Monday, February 19, 2018

February 18, 2015 The Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Peacemakers


Today we continue our series of messages on the Beatitudes, with a message on the seventh beatitude – blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Considering the events of the past week I would say that the timing of this beatitude is certainly, well, timely.  I would say that except for the fact that it could be almost any week of the year and this beatitude would be timely.  And, honestly, after so many acts of violence in our country and around the world, I feel as though I am running out of words on peace and the related topics. 

In the previous six weeks we have read through all of the Beatitudes and will do so again this morning and for the final one next week.  I hope as we have been doing so each week that these verses have etched themselves deeply into our minds, and especially deeply into our hearts and souls.

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him,
and he began to teach them.  He said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

As we have moved through the Beatitudes I think we can say that they have been building to this point.  I wouldn’t say that it is a step-by-step increase in difficulty from one beatitude to the next, but it’s as though Jesus left the most difficult two for the last.  Beginning with comfort, having our hunger and thirst for righteousness satisfied, receiving mercy, to being children of God, all of which can be difficult enough, Jesus shifts to the final two, which are much more difficult than the others, I think. 

I will offer what I have this morning, and it will be from only one perspective –

Be A Peacemaker and Everyone Will Be Blessed.

I will admit that, sometimes, when I read the Beatitudes, I wish Jesus had given some more detail.  Why didn’t he, for instance, explain exactly what he meant by the poor in spirit?  And couldn’t we get some more detail about how theirs is the kingdom of heaven?  And how is it that the meek will inherit the earth?  As I have thought about this beatitude in recent days I wished a number of times that Jesus had given us more details about how not only to be a peacemaker, but to bring about peace.  And as I think about it some more, I imagine that Jesus might say I thought I made myself very clear.  It’s only difficult because you don’t want to do what it takes to bring peace.  And that’s true, I believe.

Everyone wants peace, but actually creating peace is a different matter entirely, because peacemaking is really, really difficult.  One of the reasons why peacemaking is so difficult is because it is easier to assign blame that it is to find solutions.  Even though we are only a few days from the tragedy in Florida, there is no shortage of blame as to why these tragedies take place.  In the past few days, as so many people say we must do something we find that we can’t even find agreement on what we should do.  How is it that one person can be so certain they know the answer, while another person thinks that another person’s answer is completely wrong?  Just offering solutions can lead to very heated arguments and disagreements.  The discussions about causes and solutions too quickly devolve into a good deal of contentiousness and finger pointing, which is not at all conducive to helping build a healthier and safer society.  But that seems to be our lot now, unfortunately, as we don’t seem to have any way to have conversations across our society.

To be a peacemaker is to do the work of God, because peacemaking is the work of reconciliation, which is at the heart of what God does.  Paul writes in Romans 5:18-20, God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.  And he had committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.  We implore you on Christ’s behalf:  Be reconciled to God. 

So to be a peacemaker means that we take an active role in the healing and restoration, first, of our relationships, because peacemaking begins on an individual level.  How many of us have a relationship that is waiting on someone to step forward and take that first step down the road of peacemaking and restoration?  But we may resist and say, I’m not the one that is at fault here.  It’s not my responsibility to try to fix this relationship.  But someone has to take that first step.  You may not be able to fix things.  The other person may resist to the point that it is impossible to fix the relationship, but a peacemaker is one who will take that first step of reconciliation.  If we cannot mend and heal relationships between individuals, we cannot bring peace to the world.  If we cannot step across our yard to our neighbor, if we cannot step across the hall to a coworker, if we cannot step across the living room to a family member, if we cannot step across the aisle to a church member, there is no hope for finding peace on a larger scale.

But at some point peacemaking must move beyond the personal and the individual to the corporate.  By corporate, I mean the work of becoming a peacemaker in society, between groups of people.  Peacemaking cannot remain only between two people.  Peacemaking involves working in our communities, our social groups, and nations.

We begin by understanding that being a peacemaker means much more than simply reducing or minimizing conflict. The Hebrew word for peace, you may know, is shalom, which means working for everything that makes for a person’s highest good.  The Greek word used for peace in the Beatitudes is used only one time, in this verse, in the entirety of the New Testament.  It does not mean a passive acceptance of the way that things are simply for the sake of keeping some kind of pseudo peace, but to work for the good of another person.  Being a peacemaker, then, means far more than just reducing conflict or wishing for peace; it means engaging in the very difficult work of doing good to and for others.  Peacemaking is not passive.  Peacemaking implies action.  It is easy to love the idea of peace; it is something else entirely to actually work for peace.  If we only like the idea of peace, and are not actively working for iy, we are not peacemakers.

In the day of Jesus, there was the Pax Romana, which was the peace of Rome.  The Romans were very proud of the safety and security of their empire.  They were proud of the fact that a Roman citizen could travel throughout the empire with no fear of attack or violence.  But the peace of Rome was not a true peace because it was established and maintained by violence and brutality, and because violence and brutality were the foundation and the maintenance of the peace, it bred bitterness and resentment and, in turn, violence.  You can’t have real peace if it comes about through force and violence.  That is not peace; that is subjugation.

If we want peace, we must understand and address the root causes of conflict.  I remember reading, years ago, an interview with a psychologist about violence among young people.  The psychologist made a comment that I have never forgotten.  She said, when a young child says, “I hurt,” that hurt must be addressed.  If that hurt is not addressed, it will move from a description of their feelings to a predictor of their behavior.  As I have been thinking about what it means to be a peacemaker, and about what happened in Parkland, Florida, and in so many other locations, I can’t help but wonder, why is their so much anger in our culture and why does that anger so often manifest itself in violence?  Asking that question, I must then ask, what are the root causes for that anger?  Why are so many people so angry and turning to violence as a perceived solution?  I can’t help but wonder if at least a portion is not due to the fact that there are many, many people – especially young people – who hurt very deeply and profoundly and that hurt has not been addressed, causing that hurt to be turned outward and inflicted upon others.

We absolutely must do a better job of addressing why peace is so elusive.  Jesus was not afraid of confronting some of the issues that kept peace from being attained.  Jesus was neither afraid nor hesitant to speak out about the injustices and the difficulties of life that became incubators for violence and all things that undermined peace.  Doing so is not an easy process because it means that we cannot live in a protective bubble, hidden away from the problems of the world.  When Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on a mountain, where he was transfigured before them (Mark 9:2-32), Peter wanted to build some shelters so they could stay there.  It was far more preferable to want to live in that moment rather than living at the bottom of the mountain, where need and struggle and hatred and violence were a part of everyday life, but Jesus took them back down the mountain and into the chaos. 

We call this place a sanctuary, and sanctuary means a safe place.  If we are not careful, however, it can become a place to separate ourselves from the world around us, where we can hide behind walls that will keep us insulated and safe from the problems beyond our doors.  Like Peter on the mountaintop, we can desire to stay here in our safe place and avoid facing the problems of our community.  So sanctuary must also be defined as a place where we gather to find encouragement and fuel for our mission of moving outside of these walls, where we find strength for the difficult and challenging task of peacemaking, and where we understand that there we are not called to stay in a safe place, but to go out and bring peace and safety to others.

Tanya, Nick, and I attended a wedding yesterday.  When I go to weddings it is almost always to be the officiant, so I enjoyed sitting among the congregation and taking it all in.  Weddings always make me feel more hopeful.  As the music began, and the very young flower girls and ring bearers began to walk down the aisle I couldn’t help but feel concerned for them. What kind of world are they growing into?  Is it a world that will continue to be ripped apart by hatred and violence or will they be part of a generation that will finally help to bring about peace?  And as the young adults who made up the wedding party began their procession down the aisle it was not hard to see the idealism and hopes and dreams that filled their hearts.  And to see the joy of the bride and groom, beginning their life together, and to think that all around the world, on the same day, other young couples were beginning their lives together, with the same hope for a good life, a peaceful life, a loving life.  I hope it will be all that and more for them.

I hope our world will finally come to understand what true peace is.  Peace in the kingdom of God is different from any other kind of peace.  Jesus says in John 14:27 peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  I will confess that I am often troubled and afraid.  In fact, most days I find myself troubled and afraid, but when I hear Jesus tell me to not be troubled or afraid, and to be a peacemaker, I know I can – and must – do so.

Blessed indeed are the peacemakers, and blessed we all will be when peace truly comes.



Wednesday, February 14, 2018

February 11, 2018 The Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Pure in Heart

This morning we continue our series of messages on the Beatitudes, with a message on the sixth beatitude – blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Each week I have read the entire passage of the Beatitudes and will do so again this week, so follow along with me as I read.

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him,
and he began to teach them.  He said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This beatitude has been the most difficult for me, so far in the series, in terms of writing a message.  Part of the reason, I believe, is because it is easy to miss the point of this beatitude.  Generally, we focus on the first phrase – blessed are the pure in heart.  Reading that phrase we make this beatitude about personal purity and the need to live a holy and righteous life.  There is certainly nothing wrong with that emphasis; indeed, it is an important part of a life of faith, but that is not what Jesus is speaking of in this beatitude.  The meaning of the beatitude is in the second phrase – for they will see God.  Jesus is telling us that the importance of being pure in heart is so that we can see God.

This is why I had a harder time writing this message than the previous ones in this series; because I had been missing the primary point.  I began writing a message about personal purity but by the latter part of the week I realized I was missing what Jesus was telling us.  The message of Jesus, I believe, about being pure in heart is about the ability to be able to see God, and to see him at work in this world.  Being pure in heart, Jesus says in this beatitude, is not the end goal; the goal of being pure in heart is to be able to see God, and if you can see God – and see God at work – you are a blessed person. 

As Jesus says, and implies, in many places in the gospels, we do not see as clearly as we believe that we do.  In Mark 8:18 Jesus says do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?  This was Jesus’ way of reminding us that our vision is very influenced by the world around us, often to the point that we do not see reality as clearly as we believe we do.  We are very much shaped and molded by the changing tides of public opinion and our historical context.  What we need is an eternal anchor that helps us to understand what is real, what is true, and what is genuine.  This anchor, we believe, is the gospel.

So what is it that Jesus wants us to see?  I believe there are many things he wants us to see, and I will focus on three of them this morning –

1.  Seeing God in others.

We have become such a harsh culture.  We are so hard on one another.  We are divided in so many ways.  It’s getting to the point that people will only associate with those who have the “right” political affiliation, voted for the “right” candidates, have the “right” religious affiliation, and any number of other qualifications that must be met.  I have always admired the manner in which Jesus paid no attention to the expectations people had of whom he should associate with.  I’m also troubled by that willingness, because I don’t always have it in me.  This example of Jesus is one we must adopt in our lives. 

I am often trouble by social media, mostly because of the tone.  It can be so harsh, and it’s hard to say anything without sparking a debate.  If I posted that I love kittens someone would say what do you have against puppies?  Why don’t you like puppies?  What kind of person doesn’t like puppies?  People are so often looking for a reason to tear others down, but I have no interest in getting involved in social media debates.  If you want to do that, be my guest.  I am connected to many of you on social media and I see some of the debates that pop up, but I have no desire to get involved in them.
In the midst of such a contentious time, can I see God in others?  If my heart is pure enough that I can see God in others, I am indeed blessed.  Jesus could do that, and as his people, that should be something we are able to do.  But our hearts are so easy diluted by things that cause us to look at people in ways that make it hard to see God in them.  We are, for example, diluted by fear of those who are different from us, by race, by class, and so many other things that affect how we see people.  Tanya and I went to see the movie Hidden Figures when it was in theaters.  If you have not seen the movie, I highly recommend it.  The movie tells the story of African-American women who worked for NASA as mathematicians, and related the ways in which they were treated.  Tanya was watching it again yesterday, and I watched a couple of scenes and was again struck by the terrible ways people are treated simply because of their ethnicity.

The same was true in the day of Jesus, and as much as Jesus tried, he was not always successful in getting the religious leaders of his day to see God in people who were different from them.  They saw many people as unworthy of God’s love and they could not conceive that God could be reflected in them.  I’ve been in more than my share of worship services over the years where that type of message was communicated.  It was a message that condemned “those kinds” of people.  You know who “those kinds” of people are, don’t you?  “Those kinds” of people are the ones that God doesn’t like, according to the people who don’t like “those kinds” of people.  “Those kinds of people,” however, are also God’s children and they reflect his image, as we are told in Genesis 1:27 (So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them).

2.  Seeing God in ourselves.

It has been many years since I was a middle and high school student, but I still remember the anxiety I felt on most days as I walked into the school.  How would others see me?  Would they accept me or would they reject me?  That is a very difficult time of life, but we continue to worry about what others think about as, no matter how old we become.  As much as we worry about how others see us, how do we see ourselves?  Though we can be hard on one another, we can be especially hard on ourselves.  I am my own worst critic, and I’ve had a lot of critics over the years, but none are harder on me than me.

Over the years of life we can be so hard on ourselves that we arrive at the point where it is hard to see God at work in us.  Jesus dealt with many people who had arrived at this point.  I think of the Samaritan woman, in John 4, whom Jesus had a conversation with at a well.  John 4:1–9 relates to us the story – 1 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)  The woman was surprised that Jesus would speak to her, but Jesus was not going to be bound by the conventions of the day that caused this woman to imagine that he would want nothing to do with her. 

I think of the woman in John 8, who was brought before Jesus because she was taken in adultery.  As John writes in 8:2-11, At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  11 “No one, sir,” she said.  “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” I imagine at that point she couldn’t see much of God in herself, but Jesus did.  Over and over we see Jesus dealing seeing God in others even though it was doubtful that they could see much of God in themselves. 

Can you see God in yourself?  Do you know you are a precious creation of God?  Do you know that you are, even when people say harsh things to you?  Even when people tell you that you are no good, or not worth anything?

3.  Seeing God in the world.

Now there’s a challenge, seeing God in today’s world!  Where do we see God in suicide bombings?  Where do we see God in war?  Where do we see God in the abuse that is so rampant?  Where do we see God in the hateful rhetoric that is tossed back and forth across partisan divides?

Make no mistake about it, however, God is indeed in the world and at work in the world.  Some people make the mistake of believing that if they do not very obviously see God then he must not be present, and there is a large contingent of people who believe that.  What we see is not always accurate, though, as we must remember.

When my family moved from town to our farm, we were outside of the “city” water supply.  As we could not get what we called “city water” we had to come up with an alternate water source.  At the bottom of the hill behind our house was a spring that offered a steady flow of water year round.  We built a springhouse around the source, installed a pump, and ran water lines up the hill to our house.  The springhouse provided us with an ample supply of water that was also, fortunately, free.  There was, however, one catch that came with that free water.  After a hard rain the spring became muddy, and when we turned on the tap in the house to get a drink of water, it was a bit muddy looking.  It was obvious, just looking at it through a glass, that the water was less than pure.

When I read the beatitude about the pure in heart I often think of our spring and its sometimes muddy water.  It was not difficult for my family to recognize that our water was not always pure, but was it always pure when it was clear?  Coming out of the hills of West Virginia, with its strip mines, underground mines, and chemical runoff from the many steel mills, it was probably not pure, even when it appeared to be.

The point is this – even though we think we see clearly, we don’t see as clearly as we believe.  Our vision is clouded by the world in which we live, sometimes to the point that we cannot see the ways in which God is working in others, in us, and in our world.  But make no mistake, God is indeed at work, and when we are pure enough in heart to see this, we are indeed blessed!




Monday, February 05, 2018

February 4, 2018 The Beatitudes: Blessed Are the Merciful



For five weeks now we have been studying the Beatitudes, one of the greatest and most beautiful passages, I believe, in all of the Scriptures.  The Beatitudes are not only one of the greatest and most beautiful passages, they are also one of the most challenging of passages, especially when we dig in deeper and understand the complexities of what Jesus is saying.

As we have been doing each week, let’s read the entirety of the passage that offers to us the Beatitudes – 

Matthew 5:1-12 –

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him,
and he began to teach them.  He said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This morning we come to the fifth beatitude – blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  With this beatitude, Jesus shifts gears to relationships.  The first four beatitudes are what we might call situational beatitudes, as they speak to our situation – our context – in life.  This beatitude is the first of three that have to do with relationships.

1.  Relationships are central to everything in life, so the desire of Jesus is to keep our relationships healthy.

Some time ago I was in the greeting card aisle at a store looking for a card for Tanya and I was surprised to find a category of cards I didn’t know existed.  You know how the card racks have categories of subjects, like birthday, anniversary, etc.?  Did you know there is now a category of cards called Troubled Relationships?  (And by the way, I didn’t buy Tanya’s card from that section!  And who wants to be seen picking a card from that section!)  I was so fascinated by this discovery that I decided to take a picture and text it to Tanya.  I took out my phone and was lining up the shot when I noticed a guy further down the rack of cards was watching me with a look that said now that is really cheap.  That guy is taking a picture of a card and is going to text the picture to someone instead of buying the card.  Doing so would most definitely necessitate a trip to the Troubled Relationship section!  Is it a sign of the times that such a section exists or is it simply a sign that someone has figured out how to make money off of troubled relationships? 

Here is a fairly obvious truth – almost everything in life is relationally oriented.  Business is about relationships.  A good businessperson knows the value of cultivating good relationships with their clients and customers.  If you are in education you know that effective teaching comes with having good relationships with your students.  If you are in sales, cultivating relationships is absolutely essential.  Church is about certainly about relationships.  People often come to a church because of a relationship with a friend or neighbor who invites them.  Whether or not a person stays in a church depends in large part on whether or not they develop relationships with others in that congregation.  Ministry is founded on relationships.  My mom gave me some very good advice years ago about ministerial relationships years when she told me to never forget the importance of good pastoral care, because ministry is built on relationships.  She said that good pastoral care can overcome a lot of bad sermons, but no amount of good sermons can overcome bad pastoral care.  Pastoral care is simply another name for relationships.

     Jesus spent a lot of time focusing on relationships.  After reading the Beatitudes, we find that the rest of the Sermon On the Mount mostly concerns relationships.  Take some time today or some other day and read through the Sermon On the Mount and take note of how much of it centers on relationships.  Reading the gospels, we see that Jesus poured three years into the lives of the twelve disciples.  He cultivated relationship with many other people as well.  He told parables about relationships.  The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32 – 11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. 25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ 31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”), perhaps his most famous, is about one of the most foundational and precious of relationships – family.  It’s also a story of how fraught with difficulty those relationships can sometimes be.  The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37 – 25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”) is about the relationships we have with those who are not in our normal circle of acquaintances.  That parable speaks to us about the importance of caring not only for those whom we know, but for the strangers we encounter in life, particularly strangers in need).  The entire mission of Jesus was about relationships, particularly the relationship between humanity and God and the relationships among humanity.

Here is a very simple truth – when our relationships are good, life is good; when our relationships suffer; life suffers.  How many of us have at least one relationship that is troubled?  How many of us have a fractured relationship that we just don’t quite know how to fix?  Or, maybe we aren’t ready to fix it.

That’s where mercy comes in –

2.  Healthy relationships are built upon mercy.

In 1970 the movie Love Story was a big hit.  Did anyone see that movie?  I’m fairly certain I didn’t, because I was in the eighth grade so I probably thought it was gross.  But I do remember the famous line from the movie.  Many movies have that one line for which it becomes known.  If I said, Luke, I’m your father, you would know what movie that came from, wouldn’t you?  The tag line from Love Story was a really unfortunate line.  It was printed on posters, on little statues, and became the tagline for the year.  Does anyone remember the line?  Here it is – love means never having – can anyone finish it – to say you’re sorry.  Let me ask you a question – how well would that line work at your house?  Isn’t that one of the worst lines you’ve ever heard?  It is just about the worst relationship advice offered in the entirety of human history.  Whoever wrote that line probably came up with it right after doing something really foolish.  Yes, I forgot your birthday, Christmas, and our anniversary.  And I forgot our kid’s birthdays.  But you know what?  Love means never having to say you’re sorry. If you love someone you will say you’re sorry – every day, if necessary.  And when someone does express sorrow – mercy must be given.  Love is all about grace and mercy.

It’s hard to read a page of the gospels without encountering mercy in some form.  Every parable, to some extent, is based on mercy.  Almost every word that Jesus uttered carries with it an emphasis on mercy.  The entire mission of Jesus, without a doubt, is about mercy.  The most famous verse of the Bible, John 3:16 – for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life – is about mercy.  Mercy is a synonym for grace and forgiveness.  Each of those words point to the same quality, and it is a quality that is increasingly in short supply in our world.

The word mercy itself carries with it this idea – that we would seek to understand the perspective and the experiences of another person.  It asks us to try to get inside another person and see life through their eyes and to walk in their shoes.  Mercy asks us to identify with the other person, it asks us to try and see and feel as they do, it asks us to try and understand why a person acts the way they do?  Mercy asks that we ask ourselves what is the other person experiencing that may cause them to say those words that have hurt me?  What is the other person experiencing that may cause them to act in such a puzzling manner?  Mercy asks this of us because we don’t know all that we think we know about the life of another person.  I have learned a few lessons about people over the years and one of those lessons is this – the issue that seems to be causing difficulty in a relationship is often not the real issue.  The real issue is often much deeper and we can discover the real issue only when we seek to understand what is going on in the life, the heart, and the mind of another person.

3.  If we want to be like Jesus, we will be people of mercy.

One of the most pointed parables of Jesus teaches this lesson very bluntly. Matthew 18:21-35 teaches us about a man who was granted a very full measure of mercy, but in turn he refused to offer mercy to another.  21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Obviously, Jesus is very serious about mercy.

But as serious as Jesus was about mercy, here is something very interesting about this beatitude – it is not a command.  Did you realize that?  It was only recently that it occurred to me that this is not a command; instead, it is declaration of blessing.  If you are merciful, Jesus says, you are blessed because you, in turn, are going to be given mercy.  Giving and receiving mercy simply go together – an unmerciful and unforgiving spirit renders one incapable also of receiving.  If you cannot give, you cannot receive.  Giving and receiving mercy are two sides of the same coin.

Because we have received mercy from God, we ought to also extend mercy to others.  Mercy thus flows in two directions – vertically, from God to us, and horizontally, from ourselves to others.  As our goal is to be like Jesus, we should then, be people of mercy.  If we are people of mercy then we are certainly people who are blessed.  In today’s world, there is a great paucity of mercy.  People are so quick to judge and so quick to condemn.  As followers of Jesus we should be quick to turn away from judgment and condemnation and to offer mercy.

As I said at the beginning of this message, the words of the beatitudes are beautiful, but they are also very difficult as well.  They are difficult because mercy is difficult.  They are especially difficult when we extend mercy beyond those who are close to us.  As difficult as it can be to offer mercy to our friends, neighbors, and family members, it is especially difficult when we move beyond those close relationships and consider extending mercy to those we don’t know.  It is important to remember that Jesus spoke these words to people who were living under a brutal and despised occupation.  The might Roman army controlled life for all those listening to Jesus that day, and some, no doubt, did not receive his words of mercy very well.  How could anyone be expected to be merciful to an occupying power that had brutalized not only some of the friends, neighbors, and family members of those in the audience of Jesus, but even some of those who were listening to him that day?  Because it was a large crowd, I imagine there might have been some Roman soldiers on the edges of the crowd, keeping an eye on things, lest anyone get any ideas of rebellion.  Jesus’ words of mercy certainly had, then, a much more powerful edge in that context.

We are in a different context, but we still live in a world that is dangerous, as it is filled with warfare and the violence of terrorism.  Our world might be different form the world of Jesus, but it is not that different in its need for mercy.  Practicing that mercy, however, is not the easiest thing to accomplish, but if we can, we are certainly, as Jesus says, blessed.

May we go, then, from here and be people of mercy!