The Meaning of Christ’s Mercy

On June 9, 2016 by saintlukesgresham

Deacon Laurel Hart

Beginning today and in the coming Sundays are a series of stories about interactions between Jesus and various people. We have journeyed through the trials of Lent, been given the holy meal on Maundy Thursday, suffered the anguish of Good Friday and rejoiced in the Resurrection of Easter. We had a pause to reflect on the lessons which we’d been taught during the Easter season and then received the gift of the Holy Spirit on the fabulous day of Pentecost. We were lead into reflections on our own understanding of the meaning of the “three in One” last week. Now it’s time to refresh, start or maybe restart our Christian life. One might say this is where the rubber meets the road and one of the wheels on this vehicle is called mercy.

Maybe because tomorrow is Memorial Day – when our nation remembers those brave woman and men who gave their lives in service to the country, mostly during times of war, or maybe because I was recently at Willamette National Cemetery and it brought back memories of a visit we made to the American Cemetery at Normandy – which is a place you can never forget once you’ve walked the row upon row of graves with their white markers. So when I read this story it really resonated with me and I’d like to share it with you – it’s from long ago – during that terrible time called our Civil War.

In December of 1862, the confederate and union army lined up against each other in a town called Fredericksburg. For four days they fought, and in the midst of the battle was a confederate soldier by the name of Sgt.Richard Kirkland. Sgt. Kirkland was raised in the low country of South Carolina, the son of a farmer, not unlike most of the boys who served. He was serving under General J. B. Kershaw, who, after the war, would take it upon himself to tell this young man’s story. During the battle of Fredericksburg, the union was taking terrible losses. In the field that lies between the army’s lines lay hundreds of union soldiers who were wounded. As shots continued to ring out across the field, no one was able to go and give them aid, and for a day and a night, they lay there, begging for help, pleading for just a drink of water. And yet, no one ventured into the line of fire to help them. Until Sgt. Kirkland came bounding up the steps to find Gen. Kershaw, asking permission to go into the field, and bring water to those soldiers. According to Kershaw, Sgt. Kirkland said, “General! I can’t stand this. All night and all day I have heard those poor people crying for water, and I can stand it no longer. I come to ask permission to go and give them water.” With profound anxiety, the General watched as Kirkland stepped over the wall on his errand of mercy. The General will later write, “Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer. By this time his purpose was well understood on both sides, and all danger was over. From all parts of the field arose fresh cries of “Water, water; for God’s sake, water!” More piteous still the mute appeal of some who could only feebly lift a hand to say, here, too, is life and suffering.” (Source: civilwar.org; Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. VIII. Richmond, Virginia, April, 1880. No. 4.). Mercy is a precious commodity in the midst of war. The mercy that Sgt. Kirkland showed to those Union soldiers speaks of a depth of mercy that we do not often witness.

Today, we hear about mercy in our Scripture passage from Luke. Jesus has moving about the country side teaching great crowds what it looks like to be a disciple. He’s teaching them that it means to love friend and enemy alike. Now, Jesus finds himself back home in Capernaum. There he is met by a group of the elders from the synagogue. They ask him to heal the slave of a centurion posted in the town. He may not be a Jew, but he should be considered a friend of the Jews as he paid for their synagogue. Others in the local community might view him, a soldier in the Roman army, as an enemy. Would Jesus want to be seen speaking to a Roman soldier? What would it do to Jesus’ reputation? The centurion does not presume to come to Jesus himself. But mercy is not something that can be decreed by military orders; the centurion seems to know this. So he asks the Jewish leaders in the town to go and speak to Jesus on his behalf. We also learn something about the character of this man from the fact that he is willing to reach out for help on behalf of his slave. He cares enough about this person to seek Jesus help. He is seeking mercy for another person not for himself.

There is another word which jumps out in this passage and it is the word “worthy.” According to the Jewish leaders, this Roman occupier is “worthy” of having this miracle performed for him. After all, he has shown himself a man of faith prior to this incident. But the centurion himself claims to be unworthy, just to have Jesus under his roof, much less to have a miracle performed for him. By all accounts, all measures given to us by this world: financial, military, political, even religious, this centurion was “worthy” of all kinds of things, but what does it mean to be worth of mercy?

Today, we often seem to find ourselves in the midst of many fights and battles. For the foreseeable months, as the general election approachs, I can only guess the noise, the terrible put downs and name calling, will become louder. In our society, we tend to draw lines between democrats and republicans, conservatives and liberals, gays and straights, blacks and whites, rich and poor, native and immigrant, and these just name a few. I’ll admit my personal guilt of seeing – actually believing the person on the opposite side of my view point is misinformed, ignorant or just plain wrong thinking. But somewhere in the middle of these disagreements, political and otherwise are real people – many desperate souls who are caught in between the fights for which compromise is a dirty word. On this field, we might find a family struggling between the choice of paying the rent or purchasing food. We might find a child, struggling to understand what it means to be a boy or a girl. We might find a lonely person who is fighting against a terminal illness or a mental health crisis. On this ground you will find those suffering because of their lack of access to affordable healthcare or a decent wage. While we continue to shout louder and louder – trying to be heard over the den, does anyone hear their cries for mercy? What about those who voices are too weak to be heard.

Was the centurion worthy of Jesus’ help? Well, really, are any of us? Who are we to ever believe that we can judge another’s worth in the eyes of God. Jesus goes out of his way to help one of the very ones who are occupying his land, and oppressing his people. Jesus wanders into dangerous territory to honor the request for mercy to someone who could do him harm. And while it often seems to us that we are risking our serenity, financial security or even our safety to help those who are caught in the middle of our national insanity of ignoring the weak around us – isn’t that what we’re called to do as Christians. We’re called to speak up or take action when we see unfairness – when we hear hate speech – when we learn about discrimination. Maybe if we, as the hands, feet and heart of Jesus on earth in this time and place spent more time in the open field of battle, the conflicts would not just stop for a little while, but for a long while. All people deserve to learn the meaning of Christ’s mercy, to know that everyone is worthy of God’s unending love. Wouldn’t all of us like to hear Jesus say, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” Amen

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