God, I truly believe it’s all mercy.
And what God requires of us is to love mercy. There’s nothing tricky about that word love. It means what you think it means. I love my husband and I love being a pastor and I love UDF’s peanut butter cookies n’ cream ice cream. We use the word love for all kinds of things and the Old Testament does too. We are to love mercy. We are to cling to it, to make it our highest ideal, to revel in it, to value it above everything else. We are to orient our lives around doing unto others as God has done unto us. Interpersonally, this is what God requires of us.
Now we remember that at best, these three commands are interconnected: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Last week I said that if we don’t do justice, if we only love mercy and walk humbly with God, we have a personal spirituality that leads us to be good to our people but is not connected to the larger issues of the world around us. Now what about if we don’t love mercy?
If we only do justice and we walk humbly with God, here’s what I think happens: I think we have a personal spirituality that makes us fierce advocates and activists, but we are not good at loving people we disagree with. Let me say it again: if we do justice and walk humbly, we develop a faith that leads us to engage the worlds problems but dismiss the folks who don’t see those problems like we see them. Conservative folks, this means you hang your thin blue line flag but you don’t care about the people who hang a rainbow flag. Progressive folks, this means you may say Black lives matter, but you don’t care about the people who say all lives matter. The Designer of the Cosmos pursues relationship with us even when we are blatantly short-sighted, narrow-minded, and self-serving, and we are required to find ways to pursue relationship with one another.
Like doing justice, loving mercy is inconvenient, and messy, and it takes a long time. It’s not hard to be merciful to our people. But to be merciful to THOSE people?! What if they think I’m condoning their behavior? What if someone else sees me with them? What about the rage that wells up within me every time they open their mouth?! What if I just don’t know how? What if I just can’t think of one thing to do? Well, thankfully, we are not called to do this alone. Just like when we do justice, we love mercy in community, in relationship with one another.
Another way to think about it is that to love mercy means to go beyond what’s normally expected. That’s what God does for us. God’s abounding steadfast love for us requires us to actually tangibly practically love others. And lest I miss that point, God very kindly drove it home for me personally this week.
On Friday afternoon I was sitting in my office finishing lunch with Lisa Ho when she heard a voice calling out in the church. Several of you have keys and come to church as part of your regular service to one another and so I didn’t think anything of it. I yelled “Hello” and the voice that yelled back was not familiar to me. I stepped out of my office door and called out again and over the top of the balcony rail popped a man’s face who was unfamiliar to me. Surprising, because we usually keep the building locked. I invited him to come downstairs and he did, very slowly, because his left foot was in a walking boot, clearly something was broken. This man said that he had been released from Grady and was trying to get home to Mt. Vernon. He had been at the police station looking for help and the police sent him here. Why? Because they assume that churches are going to be full of people who love mercy and will go beyond what’s normally expected.
I’ll be honest with you. I had no idea what to do. I didn’t have my car and so I couldn’t drive him. But I also couldn’t just turn him out on the street, especially not on a week when I’m preaching a sermon about how to love mercy. Thankfully, I was not alone and Lisa knew what to do. We called HelpLine to see what other resources might exist for this man. Eventually Lisa had to go back to work and so I called Mary and she came to church to help figure it out.
As we were trying to manage transport in Delaware County and transport in Knox County and how much it was going to cost and how long it was going to take and where the transport lines would overlap, Mary finally said, “What if I just drive him to where the Knox county folks can pick him up?” It was the most direct, the least expensive, the fastest, and frankly also it was the solution that treated this man with the most dignity, that offered not only an impersonal bus ride but also a conversation, a little bit of relationship. So that’s what we did.
To love mercy means to do unto others as God has done unto us. It means to be patient and forgiving. It means to pursue relationship with people whose beliefs and actions drive us nuts. It means to go above and beyond for strangers when we have no obligation to do so. It means to put someone else’s needs above our preferences. Just like doing justice, loving mercy is risky. But this is what God calls us to do, and it’s worth the risk.
So we can love mercy. Or not. If we choose not to love mercy, because it’s inconvenient and messy and it takes a long time, then we are actively choosing to be less than what God requires of us, to have less than the abundant life God offers us. We will have compassion for the oppressed but not for the oppressor. We will do only what society expects of us, never going beyond what is reasonable to do for someone else. And guess what? If we do that, God will STILL love us, because God is merciful. Which is amazing. But we can do it. We can love mercy. God will help us. We can do unto others as God has done unto us. We can be loyal, and patient, and forgiving. We can try again. We can go out of our way to be a blessing. God has shown us what is good and what God requires from us is to love mercy. Amen.