Mercy in the Church
Lent Midweek II
February 17, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
Mercy. That’s the theme for our reflection this lent. Mercy. Compassion. Love. Mercy that is more than a feeling or emotion, but mercy that expresses itself in action. Mercy that is fundamental to the identity of God himself and to his church. The very same mercy that we plead for at the beginning of the Divine Service. The service begins with the invocation, then a confession of sins, for we are indeed sinners who stand in need of forgiveness. Then, having our sins forgiven, we stand and, in peace, we pray to the Lord, “Lord, have mercy.” For this holy house and for all who offer here their worship and praise, we pray to the Lord, “Lord, have mercy.” The prayer for God’s mercy includes petitions for the peace from above, and for our salvation. It includes petitions for this holy house, but also for the peace of the whole world, for the wellbeing of the church of God, and for the unity of all. All around us in this world we see the results of hatred, envy, lust, and greed. So we, the people of God, plead to the God of mercy on behalf of the whole world. It’s the prayer of God’s people, a prayer that no one else is going to pray. It is a simple prayer, only 3 short words, simple enough that even the youngest in our midst can pray it with boldness and confidence. Yet it is a prayer of incredible depth, a prayer whose reach stretches as far as the consequences of sin in this creation, a prayer whose richness we could never hope to unpack in a single lifetime.
There is indeed incredible depth to the mercy of God. There is incredible depth to the mercy he calls us to as his people. We will spend the next several weeks merely scratching the surface of implications this prayer holds for God’s people. Mercy for the sick and ill. Mercy for the family. Mercy for life. Mercy for community. Mercy for the church. But in meditating on the depth of God’s mercy, let us not miss the forest for the trees. Let us not miss the obvious right in front of us. Let us not miss the simple truth essential to any act or display or example of mercy: Mercy is never in isolation. Mercy requires a community, or two people at least. You can’t be merciful unless you have someone to be merciful to. You can’t show compassion unless there is someone who needs compassion. Mercy needs company.
Which is why the reading from Galatians for today is so interesting. Any student of the English language can tell you the frustrations of trying to learn our native tongue. As one picture I saw on line last week put it, in English you put I before E except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbor. Or if that’s too abstract, simply reflect on why the plural of goose is geese but the plural of moose is not meese, and why mouse become mice but house doesn’t become hice. Yes, there is much to trip up someone trying to learn English. But one of the most confusing elements to our language, even for those of us who have spoken it from birth, is that if I am talking to one person, I am talking to you, and if I am talking to a group of people, I am still talking to you. When we come across the word “you,” context dictates whether we’re talking about one person or a group of people, and there are definitely situations where it is hard to tell which is which.
Like, for example, Paul’s exhortation read a few moments ago. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Is that a you you, or as they say in Texas, a “y’all”? “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” You? Or Y’all? “Bear one another’s burdens.” You? Or Y’all? You get the point. The not so simple fact is that throughout this section, Paul is switching back and forth between “you” and “y’all,” demonstrating both the corporate and individual elements of God’s mercy that is alive among us as his people.
Look again at the text. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, all y’all who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. But let each of you personally keep watch over yourself, lest you too be tempted. All y’all work together to bear one another’s burdens, but let each one of you individually test his or her own work, for each one individually will have to bear his own load.” Paul is emphasizing this simple truth about the mercy of God and of his people: it requires a community, more than one person, to show mercy, for there has to be someone to be merciful to; but mercy is more than a community reality, it is required of each of us individually within the church of God.
The church is called to live in mercy, yet we are failures when it comes to showing mercy. Take, for example, Paul’s first admonition. “If any of you is caught in the snare of sin, let the whole church restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” When’s the last time we did that as a congregation? That’s the pastor’s job, right? I’ll just keep my mouth shut. Or worse yet, when I see a brother or sister in Christ ensnared in sin, I’ll post cryptic things on social media. I’ll whisper in the hallway so that everyone else can share in the joy of knowing that at least we’re not as bad as that person. Greed? Well, who am I to tell another person how to spend their money? After all, the tithe isn’t technically commanded in the New Testament anyway, so who am I to judge. So what if we just read where Paul says that the one who is taught the word should share in all good things with the one who teaches. So what if we are willing to pay plumbers and electricians and doctors and lawyers for their services, willing to pay the for the knowledge they have acquired through study. But pastors and teachers and musicians and other church workers? We don’t need to pay for their spiritual guidance, after all they’re doing the Lord’s work, and that should be its own reward. Why should I put money in the offering plate to support the needs of those who work for the church? There’s enough people here that someone else will foot the bill.
Now, full disclosure, I don’t particularly like preaching about money and stewardship habits because as someone on the congregation’s pay roll, it always feels a little self-serving. But this text can’t be avoided. If you look at it in the original Greek, today’s reading is loaded with financial language. The language of debts and burdens and sowing and reaping and sharing good things, these are all money terms. While they certainly have a spiritual aspect to them, the fact of the matter is that Paul is writing to the Galatians about stewardship. It is writing about stewardship in the church. We are called to show mercy in the church, and according to Paul, that includes giving money to the ministries of the congregation. Or as one commentary I read put it, “Genuine concern for others must also include a willingness to share of one’s wealth.” We are willing to provide toys for tots each winter and water for the people of Flint, all of which is good and right. Those people need those things, and we absolutely should be reaching out in their time of need. There is almost always a huge outpouring of support whenever there is a tragedy or crisis that demands our attention. And yet according to most recent surveys the average Christian gives only 2% of their income to the church. Why do we only show mercy when the crisis is catastrophic? What about the day-to-day mercy that happens in this building? Is that not worth supporting? Considering how much we’re typically willing to pay for HDTV, vacations, cell phones, restaurants, Starbucks and the like, we can most likely find some money to contribute to the household of faith. Can we truly consider ourselves people of mercy when we fail so spectacularly at showing it when there is no tragic headline to tug at our heart strings?
Because the stewardship Paul is writing about, the stewardship that is ours as God’s people, is not ultimately about money, it’s about mercy. It’s about growing in mercy. It’s about providing a place where hurting people can hear the gospel of forgiveness. It’s about giving financially so that there can be a place where people can walk up and find a pastor in the building on a random Tuesday morning. We get people during the week who want to talk to a pastor, people struggling from PTSD, people hurting over the death of a loved one, people who feel lost in the confusion of this world. Maybe not every day, but often enough. Supporting the ministry here is not simply about keeping the lights on, it’s about having a hub where people can come find the mercy of God. It’s about having a school where boys and girls can be raised in a Christian environment, immersed in the word of God and an atmosphere of forgiveness rather than the culture of bitterness around us. It’s about mercy, providing a place for those who cannot provide for themselves, a place of mercy, a home for the Word of God, where the truth of God’s Word rules the day. It’s mercy required of us as a congregation, and required of each of us individually.
And for all our failures to live out such mercy, thanks be to God that nothing compares with the mercy we have been shown by God himself. He didn’t give sparingly of his own mercy. He gave his all, his very life itself, in order that we might have life. He became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, that we might have life. And now, through the precious water of baptism, all that is mine becomes his, and all that is his becomes mine. My sin. My selfishness. My doubt and unwillingness to trust. All of that is his. And what’s mine are his righteousness and holiness, his brazen trust in the Father and faith in the Father’s word, faith that shows itself in action. Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us is one that I can never fulfill on my own. Yet because Christ lives in me, that command is already fulfilled in God’s eyes.
Because we are united to Christ in Baptism, daily we are being shaped into his image. When Christ is alive in us through the preaching of his word and the gift of his sacrament, we begin to look more and more like him each day. We continue to be shaped into people of mercy, people growing in mercy. In the words of Paul, we do good to all as opportunity arises, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. We support the needs of people around the world when the time comes, but we make it a special priority to support the work of God in this place we call home each and every day, for this is our church, our school. If we’re at 2% giving, maybe we won’t make it all the way to 10% in a year, but maybe we make it to 3% next year, and 4% the year after that. God will help you grow in mercy. If we’re simply throwing an occasional ten or twenty in the plate from time to time, maybe we make it a priority to establish a regular giving pattern, maybe $50 a month. God will help you grow in mercy. After all, we are the people of mercy, people who belong to the God of mercy.
And ultimately the mercy of God is what truly matters. Maybe we never quite make it to that level of giving and trust that our Lord asks of us. Maybe we never fully embrace the attitude and life of mercy our Lord has placed before us in his church. That won’t change the fact that he had still embraced us. He has claimed each of us in the water of baptism, and is working each day to shape us into people of mercy. Whatever your attitude toward stewardship and giving was when that process began in you, and whatever it is when the process ends, God is still at work in you. You still belong to him. And because he is a God of mercy, he will make us to people of mercy, he will inspire mercy in his church.
May he who has begun this good work in us bring it to completion today, and in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. +INJ+