"MERCIFUL" - Psalm 25:1-10; Matthew 5:7

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Texts:Psalm 25:1-10; Matthew 5:7


            Even though this is the last day of March, we continue to be in the midst of “March Madness.” March Madness is the intense, intoxicating, inspired end of the NCAA college basketball tournament. By the end of today, there will be just four teams left playing for the championship next weekend.

            So with basketball on the mind and heart, and so many Carolina, Duke, VT, and UVA fans in this church, I beg a moment of indulgence for another team and another coach – Davidson – which also has more than a few devoted fans in this congregation. I note the “eye-rolling,” but bear with me one moment.

Davidson was NOT in the tournament. I want to share a story about what Davidson coach Bob McKillop did with this year’s team. Last summer, he took the Davidson Wildcats from North Carolina to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp in Poland.

Listen to Coach McKillop’s comment on this trip: “The volatility of our world right now requires a response informed by both a respect for human dignity and an understanding of what happens in its absence. . . . (By taking the team to Auschwitz) we are stepping into a moment in time when, for millions, evil seemed to have triumphed and humanity had vanished. . . . I want (my team) to understand this experience, for life, and to bring it back here, not just as a lesson but to live what they learned.” And McKillop continues: “our world needs leaders who aim to lead and to serve, . . . guided by human instincts and creative and disciplined minds. We need advocates for, and defenders of, human dignity. . . . That is why we are going.” (See Washington Post, July 3, 2018)

The volatility of our world right now continues to reflect our desperate need for respect and human dignity. We have seen too often, and with increasing horror, what happens when respect and human dignity are absent.

We continue in our series from Matthew, chapter 5, listening to the Beatitudes of Jesus. (This coming Friday, 23 of us from this church will stand looking over the Sea of Galilee, at the Mount of Beatitudes, and hear again these words.) When we get to verse 7, there is a noticeable shift in emphasis. In all the Beatitudes that we have heard so far – blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – Jesus blesses “empty” people. As we have pointed out, these are folks who do not usually measure up in the eyes of the world. But Jesus turns things upside down and bestows grace, goodness, blessing on them: theirs if the kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, they will be filled. (See D. Bruner, Matthew, p. 146)

Then when we get to verse 7, take note: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Do you sense the shift? Jesus is not blessing empty people now; Jesus is blessing “full people” SO THAT they can reach out – imitating the One who reached out and blessed them - and therefore be a blessing in the world.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy!

Everyone can be merciful. Everyone. In fact, it is something we should all be CULTIVATING in these days – seeking to be more merciful. How much does our world need MERCIFUL people?!

MERCIFUL is something that is learned. We learn to be merciful. That is certainly why Coach McKillop took his team to Auschwitz. “We need advocates for, and defenders of, human dignity.” We need people who can lead and serve – with commitments, instincts that do not let that kind of horror and hate happen in the world.

MERCY, and MERCIFUL, are very important words in the Bible. When the word applies to God, or to Jesus, it denotes an inner feeling of sympathy,  . . . love, . . .  even forgiveness, which is expressed in helping action. The most frequent Hebrew word for MERCY is HESED – which represents a cluster of attributes of God – love, kindness, mercy, grace, steadfast faithfulness. We heard it in our first lesson – Psalm 25: “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love; for they have been from old. . . . All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love (mercy) and faithfulness” – Hesed.

Hesed – merciful, kind, loyal, loving – is one of the great characteristics of God. As a father welcomes a prodigal son, as a mother who will not forsake a nursing child, God is merciful, shows loving kindness – Hesed – steadfast faithfulness to God’s people.

As God’s people, we are supposed to know what MERCY looks like. God is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God claimed us as a covenant people, delivered us from slavery in Egypt, provided endlessly through the ages. This is God’s MERCY, God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. It comes from the depths of God’s being and manifests itself in concrete acts of compassion and care. Through the ups and downs, God never lets the people go. MERCIFUL. This remains true even now. We are the recipients of God’s goodness and mercy. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.

So Jesus says, “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Jesus is not blessing empty people now; Jesus is blessing “full people” – people who have received so much MERCY from God - SO THAT they can reach out – imitating the One who reached out and blessed them - and they can therefore be a blessing in the world.

God’s people – covered with MERCY – are to live showing mercy.

We live in tough times.

This is how one national columnist put it recently: “the road goes where the road goes. If you travel southbound U.S. 1 long enough, you are not surprised to end up in Key West. If you stay on northbound Interstate 5 long enough, you are not surprised to end up in Canada.  And if you denigrate, demonize and dehumanize long enough, you ought not be surprised to end up in bloodshed. That is arguably the signature lesson of human history, but somehow, the teaching never takes. Each succeeding generation always seems doomed — or perhaps the better word is determined — to re-learn the lesson for itself, each time paying the horrific price of doing so. . . . . But the road goes where the road goes. Meaning that this butchery (the shooting in the Christchurch mosque) is the predictable result of rising international intolerance, of singling out this group or that and declaring that these people are the source of our misery, the monster in the dark, that they are not like us, do not share our humanity and are undeserving of our compassion.” (L. Pitts, Miami Herald, March 19, 2019) MERCY.

Jesus says, “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Mercy – God’s abiding love, God’s steadfast faithfulness, grace and goodness - is received from God. Mercy is learned. We are to practice MERCY: we are to imitate the One who shows so much mercy to us.

MERCIFUL is what Jesus expects from us. MERCIFUL is what Jesus demands from us. The major test of whether we are faithful is NOT whether we are morally tougher, NOT whether we are doctrinally stronger, but whether God’s mercy makes us humanly tenderer – MERCIFUL. That is the measure of faithfulness. (Bruner, p. 146)

The MERCIFUL – like God - are the ones who come to the aid of the needy. The MERCIFUL are those who are not only prepared to put up with their own troubles, but also take on other peoples’ troubles. 

So this Beatitude (5:7) reflects another shift – it is not just a fact – the poor in spirit receive the Kingdom, or those who mourn are comforted, or the meek inherit the earth. This Beatitude is EXHORTING us too. The MERCIFUL are blessed – which is a fact. AND it becomes an exhortation. You know what exhortation means, right? An exhortation is a communication that urges us to do something! This beatitude affirms and exhorts us - shows us a way to live – showing mercy!

If we are talking sincerely about MERCY and showing mercy, and being MERCIFUL, where should we begin? How do we begin?

I think it is very important to begin with ourselves. I think I could argue that so much of the incivility, so much of the hatred and disdain that flows through our culture emerges from sad lives, . . . sick souls, . . . broken and lonely spirits. The hatred, the violence, the anxiety – this is a symptom of people so far removed from what God intends: community, compassion, commitment to one another, the common good for all.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

What if we start with ourselves, and showing mercy to ourselves?

Listen to this poem by Sarah Are, who used to worship here when she was part of UKIRK at VCU, and who is now a Presbyterian pastor in Texas, and also part of Sanctified Art – of which our own Hannah Garrity is a partner. This is called “A Letter to Someone I Love:”

Dear loved one—
I hope you let go.
I hope you let go of holding yourself to impossible standards.
Lower the bar. Give yourself grace.
God delights in who you are.
And while you’re at it, I hope you let go of ignoring your beauty.
The mirror is tired of your harsh words,

for you are made of star stuff and music.

You are the only you there is,

and you. are. simply. stunning.
And I hope you’ll consider letting go of certainty.
For the sun will always rise and set,

and you will always be loved.
What more do we really need to know than that?
So let go of your fear.
Let go of perfection.
Let go of busyness as a sign of your self worth,
And the notion that creativity is a luxury.
Be wild and free.
Plant roots like a redwood,
And a spine like a sunflower;
For the days are short, and you are beautiful.
I love nothing more than to see you happy.
So don’t be afraid to let go.
The only thing you cannot lose is God’s evergreen love.

                                    (Sarah Are, Sanctified Art, Lent 2019)

Blessed are the merciful – show mercy to yourself. Then absolutely you can be MERCIFUL to everyone you meet.

This is how Czech writer and leader, Victor Havel, put it: “responsibility cannot be preached but only borne, and the only possible place to begin is with oneself.”

Each of us, so covered by MERCY from the beginning of time, from before we knew our names, so loved and blessed, so claimed and called, then lives with MERCY. It is the measure of Christian life. It is not about being tough; it is about being tender. It is not about competition, but about compassion. Compassion – MERCY – loving-kindness - the word – means “understanding,” offering sympathy and care, empathizing with others; it means putting ourselves “under,” standing under others. We have received so much MERCY, we offer MERCY. And then when we do, it only multiplies – the MERCIFUL receive MERCY.

We are pretty close to a merciless society, it seems. A merciless society is really not a society. God has a better way. Can we listen? Can we participate?

This is how Eugene Peterson translates this Beatitude in The Message: Blessed are you when you care. At the moment of being care-full (meaning ‘full of care’) . . . .you find yourself cared for.

This is an important word for my own life. This is a pertinent word for our times. This is an important word for new officers – ordained and installed today. This is always an important word – which leads to life and life in abundance: blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  May it be so. Amen.

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to stand with you, serve you, extend mercy – well – that is to abide forever. We seek that way following Jesus. Amen

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on March 31, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.

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