June 18, 2017: "Mercy"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
June 18, 2017
Genesis 18:1-15 & Matthew 9:35-10:8
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the week behind us was just another week where it seemed impossible to escape bad news. On Wednesday, a fire tore through a 24-story West London apartment building, killing at least 58 people and injuring many more. According to the New York times, the building was not compliant with fire safety codes recently put in place by the British parliament. On Thursday, James Hodgkinson gunned down Representative Steve Scalise while Scalise was practicing for a congressional baseball game. The police later learned that the shooter was an extremist, calling on social media for the assignation of the President and members of Congress. On Friday, Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in the murder trial of Philando Castile in St. Anthony, Minnesota, even though cellphone video showed that Castile complied with the officer and posed no serious threat. Yesterday, 7 U.S. sailors went missing after their ship collided with a merchant ship off the coast of Japan, and the case against Bill Cosby was declared a mistrial because the jury could not reach a decision. These are just the stories that made the nightly news.
Midway through this week I was left wondering: what does a Christian do in times like these? I’m not the first to ask and I won’t be the last. What is our responsibility as followers of Christ when something as innocent as a baseball game is no longer safe? How should followers of Christ feel and act when the pursuit of wealth leads companies and corporations to cut corners at the cost of human life, as was the case in the London apartment fire? Does the Gospel have something to say when police officers murder innocent people, or when protesters murder innocent police officers, or for the fact that we no longer flinch in hearing that someone was gunned down in the street? What do Christians do in the presence of immense and sometimes random loss? What does a Christian do in times like these?
As God would have it, today’s Scripture lessons offer wisdom in this. In both, we hear the powerful theme of mercy. When three angels visit Abraham at Mamre, in the heat of the day, Abraham wasted no time in making sure his guests were watered and fed. Abraham had no concern for who they were or where they had come from; he was only concerned with how he could show hospitality to these strangers. In this, Abraham had mercy on the travelers. When Jesus saw the crowds who had come to hear him preach, and to be healed, Matthew says that he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless. Christ then sends his disciples out to heal and cure and cast out. Christ’s compassion for the crowds is identical to the compassion Abraham had for the traveling angels. Christ’s compassion for the crowds points our attention to the nature of Christ’s ministry and to the nature of our calling as his followers. What does a Christian, a person of faith in God, do in times like these? We practice and show mercy.
Let’s think for a moment about what that means. Abraham showed mercy in the act of hospitality. Abraham was hospitable to the angels not just because he was a good man, but because his faith demanded it. In the book of Leviticus, God says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” God calls the Israelites to acts of hospitality with strangers because the Israelites themselves were once strangers in a foreign land. Hospitality is not just something nice to do. Hospitality is an act of gratitude by those who were once prisoners, oppressed, treated as less than human. Abraham and his people were mostly nomadic, so they were dependent on the kindness of others. And they were called to be aware of those who depended on the same. Hospitality turns a stranger into a friend, it humanizes the dehumanized, and it turns an enemy into someone who poses no threat. Hospitality fosters understanding and peace, and it is the stuff on which God builds the Kingdom. Hospitality is mercy.
Christ showed mercy quite differently and in a not-so-touchy-feely-kinda way. Matthew says that when Christ was moved by the helpless and harassed crowds, he summon his twelve disciples. Then Christ gave them authority, not to perform acts of hospitality, but over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every diseases and every sickness. He sent the disciples out with instructions to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. I heard it said this week that if a church used this as their mission statement, it is likely that they wouldn't attract many members. Christ gave his disciples permission to have mercy on the crowds by casting out of them everything and anything that stood in opposition to God. In doing this, by showing mercy with healing and raising the dead and cleansing and exorcisms, it would be clear that the kingdom of God has come near.
These Scriptures and their call to mercy run right up against our experience here and now, today, and two things are true here. The first truth is that we are harassed and helpless, like the crowds that came to hear Jesus preach, and we are wandering and tired and hungry and thirsty like the angels who appeared to Abraham. The good news of the Gospel is that in our most desperate time of need, Christ gave himself fully so that we might claim the life God desires for us all. The Apostle Paul says that when we were at our weakest, when were at our most desperate, when we had no other options, Christ died for us. And not only did he die for us, he rose for us, he ascended into heaven for us, and he now sits at God’s right hand where he prays for us.
The second truth in these Scriptures is that God offers mercy to strangers and the harassed and helpless and invites us to take part in that response. Just like Abraham, God calls us to be hospitable to strangers, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because at one time were strangers in need of a generous host. Just like the disciples, God sends us out with authority to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. When we encounter someone who is sick, in mind or in body, our obligation is enter into their suffering with them by offering healing with the very presence of our bodies. When we encounter someone who is walking around dead, who is alive but is just shuffling through until the end, our obligation is to tell them that there is more, that there is love, that there is life, and then show them what those words mean. Some may say that lepers are not a thing anymore, that lepers where just something of the Bible. But we see and meet them every day: they are those who have been pushed out, pushed away, pushed down because something about them, physical or not, is displeasing, unacceptable, not the status quo according to society. Jesus shows us how to reach out and touch them with kindness, with welcoming, with divine love. And when it comes to demons, there are many that need to be cast out: the demon of material obsession, the demon of corporate and personal greed, the demon of self-righteousness and arrogance, the demon of fear.
My friends, Jesus Christ has given us authority to go out in his name and show mercy to a harassed and helpless world; God has called us to acts of simple hospitality. Our faith gives us authority to show mercy to those who are most in need, and today we must decide how we will act, what we will do, how we will respond as creation continues to groan for its redemption. Will we hide away and cower in the face of violence and death? Will we sit back and stay quiet until the roll is called up yonder? Will we continue to allow injustice and fear and separation and ignorance to trample us and all of God’s people? Or will we answer Christ’s call, showing mercy in all we do and say? Will we answer Christ’s call by opening our hearts and homes to the alien, to the stranger, to the guest? When we do, it will become clear that the kingdom of God has come near and that there is nothing, nothing, that can keep it from transforming you and me and all of creation. For Christ’s sake I hope and pray that we answer this call today. Amen.