Fourth Sunday in Lent

Psalm 23
Matthew 5:7

We are in the heart of our Lenten Sermon Series on the Beatitudes. These majestic phrases at the beginning of Matthew are the keynote address of the Sermon on the Mount, which covers chapters 5, 6, and 7….

….While I have you, I want to put a plug in for our Wednesday Lenten opportunities. This Wednesday at noon we will gather at St Stephen’s Episcopal Church as we continue our neighborhood worship and lunches. These are really powerful times of worship and partnership with our Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and other Presbyterian brothers and sisters. Do whatever you need in the afternoon, and come on back. Helen Harrison and her team have a delicious set of meals that roll right into the evening book study to complement this series. Even if you haven’t read the book yet, come join us to deepen the conversation. Let us pray…

Christ of blessing, as you gathered with your people, as you called truth and life into being, do so again for us today. Entrust us with a glimpse of your wisdom, so we might follow you with boldness. Amen.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

A couple of Saturdays ago a handful of confirmands and their mentors, Rebecca and I, hopped on Bubba the bus to drive around and see some Habitat houses. Pete Jones, Habitat guru extraordinaire, took about 10 of us through Lakeside, then east of downtown, circling through both small Habitat neighborhoods, as well as communities with Habitat homes dotting the streets. After about an hour we pulled up in front of Kim’s home. It was this fall’s Women’s build that our own Lucy Stokes and Dorene Palermo and others had a lot to do with. Kim had just been in a couple of weeks, still unpacking boxes, walls still bare as she worked and took care of her daughter. She was full of an expressive energy. She talked of working side by side with the women on her own home, of the light fixtures donated, of the joy of painting the hall herself. Then she talked about the neighborhood, filled with different kinds of people, some getting on their feet, others struggling. Nearby are a couple of houses for formerly addicted folks. Homeless people walked by. She talked about getting to know them, listening to their stories. She picked up a bunch of styrofoam containers on the floor of her kitchen. She told us that on Sunday evenings she has family dinner for the neighborhood. People who rent the homes nearby, those who are homeless, addicts and former addicts, come by for dinner. She fixes food; hands people a plate as they gather. But there are some who won’t even come in – didn’t know how to act, she said, how to be in a house that someone owns. They don’t feel comfortable inside, but take their Styrofoam and stand on the sidewalk, talking with friends. I grew up in a large family on a farm, she said, and this is what we did. It just felt right to do it here. Kim remembered that, even as life gets hard, it wasn’t all about her. That she had been given a gift not to hoard, but to share. That there were people right in front of her in need of a simple act of hospitality and compassion, as they gather around a table.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Erik Kolbell, in the book that guides our study on the Beatitudes on Wednesday evening, says that we are a nation of superlatives. “As they did before us,” he writes, “we laud the biggest, fastest, boldest, and best…. In sport we fete the winner of the big game and in business the closer of the big deal.”1 Even this Final Four weekend, no one is cheering the loser. The runner up doesn’t get to cut down a single net.

And so here, once again, Jesus calls us to be extraordinarily different from the world. We have journeyed up the mountain to sit with the disciples, as Jesus proclaimed with His very self that a new kingdom has, in fact, come near. Jesus proclaims that not the wealthy or privileged, those who have it all together, but the poor in spirit are the ones who are blessed. Those who understand, because life has stripped it all away, that trusting in anything other than God is trusting in an illusion. Jesus proclaims that those who mourn, who in their woundedness lay their vulnerability before God, will be comforted. Jesus proclaims that not the bold and the strong, but those who are meek, who live with humility and trust, will in fact inherit the earth. Jesus proclaims that in a world filled with the desire for more and more, as we consume and consume and consume, that only as we hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice, will we truly be filled.

And so a vision begins to emerge, that moves in deeper today: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. As all of these beatitudes, the first thing they do is offer a critique of our society so bereft of mercy. We are so quick to violence, on the playground, in our neighborhoods, or in the Middle East. Even when we don’t use physical violence, we are quick to slice someone to shreds with our words, to make another feel small, to lack the grace to take a little more time, to listen. We get angry, offended, impatient. About 6 weeks ago I ran by the Starbucks down the hill to pick up coffee for a day-long staff retreat. I was so pleased with how responsible I had been, ordering it the day before, getting there early. And it wasn’t ready. The line was 6 or 7 deep, the employee who seemed all by herself spilled something. Finally, one of the managers saw me and came out, apologetic. We had an encounter with a homeless person and one of our employees. We were trying to help him, but he didn’t seem safe and, we tried to avoid it, but we had to call the police. And I felt very small. And I went and sat as patiently as I could, knowing there was a lot more going on than I had thought. It was an important reminder that every situation has a story, everyone’s life is more complicated that we might prefer it to be. Treating people like object is a barrier to mercy. But seeing the other as someone not too different from us opens a door to mercy, allows us to access just a bit of grace.

The Greek word eleos suggests the connotation of pouring out, the way we might pour out a flask of oil. Mercy is a pouring out. Mercy is when, Howell suggests, I unscrew the lid on what is precious to me and pour it out on you. 2 Similar forms of this same Greek word are used in Matthew to mean the giving of sacrifices, the giving of alms. 3 But that root eleos can be defined two ways. One is in the mercy that we have been talking about, from one person to another, trying to help relieve another’s burdens, like Kim does each Sunday at her table. But the other way this root is used is mercy as an attribute of God. 4 We are called to be merciful, to be generous and compassionate and kind, because that is how God is to us. We worship a God that gives us infinitely more than we deserve, who pours out grace upon us, who is mercy in the core of God’s own self. Maybe that is why we receive it when we give it. You probably noticed this is the only beatitude that is reflexive. As you offer mercy – in traffic, in difficult relationships – you also receive it, in understanding, in transformed relationships, in glimpses, perhaps, of the God whose own mercy empowers our own. How might you be merciful this week? To whom might you need to show mercy? Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy In a moment nine eighth graders will stand up here and proclaim that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. These youth will affirm their faith and trust in God, promise to be a part of this community, to share their gifts here and beyond. But please do not assume that today is just about them. They are great, don’t get me wrong, but they have been seeking to keep these promises long before they make them in front of us today. They have made them over and over, at shelter meals and on trips to Charlotte or Atlanta, around here and in the halls of their schools. Keeping these promises isn’t easy, and they will falter, just as we do. Things will get busy, life will happen. Too often you hear folks talk about confirmation as an end in itself – jumping through the hoops to satisfy parents who promise they won’t make them go to church ever again afterwards. Just do this for me honey, please. And on the rare occasion that happens, here or anywhere else, I don’t really blame the youth. I blame us. I blame families for not making discipleship a priority. I blame pastors for not reaching out to them as they drift. I blame churches and their leaders for not calling them to a deep and profound commitment, for modeling for them that Jesus Christ transforms lives and communities, for not stopping these youth – or the person next to us – and saying to them, We need your gifts, we need your voice, you can help us, you have something to say, your faithfulness matters to us, and to God.

Because there will be a time for them, for us all, I suspect, when we need to be reminded of what happens around here. When life will deal what it will deal, often through pain. Someone we love will get sick and die. We will feel pushed to the side, discarded, exhausted. And we will need to be reminded of the God who IS mercy, who is full of grace and compassion for us, and who calls us to care for each other, to care for the world, like a quick phone call to a friend, like inviting another to share their gifts, like Kim handing a plate to folks on the sidewalk. So they might be fed for the journey. As we are reminded, as we hear Christ whisper…blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

All praise be to God. Amen.

  1. Erik Kolbell, “What Jesus Meant: The Beatitudes and a Meaningful Life,” (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), 84. 
  2. Howell, 65. 
  3. From the cross-reference function of Bibleworks 5: Software for Biblical Exegesis and Research, Matthew 6:2,3. 
  4. Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (New York: American Book Company, 1889), 203.