Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lord, Have Mercy!

(A sermon based on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 & Luke 15:1-10 for Sunday, September 19, 2010)

When I was a child my parents, like many parents do with their children, taught me some prayers. They taught me to pray as I was getting ready to go to sleep,

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Guide me safely through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.

And they taught me to pray as I was getting ready to eat a meal,

God is great, God is good,
Let us thank him for our food.
By his hands we all are fed,
Give us Lord our daily bread.

My parents wanted to set some patterns in the way that I thought so that I would remember to make prayer a regular part of my life and as a result never forget that the Lord was deeply involved in every facet of my life.

Although I no longer pray those particular prayers I never forgot the lesson. I learned how important it is to “pray without ceasing.”

And so it came to pass that somewhere along the line I came across what is known as the Jesus Prayer. Based on the prayer that the tax collector prayed in Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the Temple to pray, the Jesus Prayer simply says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

That is a prayer that I pray every day and that we all, if we have any insight into ourselves at all, pray every day: “Lord, have mercy!” Because if we have any insight into ourselves at all, if we have not deluded and fooled ourselves, we know that we are sinners. And if we are sinners we are in need of mercy and that mercy comes only from God.

The Bible teaches us in passages like our Jeremiah text that God is a God of justice and that if we persist in turning away from God we will be judged for it. But if justice is all that God is interested in, we’re all in trouble, aren’t we? If justice is the last thing that is on God’s mind and in God’s heart, we’re all in trouble. It is rather mercy that is the last thing and the main thing on God’s mind and in God’s heart.

What is that mercy? It is as someone has said: mercy means that we don’t get what we deserve.

In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis paints an imaginative picture of a group of ghosts riding a bus on a field trip of sorts from hell to heaven. Upon arrival, one of the ghosts encounters a former employee of his who in life had murdered a man. The ghost, who had already been talking a lot about what a solid citizen he had been in life and about how all he wanted was his “rights,” was incredulous that the murder was in heaven while he, an upstanding person, lived in hell. The murderer told him that it was all right now and that in fact he and the man he had murdered were in heaven together. The ghost keeps on insisting that he just wants his rights until finally the murderer tells him, "It's not as bad as all that! You don't want your rights! Why, if I had gotten my rights, I would never be here. You'll not get your rights, you'll get something far better. You will get the mercy of God."

Be glad that justice is not the last thing on God’s mind and in God’s heart. Be glad that mercy is. Be very glad.

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin appear in Luke’s Gospel just before the even more famous parable of the lost son. In that latter parable, there is no indication that the father goes after the wandering son; the son has to come to his senses on his own and has to go back home on his own. When he does, though, his father abandons all restraint and decorum in welcoming his returning son. But in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, we notice the reckless mercy with which the shepherd seeks his lost sheep and the woman seeks her lost coin. They are bound and determined to seek and to save that which is lost.

And so is God. God’s mercy is relentless. Remember that I said earlier that mercy means that we don’t get what we deserve. But these parables teach us that God pulls out all the stops to make sure that we get that mercy. God’s mercy is persistent, determined, and relentless.

It is risky and messy and potentially embarrassing business for God. But, “The repentance of a sinner so delights heaven that it justifies all the risk holiness takes in lowering itself into the mist of the fallen.” (MacKenzie Scott, “Living by the Word: Sunday, September 12,” Christian Century, September 7, 2010, p. 20)

Do you know what it is to need God’s mercy? Surely you do. I know that I do.

I was born as the first and as it turned out only child of 37-year-old Christian parents who unashamedly made me feel loved and accepted and nurtured and valued. They made it crystal clear that they loved me and wanted me and that God loved me and wanted me. And yet I have no memory of a time when I did not feel deep in my spirit that I was desperately in need of the mercy of God.

I was in the youth choir at my home church and one of the songs that our director had us sing was a version of “Lord I’m Coming Home” that incorporated a spoken part that was written from the point of view of a young man who had been sent to prison and now was riding the bus home wondering all the way if he would be welcomed and accepted when he got there—think a Christian version of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree.” I was assigned to deliver that oration.

Every time we performed that piece, as I spoke about being an exile from home and wanting to go home and being afraid of being rejected at home—even though there was nothing in my experience like that—I would break down and sob.

Somewhere in my heart I felt a sense of lostness and a need for mercy.

I always have. I still do.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

And he is!

So the Lord, with heart and hands filled with mercy, is feverishly, doggedly, relentlessly, furiously pursuing you. Stop where you are. Turn around. See…


CHERI said...

This was such a sweet sermon. I too was taught prayers as a child and then I taught those same prayers to my children. I think (I hope) that my son is now teaching them to my grandchildren.
"Children learn what they live" has always been one of my favorite quotes.

Joe said...

I appreciate this sermon. Thankfully, we can seek mercy instead of justice.

I am reminded of the juvenile delinquent who is being taken into court by his lawyer. The boy looks up at the imposing steps of the courthouse, along with huge columns and lots of marble. He says, "I sure hope I get justice." His weary lawyer says, "Son, you don't want justice. You had better pray for mercy."