By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Over the past few weeks, we have found ourselves waist-deep, so to speak, in the gospel of Luke. Beginning next Sunday at 9:15 in the parlor, I’ll be leading a four-week study on the gospels in our bible; a study designed to help us understand and appreciate the diversity of perspectives in our gospels.
In recent years, we have been discouraged from using the long-time metaphor of our country as a melting pot. The image of a melting pot is one of everything being blended together into one new composite material. But, today social scientists encourage metaphors like a stew or a tossed salad as a way of celebrating the diversity that is America. Becoming an American doesn’t mean we forfeit our cultural distinctiveness. Rather, it means we bring that cultural distinctiveness as an essential ingredient in this stew or salad that is our nation.
In like manner, sometimes people blend our biblical gospels together. But, when we do that, we forfeit the unique perspective of each gospel message. Each gospel developed around a particular community’s traditions and experiences because the Word of God is never something dead or sterile. It comes to life in the experiences of Christian community; and so, each of our gospels utilizes different key terms and themes. They sometimes tell of events or encounters in different sequence or under different circumstances or for different reasons.
Today marks the 4th time in the past five Sundays that I am preaching from the gospel of Luke. Luke is often referenced as the gospel of the poor and disenfranchised; a gospel for the least, the last and the lost... and certainly it is. But the message of Luke goes much deeper than pure economics and we would be gravely mistaken if we thought that Luke wasn’t preaching to all of us, whatever our economic position might be. The gospel of Luke reveals both the cause and the effects of lives that are converted to generosity and gratitude through a relationship with Jesus.
Over these last few weeks, we’ve looked at Luke’s story of Jesus healing ten lepers. Ten cried out to Jesus for mercy and Jesus cleansed all ten of their disease. Yet only one returned to say “thank you” to Jesus and that one, Jesus says, was also saved. His salvation came in his recognition of and gratitude for the mercy of God that radically transformed his life.
After that, we looked at Jesus’ parable about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. Lazarus had laid in his miserable condition right there at the rich man’s gate desperate for help. But none came. At death, the rich man is tormented in Hades while poor Lazarus is whisked away to rest in the bosom of Abraham. From his place of torment, the rich man cries out for mercy. But alas, it is too late. The rendering of judgment in that parable is a clear example of this morning’s scripture that “the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Last week, we looked at the popular bible story of a tax collector named Zacchaeus. Through his encounter with Jesus, he is led to repent and to convert his life from one of greediness to one of generosity; from one of selfishness to a lifestyle of mercy. In pledging to surrender his wealth, Jesus announces that Zacchaeus, like that one thankful leper, has experienced salvation.
Salvation, Luke’s gospel makes very clear, is not relegated to heaven when we die. Salvation is a healing; a restoration that impacts our physical, spiritual, and social condition right here and right now. [repeat]
And so we turn to this morning’s scripture from Luke and this time it is not a story or a parable. We have no characters or drama. This morning’s scripture is teaching direct from our Lord. Scholars often refer to this portion of Luke as Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. It is neither as popular nor well known as Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount; nor is it as long. But occurring early in Jesus’ public ministry, it lays the foundation for the remainder of the gospel story. The portion of Luke I shared with you this morning is focused on the social component of salvation. Let me say that again, friends; there is no “me and Jesus’ brand of salvation; at least none than can be substantiated by our gospels for salvation, my friends, completely changes our relationships; it completely changes how we interact and engage with other people because the way we engage with others should be a direct result and a clear reflection of how God, through Jesus, has engaged with us. God is one who is consistently merciful; not because we deserve mercy; but because mercy is the nature of God. God, Jesus assures us, is kind even to the ungrateful and the wicked. God is extravagant with his mercy and God, our heavenly Father, expects us to be a chip off the old block. “Be merciful,” Jesus says, “just as your Father is merciful.”
Bible scholar David Rhoads writes that, “The mercy of God drives the plot of Luke’s story from beginning to end.”[i] Mercy is the way that God brings change into our world. The mercy of God, made known through Jesus, changes us. We become, through the mercy of God, children of the Most High God, whose words and actions reflect the character of our heavenly Father. No reward is greater, Jesus reminds us, than becoming part of God’s family; children of God. But we can only do so if we are open to receiving and bestowing the mercy of God. Each one of us needs God’s mercy and grace and when we’re open to receiving it, it changes us. The mercy that comes into our lives cannot help then, but go forth from our lives; passed on to others in their time of need.
If you were in church the week that I preached on the healing of those ten lepers, you likely recall my story of the puppy Britt and I picked up in the street. It was nearly dead and would have died if we hadn’t shown mercy toward that little guy. We felt compassion, an inward emotion expressed through mercy. You might remember me saying that mercy saved that puppy’s life; mercy, tangibly expressed in the form of food and medicine; a warm, dry, safe place to sleep; clean water, affection, exercise and training. Mercy – the mercy of God – is what saves all of us. And, when we know that mercy has saved us, we can’t help but feel compassion for others and show mercy to them. It’s not always easy. When we first found that puppy he was dirty and smelly and listless. Initially, he was too weak to pay any attention to us at all. We didn’t get any puppy licks and with all the parasites he had, I wouldn’t have wanted any. And friends, there are people in our lives whose behaviors and habits may be far from attractive, even revolting to us. But those are the ones who need mercy the most. Mercy brings concrete change to people’s lives; not just in the bye and bye when we die, but right here and right now.
In the gospel of Luke, more than anything else, sin is revealed through self-centered behaviors: looking out for number one; pursuing our personal interests; working to secure our individual security. But salvation comes when we recognize, welcome and give thanks for the mercy and compassion of God through Jesus and when we pass it on to others. Jesus makes clear: we are not the people we pretend to be if we only love and serve and give to those who are our friends and family; to those who are attractive to us; to those who are like us. If we are children of the heavenly Father, our mercy – like God’s – knows no boundaries.
This is stewardship month at Trinity and it’s important for us to recognize that financial giving is a reflection of our spiritual condition. Jesus commands us to love even our enemies, to do good even to our enemies, and to give expecting nothing in return. And it’s a 3-in-1 package deal. Jesus isn’t offering three options and we can select the one we prefer. No. If we have been touched by the mercy of God, we will love generously; we will serve generously; and we will give generously.
Friends, if we are stingy with our time, our talents, and our money, then we are not the people we claim to be because children of God love and serve and give and forgive in ways that are abundant and generous. And when we do those things, lives and circumstances change; right here, right now. Luke’s message was that the suffering and oppression in our world is healed when we live out the mercy of God in real and tangible ways.
I want to challenge you this morning to think about your life and your commitment to live out the mercy of God in ways that bring change to our community. We have members of our congregation who are CASA volunteers. In their work advocating on behalf of children, they are showing God’s mercy and bringing change to lives. We have people in our church who visit shut-ins; some whose only other visitors are healthcare workers and social workers. When they visit with no other agenda than to share fellowship, they are showing God’s mercy and bringing change to those lives. I know two people in our congregation who had a loved one who had wounded them deeply and yet when that loved one was nearing the end of their life, those two people were there for them, day in and day out; vivid reflections of the mercy of God that brought comfort to them in their final days on earth.
Friends, we ought to all be world changers in our own unique way; showing mercy to those in need through the generous giving of our money, time and talents for that is the fundamental way we live out our identity as children of our heavenly Father.
If we begrudgingly offer our money, time or talents – if we measure it out strictly – that reflects a spiritual condition of failing to comprehend/receive the mercy of God. If we have comprehended the mercy of God, we will love, serve and give with reckless abandon.
And when we love, serve and give with abundance and abandon, we bring change to our society. Actual circumstances are changed for those who are sick, hungry, marginalized, feared, judged, forgotten and oppressed.
I want to close this morning with the story of one of my seminary students who has given me permission to share his story. I’ll call him Bill. Bill’s first memory of childhood was coming home from a friend’s sleepover to find his father locked out of the house, sitting bloody on the front steps of the porch. Inside the house was broken glass, blood, and obvious signs of physical violence. His parents divorced, but both continued to drink heavily. In middle school, his mother remarried and the man she married was far more abusive than Bill’s dad. The abuse only increased his mother’s drinking and his life was horrible. During freshman year, he began to attend a local church, drawn there by a very attractive young lady who sat with her family near the front. She seemed as good a reason as any to go to church and Bill did. They began to date and her family became the family he’d never had. In that family and in that church, Bill came to know and welcome the mercy of God. Now, fast forward more than a decade. Over the past two years, Bill and his wife have fostered and then adopted three children who, like Bill, came from difficult family situations. One of those children has severe medical issues as a result of her birth mother’s drug addiction. Bill and his wife had previously adopted one child; so now they have four. I don’t know how they do it. I would be overwhelmed by the challenges they have had to address. But it is Bill’s ministry of mercy and he knows, as we have celebrated throughout this month that he was blessed to be a blessing.
[i] The Challenge of Diversity: the Witness of Paul and the Gospels by David Rhoads. Fortress Press; p. 109.
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