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November 26, 2016

City of Mercy

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:


Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
November 26, 2016

Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-12, Luke 10:29-37.

Synopsis: More and more, I come back to this statement by Jesus as the bedrock of my religion and worldview: “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ I tell you, ‘Love your enemies . . . thus living as children of the heavenly Father. Because he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” To paraphrase: We may have imagined it some great accomplishment when we have learned to distinguish between those who deserve our favor and those who do not. But such skill is a rather pedestrian achievement. A truly great accomplishment, one that marks us as most like God, is the practice of mercy. Mercy is generosity rooted in the heart of the giver rather than elicited by the virtue of the recipient. Church is a community pledged to the ideals of God. It is a city whose culture is shaped by the character of our founder. So, habits of mercy and generosity bring our civilization closest to our holy charter. They unite our hearts most intimately with God.

I met George last week. He’s newly arrived from Nairobi for a couple of years of graduate study here at UW.

JR and his family moved here from Southern California, the neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Several of us here, have a shared history of time at Church of the Advent Hope in New York City.

Nairobi. Los Angeles. New York City. Seattle. Each of these cities has its own character, its own culture, its own civilization. Even here in our own region, Bellevue, Kirkland, Seattle, Tacoma. Each of these cities has a distinctive flavor. For those who know them well, the mere mention of their names evokes a kind of gut response. Each city has its own personality, its own culture.

[In the worship service, I will ask people to text me brief descriptions of a favorite city, a city they have lived in, or even a city they have visited. I will ask them to give their favorite city a descriptive name. Los Angeles, the city of angels? Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love?]

These days I often imagine church as a city. In my mind I play with various names for this city. A name that all by itself evokes a mental picture of the culture of that city, the ideals the city is known for. If we were going to name the church based on what we would hope it would be when it was on its best behavior, what name would I choose? Names that run through my mind: The City of God. The Holy City. The Beautiful City. The City of Joy (my sermon last week). The City of Refuge (to borrow a term from the Book of Deuteronomy). The City of Light. Today, because it’s Thanksgiving, I want to imagine the church as the City of Mercy.

Imagine you’re on a trek in the Himalayas. The day’s journey has taken you across two passes over 16,000 feet. You’re exhausted. For the last four hours it’s been raining and blowing. The temperature is just above freezing. The light is gone from the sky. Half an hour back you finally had to turn on your headlamp. You’re starting to get nervous. Right now, you’re not freezing, but you know, even if you stopped for three minutes to get a snack from your pack, the instant you stop your body temperature is going to drop. Dangerously. Hypothermia is just ten minutes away. So stopping is impossible. Resting is impossible. And you’re running out of gas. Lunch was a very long time ago. The snacks you’ve eaten since then seem to disappear into your gut without turning into energy. Your destination is a village. You wonder idly if you’ll make it.

Then your partner calls out, “There it is.”

Ahead through the gathering gloom and rain and mist, lights. Too far away. But still lights. And maybe the shape of buildings. You relax a bit. You’re still cold. Your muscles still complain about the length of the day. You still wish the rain would quit. But you quit worrying. Soon, you’ll be able to stop moving without tumbling almost immediately into hypothermia. You’ll be inside, under a roof, in a place where hot tea will be ready. Safe.

This is a picture of church. A beckoning city. A saving village. A place where, when you arrive, you can collapse and know it’s okay. It you are shivering and wet, someone will offer tea. If you are exhausted, someone will offer a seat.

Jesus once pictured the church as a city on a hill. I like that picture. For those outside, it is a beckoning place offering safety. For those inside it provides shelter and nourishment and a place to serve. Every villager has an opportunity to participate in the culture of care, the culture of mercy.

One of the foundational convictions of the church is that we are privileged. This life we share together, this community is a gift. When we show mercy we are merely paying forward the rich blessing we have received.

The story of the church begins way back, long before Jesus. I like the language of our OT reading this morning, words addressed to the Jewish people newly arrived in the land of Palestine.

When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you as a special possession and you have conquered it and settled there, put some of the first produce from each crop you harvest into a basket and bring it to the designated place of worship–the place the LORD your God chooses for his name to be honored.
Go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, ‘With this gift I acknowledge to the LORD your God that I have entered the land he swore to our ancestors he would give us.’
The priest will then take the basket from your hand and set it before the altar of the LORD your God.
“You must then say in the presence of the LORD your God, ‘My ancestor Jacob was a wandering Aramean who went to live as a foreigner in Egypt. His family arrived few in number, but in Egypt they became a large and mighty nation. When the Egyptians oppressed and humiliated us by making us their slaves, we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors. He heard our cries and saw our hardship, toil, and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and powerful arm, with overwhelming terror, and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land flowing with milk and honey!
And now, O LORD, I have brought you the first portion of the harvest you have given me from the ground.’ Then place the produce before the LORD your God, and bow to the ground in worship before him.
Afterward you may go and celebrate because of all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household. Remember to include the Levites and the foreigners living among you in the celebration. “Every third year you must offer a special tithe of your crops. In this year of the special tithe you must give your tithes to the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows, so that they will have enough to eat in your towns.

The father of the Israelites, their ancestor, was a wandering Aramean. He had no citizenship. He was officially landless and stateless. He had no passport. Then it got worse. Their people headed south into Egypt which looked like a really good idea at the time, but then the government changed and suddenly they became a scary people, a problem. The government solved the problem by registering them all as slaves.

Life was unbearable where they were. And there was nowhere else they could go. They were stuck.

Then God rescued them and brought them into a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

They were to keep this history alive, Moses said. Regularly celebrate it. And shape their civic life in light of this history. Remember you were a foreigner, a stateless person, a person with no home, no settled place. Remember that when you deal with foreigners and homeless people. Remember. Do not forget.

We Americans are like those early Jewish people. Like them, we came from somewhere else. All of us. Even Native Americans or First Nations were not created here on this soil. They came from elsewhere. Probably via Russia or Siberia. And I don’t have to remind the rest of us that we were first boat people before we were Americans. For most of our forebears, life back there was not so good.

Now we hold the most envied passports in the world. We did not earn these documents. They are gifts of parentage, of luck, of God. We are recipients of mercy. Of generosity.

Let’s remember. Let’s never forget. And may our memory of mercy received lead us to practice mercy.

Coming back to the Bible’s picture of the people of God, there is a NT passage that echoes the mercy theme of our OT reading. It’s found in 1 Peter 2:9

You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people. Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9-10.

Who are we? What are we? We were nobodies. We lived in Nowheresville. But now through God’s mercy, we are somebodies. We members of the people of God, citizens of the City of Mercy. Every element of our life together is suffused with the light and warmth of mercy.

Which brings us to our NT reading.

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”
The man answered, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”
The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.
“By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by.
A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.
“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him.
Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him.
The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’
“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

A theologian asked Jesus about salvation. Jesus answered, “Obey the commandments—you know, love God and love your neighbor.”

Love your neighbor. Show mercy to your neighbor. And every theologian knows we are supposed to love our neighbor, to show mercy to our neighbor. But just who are these “neighbors” who are worthy to receive my love and mercy?

When I hear the word neighbor, I imagine the guy who lives next door. The one that has come to the rescue of my family on more than one occasion when I wasn’t around. I think about the woman across the street that I’ve been waving to in the morning while she is waiting with her kids for the school bus. We’ve been waving at each other for more than ten years now. If those people needed something, yes, I know I should show mercy. And there is the widow who lives next door. She’s kind of crazy, but she’s been part of our lives for almost twenty years now, so when she needs her lawnmower taken into the shop, I figure it’s my responsibility to do it. Neighbors are people we know, people we trust, people like us, good people.

The theologian wondered just how far the circle of neighborhood reached. Just who is really worthy of my mercy, my neighborliness?

Jesus tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan. Then comes to the punch line: “Who was neighbor to the man in need?” Jesus asked the theologian. “The one who showed mercy,” the good theologian answered.

The theologian wanted to know who was worthy to receive his mercy, who was good enough to be his neighbor.

Jesus turned the question on its head. Are you good enough to be a neighbor?

One primary quality of mercy is that it is the overflow of generosity that lives in the heart of the merciful. Others do not earn mercy. We give it. Because we are full of it.

Our fathers and mothers were wandering people and now have passports in the richest most powerful nation in the history of humanity. We have been made so rich we can never give others the magnitude of mercy we have received. But we are mindful of our wealth and seek to share.

Our first question is not does that person deserve to be my neighbor. Instead we ask, am I good enough to act as neighbor?

Our aim as a church is to be a City of Mercy. A lighted village on a hill at the end of a long, cold trek.

We did not create this city. Jesus did. We who were not a people were transformed into a people by the mercy of God. We who had not received mercy, have now received it. And are glad. And are looking for opportunities to pay it forward, to taste again in our own souls the sweetness of the mercy we have received by letting it run through our hands into the lives of others.

And weary, freezing trekkers will see the glow of mercy and hurry to the warmth and light of our city. The City of Mercy.

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