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Mercy and Justice


Mercy and Justice

James 2:13


The story is told of a church that was celebrating a milestone.  An honored guest had been invited to join them for worship, and the congregation was expectant and excited.  As people arrived for worship, the ushers kept their eyes out for this special guest.  They weren’t sure what he looked like, but when the well-dressed stranger walked through the door, they knew this had to be the guest they were waiting for.  They greeted the guest with big smiles and offered to take his coat to the coat rack.  They asked him if they could get him anything, and when he said “no,” they walked him to the front of the church where a seat had been reserved for him.  They were so glad their honored guest had arrived.  A few minutes later, another stranger shuffled in.  This person had long, straggly hair and an unkempt beard.  His clothes were disheveled and dirty, and he smelled awful.  The ushers weren’t quite sure what to do with this person.  With strained smiles, they handed him a bulletin and pointed to a seat in the last row, as far away from other people as they could get him.

Perhaps you’ve heard this story before.  Perhaps you know how the story ends.  When the pastor invited the honored guest to come forward, it wasn’t the well-dressed stranger who got up, but the one they had relegated to the back. 

In the Book of James, chapter 2, the author tells a similar story.  Two visitors are treated differently within a community of faith.  The visitor who appears to be rich is given the best seat in the house, while the other, who appears to be poor, is told to stand in a corner or sit on the floor.  According to James, this community’s priorities are all mixed up. They have judged by outward appearances and in so doing, they have given preference to the rich and dishonored the poor.  Such favoritism, James says, is actually sinful.  

You know, when I read this lesson from James, I tend to think of all the ways that other people judge others.  It’s so easy to recognize all of the prejudices that other people have and the ways they discriminate.  And I can really get into this kind of finger pointing… until… I realize that I’m the one who’s actually judging other people and I’m not really examining my own biases.  You know, it’s so much easier to judge others than to take an honest look at our own prejudices.  But through implicit bias training, I have learned that all of us make assumptions and judge others without even realizing it.  Our brains are wired that way.  It takes a lot of work to become aware of the ways we unconsciously judge others.  Yet, studies have shown that the first step in addressing our unconscious biases is to become aware that they exist, and to become unsettled by them.

And James calls us to do just that in Chapter 2.  He says that we’re to think and act as people who will be judged ourselves.  And if we don’t show mercy, we can’t expect to be treated with mercy.  You know, his words might seem harsh.  And if you’re anything like me, they make you feel pretty uncomfortable.  But I think that’s the point.  I think that James is trying to help us become aware of our biases and become unsettled by them.  He’s trying to get our attention, to help us understand how it feels to be judged.  News flash if that hasn’t been your experience:  it doesn’t feel good to be judged.  But it does feel good to be shown mercy, to be offered compassion, to be treated with dignity and respect.  You see, James is trying to help us understand that living out our faith means loving our neighbors as ourselves.  It means doing the work of self-reflection and education about our biases so that we can honor all people as beloved children of God.  It means offering mercy when we might otherwise judge someone.  Because mercy overrules judgment.

But mercy also moves us in the direction of God’s justice.  Dr. Janet K. Ruffing is member of the Sisters of Mercy, and she says that, “mercy recognizes a shared humanity with the other, compelling a response in action.  [...]  If mercy is compassion, or ‘suffering with,’” she says, “it is also comfort, or ‘standing strong with.’”  She goes on to say that “true compassion addresses the root causes of suffering, and it also asks questions about our unconscious complicity in those structures.”  In other words, mercy calls us, not just to avoid judging others, but to honor them.  It calls us, not just to feel pity for others, but to suffer with them.  Mercy calls us, not just to work to alleviate the suffering of others, but to take an honest look at the systems that cause them to suffer in the first place.  Because mercy moves us in the direction of God’s justice.  

 Now, if you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, you’re not alone.  There is so much need in the world, and we only have so many resources.  There are so many structures and institutions that cause suffering, and we only have so much power.  We can feel so helpless in the face of it all.  Yet James reminds us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  So perhaps we can begin there.  Perhaps we can start by offering our neighbors compassion, by treating all of them with dignity and respect.  Perhaps we can start by extending mercy to our neighbors–not just those who look and speak and act like us, but our neighbors who are different, those with whom we might feel uncomfortable–the ones we’re usually inclined to judge.  When we love our neighbors by extending them mercy, that mercy will naturally move us in the direction of God’s justice.      

You know, I’m reminded of a parable about a traveler.  This traveler is walking along a river when he sees someone drowning.  Now, the traveler doesn’t judge the drowning person.  He doesn’t ask them if their choices led to them drowning in the river.  He doesn’t lecture them about the importance of water safety.  And he doesn’t question whether they’ll get themselves in this predicament again if he helps them this time.  He simply jumps in the water and brings the person to safety.  The traveler’s mercy has overruled any inclination to judge the drowning person.  

Unfortunately, though, the story doesn’t end there.  Because as soon as the traveler has saved the drowning person, he sees another person in need of rescue.  It happens again and again until finally the traveler begins to ask why these people are in the river in the first place.  What is going on up the river?  The traveler’s mercy has moved him in the direction of justice.  

But the traveler is overwhelmed.  People keep coming down the river.  If he leaves his post, the people in the river will drown while he’s figuring out what to do upstream.  It’s just an untenable situation…until the traveler realizes that he’s not alone.  There are other travelers walking along the river.  And they can all learn more about the problem from the people he’s already helped.  By working together, they can both save the people in the river and also go upstream to address the root causes of the problem.  Mercy has moved them in the direction of God’s justice, creating a community out of strangers in order to change the very systems that cause suffering.   

Friends, in this season of Lent, we are called to the practices of self-examination and repentance.  So I invite you to join me in taking some time this week to do just that.  Let’s ask ourselves, “what are some of my unexamined prejudices?  Who am I inclined to judge, whether I mean to or not?  How might I overrule that judgment with mercy?”  Let us reflect and repent.  And then let us allow that mercy to move us in the direction of God’s justice.  If you begin to feel overwhelmed, don’t worry.  You don’t have to do this work alone.  Because God’s justice can create community out of strangers.

May we remember that we are all the recipients of God’s mercy–a God whose compassion for us was so great that God came to suffer with us and show us how to move in the direction of God’s justice.  As we follow our merciful Savior, may we extend mercy in all we think, in all we say, and in all we do.  Amen.      


Discipleship Guide_ Mercy and Justice
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