Sermon Seeds: Merciful
Sunday, February 20, 2022
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany Year C
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Luke 6:27-38 in conversation with Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Grace Emerged (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl Lindsay
By its nature, mercy is a gift. If there’s work to be done, it’s not mercy. If there’s an exchange required, it’s not mercy. If there are strings attached, it’s not mercy. In fact, mercy means that debts, requirements, and obligations are satisfied. That’s the nature of the gift of mercy. Extending mercy displays generosity of spirit and compassion of heart. When a defendant asks for the “mercy of the court,” there is an acknowledgement of guilt and recognition that justice requires something, in that instance or moment, to be realized. At the same time, there is recognition that justice can still exist when wrongs are confessed, contrition is expressed, and mercy is granted.
Mercy does not stand in conflict to justice; mercy joins justice as companion and friend in the pursuit of God’s kindom on earth as it is in heaven. The focus scripture this week comes from the Gospel according to Luke, but it bears greater meaning when read in conversation with the Genesis passage. In Luke, Jesus provides the lesson, but in Genesis, the passage tells the story. It comes towards the end of the epic tale of Joseph and his brothers. Roughly a quarter of the book contains this story full of drama–jealousy, betrayal, and famine alongside favor, dreams, and elevation. Reconciliation, abundance, and mercy overcome separation, deprivation, and fear. It’s a story of wrongs made right, not by acts of the enemies, but by the generosity and love of the survivor, who was favored, protected, and elevated by the Holy One. The full story is too long to fit into one week’s lectionary but should not be overlooked. Joseph’s journey embodies Jesus’ command and promise.
One of the benefits of all the stories in the Bible is that they remind us that a faithful life is a journey of and toward faith. Jesus uses simple words in that they are easy to understand even if they aren’t easy to live by and out. Rationally, we can make sense of them even if part of us chafe at the intentional rejection of reciprocity explicitly commanded by Jesus. Many of us are used to more transactional relationships. We respond to the way that we are treated. We react to the tenor and tone of voice when we are addressed. Our feelings, attitudes, and behaviors often adjust based on the relationship we have with the person or persons we encounter. To move beyond reciprocity requires deliberate reorientation of our thoughts and actions.
Of course, that is what Jesus intends to do. This passage continues the Sermon on the Plains (Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount). His teaching reveals a counter cultural presentation of the kindom of God. Perhaps, this is the most challenging message that Jesus brings as he explains what real love looks like and demands of us. This, after all, is the only cross that most of us will have to really pick up and carry. I have mentioned before that following Jesus by picking up our own cross isn’t inviting suffering and persecution–it’s doing the hard thing necessary for the coming of the kindom.
What is more challenging than loving someone who hurts you…who seems to make their life mission to hurt you? What is harder than blessing those who curse you? And, the prayer that Jesus suggests here is probably not a prayer that our nemesis gets what’s coming to them, but rather, solicits a request for abundance, blessing, and wellbeing in their lives.
Joseph’s story also presents itself before the introduction of the Law. The Sermon on the Mount/Plain has often been read in conversation with Moses’ encounter on Mt. Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments and all the laws governing, maintaining, and nurturing relationship with God, community, and self. Jesus is not disputing or rewriting that Law; he amplifies the way to live in right relationship. We hear echoes of the commandments but also of the prophets and wisdom literature:
The structure is clearly that of Hebrew poetry common in the Old Testa- ment, the successive lines of which repeat the same thought in synonymous terms.1 Not only are ‘your enemies’ defined as ‘those who hate you’, but what is meant by ‘ loving ’ them is indicated by the command to ‘ do good ’ to them. Similarly the roughly synonymous terms ‘ to curse ’ and ‘ to threaten abusively ’ describe forms of evil speaking which are to be met, not in kind, but by their opposites, ‘blessing’ and ‘praying for’ those who practise them. Thus a common objection which criticizes these precepts of Jesus on the ground that ‘love’, as an emotion or sentiment, cannot be commanded falls wide of the mark. What Jesus calls for is not amiable feelings, but conduct patterned on the action of God himself (Luke vi. 35 b) Matt. v. 45).Oscar Seitz
We can empathize with Joseph and be encouraged by his development and maturation, but he isn’t the model. Joseph’s journey begins with betrayal and ends with mercy. Jesus’ story begins with mercy as grace births from the womb of a prophet filled with the Holy Spirit. The betrayal will come later in the Jesus narrative. Joseph has to live a life to reach the place where Jesus begins. Many of us can identify more with Joseph who has to receive the blessing and elevation before he’s confronted with the choice to be merciful. That wasn’t Jesus’ story. The incarnation was an act of mercy as was every day of his life. Another prophet wrote:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
Mercy is essential to the character and nature of the Living God. God’s mercy is dependable, available, and abundant. Jesus embodied mercy in the same way that his physical being took on flesh. His life manifested mercy, and following The Way compels us to manifest mercy as well. Jesus’ message paints a vivid picture of a merciful life.
Mercy is rooted in love, especially love for others. “The teaching is strongly ethical with an emphasis on loving others, particularly loving one’s enemies. Some consider this love for one’s enemies to be the essence of Jesus’ ethic in this Sermon.” (Stephen S. Liggins) Isn’t love for those who had turned from God and the will of God the essence of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ? Love for creatures who turn on creation and away from the Creator propels the Loving One to continue to create and re-create without banishing the creatures from the abundance of God’s handiwork. Love for those shaped in the image of the divine spurs the Parent to love the children who fail to affirm the humanity of one another.
Of course, we may recoil from the notion that we are enemies of God. We don’t hate God; we don’t consider ourselves to be at war with God. We pray the words of The Lord’s Pray on a regular basis, attend worship services, engage in Bible study, and check off a myriad list of boxes that demonstrate our love of God.
But, what if our understanding of an enemy is too limited or too defined by our adversarial culture and history? Many of us struggle to identify someone we would call our enemy. That seems too drastic or too dramatic. When we think of enemies, we think of geopolitical opponents like Russia and Ukraine, North and South Vietnam, or internal conflicts like our own Civil War.
But, I’m reminded of the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Dr. King talked about “frenemies” before the term entered the lexicon.
Consider the silence of Jesus’ friends when he was falsely accused, put on trial, convicted, and condemned. Consider, even more importantly, our own silence in the things that matter most to God and to our neighbors. Consider the ways that we don’t work for the kindom and actually participate in the world against the kindom of God. Then, thank God for the mercy we have been given. Thank the Sovereign One for a fresh opportunity to recommit our allegiance and a new day to “do good.” Thank the Holy One for the grace that meets our feeble attempts to live the life of love Jesus patterns for us.
Joseph’s story isn’t the same as Jesus’, and there is a blessing and gift for us in that. We can hear Jesus’ teaching, but Joseph tells us it’s possible for us. We can be hurt and wounded…and overcome the harm. We can be betrayed and be broken…and made whole. We can be thrown away and left for dead in a pit…but we can be elevated to heights we didn’t even seek. On second thought, maybe Joseph’s story is the Jesus story.
And maybe, ours can be as well.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
“There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”
“The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.”
― Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
For further reflection:
“They joined hands.
So the world ended.
And the next one began.” ― Sarah J. Maas
“Knowledge is power. Power to do evil…or power to do good. Power itself is not evil. So knowledge itself is not evil.” ― Veronica Roth
“Character is power.” –Booker T. Washington
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Host a screening (online, hybrid, or in-person) of the film Just Mercy followed by a discussion and call-to-action toward judicial reform and restorative justice.
Liggins, Stephen S. “Jesus’ Teaching on Judging Others.” Churchman 124, no. 1 (Spr 2010): 43–63.
Seitz, Oscar Jacob Frank. “Love Your Enemies, the Historical Setting of Matthew 5:43f, Luke 6:27f.” New Testament Studies 16, no. 1 (October 1969): 39–54.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Genesis 45:3–11, 15
Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’
15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Psalm 37:1–11, 39–40
Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
2 for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.
3 Trust in the LORD, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
4 Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
6 He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
7 Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.
8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
39 The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD;
he is their refuge in the time of trouble.
40 The LORD helps them and rescues them;
he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.
1 Corinthians 15:35–38, 42–50
35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.
50 What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”