I am a Christian because I trust that when I confess my short comings and deserve justice, I get more than mercy, I get grace.
Justice: Getting what we deserve.
Our legal system is based on the concept of justice. Each action is balanced with an offsetting reward or punishment.
When you work, your employer pays you a fair wage. If someone hurts you, they pay for your care. And if you break the law, you get an appropriate punishment.
Mercy: Not getting what we deserve.
Mercy is like justice. You know what you did was wrong, and got caught, but the punishment was waived. Or perhaps you agreed to one wage and received more than you expected.
The Gospel of John tells of a woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11) who received mercy. Justice demanded stoning. But she was sent home and cautioned not to sin again.
The Gospel of Matthew records a parable of a generous landowner who pays all his laborers the same wage, despite that some work far fewer hours than a full day’s work (Matthew 20:1-16). This parable shows the problem with mercy, those who receive less, get upset.
In both of these stories, I wonder what happens the next day to the woman excused from her adultery or the laborers paid for more hours than they worked. How would the community treat them? How long would suspicions and grumbling continue?
Grace: Getting restored in spite of what we deserve.
Grace takes mercy a step further. Those responsible for judgement know what misdeeds have happened. The scales of justice stay out of balance, but community is restored.
John’s Gospel also tells of a woman who meets Jesus at a well in the middle of the day (John 4:5-30). Jesus knows she has had five husbands and her current partner. Does she come to the well in the heat of the day to avoid the stares and name calling from other women who would have come early in the morning and just before sundown? Would the other women fear she would steal their husbands? Yet after meeting Jesus she returns to town and invites others to meet him. This is grace.
Deep in the Allagash Wilderness, my friends and I met a gentleman and his two sons at an overnight camp.
My friends and I were in our last year as Boy Scouts on a week-long wilderness canoe trip with our leader, a former park naturalist. Forty years ago, the Allagash Wilderness had three roads: one that led to the launch point, one to the pick up point a hundred miles down stream, a logging road that crossed near the mid-point, and nothing in between them.
Before retiring for that evening when we had met that gentleman with his grandsons, we discussed the river and our plans for the next day. Our leader had a set of detailed topographical maps. That gentleman had a gas station road map. It adequately showed each of the various lakes and the river, but it made no mention of campsites, the ratings of the rapids or of the waterfall.
Our plans included portaging around that waterfall. The gentleman was glad we had met each other, for before we parted company in the morning our leader had drawn on his map the location of the waterfall and of the swiftest rapids.
In many ways the Bible serves as a map for life, showing us what to avoid and what to seek. It is possible to get through life without reading the Bible. Some people do this with much success. But knowing of potential hazards and how others persevered, enhances life.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
— Psalm 119:105 (NRSV)
One gentleman, has the logo of his favorite team, the Chicago Cubs, on the front of his car. When I asked why it was upside down, he explained he will up right it as soon as they have a winning season. The bolts are rusted.
The church has had a few bad years too. Perhaps a string of bad decades. Between a few immoral pastors making headlines, fundamentalist groups pushing extreme theologies based on weak interpretations of Scripture, and atheists arguing that God is a delusion, it is not surprising many members are reluctant to invite friends and neighbors to worship. It is not surprising that membership in mainline denominations peaked in the 1960’s. It is not surprising that the fastest growing faith segments are Spiritual-But-Not-Religious and None of the Above.
But a few bad years is nothing new for the Church:
Exodus records Hebrew slavery in Egypt.
Judges tells of cycles of decades long lapses of faith punctuated by heroic leaders.
The Books of Kings culminate in Babylonian exile. Jeremiah tells the exiles to build houses and marry, implying they won’t becoming home soon.
John recorded his Revelations during violent persecutions.
In various countries around the world Christians endure church bombings and burnings.
Yet, the Church endures. Perhaps it will flourish again before the Cubs have another winning season.
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
— Jeremiah 29:10-11
As a leader I have to present and execute the actions of boards that I have moderated. Most times these are easily done, for I usually agree with the other members of the board, at least to some degree. Occasionally, I have disagreed with the board, voted with the minority, even argued strongly against a winning proposition, and then had to carry out the board’s action, even writing letters requesting assistance.
This is the price of leadership.
To write letters those letters, I recall what the winning side had said, then imagine how they might write those letters.
I perceive Jesus expected us to take on his mind-set when we pray, not merely tack on his name to the end of our prayers. I believe that Jesus came to instruct us how to build up the Kingdom of Heaven, considering his words and actions as we formulate our prayers. When Jesus heard of someone who was ill, he often went to them, touched them, and spoke with them. When praying for peace, I doubt Jesus would have us beg to send someone else, but have us ask what can we do, so that God might do greater things through us.
I tell you the truth,
anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.
He will do even greater things than these,
because I am going to the Father.
And I will do whatever you ask in my name,
so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.
You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
— John 14:12-14 (NIV)
The rain baptizes the earth, washing the dust of life from trees and bushes and from mosses underfoot, cleansing surfaces so life-giving light can more readily activate chlorophyll, producing sugars feeding these plants and those who eat them.
The waters of baptism wash the dust of life from our souls, cleansing our spirits to admit the life-giving light, activating our imaginations, feeding our ministry together.
Each week I pour water into our baptismal font during the prayer of confession, reminding me and those present of promises made during baptism, by parents, by candidates, and by the congregation. Reminding us of God promise of newness of life, washing the dust of life from our souls, filling our spirits with Christ Jesus, the light of life.
Each week, after the benediction, I dip my hand into the water as a physical reminder of my baptism, of the cleansing of my soul, so that the light of life might shine in me and through me in the days ahead.
The flood waters, upon which Noah floated in an ark,
were like baptism that now saves you.
But baptism is more than just washing your body.
It means turning to God with a clear conscience,
because God raised Jesus Christ from death.
— 1 Peter 3:21