In my Ash Wednesday sermon I suggested that we make our first order of business this Lent a recommitment to mercy.
Mercy is one of those words that we all understand, but is nevertheless difficult to define. It’s present behind everyday phrases like ‘give him a break’ as well as the routine acts of forgiveness we all perform. Mercy is a disposition, an attitude, a willingness to forego our right of revenge (as well as our predilection for resentment) and respond to the shortcomings of others (as well as our own) with kindness, patience and love. Jesus said that the merciful will be shown mercy. He also said that those who judge others will be judged by the same standard that they use.
Despite knowing all that, since I preached the Ash Wednesday sermon I’ve found myself in more than one conversation in which the main point of interest was the failings of other people. It’s such fun, isn’t it? ‘Character assassination’, I’ve heard it called, that delightful pastime in which we establish a powerful bond with someone by exploring our mutual contempt for a third party. (The third party is usually absent from the conversation and not afforded a right of reply.)
Only afterwards did I find myself guilty of hypocrisy. How could I preach such a sermon and then behave in this way? Ironically, this shame-filled reaction also calls for mercy. Experience of pastoral ministry has taught me that being merciful to ourselves is one of the hardest things of all. Don’t get me wrong. We are quite good at letting ourselves off, evading responsibility, and pleading mitigation, but none of those things is really mercy. A response to our own failings that patiently, kindly and lovingly coaches us through them, encouraging us to do better next time, is difficult and rare.
It helps to remember the mercy of God. God never pretends that we are something that we are not, nor that what we have done is anything other than what it is. God’s mercy does not evade or deny any truth about us or our actions. (This, incidentally, is one of the main reasons that we sometimes find it hard to pray, imagining that the unvarnished reality of who we are won’t do, when in fact nothing else will.)
Reflecting on these things suggests that the beatitude is justtrue in reverse: Blessed are those who have been shown mercy, for they will be merciful. Recognising the mercy that we have been shown, let’s all try to show that patient, kind and loving response to each other’s shortcomings and our own over the coming weeks.
May God bless you all,