Saturday, August 29, 2015

“A Word about Words” - August 30, 2015

James 1:17-27

            Have you ever heard someone say that they “lost their religion” with somebody?  That’s a phrase you hear down South that means “losing your temper”.  It’s also the title of an R.E.M. song and it’s interesting to me that the song talks about saying too much or too little (“Oh no, I’ve said too much / I haven’t said enough…”), because the Letter of James makes the point:
“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. [James 1:26]

Losing your religion and loosing your tongue go together.  Speech is all too often the vehicle for harm. 

Today we pray for the people we will send off to school next week.  The power of words is one of the earliest lessons that they learn. 

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” 

Really? If that were true, that rhyme would never have come into existence, let alone have become one that every child learns.  Names hurt.  “Hey, there, Fatso!  How’s it going?” or “You doofus!” or “Chicken legs!”  That sort of thing stays with someone well beyond childhood, building into them the message, “There’s something wrong with you.  You are not good enough.  You are lacking.  You will never measure up.”  In time, most people overcome the playground insults, but some people never do and most of us can probably at least remember something that found its way into a first-grade heart and still stings.  It’s right that we pray for people we are sending off into the jungle of the playground.

One would hope that adults would treat each other better.  That doesn’t always happen.  Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, was a Washington hostess for many years and had a needlepoint sampler hanging in her parlor that said, “If you can’t say anything nice, come sit next to me.”  The novelist Evelyn Waugh had an ongoing professional rivalry with Winston Churchill’s son Randolph.  He was asked to comment when Randolph Churchill had had surgery and a tumor was removed that turned out to be benign.  His response was, “Leave it to modern medicine to find the one piece of Randolph that is not malignant and remove it.”  I confess to my own admiration of a zinger like that for the sheer creativity behind it – as long as it’s aimed at someone else.  I can joke about my height, but I’d rather you didn’t do it too often.

Another problem with speech is that words come out of our mouths so fast sometimes that we don’t always know the harm that they can do and most of it (I believe) may even be inadvertent.  For example, it’s easy to use terms for people’s jobs that don’t give them their full due.  It sounds sort of picky, I’ll admit, but it makes a difference.  A maintenance worker is often someone with a broad knowledge of electrical work, plumbing, construction, and so forth and has to know state safety codes and proper procedures for handling hazardous materials as well as where to find the trash bags.  That deserves a better description than “janitor”.  I know I fall into using the term “church secretary” for what is actually a position with a lot more complexity to it than folks realize, and I should be more careful to say, “Administrator.”  I won’t even go into those times when the word “just” comes into things like “just a housewife” or “just a classroom aide” or “just a mechanic”.

Speech flows even more swiftly when people are angry and with even less thought.  That’s when words are used deliberately as weapons.  James warns about that.
“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. [James 1:19-20]
I read a lot of news online, and it used to be that I would also read the comments at the end of the articles.  I don’t do that so much anymore.  If the writer says anything at all controversial you can be certain that someone will jump on the author right away and someone else will spring to the defense and then those two and possibly others will end up in the verbal equivalent of a bar fight.  That does no good.  If we are about producing God’s righteousness, as James puts it, we have to choose our words carefully, and maybe choose not to speak at all at times of hurt and anger. 

The gospels describe the brutality of Jesus’ torture and death in very direct terms.  When Pilate took Jesus out in front of an angry mob that was demanding his crucifixion, John tells us that Pilate himself took the whip to Jesus [John 19:1] before handing him over to soldiers who would slam a thorn of crowns on his head and slap him around for fun. [John 19:2-7]  Then Jesus was taken back into the Roman headquarters for Pilate to interrogate him again.  Tell me, honestly, that in such a situation you or I would not be filled with absolute rage and want to scream the anger and the pain back in Pilate’s face.  Yet John says, when Pilate continued to question him,

“Jesus gave no answer.” [John 19:9]

There’s an African-American spiritual that says,

“They crucified my Lord,
and he never said a mumbalin’ word;
they crucified my Lord,
and he never said a mumbalin’ word,
not a word, not a word, not a word.

They nailed him to the tree,
and he never said a mumbalin’ word;
they nailed him to the tree,
and he never said a mumbalin’ word,
not a word, not a word, not a word.

He hung his head and died,
and he never said a mumbalin’ word;
he hung his head and died,
and he never said a mumbalin’ word,
not a word, not a word, not a word.”

If there was ever anyone who had the right to cry out in angry condemnation, it was him, but he did not do that, even in the most extreme pain.  It was Jesus’ silent courage and patience under suffering, all for love even of his enemies that really and truly worked the righteousness of God. 

            For those who seek to follow him, it likewise is not their words but their works that speak the plainest and are heard the best.
“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  [James 1:26-27]

Nobody is saying that’s easy.  Then again, how many things that are worthwhile really are?

            Enough said.

Friday, August 21, 2015

“Blessed Are Those Who Are Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake” - August 23, 2015

Ephesians 6:10-20

            Today we consider one of the Beatitudes that is, thankfully, remote from most of our experience. 

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5:10] 
That goes along with the last and final of these sayings of Jesus:

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  [Matthew 5:11-12]

Yes, there are times when people may laugh at you or think how quaint and old-fashioned church people are.  Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” sketches on Saturday Night Live were funny but they did have a mocking edge.  Thanks to some very loud, high-profiled preachers and pundits, too, a lot of folks have come to identify Christianity with bigotry and ignorance, and put Christians who are truly caring, open people on the defensive.  Let’s not forget the parents and children who deal with Sunday morning sports, either, and how it is never going to be easy for teenaged Christians to make faithful choices when they first encounter pressure to make other ones.

            But persecution?  We in this room don’t really know what it is, but that does not mean that the Church is free from it.  This is part of an article written by Didi Tang[1] and published by the Associated Press on August 5:

“LOWER DAFEI VILLAGE, China (AP) — About a dozen Catholics wept and sang hymns outside their church as a man climbed to the top of the building and sliced off its steel cross with a cutting torch. It toppled with a thud.
‘Aren't you ashamed of what you have done?’ a teary woman yelled at the more than 100 security guards, who along with police and government workers kept the parishioners of Lower Dafei Catholic Church from protecting the symbol of their faith. The guards, who stood with shields and batons in the sun for nearly two hours, looked indifferent.
… Authorities in southeastern Zhejiang province are believed to be under a two-month deadline to remove crosses from the spires, vaults, roofs and wall arches of the 4,000 or so churches that dot the landscape of this economically thriving region.
In a rare move, even China's semiofficial Christian associations — which are supposed to ensure the ruling Communist Party's control over Protestant and Catholic groups — have denounced the campaign as unconstitutional and humiliating. They have warned that it could risk turning the faithful into enemies of the party.
The campaign is believed to be the will of President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, whose administration has launched the most severe crackdown in decades on social forces that might challenge the monopoly of the party's rule.
But Yang Fenggang, an expert on China's religions at Purdue University, said the party may have miscalculated and could be creating the very instability it is trying to avoid.
‘The crackdown has alienated the Christians in China, who are otherwise law-abiding citizens,’ Yang said.
… The massive campaign comes one year after the provincial leadership ordered the razing of several churches and hundreds of rooftop crosses deemed to be illegal structures. This summer, Zhejiang banned rooftop crosses altogether. Despite criticism that the new rule violates China's constitutional right of religious freedom, local enforcers are sending demolition crews to virtually all the province's churches.
They have met with resistance. Parishioners have kept vigils and tried to block entrances to church grounds with cargo trucks, and many churches have re-erected crosses in defiance.”
            That is the experience of the Church in the 21st century.  So is this, from Christianity Today last week:

“Dozens of Syrian Christian families have been abducted by fighters from ISIS, according to a new report from Reuters.

About 230 people, some of whom were taken from a church, were kidnapped or detained by ISIS when the terrorist group captured the Syrian town of Qaryatain on Friday. Prior to the start of the civil war, about 18,000 people lived in Qaryatain, about 2,000 of them Syriac Catholics and Orthodox Christians, reports The Telegraph.

Following the fighting between ISIS and the Syrian army, at least 1,400 families fled the town to safer areas or took shelter in the government-controlled city of Homs, reports the Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights.

In May, two priests who ran monasteries in the area, went missing from the town.

Earlier this year, ISIS launched surprise attacks on 35 villages in northeast Syria and took more than 200 Christians captive. Some captives were released in March. ISIS reportedly demanded a $23 million ransom for the release of 240 Christians, according to World Watch Monitor (WWM).

‘This is an amount beyond the capacity of a tiny church and community,” an Assyrian Christian leader told WWM. “These captives are poor people who depended on their low income as farmers.’

ISIS also published a price list last fall for female captives, who are traded like cattle or "barrels of petrol," according to the Daily Mail. The group reportedly executed 19 girls who refused orders to sleep with ISIS fighters.

About 600,000 Syrian Christians have fled the country since the fighting began in 2011, reports The New York Times, in a recent in-depth piece on the fate of the church in the Middle East.”

This article doesn’t go into what is happening in parts of Africa under the influence of Boko Haram in Nigeria or of Al Shabab in Somalia and Kenya or of the Janjawid in Sudan and Darfur.

            And yet, for all that, Christians persevere in the faith.  The writer of Ephesians told people who would face similar trials how to face them, realizing that they are part of a larger battle that the Lord is winning.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” [Ephesians 6:10-17]

That same passage invites those who are not right there in the midst of it all, but who are nonetheless one with those who are undergoing trial, to act as their support.

“Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.” [Ephesians 6:18] 
We may not be in the thick of it, but we are still in it together.

            So here and now, let’s pause and ask the Lord to share with them the encouragement that we can offer, our gratitude and admiration for their witness, and to offer prayer for a change of heart in those who persecute them.

Friday, August 14, 2015

“Blessed Are the Peacemakers” - August 16, 2015

James 4:1-3

            Let me start with a word of full disclosure here.  I am going to talk about peacemaking.  In the course of it, I am also going to say a word or two about weapons, including handguns.  I realize that the subject is a trigger for a lot of strong feeling for many people, but I don’t think it would be fair for me to avoid the topic.

            Let me also tell you that my thoughts do not come from a theoretical position or hypothetical situations.  As a pastor, I have seen bad situations get even worse because of the availability of a handgun.  I was once called upon to bury a man I did not know, whose widow explained that he had worked as a bouncer at a bar in Kensington and was on his way home after work.  Between the El and his house, he saw a man hitting a woman and stepped between them.  The man took out a gun and shot him.  Another time I had to have a talk with somebody who had a serious drinking problem and needed help (which he eventually got, by God’s grace).  He was terribly down and thought that the only hope he had to make his problem stop was to end his life.  He had a gun in the house, and before we could talk about the real troubles, I had to convince him not to use it.  I didn’t want to see the gun, but asked him to give me the box of bullets and to empty out the chamber, at least for the time we were together.  Mind you, this man had a license and the gun was completely legal and registered.  The same was true of another time that a parishioner shot and killed someone he thought was breaking into his pharmacy – but since he fired before the man had entered the building, there was no legal defense based on self-protection.  You may disagree with me.  That’s fine.  But you are not going to get me to change my mind.

            There is a difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking.

            Peacekeeping is the business, the duty, and the calling of the police.  They are trained to do that, and most of the time most of them do that very, very well.  When there is trouble, they are the ones who best know how to intervene.  The situations I mentioned above were ones that took place before cell phones were commonplace.  Now, at least in the one instance, somebody spotting an incident can just reach into their pocket and dial 911.

            Peacemaking, on the other hand, ideally takes place before conflict gets to the point of violence or takes place between parties with longstanding antipathy who are not at that very moment physically attacking one another.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus, “for they will be called children of God.” [Matthew 5:9]
Peacemaking does not begin by looking simply at the surface situation.  That’s peacekeeping – which, again, is important and honorable.  Sometimes someone has to say, “Break it up!  You go over there and you go over there!”  But for a truce to turn into peace, someone has to say, “Okay, what’s really going on here?”  Then will come the long litany of grievances, a tale of who did what to whom and when and what had come before that, and who said this and who said that, and who can substantiate each event.  The whole time, tempers will be rising again and each part of each story will be disputed.  Peacemaking takes patience.

            In the end, it isn’t really a matter of figuring out how to allocate blame, which is what the angry parties will often want.  It is a matter of getting people somehow to let go of what they see as their rightful due in order to begin again.  It is a matter of getting people to own up to the ways in which we all are thoroughly messed up.  The Letter of James puts it bluntly:

“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” [James 4:1-2a]
To make peace that lasts, the peacemaker has to appeal to the best that is within people.  She has to be able to say, somehow, “You are not that kind of person, are you?” 

            Two weeks ago, there was an incident in Israel in which right-wing extremists set fire to the house of some Palestinians in the middle of the night, burning a child to death.  This is the same sort of thing the KKK has done to create terror among African Americans in our country.  In that land and that part of the world where it has become all too common, the response of the Israelis has been strangely hopeful precisely because people of faith have made that jump on which peacemaking depends and have said, “This cannot be who we are.”  The Times of Israel the very next day quoted the head of Israel’s equivalent of the FBI, who said,

“We have a lot of lessons to learn as a society as a result of the incidents of last night. … The signs point to this attack being carried out by Jews. A nation whose children were burned in the Holocaust needs to do a lot of soul-searching if it bred people who burn other human beings.”[1]
To say that in the heart of the Middle East takes immense courage.  God bless him for it.  Without someone somewhere saying, “Hold on!” things spiral way out of control.  We’ve all seen that.

            How can we, as Christians, heirs of that faith, but with the added promise of forgiveness through Jesus for all the terrible things within us that Jesus’ brother James pointed out, fail to follow suit?  To be peacemakers is to bear witness that, yes, we can be greedy and covetous and disputatious as he says, but that we can set these in the full light of God’s grace so that they do not get the best of us.  When we do that ourselves, we have standing to ask that of others.

            How, then, can I own a gun?  If I am called to live in such a way that I would not use it, what’s the point?  How, then, can I let myself be drawn into the cycle of recriminations and lawsuits that happens so much in our society?  And if I really and truly believe that I am made in the image of God, beloved by Christ, and sustained by his Spirit, how can I fail to honor that same image in another human being?  The Bible teaches us to be honest about ourselves and honest with others.  We will get mad sometimes; even Jesus lost his temper.  The point is not to let that anger consume us, and certainly not to make it our way of life.  In Ephesians, it says,

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. [Ephesians 4:25-27]
How best can one be a peacemaker?  It isn’t so much by stepping in and getting yourself shot.  It’s by doing what George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, said to do: “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.”

[1] Gilad Erdan quoted in David Horovitz, “A Shameful Day for Israel”, The Israel Times (July 31, 2015).

Saturday, August 8, 2015

“Blessed Are the Pure in Heart” - August 9, 2015

I John 3:1-3

What exactly does it mean to be pure in heart, as Jesus said when he taught us,

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”?

There are two verses from I John [3:2-3] that also talk about purity of heart and seeing God.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

Those are hopeful verses, because they suggest that purity of heart is possible.

            “Purity” is a tricky term, you know.  Week by week, on A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keilor sings the praises of Powdermilk Biscuits, “made from wheat grown by Norwegian bachelor farmers, so you know it’s pure, mostly.”  Every time I hear that, I scratch my head and wonder a) what that means and b) if I really want to know what that means.  Ivory Soap used to advertise itself as 99 and 44/100 percent pure.  Great!  What is the other 54/100 percent made of?  “Purification” can be a good thing.  That’s what happens to honey in between the hive and the jar, and it involves straining out things like bees’ wings that you might not want on your Powdermilk Biscuits.  But it is also a term that dangerous people have used for genocide.

            What, then, is the sort of purity that let’s us see God?  Or maybe we should ask it the other way around: what are the impurities in us that block our view?

            The monks and nuns of the Middle Ages spent a lot of time examining their lives and developed some practical classifications for sin.  I sometimes have asked confirmation students to memorize the “Seven Deadly Sins”: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust.  Being adolescents, they often get hung up on that last one, but purity involves the absence, or at least the control, of all of these, because they are all clouds that can come between us and the sunlight of God’s presence.  When I John says that “Those who have this hope [of seeing God] purify themselves, as Christ is pure,” the scripture points out the importance of making a conscious effort to turn away from these.

            That’s not always fun, but if you give it a try there is a certain real satisfaction that comes from the effort.  It’s similar to those times when you open the refrigerator and your nose tells you that it may be time to take a look in some of those containers that were put there with good intentions at some indistinct point.  You have a feeling that most of them are just fine, but that one of them has something inside that you would prefer not to know about.  In the course of it, you discover not only the suspect carton of some sort of Chinese food but also a dried-out piece of cake, two moldy peppers, and something that once was a pork chop.  Before you know it, you decide that it might be a good idea to wash off the shelves while they are exposed.  You don’t really need the twelve packets of ketchup, either, and the date on the mayonnaise is a little old, even if it does seem harmless.

            So start somewhere – anywhere.  Pick one practice or one attitude that may seem small but that, if you’re honest, stinks.  As you face that down, you will come upon others.  You can count on that.  But keep on going anyway.

            I knew a couple who went on a cruise around the Baltic.  They started in Sweden and worked their way toward Finland, which was where they were going to get off the ship one day to take a guided tour.  The wife decided that it would help to put her hearing aids into her ears to understand the tour guide better, which was when she discovered they were not anywhere in her luggage.  The best she could figure was that she left them in customs somewhere, in one of those baskets they use when you go through a metal detector.  That made the rest of the trip extremely frustrating.

            When they got home they ordered a new set.  A few weeks after those arrived she was getting ready to make supper and reached into the freezer for something, and with it came a plastic baggie with two small, tan, plastic, bean-shaped things…

            Keep on going.  God shows good things along the way to demonstrate the help he gives us to move forward.  What was lost to sin can be and is restored by grace.  God does not want to stay hidden.  As Augustine of Hippo wrote sixteen hundred years ago, God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they rest in him.  All that keeps us from him, he will help to remove in his own time and his own way.

            The poet John Donne describes his experience of what we call “sanctifying grace”, the action of God that not only forgives us but purifies our hearts.  Donne, who started out life as a combination of a Don Juan and a political hack, was, by the time he wrote his “Hymn to God the Father”, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  Listen to how he makes puns on his own name, but even more to what he asks of God.

“Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
         Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
         And do run still, though still I do deplore?
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
                        For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
         Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
         A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score?
                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
                        For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
         My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
         Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
                And, having done that, thou hast done;
                        I fear no more.”

            You and I are no different, for that is the story of all God’s children, prodigals making their way back to a Father who has been waiting anxiously the whole time.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

Saturday, August 1, 2015

"Blessed Are the Merciful" - August 2, 2015

Matthew 18:23-33

                The problem with being merciful is that you can only show mercy to somebody who doesn’t deserve it in any way, shape, or form.  That’s the nature of mercy.  If someone has done something wrong and it’s understandable, you can forgive them, but mercy goes farther than that.

                Let me use two car accidents as an illustration.  In both of them, I got rear-ended and in neither case was it my fault.  One time I was sitting at a red light in Harrisburg and I heard brakes squeal and then a “thump” and then a split second later felt a second thump that pushed me forward.  The car behind me had been hit, and then rolled forward into mine.  I had no trouble forgiving the driver behind me.  He had done nothing wrong.

                The other time, I was sitting at a red light in Lebanon when my back bumper was hit sharply.  I looked up and there was a State Police car in my rearview mirror.  I pulled over and got out, as did the trooper-in-training who was showing obvious signs of remorse. 

“I’m so embarrassed,” he said.

You’re embarrassed?”   I told him.  “I’m the one at the side of the road, with a State Trooper writing my information.” 

“I get it,” he said, “but I have to report this and then I’ll have to repeat the last month of my training.”  I could forgive him, but the only person who could have mercy on him was his sergeant, and that was not going to happen.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful…”  and that involves risk, because to be merciful means setting aside the rules of crime and punishment and even of justice, and doing it at your own expense.  That’s the problem with mercy.  It costs more than forgiveness – a lot more – and its returns are not as immediately certain, at least not in this world.  Mercy is a totally risky virtue.  It goes so far as to risk everything in order to change someone else and the way that they live at the deepest level, and sometimes the person responds well and sometimes they don’t. 

Mercy is what the king in Jesus’ parable offered to his servant.   He forgave him all his debt. [Matthew 18:27]  Then the next thing that servant did was to find someone who owed him far less than he had owed the king, grab him by the throat, and demand, “Pay what you owe.” [Matthew 18:28]  That was exactly what the king had not wanted to happen, and when he heard about it, he was angry.

(A bit of advice, here: if you can avoid making God angry, avoid it.)

The point of mercy is to make more people merciful, because the fact is that we all need it.   When we get that through our heads and into our hearts, good things begin.

Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, is all about the life of a man named Jean Valjean who was sent to row an oar on a prison galley because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his hungry nephew.  On his release, which was itself a miracle, he was marked as an ex-convict and no one would have anything to do with him until he met a bishop who invited him to sit down at his own table and gave him a place to stay for the night.  In return for that, Jean Valjean got up before dawn, stole the bishop’s silverware, and ran.  Later that morning the police stopped him in a routine patrol, found the silverware, and took him back to the bishop’s residence.  Hauled into the house, the bishop looked at him, then picked up two silver candlesticks and told him he was glad to see him again, because he had forgotten them and now he could be sure he had those, too.

“’Now,’ said the Bishop, ‘go in peace.  By the way, when you return, my friend, it is not necessary to pass through the garden.  You can always enter and depart through the street door.  It is never fastened with anything but a latch, either by day or by night.’
Then, turning to the gendarmes: --
‘You may retire, gentlemen.’
The gendarmes retired.
Jean Valjean was like a man on the point of fainting.
The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice: --
‘Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.’ …
‘Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good.  It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.’”[1]
That is what mercy is about.

                That is no different from what Jesus did on the cross for any of us.  He did it without the certainty that his mercy would make us merciful, but that was part of his hope.  He offered himself in our place as the person with whom all the terrible things in the world would find a stopping point.  He offered to take the consequences for us, even though we did not deserve it, even though we did not ask him to do it, even though we were hardly aware of our need for mercy, even though we thought we could just go on with things as they are, unchanged and unredeemed.  Instead, he calls us out on our sin with a word, not of judgment, but of mercy.  “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” [Luke 23:24]  Like a baby, who knows nothing but how to receive love, we receive it, and then learn as life goes on how to return it, and then how to show it even to those who do not love in return, we grow into the mercy that comes from God and flows into human life.

                At least, that is what God hopes for us and expects of us.  It cannot be forced.  It must come from the heart – from yours and mine.  And when it does, that, too, is God’s grace and God responds by adding more for us to share.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” [Matthew 5:7]

[1] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, chapter 12.