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Blessed Are the Merciful

A preaching service with sung response led by Calvin University Pastor, Mary Hulst, and Calvin University Instructor of Organ, Rhonda Edgington. Based on Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

Sermon by Mary Hulst

Mary Hulst  . . . snowy February morning, and today we're going to learn a verse together. Are you ready? I'll say a part, and then you say it back. Blessed are the merciful [Blessed are the merciful], for they shall obtain mercy [for they shall obtain mercy]. Matthew 5:7 [Matthew 5:7]. Now let's do the whole thing. My mike's not on. I have to use this one. OK, did we lose it? Shall I try? You don't know. She's shrugging at me. Blessed are the merciful [Blessed are the merciful], for they shall obtain mercy [for they shall obtain mercy]. Matthew 5:7 [Matthew 5:7]. Do we have it now? Thank you. Excellent. All righty. Good. Good. We do this, we try to build in a really obvious mistake when we do Worship Symposium week so that everyone who's watching online who pastors churches and tries to lead worship, they're like, Oh, see, they have problems too. So you're welcome. And we're talking about mercy, which seems, you know, fitting.

So have you ever started and you're with a new group of people and the small group leader chooses one of those icebreaker questions, right? And I think there's one icebreaker question that we like the least out of all the icebreaker questions, and it is this one: what's your most embarrassing moment. Right? And when that's asked in the group, people do they make—they're like, ugh, there's like a cringing. There's, like, the awkward laughter, but then someone starts. Someone says something like, “When I was in seventh grade, I had this huge crush on this girl. And one day I was coming out of the school bathroom and she saw me and she said, ‘Your zipper’s down, and I can see your SpongeBob underwear.’” It's like, Ooh, ooh. Or “I was late for class. I was running across campus. It was a snowy day. I caught my foot wrong. I just splashed out, just huge wipeout right in front of the college president.” Ugh. Or “I taught an entire class on hygiene with spinach in my teeth.” Oof. Right? We all—we cringe. We all have these moments when it's like, Oh, gol, that was just so, like, please let no one have that on video.

We all know what it's like to be embarrassed. But what if the question was this: What's your most shameful moment? What's the moment when you did something so out of character, or so selfish, or just so straight-up sinful that you never want to think about it, let alone talk about it, to anyone? The Tinder hookup. The DUI. The history paper you bought online and passed off as your own. Or maybe the shame comes from something that you had done to you. You weren't responsible for it, but you just bear the shame. Maybe it's a sexual assault. Maybe it's sexual abuse. Or maybe there's something in your family's story that you think, “I don't want people to know that. I don't want them to know about my mom's affair. I don't want them to know my brother's in prison.”

What's the thing in your life that you would like to have completely erased from your past? Where do you crave mercy? Mercy is the gift of grace or forgiveness or beautiful, holy forgetfulness when we deserved judgment. Mercy is when the person who could punish us doesn't. The judge lets you off with a warning. You get academic probation when you should have been expelled. Your spouse amazingly forgives you. We crave mercy. But we swim in a culture of judgment. We see how people react when they find out somebody is gay. We watch the faces in the fellowship room after church when word of somebody's divorce makes its way around. We hear how our friends talk about other people when they're not in the room. We read the comments on social media.

We crave mercy, but we swim in a culture of judgment. And in that culture of judgment, even people who show mercy, who are quick to forgive, they hang out with anybody, they hang out with people who voted differently or think differently or live differently. They just, you know, people call them weak or spineless or unprincipled. Jesus got this a lot. If he knew who that woman was who was washing his feet, he wouldn't want her to touch him. Why does he eat [gagging sound] with tax collectors and sinners? Did he actually touch that leper? What is wrong with this guy? But what if the question was actually: Why do those people want to hang out with him? Why do those people with the least power, the most shame, the deepest wounds, the fewest friends, why are they drawn to a law-abiding Jewish rabbi? Because with him, they didn't have to hide. Eating with him around that table, they could talk about the abuse that led to the prostitution, the desperation that led to the stealing, the arrogance that got them started with tax collecting, the addiction that cost them their marriage. Jesus set a mercy table. There was no judgment there. It's not like the addict's looking down on the tax collector or the thief is scooching away from the prostitute. Everybody was in the room around the table because of their past, because of their mistakes. It was their failures that got them in the room.

My friends who are in Alcoholics Anonymous talk about the first time they went to a meeting. They were desperate, and sick, ashamed, and they knew judgment. They had judgment in the eyes of their in-laws, fear in the eyes of a spouse, condescension in the face of a judge. They knew judgment. But they walk into a cold church basement with folding chairs and bad coffee, and they find mercy. They summon the courage to talk about the fact that they hid alcohol in the tank of the toilet, and instead of judgment the faces all reflect humor and nods. Yeah. Mm hmm. I did that too. They talk about the fact that their daughter hates them, and they have no idea how this relationship is going to be healed, and there are tears in the group, and people nod. They say that they have another court hearing to go to, and someone else says, “I will drive you.” They walked into a room of the merciful. And what made those folks merciful? Their own stories of sorrow and shame and brokenness, their own stories about how they got pulled over, how they ended up in the emergency room, how their spouse walked away. Their stories of pain and sorrow got them in the room. And so when the new people name their deepest shame, their hardest secrets, to other people who knew that shame, who had those secrets, mercy swelled and judgment faded.

That's what God does. God cultivates mercy in the deepest valleys of our lives. When we felt judged, when we judged ourselves, when we judged others, when other people judged us, and we had the courage to say to the first time, to a group, to another person, “I'm addicted to pornography. I was sexually abused by my father. I'm an alcoholic. I had an abortion.” And the person, the people look us in the eye and they say, “I'm so glad you trusted me with that. Welcome. We get you. You're safe here.” That's mercy.

Mercy extended us becomes mercy we extend to others. Merciful people know sorrow and judgment, they know embarrassment and shame, but they also know the mercy of others who have been where they were. They know the mercy of other people whose scars look like their scars. They know the mercy of the merciful.

Blessed are the merciful, says Jesus. Blessed are you who divorced, because you will hold the hand of your friend going through a divorce. Blessed are you who are sexually abused, because you will show us how to live without shame. Blessed are you who are on academic probation, for you will teach us compassion. Blessed are you who suffer sorrow and judgment and loss and betrayal, for God is on your side. God is on your side. The only one who could judge you didn't. The only one who could really push you away pulled you closer. The only one who could save you did.

“Blessed are the merciful,” said Jesus, “for they will obtain mercy.” Blessed are the merciful, for they are welcome at the mercy table. Blessed are you who are failures and shame-filled and feel judged, for you will obtain mercy. Welcome to the mercy table, where your failures get you in the door. Blessed are the merciful, for they will obtain mercy. Amen.

Will you pray with me? Cultivate in us, O God, deep mercy. May our sorrows and our shame not turn us away from you or from others, but instead be used as the entry ticket to a communion of saints, people who know sorrow and loss, people who are relying on mercy. Holy Spirit, keep us from judgment. It doesn't help anything. It only kills. Make us merciful. Help us to open up seats at the table for those who need mercy. Bless us with mercy. We pray this through Jesus Christ, the merciful one. Amen.