Putting Mercy into Practice

Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38


Sermon

Good morning. As I was preparing my sermon this week, and studying our reading from the Gospel of Luke, I felt like I was watching a documentary on TV. But not a really good documentary like you might see on PBS. You know, like those really expensive nature documentaries, where a camera crew goes to Africa for two years and follows a pride of lions, or Antarctica and follows a colony of penguins. And then it’s narrated by Sir David Attenborough or Morgan Freeman. A really good documentary lasts at least an hour, maybe two, with no commercial breaks. And a great documentary is something like a Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War or World War II; it’s narrated by David McCullough and it’s shown over a week or two. Those are great documentaries, right?

Okay, I know some of you zoned out when I said “documentaries.” And maybe some of you think I’m getting a little too worked up about this. You’re not necessarily wrong. But bear with me.

If those are examples of good or great documentaries, the alternative is what you find on most of cable TV, on The History Channel or Discovery Channel or VH1. The documentaries you find on those networks are, well, average. The narrator is usually some washed-up actor, like William Devane—and if it’s a really bad documentary, you’ll also see a commercial with William Devane pitching some bad investments, like gold or silver.

In all fairness, there are some interesting things on some of the cable networks, but what makes those documentaries average, at best, is that they have lots of commercials. In fact, a lot of that content is produced for people who are just flipping through the channels, hoping to land on something interesting, rather than, say, watching another commercial with William Devane. So, even when there is interesting content in a documentary, every time the program returns from a commercial break, it has to review what was in the previous segment, before the commercial break.

The reading for this morning is a continuation of last Sunday’s reading; this section of the Gospel of Luke is called the Sermon on the Plain. We heard the first part of Jesus’ sermon last week, with “blessed are the poor.” This week’s reading really belongs with last week’s, but there’s too much text here for one sermon, so it’s like a cable TV documentary. The kind of documentary that’s interesting, but if you miss bits and pieces of it, it’s not a big deal.

So, for those of you who weren’t here last Sunday and you’re tuning back into this channel, or if you had a busy week and you don’t fully remember last week’s message, here’s a quick recap: this sermon is about the kingdom of God. We get our first glimpse of what the kingdom looks like for Luke in Mary’s Magnificat, which is found in the first chapter. In Mary’s vision, the poor are lifted up, the hungry are fed; the rich and the powerful are made humble.

This is Luke’s vision of the kingdom of God. Everyone has enough. The hungry are fed, and with the best food. The poor are lifted up, lifted up to a level place. Jesus doesn’t speak to them from a mountain top or even a mountain side. Jesus comes to them and meets them where they are—on a level place. Everyone is equal in the kingdom of God.

In seminary, I was taught to look for the problems in a text, the things that are difficult for the congregation to understand. But this isn’t hard to understand at all. These are simple teachings for disciples who are called to build the kingdom of God. There’s no hidden meaning in the words, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

This isn’t hard to understand, it’s hard to do. The sad truth is, we don’t want to love our enemies. We don’t want to give to everyone who begs from us. We don’t want to practice mercy all the time, but man, do we ever enjoy judging and condemning! Isn’t it great to feel morally superior?

Yeah. No.

But why is it so hard to change? Why is it so difficult to break out of these patterns? Why is it so hard to humble ourselves? Why are we unable or unwilling to repent?

For some of us, I’m sure, the kingdom of God seems so impossible, so antithetical to our own reality, that we don’t want to work that hard to make it a reality. Maybe we don’t believe it’s even possible. More than once, someone has said to me, “Pastor, that’s not realistic!” Maybe we like our reality more or less as it is. And either way, we look for reasons why we don’t have to live into these teachings. We look for reasons why this stuff doesn’t apply to us.

How many times have you seen a homeless person on the street or in a parking lot, and you did everything you could to avoid eye contact? Or you pretended you didn’t have any cash when you were asked for money? And then afterwards, you thought to yourself, “hey, he was just gonna use that money to buy liquor or drugs.” I know I’ve thought and done all those things, too.

In the process, we twist the scriptures so that we can be more comfortable with an unpleasant reality. We turn the kingdom of God into some far away heaven, some eternal reward after we die, and all we have to do is believe in the right way and we’re in. And then we construct our identities around the things of the world as it is: our jobs, our possessions, the color of our skin, our political brands, the places we live, etc. These are all things of this world, and we use these things to construct our identities, rather than our identity in Christ; rather than our identity as disciples who are called to build the kingdom of God here on Earth.

The way out of this trap, this spiritual dead end, as always, is to follow Jesus. Jesus always models the correct behavior. This is why we need to remember our context, our reading from last week; we need to remember that this is part of the Sermon on the Plain, in which Jesus came down from the high place to preach his sermon.

We can’t separate this Sunday’s instructions from last Sunday’s stage directions. These are instructions for building AND maintaining the kingdom. I don’t think the kingdom is entirely without conflict or disagreement, but it’s a place where conflict doesn’t spin out of control. It’s a place where people who disagree are reconciled to one another. We are called to work toward building that kingdom here on Earth.

I saw an interesting example of that work the other day on Facebook. Yes, Facebook. One of my clergy friends posted a link to a column in USA Today by a woman named Kirsten Powers. Now, I’d heard her name before, but I couldn’t remember who she was; I had to look her up. She’s a political commentator. She was on Fox News for a while where she often served as the liberal foil to Bret Baier or Bill O’Reilly. She now serves as an analyst on CNN.

I don’t get my news from cable TV, nor do I read USA Today, so I didn’t have any sense of what Powers’ politics were before I read her column. The headline was irresistible: “Kirsten Powers: I’m not proud of the role I’ve played in toxic public debate. I plan to change;” part of the sub-heading read, “it’s critical to remember that people are not the sum of their worst moments in life.”[1] She went on to say the following:

I recently took a hiatus from social media to reflect on what role I might be playing in our increasingly toxic public square. I was not proud of what I found.

During this time, I reflected not just on my behavior on social media, but also in my public expressions both on TV and in my columns. I looked back over the past decade of my work with a clear eye to assess whether I was shedding light on issues or just creating heat. I cringed at many of the things I had written and said. Many I would not say or write today, sometimes because my view has changed on the issue and sometimes just because I was too much of a crusader, too judgmental and condemning. What’s interesting is that at the time, I was convinced that I was righteous and “speaking truth” and therefore justified behaving as I did, and that anyone who didn’t like it just “couldn’t handle the truth.”[2]

I was struck by her tone of humility and her willingness to let go of a position of moral superiority. I think many of us like to occupy that place, and it probably prevents us from doing some of the kingdom building to which we’re called.

What really stood out for me in the column were the words, “too judgmental and condemning.” It’s like she had read our lesson from the Gospel of Luke before she wrote her column. In fact, she wrote a lot about mercy and grace and humility and the need to stop scapegoating others. Clearly, she’s very familiar with the Scriptures, even if she hadn’t read the Sermon on the Plain right before she wrote her column. And it certainly seems like she is committed to living what Jesus has taught in that Sermon.

My point is not to hold Kirsten Powers up as a model for righteousness. But it never hurts to have a reminder of what repentance looks like. Neither does it hurt to have a template for speaking and acting with love and mercy. It begins with self-examination and it continues with concrete actions. That work belongs to all of us, if we wish to be called disciples. Thanks be to God. Amen!

Benediction

Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to follow Jesus, come down from the high places, and meet the crowds of people where they are. We are called to be humble, to set aside our desire for vindication, for judgment, for condemnation of others. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Kirsten Powers, “Kirsten Powers: I’m not proud of the role I’ve played in toxic public debate. I plan to change.” USA Today, Feb. 19, 2019, retrieved from: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2019/02/19/kirsten-powers-covington-apology-twitter-franken-social-media-toxic-column/2915856002/?fbclid=IwAR15H02aMV4XxRJdhaL7MPMpneiVfiWe90NLXyoTKT0dt8NwluBSuclhDtI


[2] Powers.

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First Presbyterian Church of Freehold

732-462-0234

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118 West Main Street

Freehold, NJ 07728

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