June 8, 2008

"I Desire Mercy"
Scripture: Matthew 9:9-13
Sermon by Rev. Kathleen Groff
Dundee United Methodist Church

  Recently I received an invitation to my 45th class reunion and received an email from a former classmate, someone I had not heard from since my college days at Ohio State. Both pieces helped trigger some memories from those years in what we called junior and senior high school. I remembered a fellow named Ralph, someone I met in 8th grade. By the time I reached the 8th grade, Ralph had been in that grade for three years. Physically he was quite mature, but I believe he was considered a problem student. I never saw him carry around any books but he always seemed to have a group of students he hung out with, mostly those who popular students considered losers. Ralph was every teacher’s nightmare. Since he never seemed to study, they simply did not know what to do with him. In those days students did not pass unless they met certain minimal standards. I’m sure Ralph did things that were hard for teachers to tolerate and he challenged the status quo. He was the problem nobody wanted to deal with, so they let him come to classes and managed the best they could with him. They probably saw him as a misfit, a problem that would not go away. I can just imagine each teacher at the beginning of the year groaning when they found out that Ralph was in their class. Most of the “good” kids avoided him. The school saw him as a real problem student.

  I watched Ralph a lot at lunchtime and saw something a bit different in him. For one thing Ralph seemed smarter than others realized. He made comments that sometimes astounded me. That such a “dumb” seeming boy could once in awhile come up with a very intelligent statement amazed me. I also saw that some of his “pranks” were very cleverly planned and carried out, creative in their execution. But what touched me the most about him was the time one of the other students passing by his table dropped her books. The others sitting at his table began to laugh at her, but Ralph didn’t laugh. He just bent down and helped her pick up the books and to my amazement gave her a smile. That little action killed the laughter and no one seemed to dare challenge Ralph about his actions. I saw something in Ralph that I think others could not see because they saw him as a problem. That’s what I think Jesus saw when he ate with tax collectors and sinners. Perhaps he saw beyond the cold, calculating hearts that others saw in the tax collectors. Perhaps he saw the possibility of redemption in the perpetual sinners he ate with. Jesus saw past the exterior of a person to the very core of who that person was in the eyes of God. Jesus knew the healing that needed to take place in those who were outcasts and the disfavored of society. He knew that if there was no one to speak of a different way, the people he ate with would go on being who they were in the eyes of society as well as in their own eyes.

  In the movies we watch, the bad guys most often lose by the end of the movie. And there is a little voice in us that applauds the heroes who get the bad guys. But I have a challenging thought for us. If the bad guys always lose, we lose as well. Certainly we don’t want the bad guys to win, to keep doing harmful stuff to others. But if the bad guys lose most often the world is robbed of the gifts that may also be housed within them. God gives each person the capacity to be “good” or “evil”, but God also gives each person capabilities and gifts that are intended to be used to build the kingdom of God and each person has the possibility to of being transformed into the image of God. When evil is transformed, when the bad guys turn into good guys, we all win, because those talents wasted on doing bad stuff can then be used to do good stuff. Jesus saw potential in each person he encountered. He showed mercy because he knew the love that God had for each individual created. So he interacted with sinners, the adulterers, the cheaters, the thieves, the con artists and others. He didn’t avoid them because they were often deemed unclean and unfit to be associated with. He acted with mercy because that is what God does for those we deem losers.

  Jesus’ concern for sinners motivated him to spend time with them and enjoy their company, giving them access to the forgiving love of God. He did not spend his time condemning sinners, but spent his time offering them the mercy and love of God through his actions, his healings and his words, his teachings. If we are to be Christ like, we are called to do the same. Unfortunately we find it much easier to practice condemning behaviors than to offer acts of mercy and love to those we do not desire to be around. Many students and teachers avoided Ralph because they saw the nuisance in him, the problem he posed to others. I wonder what would have happened if someone had actually taken the time to talk with him, to befriend and listen to him. Perhaps they would have discovered a very tender side of him, the good potential in him. Perhaps they could have gotten him to open up about home problems or self esteem problems and opened doors for him to be transformed. We pay the highest compliment to people when we quietly just listen to them. I think Jesus probably spent a great deal of time at dinner parties just listening to people, taking in their perceptions of what mattered in life, fascinated by their stories and their talk. To be understood and appreciated is truly a great gift, and it brings about healing and transformation. Jesus knew the human mind better than anyone, and he knew the healing power of paying attention to the concerns and cares of those around him.

  We are called to offer God’s love and mercy and one of the best ways to do that is to listen to those we shy away from because we don’t believe we can understand them. But the only way to understand is to listen, placing ourselves in their shoes as much as possible. Jesus knew that there were stories and cares and concerns behind even the worst behavior. And his way to the heart of the matter was to listen and respond with compassion and the forgiveness of God.

  Just look at the political struggles during the primaries these past months. Talk shows spent a great deal of time condemning candidates on every little bit of their past that seemed dishonest or threatening or off the good path. We spent little time listening for the hurt that certain targeted slams had on candidates. We wanted to engage in selective listening that gave our particular favored candidate the edge. If it is that easy to engage in condemnation in the political arena, just think how easy it is to do that in our personal arenas. Are there those around us that we like to condemn. We don’t really listen to them wholly, but listen to those pieces that reinforce our personal feelings about them.

  In my adult life I have encountered people who have left a negative impression. At first I would find any behavior or statement they made that justified my negative feelings about them. But spending a great deal of time with them gradually helped me loosen my firm impression enough to begin to see other things in them. Praying for those people helped as well. But listening to them to try to get at what was at the heart of their behavior did much to help me begin to like those people. I think Jesus had compassion on people from his first encounter with them. He was open to their problems and wanted more than anything for them to know the love and mercy of God. We are called to be more open with those around us, to see them with the compassion and love of God, even those we see as losers and may judge as sinners, especially those who it seems are going down the wrong path, turning away from God. I wonder what difference it would make if our approach to others was with the eyes of compassion from our knowledge of the love of God through Jesus.