Surprised by Mercy

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 10. Two important themes of the day were the Holy Baptism of a child named Owen (not his real name), and the Spiritual Gift of “mercy.” The gospel reading for the day was Luke 10:25-37, the story of the Good Samaritan.

Good morning, Owen. I’m so glad you’re here today. Today you are baptized. And I’m really glad it’s today, because baptism is all about God’s gift of mercy, our Spiritual Gift of the week. Today God pours mercy upon you through water. Today God marks you with a lifetime mercy even as I mark you with oil. Today God calls you to a life of mercy, even as the assisting minister gives you a lit candle, and calls you to let your light shine before others. And today you become part of a community of mercy, the church.

The church is a community of mercy, Owen, a community where we recognize that we have received mercy we don’t deserve, mercy we’ve never earned. I want to tell you about another community of mercy I was part of once.

As part of my seminary training, I spent a summer as a student chaplain at Penn Foundation, a behavioral health facility in Sellersville. All the clients were either in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, or had a mental illness. These were people in need of mercy, and Penn Foundation was a place they received it. It wasn’t a religious organization, but there was a spiritual component. And I was there to help some of the residents on their spiritual journey, to help them get in touch with God. And then my supervisor would reflect with me on how well I did, and he would evaluate me. I have to tell you, I was scared. This summer program was crucial to my seminary training. If I failed there, I might never become a pastor. I felt alone, surrounded by people I didn’t understand. I felt as though I was thrown into a new world, a confusing world. Ever feel like that, Owen? Oh, right, you’re a baby. You probably feel that way every day.

Anyway, then I met Pam. The first time I met Pam was at the first session of a seminar I was leading on spirituality. Only two people showed up, and Pam was one of them. Pam shared that she was in recovery from alcohol addiction, and she also had schizophrenia. I don’t remember anything about the other person, but I remember this: the conversation was really awkward. The seminar did not go well. I went home feeling like a failure. The next week, I didn’t want to go to the next session, and I guessed that nobody would show up. But Pam returned, and she brought a few other people with her. And that conversation was so much better. I learned Pam’s story. I don’t remember the details anymore. But I remember this. Pam was at Penn Foundation because she had hit rock-bottom. Through her illness and her addiction, she came to a point when she knew that she had nothing to rely on, not the drugs, not her family, not herself, nothing… and it was there that she had found God. And she found that God showed her mercy, mercy she didn’t deserve, but mercy she desperately needed. Pam saw that God gave her just enough to get through the day, each day. And then others shared their stories…they were all unique, but in a way they were all the same. They all shared that rock-bottom moment, the moment they realized there was nothing they could do anymore to help themselves. They all shared that they experienced God’s mercy in that moment. And they all shared that they knew in their bones that God was with them each day. They didn’t know what tomorrow would be like, but they knew God was with them today. They taught me that. They showed me that I didn’t need to be perfect, or have everything worked out. God was giving me exactly what I needed for each day.

Owen, you know this. You know that you need to rely on others, and you know that you can. I think I knew that at your age too, but as I grew up I forgot it. I started to think I could take care of myself on my own. Pam taught me that that’s not true. I still did need mercy. And I still received mercy. I thought I was at Penn Foundation to help other people. Maybe I was. But I know God sent me to Penn Foundation so that Pam could help me. Thanks to Pam, Penn Foundation became a community of mercy for me.

That memory reminds me of the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan is a story of being surprised by how God works. It’s a story of God coming to you in unexpected ways. The key to this story, Owen, is knowing what a Samaritan was.

Jews and Samaritans hated each other. To Jewish people, Samaritans worshiped God wrong, Samaritans were unclean, Samaritans were stupid. And Samaritans would never help a Jew. Nor would a Jew want the help of a Samaritan. When Jesus told this story to his fellow Jews, the people who heard it were uncomfortable, shocked that the hero was a Samaritan. What if you desperately needed help, and a member of ISIS came to your aid? How would you feel? Oh, right, Owen. You probably don’t know about ISIS. I hope you never do. But it would make most of us uncomfortable. That was Jesus’ point. The Good Samaritan story isn’t just about how to be nice. It’s about seeing that God can work through others, even through those we least expect.

A Jewish person, beaten and left for dead, received God’s mercy through a Samaritan.

An anxious seminarian (that’s me) received God’s mercy through someone with schizophrenia, recovering from alcohol addiction.

And Pam received God’s mercy through hitting rock-bottom.

God’s mercy doesn’t come where we expect it, Owen. God’s mercy comes from the most surprising places. That’s how God works. God brings new life from a cross. God brings that new life to us through ordinary tap water. And that’s the God you’re beginning a relationship with today, Owen. Nobody is outside God’s mercy. God will show that mercy to everyone. And God will use anyone to show that mercy. And that’s good news. Because you will need it. Just like we all do, even if we pretend we don’t.

Welcome to a life of mercy, Owen. Welcome to this community of mercy. Welcome to baptism.


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