Sunday, July 11, 2004

The Happiness Project: What Mercy Does

Matthew 5:1-2, 7

(shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 11, 2004)

One of my favorite preachers is Dr. Gerald Mann. He tells a story about something that happened during his first year in seminary. He was the twenty-one year old, married, father of one. His little girl was profoundly deaf and in need of special attention she could only receive in Houston, Texas. And so, already pastoring a church part-time in Houston, he had to fly to the seminary he attended in Dallas four times a week for classes. As you can imagine, he was always on the brink of physical and emotional exhaustion.

One week, toward the end of his first term, wiped out, he remembered that he had a paper due in his New Testament studies class the next day. Two days out of the week, he roomed with a student specializing in New Testament and so he asked if there were any resources on the authorship of the New Testament book of Hebrews to which he could refer him. Yeah, the guy replied, someone in his seminar had presented a pretty good paper on that subject and he handed it to Mann.

Gerald Mann was impressed by the paper. It had been typed on an IBM Selectric (this was back in the Stone Ages). As the night wore on and Gerald Mann became more desperate, he decided to find an IBM Selectric, tear off the title page from the paper his roomie had handed him, and replace it with one bearing his own name. He turned it in.

A week or so later, Mann received the paper back. The grade: A+, under which was written, “Look inside.” Inside, his professor had written a note. “When I wrote this paper fifteen years ago,” it said, “I only got a C for it. But I always thought that it was pretty good. See me at your convenience.”

You can imagine the fear that Gerald Mann felt. Plagiarism--stealing what someone else has written--is no different from knocking off the local convenience store or sacking Enron. His professor had evidence sufficient to have him expelled from seminary. He went to his professor’s office and soon began to explain the pressures under which he was operating: his little girl, his job, his four-times a week commute between Houston and Dallas, his average of four hours of sleep at night, his last-minute realization that a major paper was due the next day.

As he told his story, his professor began to tear up and then, came around his desk and put his hand on Mann’s shoulders. “Listen,” he said, “you don’t need to cheat. If there are times when you’re up against it, just come and see me and we can work something out.”

Mann was taken aback by this, but still was concerned about what was to happen next. “What about my grade?” he asked. His professor said, “It’s still a good paper. The grade stands. We’ll just keep it our secret.”

The impact of that professor’s decision? Gerald Mann says that he never cheated again.

Jesus tells us in our Bible lesson today, “Blessed (that means: happy, fortunate, blissful) are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

All the different Biblical words---both those in the Old Testament and in the New Testament---tell us that to be merciful means more than feeling compassion for someone who’s experiencing pain or affliction. It also means acting on our compassion or sympathy. Sometimes it means to act sympathetically or compassionately even toward those who have wronged us. Jesus says that the happy people of this world are the ones who treat others with mercy.

That was a very tough fact for me to review and remember this past week as I prepared this message. I like the idea of being compassionate or merciful toward others. And I like it when other people think that I’m merciful. But to actually be merciful isn’t easy. Being merciful takes a willingness to put aside our own agendas and let the pain or needs of another person intrude on us. It means sharing others’ pain or giving them some relief.

Years ago, one of our Lutheran magazines had a tradition of printing the names and pictures of every person graduating from Lutheran seminaries in the spring. Interspersed with the pictures were articles by seasoned pastors, giving advice to these men and women about to become pastors. I’ll never forget an article that appeared one year in which a veteran pastor talked about his “theology of interruptions.” He advised that it’s all well and good for a person to have plans for their day. But when someone with a need comes along, we need to be willing to forget our agendas and instead pay heed to helping where we can.

That’s not easy to do! The late writer Erma Bombeck once told about a flight she was taking to Chicago. About thirty minutes before the plane was to take off, she settled down in her seat, craving some quiet. You see, just before she’d left for the airport, her son had engaged in some long monologue about a movie he’d just seen, replete with about 3000 “you knows.” And then, her cab driver rambled on about his own college-age son. Now, she thought, she could enjoy some peace and quiet.

But then she heard the voice of an elderly woman sitting next to her. “I’ll bet it’s cold in Chicago,” she said.

“Stone faced, I replied [Bombeck writes], ‘It’s likely.’ ‘I haven’t been to Chicago in nearly three years,’ [the elderly woman] persisted. ‘My son lives there.’ ‘That’s nice,’ [Bombeck said, her eyes now glued to a book she hoped the woman would see she was reading.]

But the woman went on: “My husband’s body is on this plane. We’ve been married 53 years. I don’t drive, you know, and when he died a nun drove me home from the hospital. We aren’t even Catholic. The funeral director let me come to the airport with him.”

Erma Bombeck writes: “I don’t think I ever detested myself more than I did at that moment. Another human being was screaming to be heard, and in desperation, had turned to a cold stranger who was more interested in a novel than in real life...She needed no advice, money, assistance, expertise...---all she needed was someone to listen.”

The actions of mercy can be as simple as listening to a person who is hurting. Mercy has many faces and many manifestations. But it always involves acting to help those in need, whatever their need and however limited our abilities. Once, when our son was about six years old, we were doing some Christmas shopping. He’d just bought a gift for his sister, from money he’d been collecting for awhile. As we left one store, we passed a Salvation Army volunteer, ringing his bell, seeking donations. My wife and I watched as our then-little boy dug into his pocket and put all that he had left into the volunteer’s bucket. I had tears in my eyes as I thought about how many times I passed the needs of humanity by, thinking that because I couldn’t do everything, I couldn’t do anything. At that moment, Philip taught me, that no matter how little we may think we have to offer, we can still be merciful to those in need. It’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Does that mean that if we’re kind and generous to people in their afflictions that God will be merciful to us? Does it mean that we can earn God’s forgiveness and love? You and I know better than that. The Bible teaches that there is nothing that you and I can do to gain God’s forgiveness and eternal life. Those things are free gifts to all who turn away from sin and surrender their lives to Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus’ death on the cross is the greatest act of mercy in the history of the world. The New Testament book of Romans says that while you and I were still sinners---lounging around in the slop of our sins like pigs unaware that sin made us dirty and unfit for living---Jesus Christ died for us. God saw our need and took care of us before we even knew we needed His care. That’s mercy.

But here’s what Jesus teaches us this morning (and in lots of other places in the New Testament): Every time you and I fail to share His mercy with other people, we build up a wall between God and us. The less mercy we show, the bigger the wall between God and us and the harder it becomes for His mercy to reach our hardened hearts.

Jesus says that happy people are those who keep their hearts and lives open to God’s blessings by living mercifully toward those in need. Happy people are those who keep turning away from sin and keep turning to God and to others.

Being merciful to others can also tear down walls between us and other people. After the Korean War, a group of American soldiers rented a house in South Korea. They had a young Korean working for them and they treated him horribly, playing practical jokes on him all the time. Every time they did something to him though, he would laugh and go on with his business.

One day, the Americans felt so badly about it that they finally apologized and said they wouldn’t pull their pranks any longer. He asked, “You mean you won’t put buckets with water on the top of the door, making me wet when I open it?” “No” they said, “we won’t do that.” “No more grease on the stove knobs, making it hard for me to do the cooking?” “No.” “No more dirt on the floor so that I have to vacuum all the time?” “No, no. We won’t do anything like that any more.” “Okay,” he said, “then I won’t spit in your soup anymore.” When we’re merciful to the afflicted, that mercy has a way of coming back to us.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Happy people gladly give away God’s mercy because they know God has a lot more mercy where that came from. In fact, the follower of Jesus Christ knows that the more mercy we give away, the more of it fills our lives.

Ask Jesus to give you the faith and the courage to be a merciful person, to share the mercy He has given to you. Ask Him to help you fill the needs of others in your own unique way. When you do, you’ll be on the road to true happiness.

[Erma Bombeck told the story of her flight to Chicago in a column appearing in the Chicago Sun Times on February 26, 1977. It and the joke about the Korean and the US GIs appeared in a very fine sermon by Pastor Will Pounds, written and delivered in 1999.]

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