March 10, 2024

Let me say from the outset that this sermon, like every sermon I preach, is for me as much as for anyone else.

You may recognize the title of today’s sermon as the title of the wonderful Marvin Gaye song from the 1970’s.  “Mercy, Mercy Me” served as a soulful call for compassion, empathy, and sustainable change. Gaye called for collective action to protect our planet and foster social justice.  Well, we’re engaging in a time of reflection and self-examination in these weeks leading up to Easter, so maybe thinking back to Marvin Gaye and his ballad might be a good note for this morning as we ponder the concept: “mercy.”

I would like to begin with some thoughts about a video that Dadgie and I own and have watched many times. It’s the 25th anniversary production of the musical, Les Miserable.  After watching the performance on PBS over a decade ago, we just had to get the DVD.  Let me begin by saying if you can listen to Alfie Boe, as the hero Jean Valjean, sing Bring Him Home and not be reduced to a blubbering, sniveling, pile of emotional detritus, you should call your doctor immediately because there’s definitely something wrong.  But I think the reason Les Miz has so endured, and became one of the longest running musicals in history (along with virtually countless adaptations on stage, screen, television and radio) is the poignancy of the story.  Victor Hugo’s novel is a remarkable tale centered around the June rebellion of 1832 in Paris – an event that Hugo himself was caught in the middle of.  The profoundly ironic power of the story lies in the impassioned struggle between a righteous thief and an evil man of God.  That’s my kind of yarn.  Jean Valjean is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread and spends nineteen years in prison only to have his heart melted upon release by the forgiving act of the Bishop of Digne; he devotes himself to doing good.  His jailer, Javert, sees himself as a righteous arm of God’s own judgment, and pursues Jean Valjean for years to send him back to prison where he belongs.  In a barricade on a Paris street during the student uprising the tables are turned, and our hero Valjean has the opportunity to take Javert’s life, but he grants him mercy and allows him to escape.  One of the most telling moments in the story comes when, after the fighting, Javert has recaptured Valjean, realizes he must let him escape in return for the mercy he was shown at the barricade, but then cannot live with his strict moral code being cracked and throws himself in the river Seine.

Javert devoted his life to what he believed was the righteous will of God.  But devoid of mercy, such righteousness becomes an inherent evil.  It was a lesson Valjean learned at the outset when the Bishop showed him such extravagant mercy that it shook him to his core.  In the case of Valjean the shear power of that mercy was enough to melt his heart and change his life for the good.  In the case of Javert, such mercy was too overwhelming; it revealed the deep fault in all that he had lived for, cracked open his soul, and caused him to take his own life.

Mercy is not a game for children; it’s a life-shaking, world-changing force.  My own life was changed by a loving congregation when, as a young man, I joined the church and was invited to teach Sunday school and be on the board of deacons.  I messed up miserably at the Sunday school thing and had to resign, and I never attended a single deacons’ meeting.  No one complained.  All I got in exchange for my failure and neglect was support and affirmation.  Look what it did to me.  Fifty years later, I stand here as a witness to the saving power of mercy – mercy that kept me close to the church, and allowed me to hear the calling to ministry.

In the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare put on the lips of Portia (pretending to be Balthazar, the lawyer) these immortal words:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

But Portia’s speech fell on deaf ears, and Shylock refused to relent, demanding his “pound of flesh.”  Just like Javert, that refusal to yield, that inability to recognize the inestimable power of mercy, was Shylock’s undoing.

So, you might ask, why this message today?  Aren’t I “preaching to the choir,” so to speak?  Aren’t all of us here among the merciful of this world?  Well, yes, to a large degree that’s true.  I’ve seen so much love and understanding among the people of this congregation, at times it’s overwhelming.  On the other hand, this is the season for that “long look in the mirror.”  And so I ask you – and I ask myself – if we probe our own hearts with unflinching honesty, with brutal objectivity, can’t we find some remnants of Javert?  Aren’t we often guilty of underestimating the power of forgiveness, or treating mercy as if it were an inconsequential toy – a calculated choice?  What about those times when we feel challenged or attacked by someone we love?  It is so human to lash back in anger, to feel justified in our righteous indignation, to need to prove a point or set the other person straight. I know I can fall into needing to have the last word, or at least not backing down if I’m afraid of losing an argument.  I’ve been accused at times of being like “a dog with a bone.”  What about the person you serve with on a committee or work with on a project – the one who always seems to counter your ideas, and who sets your teeth grinding?  Is it possible that any of us, sometimes without even knowing it, seeks out ways to even the score and put the other person in their place?  And what of that major rift in the family – that chasm between siblings or between parent and child that seems so non-negotiable?  When we’re caught in such divisions don’t we often feel that we are the victims and the other party is the guilty one, so reconciliation can only happen on our terms?

Now, I admit, these kinds of human interactions are not necessarily the equivalent of pursuing a man for years to unjustly throw him in prison or demanding a pound of flesh, but they reveal, I believe, the truth that the potential for such warped righteousness resides in all of us to a degree, and that we live too much of our lives with little respect for the earth-shaking power of mercy.

  1. Gregory Jones relates the story of “a twelve-year-old boy named John [who] was playing one day with the nine-year-old girl who lived next door. Her name was Marie.

“Unfortunately, they found a loaded pistol in a dresser drawer and before long their make-believe game turned into a tragic nightmare and little Marie was dead. Everyone in town attended the funeral of the little girl – everyone except John, who could not face anyone and refused to talk to anyone.

“The morning after the funeral, Marie’s older brother went next door to talk to John.  ‘John, come with me,’ he said. ‘I want to take you to school.’  John refused, saying, ‘I never want to

see anyone again. I wish it was me who was dead.’ The brother insisted and finally persuaded John to go with him. The brother talked with the school principal and asked him to call a special

assembly. Five hundred and eight students filed into the gymnasium. Marie’s brother stood before them and said, ‘A terrible thing has happened; my little sister was accidentally shot by one of your fellow classmates. This is one of those tragedies that mars life. Now I want you all to know that my family and John’s family have been to church together this morning and we shared in Holy Communion.’ Then he called John next to him, put his arm around his shoulders and continued, ‘This boy’s future depends much on us. My family has forgiven John because we love him. Marie would want that. And I ask you to love and forgive him, too.’ Then he hugged John and they wept together.

“To be sure,” Jones reminds us, “this is as much the beginning as it is the end of the story. Marie’s family will need to continue to struggle to embody this love and forgiveness each and every day of their lives. And John will undoubtedly continue to struggle to accept this love and forgiveness each and every day of his life. Yet Marie’s brother sought John out when he most needed it and risked his own feelings of grief to offer a judgment of grace to John. Beyond that, he also offered a public witness to others, calling the whole community to practice forgiveness.”1

You and I may not be called upon to show mercy on such a dramatic scale, but if we take a long look in the mirror I submit that I, as well as you, may come face to face with some heart-rending truths.  We might see that we are the beneficiaries of the limitless grace of the Almighty and therefore compelled to offer that grace to others.  We might truly know that the quality of mercy is, indeed, not strained, that its power to alter the lives of both the one who gives and the one who receives is unmitigated.  And we might discern (as Jean Valjean and Javert discovered in that timeless drama) that what John calls the “judgment” of the light is that in every moment, with every decision, in every relationship, the power of unstrained mercy can cripple and shatter you, or melt your heart and transform you.  If we find ourselves reacting with anger, defensiveness, or perhaps acting like “a dog with a bone” first we need to forgive ourselves, then we will be more free to be gentle with others and offer them mercy.  In the final analysis, that power to transform any of us is the greater power – with apologies to Les Miz composer Claude-Michel Schönberg – greater than “the songs of angry men” or “the beating of the drums.”  It is “the music of the people” who have learned the lessons of mercy, lessons that give them the gift of hope, and tell them, as the song goes, “there is a life about to start, when tomorrow comes.”2

1 L. Gregory Jones, quoted in Dorothy C. Bass’ Practicing our Faith, Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1997.

2 Claude-Michel Schönberg, Do You Hear the People Sing?, from the musical Les Miserable.

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