I am indebted to Kathleen Norris for this sentence in her sermon “Mercy me” which reminded me of my grandfather. “Mercy is the one expletive my grandmother Norris allowed herself, the all purpose exclamation for times when she was too awestruck, befuddled or exasperated to say anything else.”
“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
When summer rolls round, I remember my grandfather. Every single summer of my childhood, I spent a week or two glued to his side. In the morning, I followed him out into his garden; learning to pick beans, to cut okra, to know when a tomato’s ripeness held the promise of a delicious sandwich for supper. It got hot in the garden. “Mercy,” granddaddy would say, pulling off his cap, wiping his brow with his handkerchief, clearing the sweat off his eyeglasses.
Leaving the garden, we walked the ten blocks to the post office, to retrieve the mail from Box 83. Removing envelopes, one by one, examining the letters; my grandfather would spy his favorite sister’s handwriting. “Lawse have mercy,” he would say. A prayer: she was well enough to write.
Making our way back to the house, we always met someone granddaddy knew. Talking with the neighbors, we gathered the day’s news to share with my grandmother: some good, some not so good. “Mrs. Sides is suffering something terrible with the heart trouble.” “You know my neighbors’ boy? Well, Mr. Burns, he’s drinking again and in trouble with the law.”
“Lord, have mercy.”
“They’re hiring at the brick yard; need welders at the railroad shops.”
“God’s own mercy,” my granddaddy would say.
After supper, granddaddy and I would go down the steep steps at the back of the house, into the yard to tend the roses. Stopping at the garage, he would pour kerosene into a tin can. Together, we would examine the leaves and blossoms for beetles. There were always beetles feasting on my granddaddy’s favorite flowers.
“Tap it like this, sister,” he would say. And I would tap the blossom and the beetle would fall to its death in the kerosene. “Mercy,” I would say, looking first at the beetle and then at my grandfather’s face.
And just before bed, sitting at my granddaddy’s feet, I watched him pull an orange or an apple or a peach from a bowl on his lap, and peel it for our bedtime snack. My granddaddy suffered from chronic, debilitating, neurological pain. Suddenly, he would grab his legs; wincing and gasping for air. I would reach out to steady the bowl of fruit until the pain passed. “Mercy, mercy, dear Lord, have mercy.” Tears filled his eyes.
Mercy: the strongest expletive my grandfather allowed himself. Mercy: the most profound prayer he knew. (Norris)
Mercy stands as the deepest quality of the love of God; as the movement of God’s heart; empowering everyone and everything God has made; the unexpected and stunning evidence of God’s unending generosity. (Mogabgab)
No matter how miserable we feel; no matter how real our failure; God, in tender mercy, holds us with an everlasting love; ready to forgive, restore, deliver, provide. (Norris)
On one condition: we repent of our sin. God asks that we take a radically honest and painful look at ourselves and our lives. We can be changed. And God knows we need it. Have you read the paper? Gaza, Iraq, the border; Syria, Ukraine, Missouri: Mercy requires of us all—as individuals, churches, nations—a profound turning. (Ward)
For regardless of what our culture tells us, self-reliance is not faith. We are not self-sufficient, self-sustaining creatures. We live and move and have our being by the mercy of God. (Pearson)
And God’s mercy rises up; a stubborn and persistent challenge to our certainty that we know God’s mind, the parameters of God’s loving kindness, the appropriate recipients of God’s favor. The lines we draw, the divisions we create, the boundaries we fiercely defend break the very heart of God.
And yet, and yet—when driven to our knees, completely undone by the truth about ourselves and our world, about our individual and corporate sin: when from this place, we cry out to the heavens, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” God rises up to restore us that we might, as the Psalm says, walk in our integrity.
Uncomfortable and disturbing voices speak out in the world around us. Pleading for heart and hand, political will, faith energies; set to render mercy.
According to Matthew’s gospel, even Jesus bumps up against a disturbing, unwelcome, unsettling voice; challenging his view of the wideness of God’s mercy. A desperate and despairing woman serves as the vehicle of his maturing; calling forth a turning, a change, in Jesus himself.
Early in the gospel according to Matthew, Jesus has a clear understanding of his calling; telling his disciples, “Have nothing to do with gentiles; they live outside the boundary of our concern.”
A Canaanite woman comes. Honoring Jesus, humbling herself, she kneels at his feet: begging him to end her child’s torment; to cast the demon out of her daughter; asking nothing for herself.
Faith and mothering love compel her to cross accepted, established boundaries; to plead God’s mercy for her child.
And what does Jesus say to her? At first, nothing; absolutely nothing: his silence is chilling. When he does speak? “I’ve been sent to the lost sheep of Israel. Translation: “You and your kind have no claim on me. It is not right to take bread out of children’s mouths and throw it to dogs.”
He insults this woman with a profound harshness. His chosen people he compares to children. Her gentile people, he compares to dogs. He means to dismiss her. She refuses his dismissal. Moreover, she dismisses the criteria he uses to reject her. She insists. She INSISTS. And she is very quick.
Still kneeling, she replies, “You’re right, Lord. Yet even beggar dogs get scraps from the Master’s table.”
Imagine how long Jesus stood there absorbing the unexpected truth of the woman’s reply, processing the implications of her words. Imagine how long she waited for him to come to terms with her insight.
This woman, this gentile, this stranger, invites Jesus to step across a boundary he believes God has sanctioned; to extend God’s mercy.
For Jesus, crossing this boundary means living as God’s merciful and prophetic presence for the entire world. All God’s children will become his concern. When he speaks again, he has chosen. “Oh, woman,” he says. “Your faith is something. What you wish is given.”(Peterson)
Right then, her daughter became well. Right there, the boundaries shift. God’s mercy bursts forth with new breadth and depth in the person of Jesus; who will now instruct his disciples “Go into all the world, to all people. Baptize and teach.”
Boundaries have power. They fix and mark a limit. To step across a threshold, to pass through a gate, to cross a river, to extend a hand, to speak a blessing, to share food; these actions can separate the past from the future in bone deep ways.
Mercy received calls for mercy shared; faith in action.
For eleven years, I lived and traveled in South Texas. I have been following the plight of children arriving in Texas border towns with profound interest through friends in my own United Methodist Church.
Borders, boundaries, divisions of any kind serve as great teachers of mercy. Liberals or conservatives, business or government, alien or resident: false dichotomies all in the economy of God’s mercy.
From the United Methodist Church in Laredo, right on the border with Mexico this text: Urgent! Need children’s clothing, shoe strings, hygiene items, money for food. Hundreds of children arriving. They have nothing. God asks for mercy. U help?
Laura, the district superintendent of the Rio Grande Valley, describes visiting children in one of the processing centers in McAllen. “Some kids’ eyes welled up the minute we started talking. Some kids’ blank expressions never left their faces. The youngest ones brightened and smiled; beautiful children.” God’s children.
“As United Methodists,” Laura continues, “we try to understand things of some complexity; to understand them deeply. I hope we take the opportunity to learn; and not simply to believe the sound bites.”
Says another friend: “God bids us offer hospitality to the stranger; to care for the little ones; to live mercy as we know mercy. It’s humbling. It’s exhausting. It’s the ministry God gives us to do.”
In the wilderness of violence and hatred we have made of this world; in our desire for vengeance; in the quest to be both right and righteousness; the rendering of mercy civilizes civilization. (Ward) In our selfishness and in our smallness; no matter how grievous our sin; by the heart of God and by the wounds of Christ; in bread and in wine; God’s mercy comes to us; a sacrament of new creation.
Summer has come, and I am remembering my grandfather; who taught me the deepest prayer he knew. “Mercy, mercy, good Lord, have mercy.”
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Luther Smith, “Praying Beyond the Boundaries of the Heart,” Weavings, Sept/Oct 1995.
Deborah Douglas Smith, “Border Crossings,” Weavings, Nov/Dec 2002.
Donald B. Ward, “The Quality of Mercy,” sermon, date unknown.
Garrett Keizer, “Feed my Dogs,” Christian Century, 7-28-99.
Kathleen Norris, “Mercy Me,” Christian Century, 11-29-05.
Eugene Peterson, The Message.
Helen Bruch Pearson, Do What You Have the Power to Do, Upper Room Books, 1992.