By Paul Koch –
If you were to ever stop by and visit me in my study during the week you will find that on most occasions if I am here my door is standing wide open. I like having my door open, I like to think that the members of the congregation can just pop by if they need to talk; I actually want to be accessible. But the reality is, on most days my door is the only door that is open in this whole place. So any and all traffic that might show up, whether members or not ultimately arrive at my door. From transients passing through to those who just were released from the jail across the street and the occasional individual fleeing domestic violence, some days it can be quite a busy door.
Now most of those who pop in are looking for a quick handout, some immediate help to get something to eat or pay for the bus or gas for their car. And we may have various responses to that. Perhaps we think they will just use any money we give for booze or cigarettes or drugs. Or we are skeptical of their motivations and wonder if they are even telling the truth. And to be sure there are a lot of reasons to wonder about those who come looking for handouts. We are not ignorant about scams and people abusing others kindness. But I have to tell you I find that there is something very encouraging, something very redeeming about the fact that those who are in need, whether they are victims of their own behavior or the cruelty of others, they still see the church as a place that is merciful.
It’s encouraging because if you think about it, this was our introduction to the church as well. Whether we were brought forward as infants to the waters of Holy Baptism or given the gift of faith through the proclamation of the Word you were welcomed through mercy.
Mercy is the heart and soul of the church it shapes our core and defines our relationships. We are gathered into our Lord’s church through his Word of mercy. And it is refreshing to know that there are those in our world who still see it as such a place. Our Lord in Luke 6: 36-42 paints for us a picture of what a fellowship looks like that is built on mercy. It is a place where judgment and condemnation do not rule the day but forgiveness overflows in great abundance. It is a place where sight and clarity is not found by rigorous judgment but by rigorous mercy. A place where individuals strive to first remove the log out of their own eye before they go poking around in the eyes of others.
No doubt there are many who would regard this vision of the church as simplistic and perhaps even a fantasy. It is something that is nice to talk about but simply fades when met with the reality that is the church. There are probably many here this day that can’t exactly imagine such an all-forgiving all-merciful gathering of God’s children. And I wonder why. Why has the heartbeat of mercy seemed to fade from the pulse of the church? The world is full of people who used to be members of this or that church and if you were to ask them to describe the church their stories often reveal something that looks a lot different than mercy.
The easy answer of course is to say that sin has infected the mercy of the church and turned it inside out. Sin is the reason that people have been hurt by the very ones that are supposed to love them. Sin is why people feel condemned by the very ones that are supposed to embrace them. And while that is true, I don’t think that it is especially helpful, at least if we are trying to uncover and inspire the mercy that we all know ought to be the defining characteristic of the church.
Mercy brought us in, mercy has healed us, mercy has set us free, so why is mercy the one thing that often seems to be lacking?
Well let’s see; we have been gathered together by our Lord. He has called us, gathered us and enlightened us by his gifts. Without any merit or worthiness in us our Lord has declared us to be his own dear children. But as we gather together we come with our own desires to celebrate such a gathering, to reach out to others with this gift, to help develop a place where the mercy will boldly be proclaimed. And so we work alongside each other towards these noble goals. But to work alongside each other means that we have to have some sort of established order to do so. We develop constitutions and by-laws to preserve good order to give us a way to work with each other, to make sure that mercy never becomes a secondary part of the fellowship but is always our heart.
And yet over time the great and daring adventure that is the church, a place of mercy in a world of law and judgment falls to the normal pattern of life and becomes just one of the many things we do throughout our week. It is different in kind but not much in importance from other activities that fill our lives. The energy, excitement, and joy are displaced by routine and what is comfortable. You might say we become our own special type of country club. And then when someone challenges the status quo, when one doesn’t fit the code that everyone else operates by, when a brother or sister does something that might embarrass the group, why we turn to our rules and orders to leads us. Notice we don’t turn to our first love, to mercy itself but to our own sort of law.
So a child is brought to the waters of Holy Baptism, she is given in that moment the powerful grace of God. His mercy washes her clean, his mercy drives Satan from her heart, his mercy embraces her as one of his own. His mercy calls her by name and welcomes her in to a fellowship of hope and forgiveness and the promise of life everlasting. But she grows, she grows in faith and in life and she comes back again and again having been challenged and beat down by this world. Sin has broken her childlike wonder and she desperately needs that word of hope, that embrace of mercy. And what they find is a word of judgment; the look of condemnation and disapproval.
I have been a pastor long enough now to tell you that wounds that come from the church are often the deepest and most brutal of wounds felt in this world – they cut deeper and may never fully heal. They are dangerous because they drive a wedge between our need and hope itself. If mercy cannot be found in a place built for that very purpose where can it be found? We live in the midst of a people full of wounds, we ourselves may have deep and painful wounds. Wounds that have festered because we have lost our first love, we have lost our heart and core; we have not been merciful as our Father is merciful.
The only hope we have, the only thing we can do is return to the source. The only way to deal with the log in our own eye, the only way to live without judgment and condemnation in our hearts is to return to the one who was first merciful. We return to the Living Word of God, the Word that took on our flesh, the Word that embraced you in your sin. He didn’t wait for you to get better; he didn’t demand that you try harder, no he who knew no sin became sin and endured its curse for you, because of his mercy alone!
We return to that source alone and we hear him declare yet again, “I forgive you, I forgive you all of your sin, I forgive you judgments and your condemnation, and I set you free. Free to live in my mercy, free to live as the forgiven, loved and embraced children of God. Free to be merciful as your Father is merciful.”