Many years, ago, when I was a young boy, I got into some unfortunate company and one Saturday, we lifted a few items without paying for them from a shop. Inevitably, we got caught red-handed. The shop manager said he would call on our parents, and he sent us home. It’s perhaps possible to imagine how I felt. The tears, the shame, the confession to my mother and father. The manager from the shop actually drove to our house and met my parents. I feared the worst – in the way only a child can – but I was shown mercy. I was let off. There was no punishment. Deeply shamed and contrite, I never did it again. I was hugely grateful to the merciful shop manager, and to my parents, for their understanding.
Today I want to reflect on mercy. I have been thinking, in the last two sermons I have given, on the way our faith is embodied in ‘the life we live’. That our faith takes on flesh, in the way we actually conduct our lives. This is not rocket science, but it came home powerfully to me at Taizé this year. What other Christianity is there apart from the one that people see? Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, wrote this in his Rule of life to the brothers in the community: ‘Be filled with the spirit of the Beatitudes: joy, simplicity and mercy’. In October I considered simplicity, drawing on the story of the rich young ruler, told to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Luke 18:18-30) and thought about different ways that might play out in our lives in our relationship with possessions and with relationships. And that being unencumbered frees us up, makes the load of our life lighter. If simplicity might be the framework of our lives as Christians, then mercy is the expression of it.
I am grateful to Brother Émile of Taizé, a French-Canadian brother who spoke about this, and I shamelessly rework his material. It’s called, ‘recycling!’
Brother Roger of Taizé used these three words, joy, simplicity and mercy to keep himself on the straight path. He said this, ‘If we have lost mercy, we have lost everything’. Nothing is important, if we have lost the spirit of mercy’. We sometimes think of mercy as something condescending, like ‘pity’. But it carries more the sense of something that is freely given, not constrained, it is generous, and loving. Think of the question that Peter asked of Jesus: ‘If someone sins against me, how often should I forgive him? Seven times? Jesus answered him, not seven times but seventy-seven times’. In other words, forgiveness or mercy should be inexhaustible (Matt 18:21,22).
In French, and Latin, the word for mercy is the same: miséricorde or misericordia. There are two parts to the word, miserere, means compassion and cordia comes from the word ‘cor’, meaning heart. Mercy, therefore, carries the idea of having compassion on someone with all one’s heart. It expresses the idea: ‘From the very inmost depth (or core) of one’s being.’ But it’s a very practical thing, as well as being a feeling. If there is one story of Jesus’ in the gospels that captures the idea of mercy, it is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). First, the Samaritan was moved with compassion when he saw the man, robbed, naked and half-dead by the side of the road. Then he did something very practical. He bandaged his wounds, poured on oil, put him in his donkey, took him to an inn, paid for his care, and promised to come back. It cost him something, in time and money but he couldn’t do everything: he took him somewhere where someone else does something. So we shouldn’t think just what we do directly, but also what we enable others to do.
I am struck by the way that acts of mercy can be surprising, can cut through negative expectations and give us hope. I saw an interview on TV a few weeks ago of a Syrian doctor who, having escaped Aleppo, was going back because there were so few people to give care for all the wounded. There was a courageous story recently of an ordinary man who came to the rescue of a young Muslim woman, wearing a hijab, who was being taunted on the Underground. Such acts surprise us, against a background of unmercy, and such is the quality of mercy. Some of us saw the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ a week or so ago. I confess I didn’t really want to go but got dragged along somehow – it’s a film everyone should see. The striking thing was that the acts of mercy – and there were many – were almost all from the poor – those who had next to nothing – to other poor people – who also had next to nothing. It was impossible not to have tears in your eyes. The main character, Daniel, a 60-something Geordie, jobless after a heart attack, met a young single mother, stood up for her at the Job Centre and then quite innocently and naturally, helped her fix things in her flat – the door, the bath, and so on. It was an act of simple generosity, of mercy, so lovely that it took your breath away. Horribly, I was tempted to think there was going to be something pervy here, but there wasn’t. It was just mercy, but I don’t even think that Daniel thought it was that. It was perfectly natural and normal for him to just reach out and help another human being in any way he could. In fact, it was the life he lived. But mercy it was, and it gave hope to Katy, the young woman, and to her two children. On a more mundane level, by chance, Rosemary and I were at the supermarket last week and met Liz there. At the checkout, Liz said to me, ‘Oh I forgot to get something for ReadiFood. Can you go and get a few tins of something?’ I trotted off and got a couple of tins of beans, some pasta and tomato sauce, and put them in the ReadiFood bin. I knew about ReadiFood, of course, but had never thought to actually do anything. Those merciful words of Liz made me go and do something that I won’t forget – perhaps because I actually did it with my body – not just thought about it! It has been really encouraging to witness the interest in the ‘Hope into Action’ Project, around the housing of some women who are homeless. That’s mercy.
But mercy can be stifled. It can get stifled by cynicism, by rushing and not seeing the need, by always thinking it’s someone else’s job, by thinking there’s nothing we can do in the face of relentless negative news stories of unmercy. Even if there is nothing we can do, quite often just being with someone, holding their hand, being silent, weeping with them is a mercy. Not every problem can be fixed.
But in thinking about mercy as something we feel and do, we need to think about why we would do that. And ultimately, it is because we have experienced it ourselves and we know that we too need mercy to live. Mercy is contagious. When we receive love, generosity and mercy, we will want to pass it on, to ‘Pay it forward’ – and by the way, if you haven’t seen the film ‘Pay it forward’ with Kevin Spacey, go see it – it’s about mercy. What we understand about God, is that He is merciful. The word ‘mercy’ and related words occurs nearly 500 times in the Bible. The Psalms are full of expressions of God’s mercy: ‘The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Ps145:8).
Charles Williams was a poet an author of the last century, and a friend of CS Lewis, author of the Narnia books, and JRR Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings. They used to meet at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, and there is a plaque commemorating their meetings in the bar. He is buried at Holywell cemetery in Oxford, and his headstone has these words on it, chosen by his wife: ‘Charles Williams – Poet – Under the Mercy’. That phrase, ‘Under the mercy’ was a favourite of Charles’ because he was conscious of living, as we all do, under the mercy.
At last, I connect this sermon with today’s gospel. If you can remember, it is the story of the birth of Jesus. It is, in fact, a story of God’s mercy. God’s love for us was such that he took flesh in the child of Nazareth, given the name Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ in the passage in Matthew. We live our lives as Christians, and we celebrate that here today, because of that act of mercy, when God intervened in human history. Because of that, we are under the mercy.
Today, as we form the circles to receive communion, we will sing two Taizé songs that speak of mercy. The first we have sung before (it’s in French) – Heureux qui s’abandonne à toi, ô Dieu, dans la confiance du coeur.
Tu nous gardes dans la joie, la simplicité, la miséricorde. (Happy are those who abandon themselves to you with a trusting heart. You keep them in joy, simplicity and mercy) – which is a prayer of Brother Roger. You may not know the second, so here it is (It’s in Latin): Misericordias Domini, in aeternum cantabo (I will sing forever of the mercy of God). May they be prayers for us as we embody mercy in our lives, which we live under the mercy.
Have mercy on us and redeem us, O Lord, for our merits are your mercies and in your judgement, is our salvation; through Jesus Chris our Lord. Amen.