Psalm 23; Micah 6:8; Matthew 5:7
The Rev. Tom Herbek
April 30, 2017
At the time of the writing of the New Testament, anything other than justice was considered to be foolishness.
To the Greco-Roman world, mercy was a character flaw; the ideal was justice. Since mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it was contrary to justice. This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues — that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful. Moreover, the corollary- that because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another- was something entirely new.
Perhaps even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and mercy must extend beyond the boundaries of family and tribe; indeed, that it must even extend beyond the Christian community.
In her book, Stitches, Anne LaMott tells a story about mercy in the San Francisco area:
In 1995, there was a huge and devastating fire on the long, majestic ridge that runs for miles out to the bay. Four older teenage boys from the town had camped at Mount Vision overnight, illegally, had built a campfire, buried it under dirt when they left in the morning, and caused a fire that destroyed 12,000 acres of wilderness area and nearly fifty homes.
Helicopters saved the town with water from the bay; the water was dropped on the pine forest between the town and the burning ridge. But the loss of wildlife was unimaginable: birds, deer, coyote, bobcats, mountain lions, beavers. It was as if a bomb had fallen.
Columnist Jon Carroll at the San Francisco Chronicle published a letter from a reader a few weeks after the fire. The writer described the heroism of the firefighters, the community’s round-the-clock efforts to save whatever could be saved, the generosity and-compassion we’ve come to expect after natural and man-made catastrophes, the coming together.
The four teenage boys who had accidentally started the fire turned themselves in early on, with their parents beside them.
A firefighter had written a letter to a local paper, which the Chronicle letter-writer described, about how carefully the boys had tried to put out the fire. Though they had extinguished the flames, embers were still burning underground. The boys hadn’t known this could be a fire danger. They’d left.
There is one action all grateful and grieving communities take: holding a picnic where speeches are given, tears shed, sighs heaved, everyone overeats, and all that sneaky extra breath helps people start to breathe deeply again. A picnic was held to honor the firefighters. The whole town turned out. The president of the board of firefighters gave a speech, but at the end, he digressed from what you might have expected him to say.
He talked about how in ancient times, people who did damage to a town were sent to live outside its walls, beyond the pale, or boundary, beyond community, beyond inclusion and protection. He mentioned the four young men who had started the Mount Vision fire, and that he had heard that their families were thinking of moving away. He thought the town should make it clear to the families that they should stay, that they were wanted, that they were needed.
There was sustained applause. People whose houses had burned down came up to the speaker to say they agreed with this plan. The town wanted these young men inside the pale, inside the ring of protection.
The author of the letter to the Chronicle wrote: “So what seems to me to be happening is that this community, which has just fought so stubbornly to save itself from a holocaust, has turned, almost without missing a beat, to try to save the future of four young men.”
Mercy is often the only way to save the future of people- people of all ages- who society says deserve only justice. In the musical “Les Miserables” based on Victor Hugo’s magnificent novel, we first find the prisoner Jean Valjean ready to be released from prison after 19 years. His crime? Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread by breaking a window pane. His sister’s child was close to death from starvation; he was trying to feed her, but he was caught. A thief will not be tolerated. Justice has been done. And as Jean Valjean is leaving prison, the law-and-order figure of Javert tells him not to forget that Javert will be watching him unless Jean Valjean learns “the meaning of the law”.
In the next scene, Valjean has been arrested again, this time for stealing the bishop’s silver. Valjean has lied to the constables, telling them that the bishop gave him the silver that was found on him. When Valjean is brought before the bishop, he fully expects that the bishop will throw him back into prison again. But the bishop says, instead: “But my friend, you left so early. Something surely slipped your mind. You forgot I gave these also. Would you leave the best behind? So, messiers, you may release him. For this man has spoken true. I commend you for your duty and God’s blessing go with you. And remember this, my brother, see in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.”
Valjean has now been changed by this unexpected treatment. Rather than justice, he has been shown mercy. But even more than mercy, he has been shown love.
The bishop chose to save the future of this one man.
And Jesus said that the merciful will be blessed because they are the ones who will be able to receive mercy, to know God’s mercy. And the prophet Micah called on the people to do what is just, but to love mercy, and to walk very humbly with God.
In her brand new book, entitled Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, Anne LaMott describes Micah:
More often than not, the North Star that guides me through the darkness is the Old Testament prophet Micah. He must have looked like a complete stoner or a Game of Thrones extra, and smelled like a goat, yet nearly three thousand years ago, he spoke the words that often remind me of my path and purpose: “What doth God require of thee but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
Oh, is that all? Justice, mercy, and humility? That’s nice. Right off the bat I can tell you that “walk humbly with thy God” is not going to happen anytime soon, for me or my closest friends. Arrogance ‘R Us. My humility can kick your humility’s butt.
What Micah is talking about is grad school curriculum, while, spiritually speaking, I remain in junior high school, superior and cringing at the same time. And “to do justice” may be a trick, since we all think we do this anyway. We think that if our values aren’t the correct ones, we would have other ones, which would then be the correct ones.
What if we know that forgiveness and mercy are what heal and restore and define us?
Just to hear the words “mercy” or “merciful” can transform the whole day, because as the old saying goes, the soul rejoices in hearing what it already knows. Something lights up in me. We know mercy is always our salvation.
I came into this world with mercy for nearly everyone, everywhere, and for all cats and dogs at the pound. A fat lot of good it did me. By five years old, I had migraines and the first signs of OCD. By about age six, along with innocence and wonder and truth, I put away childish things. They said to, the people in charge of keeping me alive. I did.
So I put it away, and I got it out only when it wouldn’t threaten my grades, my safety, my parents’ self-esteem, my child’s life, or mine. I came here with a huge open heart, like a big, sweet dog, and I still have one. But some days the only thing that can cheer me up is something bad happening to someone I hate, preferably if it went viral and the photo of the person showed hair loss and perhaps the lifelong underuse of sunscreen.
My heart still leaps to see this. I often recall the New Yorker cartoon of one dog saying to the other: “It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail.” This is also the human condition.
Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all. Do you want this, or do you want to be right? Well, can I get back to you on that?
When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like, especially a truly awful person, including ourselves, we experience a great spiritual moment, a new point of view that can make us gasp. It gives us the chance to rediscover something both old and original, the sweet child in us who, all evidence to the contrary, was not killed off, but just put in the drawer.
I realize now how desperately, how grievously, I have needed the necessary mercy to experience self-respect. It is what a lot of us were so frantic for all along, and we never knew it. We’ve tried for our whole lives to shake it from the boughs of the material world’s trees. But it comes from within, from love, from the flow of the universe; from inside the cluttered drawer.
We are indeed blessed when we are merciful. Anne LaMott is right. It is only when we show mercy that we can begin to become the person we have been created to be. Only then, can we begin to be able to accept God’s mercy and love, not because we deserve it, but because it is the only way that we are given a fresh start, a possible future different from our past.
And the good news is that God has created a spot of mercy within each one of us, longing to get out, a spot that will enable us to truly feel blessed, and to accept the mercy of God for each of us, a gift from the God of love and grace. And when we show mercy to those who journey with us on the journey of life, we never know when our doing so will end up playing a part in saving the future of someone.
“We want you to stay in our community, even after the fire.”
“You forgot the rest of the silver.”
When it comes time to do so, may we step forward in mercy, to save the future of someone who will not be enabled to be transformed in any other way.
And in doing so, we ourselves may then feel the presence of God, walking beside us in an extraordinary way, as we then experience the wonder of walking humbly with our God.