Following God in an Unstable World: Sermon #4
Following God in an Unstable World – Love Mercy & Compassion - Sermon #4
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Jan 31, 2016 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor
Good morning and welcome to the Vineyard!
We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. If this is your first time or 100th, we are honored that you are here today in our community. Whether you arrived here this morning because of an Internet search, because you were invited, or because you already knew the way, we are grateful for your presence. Our simple prayer for you is that you would experience peace, welcome, and acceptance. We also pray that you would find space to encounter the loving presence of the living God during your time with us this morning!
I’m finishing up our on-going sermon series on Following God in an Unstable World.
As we have been making our way in this series, our main aim has been to help us create space to see, experience, and wake up to God’s invitation to become a people of peace, justice, and mercy in an unstable world. This series wasn’t designed to advance any particular political agenda or try to detail a biblical response to every social ill or problem. More than anything, we have desired to prime your “prophetic imagination” as we live within the world not as it is, but as it should be. Imagine with me what might happen within us if we allowed the seeds of justice, peace, and mercy to take root in our lives and the way we walk out our faith? How might we understand and inhabit the Gospel or think biblically about the social issues of the day?
Following God in an Unstable World: I Desire Mercy
As we ask what it means to follow God in an unstable world, we have anchored ourselves in Micah 6 because the prophet gives an answer to the question, “What are we supposed to do?” The people of God assumed that what God wanted from them was more sacrifice. Their response was understandable, especially given that in the ancient world, sacrifice was the primary way that most ancients related to the gods.
This is why it’s so pivotal that Micah answers as he does,
8He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8)
Essentially, Micah says that God requires that you treat people appropriately. Act justly. Love Mercy. Walk in peace and humility. This is how we follow God in an unstable world.
Hosea 6:6 echoes what Micah offers,
6For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)
More than sacrifice, more than worship, more than offerings, what God desires from us is mercy, and not just that, but that we love mercy.
Here’s a working definition of mercy, “it’s the kindness, compassion, or forgiveness that we offer when it’s within our power to exclude, harm, or punish someone.”
Here’s a question that has been challenging me as I wrestle with what it means for us to love mercy.
“How do you feel about someone not getting what they deserve?”
Certainly, we want mercy for ourselves, so often we are okay with others receiving it, right? You know, “Officer, I really didn’t know that I was speeding.”
But ask that same question, and make one modification,
“How do you feel about someone not getting what they deserve, especially, when that person has harmed you?”
It can be hard to “love” mercy in these situations, especially in situations where we have been wounded or harmed.
Stick with me.
Let’s consider the story of when Jesus calls Matthew to leave his tax booth.
9As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13)
After Jesus calls Matthew, the tax collector, to leave his tax booth and follow him, Jesus goes and has dinner at Matthew’s house. Matthew invites his friends – other tax collectors, and law-breakers, what Matthew, the Gospel writer, shortens to just, “sinners.”
There’s a way of unpacking this portion of scripture that can feel a little unfair to the Pharisees, the law-keepers, so I want to take a moment to enter the text from their frame of reference.
The Pharisees had a long history as national heroes, ardent nationalists, those who resisted Israel’s enemies, they were committed to Israel’s survival. Being students of Torah, they firmly believed in God’s word, and they believed that Torah and God’s Messiah would bring an end to the subjugation of God’s people. So imagine their surprise that Jesus, considered a rabbi among the people, would eat with those who were considered traitors, the hated insiders. The objection wasn’t about food, it was about what the tax collectors represented. In one sense the tax collectors were representatives of those who had given up hope – hope that God would rescue and restore their people. Instead of holding out, resisting, or fighting the Empire, it seemed as if they had surrendered and joined the hated other. This explains why they were excluded from fellowship, why their charitable gifts were returned, and why they were often blocked or prevented for atoning for their sins in the temple.
But in the Pharisee’s zeal to follow God, they miss the point. They ignore that the Creator God, the God of Israel is, as Moses describes him,
6“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 36:6-7)
The Compassionate God
So, when Jesus rebukes the Pharisees in verse 13, I think it’s compassionate rebuke. He wants them, desperately, to see that God has always been someone who is concerned about those at the margins. This was God’s posture in Egypt when heard the cries of his people and sent Moses to lead them into the Promised Land. This was his posture towards the poor, widowed, and orphaned when called on his prophets to raise their voices to condemn the behavior of his people when they thought it was okay to take advantage of, ignore, and mistreat those without means. It’s almost like he was saying, “Slave Lives” matter, “Poor Lives” matter, “Orphan Lives” matter, and “Tax Collector Lives” matter.
When the world isn’t as it should be, we are distracted, we lose sight of God’s heart for us and others. We become conditioned like the ancients and assume that what God requires of us is more sacrifice, when what God requires is that we treat people appropriately. Or as the Prophet Micah says, that we “love mercy.”
Let’s continue to press in...
In Luke 10, after silencing the Sadducees, another law-keeper has a question for Jesus.
25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25)
In response, Jesus poses his own question:
26“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26)
Jesus is no fool, he understands exactly what the law-keeper is trying to do and flips it back onto him by forcing the law-keeper to explain how he understands the law. It’s a simple tool to use the law-keeper’s answer to answer the original question.
27 The Expert in the Law 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.’” (Luke 10:27)
Did you notice that the lawyer responds by answering in two parts. Both originating in the Torah. First, he quotes Deuteronomy 6:5:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
Then he joins Deuteronomy 6:5 with Leviticus 19:18:
‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)
The order of the verses matters too. One would be forgiven for assuming that the answer should have followed the canonical order of the texts that were quoted, but the expert understands that you are unable to love others if you don’t have an experience of God love yourself. It’s hard to show mercy, let alone, love mercy, when you have never experienced it. The expert knows that that love of neighbor flows from the overflow of love that is experienced in our loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. When we become settled and secure in God’s love for us, he provision for us, his mercy for us, it enables and fuels our love of others.
28“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:28)
If the question that the expert wants answered is “How do I live? How do I follow God in an unstable world? How do ensure that I am included in God’s kingdom when it comes?” Then Jesus has answered. “You know what is expected of you…” Here there are echoes of Micah 6, do this and live. Act Justly, Love Mercy, and Walk in Humility and Peace before your God. This is best expressed when we are loved and love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
But the expert in the law wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
I need a little latitude here as I unpack verse 29.
Remember the expert in the law quotes Leviticus 19:18,
‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)
When the expert asks the question, who is my neighbor, I don’t think he’s being flippant. There really wasn’t a tradition within Israel for loving ones enemies. Remember our study in Jonah to refresh your memory.
Jesus’s original question, “How do you read it?” is important here. Because Jesus in his answer to the law-keeper is interpreting the prophets and the law, and Jesus is teasing them out to their conclusion, which is, there is no “Us vs. Them,” there’s only Us. We all belong to God. When Jesus instructs us to love our enemies, this was more or less a fuller understanding of what was expected of the people of God.
Coming towards the expert in the Law, Jesus tells him a story,
30In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.
34He 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. 35The 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?” (Luke 10:30-36)
To drive home the point that there is no “Us vs. Them” Jesus uses this powerful story to shift our understanding of how we define just who our neighbor is. Jesus uses the “hated other,” in this case, the Samaritan, an enemy of the state, and defines this other as the neighbor.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)
The original question, “Who is my neighbor?” remains unanswered by Jesus. Maybe because that question implies selectivity about who should be loved and shown mercy. Instead, Jesus reflects on the larger question, maybe the one the expert should have posed, “To whom must I become a neighbor?” You cannot answer this question with a list, or a definition of neighbor.
You can only answer this question having caught God’s heart, having experienced God’s love, his mercy, his grace, for yourself. This is where we come to realize that all that we have is a gift from God. We didn’t earn it, no matter what the Empire tells us. When we start from this position, all that we have is a gift, the question is never, “Am I doing as much as the next person?” But, “Am I using God’s gifts well?”
This is a heart response. As our heart is shaped and formed by God, it changes the way we act. It changes the way we behave. It changes what we do.
Jesus doesn’t answer, because he wants us to develop an openness that leads us to compassion and kindness. He wants us to trust that God will provide for us, which allows us to act like the people he intended us to be.
If we lack an openness that leads to compassion, it doesn’t matter who is defined as our neighbor, we will always experience the call to act justly, love mercy, and walk in humility and peace with our God as a metaphor for how we should live. Missing the point that this is how we live.
Practical Tip: Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk in Peace & Humility
This can feel Intimidating. We may feel ill-equipped. And in one sense that’s the right response. We can’t do this on our own. We need God and we need each other to make our way forward.
As we see in the story of the Good Samaritan, loving mercy is an exercise in trusting God’s provision for us. It starts with our open hands. Freely, you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:8) Are your hands open?
Again, I’m not the Holy Spirit, so I want to tread lightly as I try to give legs to a practical response to how Jesus calls us to live.
He calls us to love mercy. As I interpret this, I see this as a form of not giving folks what they deserve. Someone has harmed you, you respond the way Peter instructs us to.
Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:9)
For some of us, our first step in following God is going to start with us. We have to start by opening our hands to receive mercy.
As we navigate down this road, we have to wrestle with some questions like, “What it would mean for me to receive mercy from someone who has wounded or hurt me in the past?”
Some of us have created modern day Samaritans in our heart that we might need to surrender as we make our way forward.
Then there are some of us who are being called to be merciful and we have been withholding mercy as our payment for how we were treated. It’s time for us to trade in our bitterness.
Finally, like the Samaritan, we need to see that others around us need mercy. I think about this as increasing our margin. It’s the space that we need in our daily lives to see the other. In financial instruments, it’s the collateral that is needed to cover some or all of the risk of an investment. Practically this could be as simple as leaving for your commute five minutes early so when people cut you off, you have enough margin to let it go. It looks like the person who steals your food from the shared refrigerator at work, instead of passive aggressive notes, just make extra and give it away. It’s the person who always wants to borrow your notes, share them freely. This is about not giving others what they deserve. It’s about loving mercy.