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Rev. Mel Williams, Watts Street Baptist Church
Durham, North Carolina
August 2, 2009
Available online at: http://www.wattsstreet.org/n/blessed_are_the_merciful.html
Text: Matthew 5:1-8
To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress…
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.
William Blake was a poet who understood the meaning of mercy—the unearned, undeserved gift of God’s grace. Mercy is the character of God; mercy is God’s very self-understanding. When we beg for mercy, or forgiveness, we are reaching for God, for God is mercy. This is the character of God, stated throughout the Old Testament: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
The reason we spend our life reaching for God, to find connection and communion with God, is that we have a need to deepen our own capacity to be merciful. Mercy is essential to the Christian life. But it’s more than tossing a few coins to a beggar at the corner. With this Beatitude Jesus turns mercy into a whole way of life—a life which is blessed.
To be merciful is a struggle, for when we are wronged, we want revenge; we want to strike back. Punishment is a way of life in this country. We have more people in prison than any other industrialized nation; and most of those imprisoned have dark skin and a background of poverty, lacking the skills needed to make it in this increasingly technological society. People of color who are poor are the ones we punish most often; and the death penalty is the ultimate punishment—the antithesis of mercy.
Mercy is lovingkindness, tenderness, compassion. The father in the Prodigal Son story offers a clear example of mercy. The wayward son grabs his inheritance and wastes the money in foolish living. Then he comes to his senses and hopes to be taken back as a hired hand on his father’s farm. In other words, he expects only justice. But he receives mercy. His father exemplifies chesed, the Hebrew word meaning loving-kindness—mercy. The father will have nothing less than full reinstatement of his son. He runs to meet him, throws his arms around him and kisses him. Luke says, “His heart went out to him.” (Luke 15:20) And he throws a party to celebrate.
My friend Sr. Evelyn Mattern has written,” Mercy is the fulfillment of justice. It requires justice as a minimum.” (Evelyn Mattern, Blessed Are You: The Beatitudes and Our Survival, p. 86) But mercy is not popular with a lot of people. It wasn’t popular with the Elder Brother. He snorted and chafed at the generous welcome his father gave his rebellious brother. The Elder Brother embodies the strident attitude of too many of us. When we’ve been hurt or offended, we don’t want to offer mercy; we want revenge. We want punishment, not a party!
How can we move from bitterness to mercy? How can we move from being punitive to being merciful? I remember Marietta Jaeger speaking from this pulpit many years ago. Her daughter had been killed as she slept in a tent on a family camping trip. Marietta said she was filled with hatred for the man who killed her daughter. She wanted revenge. But she said, “After being miserable with anger, God changed my heart.” Then she began working to spare the life of the accused man. She said, “His death would never bring my daughter back.” It’s a wrenching story; but Marietta’s conversion came as a gift of God’s grace.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. I don’t think this beatitude means that we must be merciful before we are given mercy. But this Beatitude implies that acting in a merciful way can lead us toward being merciful. Action changes our feelings and motives. On the other hand, it’s clear to me that God’s character is mercy, and God reaches out to all of us in mercy and forgiveness. Once we have truly received the mercy, allowing it to permeate our heart, then we are given a merciful heart. As Thomas Merton wrote, “Mercy within mercy, within mercy.”
When we receive forgiveness over and over, as we are offered every Sunday in our worship, then we draw closer to the heart of God. The heart of God is mercy. When God’s heart and our hearts meet, then we become merciful. And that is an enormous blessing.
It’s such a blessing that today we’re throwing a little party to celebrate. At this Table today we celebrate the mercy, the lovingkindness, the forgiveness that is at the heart of God and at the heart of our faith; and by God’s grace, at the heart of each one of us.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Let us pray. God, help us today to reflect on the person in our life we need to offer mercy. Is there someone toward whom we are resentful and punitive? Change us, O God. And help us, God, to see where in our life we need to receive mercy. Show us the way, that we may be merciful; and that, by your grace, we may receive mercy. Amen.
This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith. We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality. This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.
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