What it's really about
|Lakewood Cemetery Chapel ceiling, Minneapolis, MN|
Beatitude Series - Part 4
"Blessed are the Merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."
Mercy, it is said, means to show forgiveness or compassion to someone whom it is within your power to punish or within your right to ignore. Mercy is unearned. Undeserved. and Unexpected.
Who in our world can show mercy?
The one with the power, who could give you what you deserve, but instead decides to let you off easy, that’s who can show mercy, if they so choose. The school principal, the boss, the prison warden or the DMV clerk. Whoever holds the cards in the given situation is the one who can show mercy.
Then there are those exceptional human beings, those rare truly good people who seem nearly never mess up and are basically beyond reproach, that seem to be able to show mercy. The Pope, or Mother Theresa, or the person who quits their job to run a soup kitchen in the inner city or sells everything they own to open an orphanage in a war-torn African country. They could hold others to the high standard they themselves uphold, but instead, they go around blessing the world with their flawlessness and taking pity on others with their mercy.
So basically, in our estimation it comes down to this: Mercy is an option for those in a one up position either actually or morally, the in charge or the super holy. And the people within their right to give mercy, then are rarely, if ever, the ones needing to receive it.
But Jesus isn’t saying that. What he is saying really messes with our system. He says blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Those who are in a position to give mercy could just as easily be on the other end of the phone or the other side of the counter. The merciful are in need of grace as much as anyone else.
This also means that you don’t have to wait until you’re no longer in need of grace yourself to help dispense it. You and I – in whatever pitiful state we find ourselves at a given moment – can show mercy to others.
So here Jesus goes again. This “life as God means for it to be shared” business is full of this sort of surprising and upsetting thing. Where people just go around easing each other’s burdens for no apparent reason. Where people look past bad behavior and lowly standing, to the person underneath.
And mercy is a tough one. Everything would fall apart if people all went around just giving mercy to each other, wouldn’t it? What would become of us if people didn’t get what they deserved? If there were no more distinctions between good people and bad, hard workers and lazy, rich and poor, strong and weak, male and female, Greek and Jew, slave and free?
What in the world would happen, if we really lived in this reality of God’s, in this life as God means for it to be shared, where nobody is above or exempt – and everybody is hanging open – with their flaws all flapping in the wind, and every single person has the opportunity to give someone else “more than they deserve?”
Mercy breaks the game wide open. It reveals the flaws in the system. It lifts up people and shatters shackles and releases captives – you and me – from anger and unforgiveness, from raging jealousy and burning desire for recompense. From self-centeredness and the relentless need earn our worth. It sets us free. It sets others free. It rains down on the world color and light and hope that softens the hard edges and pulls people’s hearts out into the open.
Not everyone will receive mercy, not everyone wants to. Fear keeps us pretty protected. The game seems pretty damn powerful, and grace seems way too good to be true. It’s dangerous and embarrassing.
Sometimes we would rather be punished harshly. Restoring order, so we can feel we’ve paid penance, earned our way back to acceptance. Sometimes it feels wrong to accept grace. Mercy is not always welcomed.
And sometimes we’d rather do whatever we can to show others they are wrong. To make it fair, to keep it just.
But the currency of this way of life God extends to us, the kingdom of God, is mercy. Mercy is what makes it keep moving – keeps us all afloat. So, in on the miracle, then are the people who find ways boost others up – especially when it appears they haven’t especially earned it.
And, it turns out, you don’t have to feel particularly merciful to be merciful. In fact, when you’re owed something, an apology, a mea culpa, recognition, fairness, justice, when you’ve been shorted and here’s your chance to be vindicated, you’d have to be either superhuman or really out of touch to feel all affectionate and bighearted toward the person who owes you.
But not feeling it doesn’t have to stop you from doing it: treating someone as a full human who has not done the same to you. To the one who hurt you, or overlooked you, whose turn it is to feel the sting of humiliation or the just payment for their transgression, when instead you uphold their humanity, and treat them with full dignity, as one made in the image of God, worthy of love and respect, something happens.
To them and to you.
The promise is, you brave souls who step forward in mercy, who reach your hand toward another with no guarantee they will accept or appreciate it, when you may not get the recognition or justice you deserve, You brave souls will receive mercy.
You who have the courage to give it will also find the courage to accept it. That is part of the wholeness of things. You will drink it in and lap it up and let it fill you from the ends your toes to the top of your head. Mercy will wash through you and clean you, refresh you, drop you deep under its surface and pull you up new and clean and washed in blessing.
Mercy changes our hearts and makes it oriented to one thing – it makes us able to see God. When we submit to the mercy, it washes away the hardness and the stuckness and cleans out the arteries and enlivens us to a different way of living in the world. To see God. Who is among us. Between us. Beside us.
To notice. To wake up and recognize the divine holding up all around you, filling all with the breath of life.
In God’s way of life, We’re invited to run on mercy instead of jealousy. On Mercy instead of vengeance. On Mercy instead of anger. On Mercy instead of hurt. Mercy is what turns people into “wounded healers” instead of “wounded wounders.” (gratitude to Glennon Melton for this wording).
And Jesus is saying, you don’t have to get it from someone first in order to give it. God’s already given it. You can jump into the mercy river at any point. You can let it carry you.
On Thursday Dick and Marty showed up to the funeral of someone they’ve never met. Eldon Wenzel Jr. was born on New Year’s Day in 1934, and confirmed at Lake Nokomis in 1948. Beyond that, we knew almost nothing about him. Dick, Marty and I were three of the eight people in attendance. Two former neighbors, Eldon’s sister and two nephews.
Quiet, withdrawn, unassuming, at times difficult. He mostly kept to himself. He didn’t win friends or influence people. This man was misunderstood most of his life; he struggled with physical and mental disabilities that made it hard for people to connect with him and hard for him to connect with others.
I could have said no to this funeral.
A stranger calls from Chicago and asks me to do his uncle’s funeral. I have no obligation to respond to this. I have my own congregation, my own people, my own responsibilities.
Marty could’ve said no to coming. It was the first few hours of an epic storm, and he didn’t know the guy from Adam.
Dick could’ve said no to showing up, he had things to do and people to see – he’s a busy man. But we said yes instead.
And for an hour, inside a breathtakingly beautiful chapel surrounded by graves buried under the silent snow, we stopped and we held up this man. We thanked God for his life.
We heard about the love of his mom who gave her life to caring for him, and in her death 20 years ago, she ensured that he would continue to be cared for in his own home with a whole rotation of cleaners, and meals deliverers, and care assistants and yardworkers. And a gentle picture began to unfold of a web of people whose lives intersected his.
We heard his sister tell about sledding, and hide and seek, and ice cream after church on Sundays. We heard his nephew talk about the devotion of a mother and the hard work and protection of a father and a family – far from perfect- who stuck by each other. We got little peaks into his adult life and his jobs and a lot of wondering what really was and what could have been. Among the eight of us, standing in on behalf of all those who had gone before and who had surrounded him with care throughout his life, Eldon was celebrated and honored.
Mercy. Let there be mercy.
Let us show gentleness and kindness to one another. A woman who doesn’t want to be late to a doctor appointment comes anyway and takes a seat in the chapel. Another one who nodded hello from across the street for 40 years agrees to join the family afterwards at a nearby restaurant for lunch.
The delicate lace of grace that lay over that day, as we stood out in the puddle snow with the sky spitting down on us and clouds threatening the deluge to come, as we looked down at one grave marker, with his father’s name, and next to it, his mother’s name, and right under hers, his own, awaiting him, to be buried in her grave, laid to rest in the arms of the one who sheltered him in this life.
When you are cared for by others, when someone else translates your moods or advocates on your behalf, when you don’t have it left inside you to be duplicitous or cunning, you simply receive. And you simply give. You’re just raw pain, or happiness, contentment, or frustration, or gratitude. And you get a glimpse of something that gets missed by the rest of us who overcomplicate and overfill and overanalyze and overmuddy everything. You see God.
I think Eldon Wenzel Jr. probably saw God all the time.
One day we will all see God. Face to face.
Now we see in the mirror dimly, clouded by our own reflection and our own projections and our drama and baggage.
But one day we will all be pure in heart.
Blessed, then, are the pure in heart for they will see God.
They who welcome mercy. Who’ve been washed in mercy. Who, for whatever reason, have chosen NOT hard and cynical. NOT self-protective and cunning.
Blessed are the trusting. They’re not necessarily savvy, probably not powerful. They may say the wrong thing at the wrong time. They might blurt out their delight when it’s time to be quiet. They likely never quite fit in. And they don’t seem to be much competition.
Maybe it never occurs to them to succumb to the game.
Or maybe they’ve got an inside scoop – maybe they’ve stopped competing because they can see God. Maybe they get it more than the rest of us that life is less about winning and proving and strength and fairness. And it’s more about love. And joy. And grief. And noticing. And mercy.
It seems weak and kind of stupid to go into life like this. You could be taken advantage of and probably will be. You could be seen as irrelevant, and not worthy of respect. You could be overlooked.
But of all the views this life has to offer, the vista you get is God. You get to see God. In the mercy. In the beauty. In the little kindnesses and unseen moments. You’re tuned in to the song the rest of us ignore.
What would the world be without the mercy?
And what would it be without the ones who notice the mercy?
Blessed are we, then, when we jump in that river of mercy, and let it wash through our hearts.
Especially when we’ve no reason to forgive and every right to punish.
And when we’ve no reason to care and every right to ignore.
Especially then, when grace is the last thing expected, Let there be mercy.
Listen to Mercy, by Ben Kyle. (Seriously, do. You'll be glad you did)