Mercy. The high point of true prayer is not when we pray for our own needs—not in this life. The deepest prayer is not for ourselves, not for our desires, not for what we want, not for the increase of this or that. The deepest, truest, most Christian prayer we can offer, in this life, is the prayer for mercy. Mercy.
Usually when I preach I focus on one passage from Scripture. We read three each week because it’s so important to hear from the breadth of God’s word, but normally I zero in on one of the three readings. This morning I want to ask you to hold in your minds two readings: the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel reading. The Gospel reading, from Luke 11, is about the Lord’s Prayer, about a friend in the middle of the night, about what we give to a child, and about the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament lesson, from Genesis 18, is about Abraham bargaining with God over the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Mercy lies at the heart of both of these passages. In the Gospel lesson mercy is mostly for ourselves: the Lord’s Prayer is a great cry for mercy; the friend gives his midnight visitor bread, eventually, out of mercy; even sinful parents have enough mercy to give what a child asks for; and God, in his mercy, will send us the Holy Spirit if we ask. Mercy goes down easy when we need it. Like the poor man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho in the story of the Good Samaritan, none of us wants to be in the position of needing mercy. But once we’re there, once we’ve realized how much we do need mercy, mercy goes down easy, a healing balm, a fragrant oil, a cooling drink.
Christ comes to us as our Good Neighbor, as our Samaritan, in order to show us mercy. So often, when Christians say we need mercy, we tend to stress that mercy is some kind of escape from God’s punishment. But that’s not really right, or at least it’s hardly the full picture. Mercy is compassion plus action. Compassion plus action: that’s what mercy is. John Wesley urged the first Methodists to pursue works of mercy as a means of grace, as a means of receiving the good gifts of God. By works of mercy, Wesley meant things like feeding the hungry, caring for the widow and the orphan, welcoming the stranger and the foreigner, and healing the sick. Compassion plus action. In the same way, Christ comes alongside us and shows us compassion by reaching out to heal us, to feed us, to welcome us into the kingdom of God. Each of these, welcoming, feeding, healing, is as much an act of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ as anything else God does for us. To be in a position of needing welcome, or food, or wholeness is to be in a position to receive mercy. And all of us need the mercy of God.
Many of us receive God’s mercies each day and don’t even know it—or acknowledge and thank God for the mercy he gives to us. And we can start to believe that we don’t even need God’s mercy any more, that we’ve reached some point in our lives where we can leave all that behind, if we ever really needed it in the first place. That’s one reason why we should pray the Lord’s Prayer daily, if not more often, because the Lord’s Prayer reminds us of our need for mercy: Give us this day our daily bread. Show us your mercy, o Lord. Forgive us our sins. Show us your mercy, o Lord. Lead us not into the time of trial. Show us your mercy, O Lord. If we pray it each day, the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we once were found in a ditch by the Good Samaritan Jesus who showed us mercy.
But asking for mercy for ourselves, receiving that mercy from God, and giving God thanks for the mercy he has shown us: these are only a very small part of the true high point of Christian prayer in this life. It is only when we begin to ask for mercy for others that our journey really begins into the riches and beauty of the deepest prayers. Mercy for us goes down easy; mercy for others is dear.
It is in the deepest depths of prayer that we find Abraham in our reading from Genesis 18. The Lord God has decided to turn against the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, for the great outcry and grave sin that bears witness against them. Abraham, God’s chosen and elect servant, God’s covenant partner, knows for himself something of the evil lurking in Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, has already experienced some questionable circumstances in these cities. But when Abraham hears of the Lord’s plans for destruction, he does something truly remarkable: Abraham enters into negotiations on behalf of the cities and their residents. He appeals to God’s character—mercy and justice aren’t opposed to each other but depend upon one another, for both are grounded in who God is. And Abraham starts high: what if there are 50 righteous people living there? How about 45? 30? 20? What about 10?
The actual numbers aren’t to be taken literally. They’re symbolic: what if there’s a whole lot of innocent people? What if just some? What if there’s only a very small number? But all the while the basis for Abraham’s bartering is the mercy of God. He never disputes the guilt of the wicked; he never asks God to wipe the slate clean. Instead, he appeals to the mercy of God based on the life of the righteous. He holds out hope that even in the worst situations there is still, because of God’s mercy, the possibility of redemption. Abraham even pleads for mercy for his enemies.
We are called to be like Abraham, but I’m afraid that in our current environment we are greedy in receiving mercy and miserly in giving it out. We hoard mercy to ourselves and get very nasty when someone suggests we should show mercy to others. Our zeal, our lust for others to be dealt with harshly, is a terminal disease that inevitably leads to our own death. But we live in a time when so-called leaders, whether in politics or in the church, use dog-whistle slogans to stir up evil passions for the destruction of our enemies, foreign or domestic. “He should be put down!” “She should be hanged!” “We’re gonna annihilate them!” “They had it coming!” The more we listen to this merciless chatter, the further we find ourselves from Abraham, who stands in the presence of God to beg for mercy.
Do we dare to ask for mercy for the people we see as our opponents, as our enemies? How can we dare not to seek mercy for them? How can we dare to ask God to destroy them, when God has not destroyed us? Will we ask for a snake for the child of God who needs a fish? Will we demand a scorpion from God for the creature who needs an egg?
You might be wondering why Abraham stops at 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah, but we know that the bartering continues. Will you save these people for 5 innocent lives, o God? For three? Will you save the whole world for the sake of one righteous person? In his unquestionable judgment, the Lord destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, but his mercy is so great that the answer rings throughout history: yes, for one righteous person I will have mercy on the whole world. Yes, for the sake of one righteous person, I have had mercy on all of creation. And God’s mercy is true: compassion plus action, in the saving mercy of his Son Jesus Christ.
Jesus also stands where Abraham stood, not once in history but for all eternity, asking for God’s mercy for you, for me, for the whole world. The deepest prayers are to pray as Jesus prayed and prays now. If we follow Christ, we must pray for mercy for ourselves and for the whole world, especially for our enemies. We must not only pray it; we must genuinely want it. We must have compassion, even for those who might destroy us, even for those who might be mired in their own merciless sin. And our compassion must be matched by our actions, of welcome, of healing, of forgiving, of feeding. Until we seek this deep mercy daily, we are almost Christians and not the real deal.
Mercy. The deepest, truest, most Christian prayer we can offer, in this life, is the prayer for mercy. Lord, have mercy upon us and our enemies. Christ, have mercy upon us and our enemies. Lord, have mercy upon us and our enemies. Amen.