Friday, December 14, 2012
Mercy's works work...
Mercy has morphed into good deeds done by do-gooders who believe they can change the world. It has become confused with a social gospel which sees the purpose of faith to fix the world's wrongs. The focus is on the deeds or upon the progress in the goal of fixing wrongs and making them right.
Mercy is often falsely seen as a soft virtue and characterized as flexible and malleable instead of solid and strong. Mercy is women's work. Real men are not cut out for mercy. Strangely, however, when the apostles found themselves impossibly stretched between the proclamation of the Word and the serving of tables or diakonia, they did not choose godly women but seven men filled with the Spirit. They saw mercy not as something soft but something strong - a love strong enough to serve and sacrifice is love that comes from our Lord who served us and sacrificed Himself for us.
In truth, mercy is not caring – at least not only caring. Mercy is not mere empathy or sympathy. Mercy is doing to others and for others what Christ has done to you and for you. The work of mercy is the work of the Gospel. It is neither optional nor extra. It is intrinsic to the faith. John insists that love is from God and those who love are born of God and those who do not love do not know God because God is love. We cannot cooperate with God for our salvation but we are expected to will, desire, and live out that which is holy and good in cooperation with God in sanctification.
Jesus draws all kinds of broken and needy people to Himself. He does not ignore their wounds to focus upon their spirits. He touches the whole of the person. And therein is the key. Mercy involves touch. It means touching the lives of others with the love that has touched us in Christ, touching the untouchables as Christ has touched us, and bridging the gap between us and them – in the same way that our Lord has bridged the gap between sinners marked for death and a holy and righteous God. Love is not born of weakness but of strength. Only the strong can love.
The work of mercy is strong. Take a look at the New Testament and you see mercy all through it. St. Paul speaks about how if one member suffers, all suffer. It is not that they might or could, they DO! St. Paul insists that the poor in Jerusalem are the concern even of Gentile mission congregations planted far from Israel – people who were not so sure Gentiles could belong to the Kingdom without first becoming Jews. For the better part of a decade St. Paul keeps the need of the poor so far away in the forefront of the mission mind set. He does so not by compelling but by the irresistible force of love – by speaking the Gospel to people and holding them accountable to the consequences of that love.
Mercy is not self-gratifying. Though we may feel good because we are doing good, doing good is its own end. The good we do is not some vague or generic sense of well-being. It is doing what Christ has done for us. Mercy sees the world through the lens of the cross. The Church cannot afford to be unconcerned about truth and doctrine but neither can we afford to be only concerned about truth and doctrine.
Mercy is the practice of what we confess. Mercy is part of our bold confession before the world. In order for our confession to be orthodox, it must be accompanied by works of mercy. Doctrine and love are not opposites; love for neighbor is the Gospel in practice.
Mercy cannot cajoled or begged. You do not shame or guilt or talk people into works of mercy. Think of the parental example. We are demeaned when we are left to guilting or manipulating or bribing our kids to do what is right. God will not do that with us. He gives us the Gospel. The fruit of the Gospel is mercy works. It comes with the territory. We have a merciful Savior so we will be a merciful people. The vocation of mercy came to us in our baptism. The Church merely provides a venue for us to live out that vocation, supported and strengthened by the means of grace.
Mercy is service to others and service for others. It is foot washing the unworthy and undeserving as Christ has cleansed our feet in the waters of baptism. It is not for effect or for reward but simply because this is what Christ has done for us. The idea that God asks or expects from us only those things we want to or willing to do is foolish and false. The works of mercy we are called to do are not a reflection of spiritual gift but of baptismal vocation to do as Christ has done.
Mercy is sacrificial. Mercy cannot be done with leftovers or cast offs or things you do not love. The tools of mercy are always the things we value most of all. Let me say that again. The tools of mercy are always the things we value most of all. The act of mercy is giving away what you want for yourself. The act of mercy is giving away what Christ has given you. Again, the example of the parent. We do not give our children the cast offs of our time, money, or attention but our best – not because they deserve it but because that is what a parent does. So for works of mercy.
Mercy transcends every earthly barrier – gender, economic stature, personal status, race, etc... We show forth mercy not in expectation of receiving something but in spite of the fact that mercy costs us what we have come to call our own – time, talent, treasure.
Mercy is always cross shaped. The good we do is good that shows forth our Savior. We love because He first loved us... We serve because He served us even to giving His life as a ransom for our sin. We care because He cared for us in all our need and broken-ness.
Mercy begins with "what can I do?" It is not what I want or what comes easy for me or what I have experience for... Mercy begins with what can I do. Period.
Mercy is not seasonal – not for when we feel like it or it is expected of us. Mercy is 24/7. Mercy does not sleep nor does it get done enough for now.
Mercy does not respect dignity; mercy bestows dignity. It does not honor value; it bestows value upon those it serves... those we serve. We were nobodies apart from God's mercy in Christ to make us somebodies. That is what mercy does. It confers value and bestows dignity upon those whom we serve – just as Christ has done for us.
Sadly, we have grown more parochial over time. Sin always places blinders upon us. It is the great temptation of Christians to baptize these blinders, justify them, and excuse them. Charity begins at home. God helps those who help themselves. Soon we begin to believe that this is Scriptural and faithful. But this is the voice of sin talking – it is not the voice of the Spirit. It is the voice of fear talking. Perfect love casts out fear. Christ does not choose between needs and needy. Neither can we.
Grace is not diminished by sharing. In fact, just the opposite. What God gives to us in Christ is magnified by sharing. It is too easy for faith to be merely an act of the mind or the will instead of a response of the whole self to God's mercy towards us. So Scripture insists that love for God and love for neighbor are not distinct but intertwined. The one who says he loves God but has no love for nor compassion toward the neighbor is a liar, deceiving himself and acting fraudulently toward God.
Mercy works in the home as husband and wife forgive each other and submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Such mercy is not earned by the spouse but given freely toward the other – as Christ has for us. In the home children learn this mercy first hand as they see mom and dad love, forgive, and bear with one another's weakness in love. Mercy does not remain in the home. It is the public face of faith, first in the Church. Remember that in the early church what compelled the crowds to consider Christianity was the love Christians had for each other. Mercy begins with the household of faith but it does not end there. Mercy moves outside the home and church because it is the public face of faith also in the world.
We have an incredibly rich gift of God in the mercy with which He has seen us, loved us even to death on the cross, and cares for all our needs of body, soul, and spirit. Mercy takes this gift and passes it on. You can organize it but you do not have to. In fact mercy works best when each of us live out our daily lives doing the works of mercy where opportunity provides and the Spirit encourages us. We organize it only when the individual no longer manifests mercy spontaneously.
Am I my brother's keeper? Of course you are. Not because you choose to be, but because Your brother Christ became Your keeper. Mercy does not keep score or check the balance sheet. It may work and its fruits may be seen by you and enjoyed by you but most of the time we do not see nor enjoy the fruit born by the seeds of love we plant as Christian people. Parenting bears no guarantee that you will live to see your children acknowledge and appreciate your sacrifices for them. But that is not why we do them. It would be nice if we could know that one day before we die our children will say, “Dad, mom, you really are the smartest, most loving, and most giving people I know.” We do not protect, care for, love and serve them in hopes they will appreciate it. It comes with the territory. So with works of mercy in church and in the world. We do not wait for recognition nor do we need accolades to do for others what Christ has done for us.
Mercy works are God's works to us shown through us... and because of that, mercy works. Period. Amen.