This is the second week in our three week miniseries on the focus statement of our church, which is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. Last week we talked about the need to find ways to actually do justice and not just talk about it, and also about how we need to hold on to our joy as we do justice, guarding against pride and judgmentalism. As progressive Christians we care a lot about justice, but it’s not our only value; it’s not the only thing that’s important to us; it’s not the only tool in our box. You’ve heard the expression, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” right? Justice is a tool, a hammer, but it’s not the right tool for every job. So this morning, let’s spend some time on the second part of the statement, which is “to love mercy.” As we get started I want us to actually look at the verses where this comes from.
This formula comes from the Old Testament prophet Micah, a man on the margins who was called by God to speak uncomfortable truths to the people in power. In chapter 6 we read the narration of a lawsuit that God has against God’s people. Not like our lawsuits, which are usually a violation of a rule. In the ancient world, these lawsuits were a violation of covenant, a violation of relationship. God is saddened and confused by the people’s unwillingness to be faithful. You’ll hear at the beginning that all of creation is called as witness. The mountains and hills and foundations of the world that have witnessed God’s faithfulness to God’s people are called to stand as witnesses to the people’s unfaithfulness. Things will not stay hidden any longer. Let us listen now in the reading of the scripture for the Word and wisdom of God.
Hear what the Lord is saying:
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 (or saving) acts of the Lord!”
God is calling the people to remember all the ways that God has rescued and cared for them in the past and asking, in light of God’s care for them, why they don’t care for each other and honor God. The people respond by trying to buy God off. They know they have been unfaithful specifically by living in greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy. And now they are going to try to give more stuff to fix it. Which is wrong on so many levels. Even in the Jewish sacrificial system, a sacrifice to God could never make up for something you had done to another person. So, spoiler alert: what the people are about to propose is not going to work.
With what should I approach the Lord
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?”
Finally, we hear what God actually wants. What will heal a wounded relationship is not sacrifice but renewed attention to the relationship itself.
God has told you, human one, what is good
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.Micah 6:1-8
Does God want us to do justice? You bet. But that’s not all. God also wants us to love mercy. To love it means to cherish it and value it and uphold it, just like what you’d think it means. Mercy is an interesting word. The Hebrew word there is chesed, which really has no simple English translation. It means loyalty, steadfast love, lovingkindness, goodness, deeds of devotion, kindness, and mercy. And when it’s used as an adjective, it’s usually translated “godly.” When we are loving mercy, we are doing something godly. In fact, this word is one of the five core attributes of God that we find throughout the Old Testament. In many places the people declare that “God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy and truth.” What we know for sure about God is that God’s core nature is compassion, grace, forgiveness, mercy, and truth.
What this means is that how we treat others must be based on how God treats us. Which is why the justice tool is not sufficient for addressing the problems we face. Because God’s attitude and actions towards us are not only based in justice. God is also merciful to us. God is faithful to us when we are unfaithful to God and to one another. God is patient with us when we have our heads on backwards. God is honest when we are deluding ourselves. God is insistent that we turn around when we are headed down the wrong path. God is willing to let us experience the consequences of our actions when we refuse to change our minds. And ultimately, God continues to love us and woo us back and runs toward us as soon as we show the slightest hint of repentance. That’s complicated. That’s not only justice. That’s also mercy.
I thought a lot this week about justice and mercy. When I was growing up, I spent some time in churches that talked about justice and mercy as though they were in opposition to each other, like God had both as priorities and one has to win out over the other. These days, I’m skeptical of most things that are presented as either/or. These days, I’m more of a both/and type of Christian. But I think there might be something to the tension between mercy and justice. I think I’m both/and about it. There’s a Christian pastor and leader named Andy Stanley who teaches an idea that I find really helpful. He says there’s a difference between a problem to be solved, and a tension to be managed. When you have a problem, you need to solve it. There’s one right solution and once you find it, you leave the other options behind, and things get better. Some things are problems that need to be solved.
A tension to be managed is different. When you have a tension to be managed, you have two ideas or priorities that are in competition with each other, but the energy of holding them both is where the power is. Think about a game of tug of war. If you let go of one side of a tension to be managed, the energy is gone. Or maybe think about weights on a scale. Take one away and the other side comes crashing down. In a tension to be managed, you don’t want to choose one over the other, because the significance comes from paying attention to both things at the same time.
I think that justice and mercy might be at opposite ends of a continuum. But I don’t think we need to pick one over the other. I think justice and mercy are a tension to be managed, and the power comes from how they interact with each other. I don’t think God ultimately chooses one over the other and I don’t think we have to either. That’s why our focus statement includes both. We are not only focused on doing justice. We are also focused on loving mercy.
For example, if we were only focused on justice, how could anyone ever be forgiven and restored? Think about how God deals with us, how we see God working throughout the Old Testament. God is a god of justice, God stands clearly against greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy. God has a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized, the folks Howard Thurman calls “the disinherited.” In our own lives, God does not say everything is fine and we can do whatever we want. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls out the ways that our greed and violence and religious hypocrisy shows up in small ways. There are behaviors that clearly do not belong in the Kingdom of God and we know it.
God is a god of mercy. No matter how bad things got with the ancient Hebrews, God never, never, never closed the door, never wrote them off, never abandoned them. In fact the stories say that after pressing the hard reset button of exile, God was directly responsible for bringing the exiles back to their homeland. God’s love and care for us is not based on what we do. That’s the whole message of grace. There are things that are not OK. God doesn’t sanction all behaviors. But grace is not based on what we do. God’s loyal steadfast merciful lovingkindness is constantly being poured out on us, regardless of what we do or don’t do. We can move away from God and God’s way of life, but God never moves away from us. God never says that we are beyond redemption. The worst thing we’ve ever done is not the last word about us. God never closes the door. Forgiveness and new life are always right there waiting for us to realize it and live into it. The word usually translated as mercy in the Old Testament is the same word as grace in the New Testament. Grace. Mercy. Nothing and no one is beyond God’s reach. Ever.
Which gives us some guidance for how we treat one another, especially within Christian community. There are some words and actions that are not welcome here. People are always welcome, but behaviors are not unconditionally tolerated. You see the difference? It’s right and proper for us to speak up when something is wrong and then we have the responsibility to make it right. There are standards and responsibilities for those who want to actively participate in community. Obviously. Relationships inherently involve responsibilities. Being Christian doesn’t mean everything we say and do to each other is fine. Justice.
Every person is welcome. There’s nothing inherent in any person that makes them unacceptable to us. Also, we recognize that everyone is on a journey. We take time to stop and listen to each other’s concerns. We pay attention to the wounds that are underneath our words and actions. We forgive. (Hear me please, we don’t condone. We do set boundaries.) But we forgive, or at least we never stop trying to forgive. The worst thing you’ve done is not the label that we will slap on you. You don’t earn your way in here by doing lots of stuff. If you want to be here, we want you here. We belong to God and one another by grace alone. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. It just is. Mercy.
Now we can see what it looks like to hold those in tension. God loves and accepts each of us unconditionally and also God says there are some behaviors that are not in line with the Kingdom, thus we want to try to make sure they aren’t done anywhere. Everyone is welcome in Christian community, but not all behaviors will be tolerated. You don’t earn your way in, but if you decide that you want to participate in community, there are specific responsibilities to which members are called. You feel that tension? And you see how we lose something vital if we get rid of either side? Humans cannot thrive without justice. But we also can’t thrive without mercy.
So how do we know what to do? Well, we simply turn in our Bibles to the very clear list of rules for all the complicated situations we face as individuals and communities in the United States in the 21st century. Just kidding. You ask me. Obviously. Obviously not.
As we discern, each of us and all of us, what it looks like to manage the tension between justice and mercy, we look to four sources of moral authority. (This comes from John Wesley the founder of the Methodists.) The four sources of authority are reason, experience, scripture, and tradition. Reason (does it make sense), experience (what has actually happened to us), scripture (the Bible), and tradition (both long past and recent). Reason, experience, scripture, tradition (R. E. S. T.) And guess what? When we each and all consult those four sources of authority, we are still going to come to different conclusions about how to hold the tension of justice and mercy in any particular situation.
Nobody ever said following Jesus was easy. But beloved, it is so worth it. Seeking, wrestling, asking hard questions of ourselves and others, trying to see the world the way it really is and also see what we hope it will be someday, teaching our children that there’s more to life than winning games and making money, bravely showing up to tell our stories, listening to people we totally disagree with, visiting those who are sick or in jail, forgiving people who hurt us, loving our enemies — that’s real life. Nothing will bring more meaning to our lives and make us feel more alive than daily taking up our cross, the ultimate symbol of managing the tension between justice and mercy. It is heavy, but it’s not a burden. We surely cannot do it alone, and thanks be to God, no one who matters ever said we should do it alone. We have one another. That’s what church is for! That’s the whole point of being here together, and just as importantly, being out there together. Do not let Sunday morning be the only time you talk to each other. We have one another. And we have the Love That Will Not Let Us Go, the ground of being, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, one God, the Mother of Us All. We are called to do justice AND to love mercy, and we can do it, together, with the help of God. Amen.