Sunday, June 27, 2010

The School of Mercy

Today's sermon for a St. Louis city LCMS church was adapted from the very first sermon I preached after my ordination, a decade ago as the church year flies, based on the one-year Gospel for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, Luke 6:36-42...
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Here our Lord Jesus announces a theme that he carried through his entire ministry. In preaching, in visiting the poor and sick and sinners, and finally on the cross, Jesus described, demonstrated, and acted out God’s mercy toward us sinners. And so he would not only lead us to receive God’s mercy, but he would also school us in the spiritual art of having mercy on others.

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Let us consider what it means to be merciful! Mercy is more than an unmoving feeling of pity for those in need. It compels you to do something, to help the other person, whether you know him or not, whether he deserves your help or not. Almost anyone would agree that it is a good thing to be merciful. But so few people are merciful. We ourselves, God’s children, are not always merciful. We are too apt to weigh our wants and needs against the cost of helping the next person. We often fear being tricked or hurt more than failing to help. We sometimes don’t want to be bothered, or we’re in too much of a hurry to stop and help them. We may pity them, sympathize with them, wish we could do something for them. But that doesn’t make us merciful. Merciful is as merciful does!

Oh, what a wonderful world I could make, if I could reason mercy into people. If all I had to do, to make people merciful, was show them people in need and in trouble, I could build a paradise on earth. If I could point and command: “You! Be merciful at all times and at all costs!” I could end poverty, hunger, disease, crime, and bloodshed. But alas, that doesn’t work! As natural as it is to appreciate the goodness of mercy, it is not in man’s nature to be merciful.

Nevertheless Jesus commands you, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” And this is no empty command. Jesus knows the only way to teach you mercy. God the Father’s mercy toward you, in Christ, is your School of Mercy. Jesus shows us God’s mercy, and only this can teach us to show mercy toward others. Because God has first had mercy on us, we have mercy. God in his mercy sent his Son to bear for us all the wrath and punishment earned by our sin. He delivered us from Satan’s power and from bondage to death and hell. He purchased for us forgiveness of sins and eternal life. So great is God’s mercy from eternity he sought a way to redeem and save us. He has mercifully chosen you, a sinner, born in rebellion against him, and has done all this to save you.

This is the sum and total of all that Jesus taught! Remember his words: “If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Remember what he taught in the Beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Remember the Good Samaritan, a filthy foreigner who had mercy on a man, when upstanding citizens and pillars of the church passed him by. Remember the unmerciful slave, who was forgiven much but refused to forgive a little. Remember the prodigal son, whose Father welcomed him home with open arms. Jesus was always teaching people to understand God’s mercy for them, so that they might also have mercy.

And when we are unmerciful, it is always because we fail to recognize God’s mercy. Can you begrudge your neighbor a few debts, when God has forgiven so many? Can you hold any debt against him, knowing that the debt God canceled is so much greater? It is unthinkable that God should have mercy on such inbred rebels and turncoat traitors as we. Yet he does; and knowing this mercy, how can we not also have mercy? If our sinful nature makes mercy impossible for us, then what of it, now that God has renewed our nature, and made us new creatures, born of water and word and Spirit? Aren’t we members of his body? Then we can be nothing but merciful!

St. John writes in his first Epistle: “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

Forgiveness, love, and mercy are wound together like cords in a rope. God’s love for us is the School of Love in which we learn to love each other. God’s forgiveness for us is the School where he teaches us to forgive. It sounds as if our forgiving is the requirement for God forgiving us. Jesus teaches us to pray, “forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors,” not, “forgive us, and then we shall forgive.” Yet this doesn’t mean that God forgives us because we forgive others. Hear what Martin Luther writes in his Large Catechism:
If you do not forgive, do not think that God forgives you. But if you forgive, you have the comfort and assurance that you are forgiven in heaven. Not on account of your forgiving, for God does it altogether freely, out of pure grace, because he has promised it, as the Gospel teaches. But he has set up this condition for our strengthening and assurance as a sign along with the promise,… “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
So your forgiveness, learned in the school of God’s forgiveness, becomes a sign to assure you of that forgiveness. His promise is true. “Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” purely by grace. Do not forgive, and you show that you neither know God’s mercy nor care for his forgiveness.

Consider what Jesus says in our Gospel: “Give, and it will be given to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.” This is not to say that you earn God’s generosity by being generous, or that your reward is in proportion to what you have given others. God’s gifts are so much more abundant than what you have earned or deserved--his mercy so surpasses your mercy, your faith, even your expectations—that nothing you could do would even approach it.

It’s as if your neighbor came to you and asked for a cup of flour. Suppose you carelessly scooped it out of the flour-bin, just loose flour from off the top, barely enough to fill the cup. Then suppose your neighbor repaid you with the same cup of flour, shaken and pressed and overflowing, so that it puffed all over your shirt. Even so, you end up with more flour in the jar than you had before. In the same way, God repays you so much more than you have spent, that the words, “by your standard of measure,” are an understatement!

No, it is not what you’ve earned. What you’ve earned, O sinner, is no reward at all – no heaven, no forgiveness, no blessing of any kind. All your good works together cannot make up for that. But by grace, God regards you as righteous and holy, on account of Jesus. And by grace, he is pleased by your good works – much more pleased than they deserve. So, as you are merciful, God is merciful to you. As you measure, so it will be measured back to you. If you operate on the basis of merits and deserts, you are rewarded likewise; if you only think of giving your neighbors what they deserve, then think on what you deserve, and beware! But if you deal with them graciously, mercifully, without concern for your rights or advantage, abundantly, regardless of what they deserve – then God will so deal with you. It’s a matter of where your faith is: your works, or God’s grace in Christ. Where do you put your trust? Which religion is lived out in your works?

So God forgives us as we forgive others. But it goes the other way, too. For you learn mercy in the school of God’s mercy. You can only forgive, you can only love, you can only show mercy to another, if you know God’s love and mercy toward you. As John wrote, “We love, because he has first loved us.” Or consider these three parables of Jesus. “A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he? Will they not both fall into a pit?” Can you lead anyone to God’s mercy if you haven’t tasted it? If you don’t have the righteousness of faith in Christ, but some other (false) righteousness, can you lead anyone to the true righteousness? Or won’t you both fall into the pit? Being unrepentant yourself, do you dare call another to repentance? “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, then you can see to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye!”

Is a pupil above his teacher? No. Christ bestows God’s mercy on us to teach us also to be merciful. He ate with sinners and tax collectors; he did not seek those who were rich in things and righteous in their own eyes. He treated the sick and lame and unclean, not those who had no need of a physician. He sought the lost sheep, sinners and outcasts crying for mercy. He was a stumbling block to the “chosen people.” He had no creature comforts, no home or hearth or even a pillow; he went hungry, he was tempted, he sorrowed, he was harassed and persecuted; he touched the untouchable, he held discourse with the unworthy. He became sin for us, a byword, a living horror. He suffered and died for us; and even up to now he chooses the base, foolish things of this world to put to shame all that glistens and shines.

Are we greater than Jesus? Do we know better how to make disciples? Do we dare teach another religion, like today’s apostles of health and wealth? Certainly not, unless we are fully trained and perfect, like our master. And we are certainly not like him if we do not understand God’s mercy and put it into effect. We certainly are not like him if we are not prepared even to suffer and go without and seek the lost and even die, if need be, for the sake of God’s mercy.

Have you met the conditions of God’s mercy? Have you forgiven others, that he should forgive you? Have you been merciful to others, that he should be merciful to you? As I ask myself these questions, an awful feeling gnaws at me. You also should be pierced with the knowledge that you don’t stack up. But fear not; Christ has met these conditions for us, and he has done God’s merciful acts to us. As we live by faith in Him, we not only learn to follow his example – but we also receive the mercies of God through faith. We receive the rewards of being merciful, which only He earned. We receive the promises of God’s mercy without earning them, because Jesus earned them for us.

This School of Mercy is not the kind of school you ever graduate from in this life. Much less do you have to go your whole life on one or two quick lessons or crash courses. We have more than a historical record of God’s mercy played out once in time; more, even, than just a one-time “conversion experience” or baptismal encounter with God’s mercy. Such lessons would fade and dull with time, they would mean less and less to us personally, and soon we would forget God’s mercy entirely. No, God is continuously showing mercy to us. He is always bringing Christ to us, through the preaching and teaching of the Gospel, through the forgiveness of sins, and through the living witness of Scripture. In the Sacrament Christ’s body and blood feed us today with the very substance of God’s mercy.

Yes, sisters and brothers, we have an ongoing School of Mercy here, ever teaching the same lesson: that God is gracious to us purely for Jesus’ sake. Our constant and daily battle with sin always reminds us how deep and undeserved that mercy must be. This ever-flowing fountain of mercy constantly refreshes us. God’s mercy toward us teaches us to show mercy toward others. It’s not like learning to be parents from the way our parents brought us up. A child’s memory is selective, his perspective is flawed, and years will pass before he becomes a parent himself. But as children of God, learning to bring more children into God’s family, we are constantly refreshed, strengthened, and improved by his mercies toward us, constantly unfolded to us in Word and Sacrament, in our daily walk of repentance and faith, and in our edifying fellowship together as members of him. May the mercies of God fill you and pour out in ever greater measure, until the final revealing of his glory in everlasting life. Amen.

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