Lord, Have Mercy
21st Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 23C)
October 13th/14th, 2013
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
I’m sure you have all noticed that fall seems to have arrived. Sure, the days have continued to be pleasantly warm, probably warmer than one would expect for this time of year, and yet it is unmistakable: fall is in the air. The evenings are cooler. The sun is coming up later and going down earlier. If you park outside like I do, then there has probably been a fairly thick layer of dew on your windshield every morning for a week or two, dew that will be frost soon enough. Yes, fall has arrived, and nowhere is that clearer than in the Halloween decorations that are popping up on lawns across the area. Halloween is fast becoming the official holiday of the fall. Spring has Valentines’ Day, Summer has the 4th of July, and fall has Halloween. In a few short weeks, boys and girls and teenagers and adults will dress up in costumes to celebrate a holiday of which few ever take the time to consider its origin and purpose.
But it’s not the origin of Halloween that I’m thinking of today; it’s the masks. Goblins and presidents and werewolves and maybe even a celebrity or two. Halloween is a time where people revel in hiding behind masks for fun. But it is not the only time people wear masks. Criminals wear masks. Some superheroes wear masks, and they do so to hide their true identity. Even more common than the physical ski masks worn by bandits or the hero’s mask is the metaphorical mask that each of us puts on from time to time, a false appearance that we display before strangers or people we wish to impress. The mask of professionalism we wear when our boss or supervisor is watching. The mask of innocence that children wear when parents or teachers are in the room. The masks we wear when we are trying to make a good first impression, trying to look smart, trying to look funny, trying to look like we have it all together. The thing about these metaphorical masks is that they will not stand the test of time. Any lasting relationship, like that with a spouse, will reach a point where this mask is ripped off and our true identity is revealed. A teacher may be fooled by a student’s mask of innocence for a few weeks, but by the end of the year the teacher knows. All it takes is time.
Which is why it is so interesting that we consistently wear such masks before God, as if he doesn’t know who we are underneath, as if he can’t see our true identity. He is from everlasting to everlasting. He is the almighty, the one who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. He is the one who knows exactly how many hairs there are on each of our heads. He searches us and knows our inmost desires. Yet we put on a mask before him. Satan tempts us to put on these masks before him in an attempt to hide our sin from our God as if he can’t see right through our silly façade. We are tempted to don some incarnation of the mask of self-justification: Yes Lord, I know that you have said that hatred in the heart is as bad as murder, but my brother-in-law just gets under my skin like no one else can. What I feel for him isn’t hatred, Lord, it’s righteous anger. Yes Lord, I know that greed is a sin, but my obsession with money is not greed, I just want a little bit bigger house for my family and a little bit nice car and a little bit nice clothing and a little bit longer vacation. Once I have those things, Lord, then I’ll give you my tithe, then I’ll contribute to the work of your kingdom. It’s not lust, Lord, I’m just admiring her beauty. It’s not pride, Lord, I’m just better at my job than my incompetent co-workers and I get tired and frustrated putting up with their mistakes all day.
You know your life better than I do. You fill in the blank. Where does Satan tempt you to self-justification? Where does Satan tempt you to pull a mask over you face when you address our Lord? Why are we children of God so eager to hide our sin from him? So eager to excuse our actions? Self-justification is a bottomless pit. It is a vicious, never-ending cycle. Satan loves to tempt us to self-justification because our explanations for and particular sin doesn’t remove that sin. It excuses it, leaving it to fester in your conscience and weigh you down with guilt, spreading like a disease in your conscience. Ignoring a disease will not cure it. This is no common cold; you cannot wait it out. If you let it run its course, that course will end in death.
The disease must be cured. The mask must be removed. We must not come to our Lord saying, “It’s just that,” or “Yeah but.” Like the lepers in today’s Gospel reading, our cry can only be “Lord, have mercy on us!” These lepers did not cry out to Jesus in self-justification, for they knew all too well the seriousness of their disease. They felt it in their flesh as the leprosy ate away their skin, causing fingers and toes to fall off. Along with the physical pain, they felt the emotional pain of separation from their family and friends. Leprosy is a contagious disease, and in order to keep it from spreading, those who were infected were quarantined into colonies outside the cities and villages. They were not allowed to see their families for fear of the disease spreading. They were not allowed to visit the Temple to perform sacrifices, for the Temple was in the heart of the city. There were no holiday dinners with loved ones. No Sunday afternoon visitors. For all intents and purposes, they were dead to their family. Dead to the life they knew before leprosy.
And so they called out to Jesus. They did not do so in anger. Their cry was not that of Martha who, after the death of her brother Lazarus, looked at Jesus and said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” These lepers did not look at Jesus and ask him why they were sick. Neither did the offer a string of reasons why Jesus should heal them. None offered a story about a wife and three kids who were left at home struggling to make ends meet. None spoke of the family farm that was going untended in his absence. Their cry was simple. It was honest. No mask. “Lord, have mercy on us.”
Such is the cry of faith, for faith does not look to itself. It looks only to the gifts of the Savior. Such is our cry as we kneel in confession before our Lord and admit that we are by nature sinful and unclean. No hiding. We have sinned against our Lord in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. No excuses. We have not loved him with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. No masks. Just repentance. Just pleading that for the sake of the innocent, bitter suffering and death of his beloved Son Jesus Christ, our Lord would be merciful to us poor sinful beings. Lord, have mercy on us.
And merciful he is. As Jesus himself spoke healing to the lepers, so also he speaks healing to us. He does not offer us a list of justifications for why our actions weren’t actually sinful. He doesn’t offer rationalizations and tell us it will be ok. Our sin is never ok. But it is paid for. We are redeemed. The price of our sin has been paid by the blood of Jesus, so he sends pastors who stand in his place. In the stead and by the command of Jesus himself, these pastors forgive our sins as if Jesus himself were standing among us speaking those words himself. Faith believes this. The faith of the lepers believed that even though their disease was not immediately healed, Jesus would be true to his word. They believed that Jesus would heal them even though they still had leprosy when they left his presence. And as they went they were cleansed. So also us. The gift of faith we have been given in the water of baptism believes our Lord’s word, and even though we may not always feel any different after the words of forgiveness have been spoken, we believe we have been cleansed.
Then, having our sins forgiven by the voice of the pastor as from the mouth of God himself, we again pray his mercy. In peace, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy. For this holy house and all in it, Lord, have mercy. For the whole church, Lord, have mercy. The new creation is always crying out for God’s mercy because the new creation knows that it is only through the mercy of God that we receive any blessing of body or soul. The new creation believes that God has created me and all beings, that he has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them; that He richly and daily provides me with food and clothing, home and family, property and goods, and all that I need to support this body and life; that He protects me from all danger, guards and keeps me from all evil; and he does all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I am in duty bound to thank and praise, to serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true. We would be lost without God’s mercy, so for his mercy we continue to cry.
Satan tempts us to wear masks before God. He wants us to try to hide our sin from God. He wants us to try to excuse our sin before God as if it’s not truly sin. But God knows who we are under the mask. There is no use hiding from him. And what’s worse, like all masks, these masks make it hard to see. When we don’t see our sin, we won’t see how merciful our Lord is to us in forgiving our sin. And when we don’t see our Lord’s mercy, we are robbed of the blessing of thankfulness. Luke doesn’t tell us why only one leper returned to give thanks to Jesus. We don’t know what the other nine did. But thankfulness is the natural response to our Lord’s mercy. It is the only response, for when we see how much we have been given, especially compared with how little we deserve, we can’t help but be thankful.
And that thankfulness will shine forth in our lives. After receiving thanks from the leper, Jesus sends him back to his family and friends, back to his work, back to his life. “Rise, and go your way,” Jesus says. Take your thankful heart back into your vocations. Let the world around you see the joy in your life, a joy that can only be found in my love. It’s joy in the mercy of our Lord that drives Christians to form groups like the St. John Ladies’ Society, a group of different women who, for the past 100 years, have given of their own time in an effort to help the work of the kingdom. It’s joy in the mercy of our Lord that inspires faithful parents to bring their children to the water of holy baptism so that even the youngest may experience the gift of cleansing. It’s joy in the mercy of our Lord that inspires us to celebrate the gifts he has given to this congregation for the last century and a half.
So leave the masks for Halloween. Leave the masks for the superheroes. We don’t need them; we are the baptized. We need not wear a mask before our Lord, for he has seen our sin already. He has paid for it in full. And the joy of redemption is ours. Don’t let a mask impede your vision, but put on the eyes of faith to see the many blessings and acts of mercy that are new to us each morning. Let us cry out in honesty with the lepers, “Lord, have mercy on us!” And like the lepers, let us rise and go our way. Our faith has made us well. Our Savior has washed us clean.