Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
May 18, 2014; 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A
Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

1 Peter 2:10

On December 21, 1988, it was business as usual for Pan Am flight 103. The flight took off from London en route to New York.

Over the Scottish village of Lockerbie, all hell broke loose. A bomb in the cargo hold punched a 20-inch hole in the left side of the plane. The effect of the blast was amplified by the difference in air pressure between the cargo hold and the passenger compartment. In seconds, the fully-laden Boeing 747 broke into three pieces: the nose, the fuselage and the tail.

As the fuselage — with most of the passengers — plummeted over 20,000 feet to the ground, it broke into several more pieces. The largest section, with both wings attached, came down on a residential street called
Sherwood Crescent.

The plane had only been in the air a few minutes. That meant the fuel tanks in the wings were nearly full. The resulting fireball engulfed several houses. It was early evening, so most people were home from work or school. Besides the 243 passengers and 19 crew, another 11 people on the ground were killed.

After a three-year investigation, two Libyans were charged with the bombing. The Libyan dictator, Muammar al-Gaddafi, refused to extradite the two men. It was another ten years before he bowed to international pressure and the two men stood trial in an international court.

One defendant was found innocent. The other, a Libyan intelligence officer named Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. (The United Kingdom has no death penalty.)

Mr. Megrahi began serving his time, and dropped from the world’s attention. That is, until 2009, when Scottish authorities unexpectedly released him from prison “on humanitarian grounds.” Megrahi was dying of prostate cancer, and was said to have six months to live. He actually lived another three years before succumbing to his disease.

This decision of Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill called forth a furious reaction from all around the world. How dare the Scottish authorities pardon this mass murderer?

But it wasn’t a pardon, MacAskill responded. He still considered Megrahi guilty — as guilty as he’d been the first day he walked into prison. The basis for his decision, he explained, was not justice, but mercy.

I don’t know much about Kenny MacAskill, but if he’s a Scottish Protestant, chances are he’s Presbyterian. If that’s true, then he must have learned something in Sunday School, because he’s pretty well nailed the theological meaning of mercy.

Mercy — especially in circumstances like that — is a hard, hard idea to wrap our minds around. I have no interest, today, in debating MacAskill’s decision — whether or not Megrahi should have been released. What interests me about this story is the reason he gave for letting this notorious terrorist walk out of prison and fly home. In light of their prisoner’s serious health issues, the Scottish authorities decided to be merciful.

The author of 1 Peter says, in our text today, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” [1 Peter 2:10]. The apostle’s saying mercy doesn’t come naturally to us. Yet, when we begin to grasp the wonder of the mercy extended to us by Jesus Christ — offering his life on the cross so our sins might be forgiven — we come to realize there just may be a better way.

You and I live in a black-and-white world — or, at least, we desperately want to believe every moral decision is that simple. There are good people and bad people, we convince ourselves. The good should be rewarded and the bad punished. It’s as simple as that.

Or is it? Not when mercy is part of the equation!

My Oxford English Dictionary defines mercy as “Forbearance and compassion showed to a powerless person, especially an offender, or to one with no claim to receive kindness…” The Libyan terrorist fits that definition to a “t.” As a prisoner locked up in a maximum-security institution, he was powerless. Surely, he was an offender. And — mark this well — he had absolutely no claim to receive the kindness the Scottish prison authorities extended to him.

A decision to extend mercy always says far more about those people extending it than it does about the ones on the receiving end. Justice and fairness don’t even enter into it. In fact, by its very definition, mercy is inherently unfair. The fair thing to do is to lock terrorists up and throw away the key. When mercy comes onto the scene, all that gets bracketed and set aside. A higher principle prevails — one higher, even, than justice.

You could call that principle kindness. I think we can go even further and call it love.

Jesus tells a great many parables about mercy — like the Prodigal Son, who deserves nothing of the lavish feast his father puts on for him. He even demonstrates mercy through parabolic actions: like the story of the woman caught in adultery [John 8:3-11].You remember that one. Several scribes and pharisees haul a woman before Jesus. “Rabbi,” they say, “this woman was caught in the very act of adultery.” They’ve probably pulled her right out of bed, wrapped only in a sheet (if she was lucky enough to grab that on the way out). They’ve probably roughed her up. The black eye tells the story — as do the missing teeth, and the hanks of hair pulled right out of her head.

Yet, of all these indications, it’s her eyes that truly tell the tale: they’re the eyes of a hunted animal.

The scribes and pharisees are just tickled at their good fortune. They’ve been waiting for someone like this to come along. They care little about her; for them, she’s a test case. They haul her before Jesus, saying, “Here’s an adulterer. The law commands us to throw her to the ground and break every bone in her body with rocks. What do you say, O wise rabbi?”

Jesus says…. nothing. He just sits there, absently tracing some Hebrew characters in the sand with his finger. After a time — a very long time — he stands up to render judgment: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

That drives the righteous indignation out of them like a punch to the gut. One by one, they drop their stones and slink away.

Only the criminal remains. “Hey — where’d everybody go?” asks Jesus. “Who’s left to condemn you?”

“No one, sir.”

“Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”

Notice Jesus is not pardoning the woman. “Go, and sin no more” means she’s guilty as sin. There’s no denying what the others caught her doing. Jesus isn’t condoning her behavior. He’s not throwing justice out the window. What he’s doing is extending mercy.

He is able to extend it because those others — who were so eager to destroy this young woman’s life with unspeakable cruelty — have suddenly realized they’re sinners, too.

On another occasion, Jesus tells his disciples that if they so much as call another person “fool,” they are committing murder [Matthew 5:21-22]. Murder! “Fool” is just a word: a blushingly mild insult. Yet, Jesus’ point is that, behind that hurtful label there is a heart as stunted and cold as the heart of someone who hides a bomb in an airline baggage compartment. The two acts may differ vastly in degree, but they’re made of the same elemental stuff. That stuff is called sin.

A little over a month ago, Pope Francis was preaching on this very passage [Sermon given on March 28, 2014 http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/gods-mercy-goes-beyond-our-sin-pope-francis-reflects/ ] . In his sermon, he points out that Jesus doesn’t overturn the law; rather…
“Jesus goes beyond the law. He does not say: ‘adultery is not a sin!’ But he does not condemn it according to law: This — he goes on to say — “is the mystery of mercy. It is the mystery of the mercy of Jesus.”

“How many of us” – the Pope said – “should perhaps go to hell? And the condemnation would be just. But He forgives and goes beyond. How? With this mercy!”

A little later in his message, the pope says mercy “is like heaven”:

“We look at the sky, there are many, many stars; but when the sun rises in the morning, the light is such that we can’t see the stars. God’s mercy is like that: a great light of love and tenderness…. So when Jesus acts as confessor to the woman he does not humiliate her, he does not say: ‘What have you done? When did you do it? How did you do it? With whom did you do it?’ No! He says: ‘Go and do not sin again!’ God’s mercy is great, Jesus’s mercy is great. Forgive us and heal us!”

Jesus tells another parable about mercy. It’s called The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant [Matthew 18:23-35].Here’s the set-up. A king has a lot of money loaned out, and he decides one day to call in all his markers. He has his guard round up all the people for whom he’s holding i.o.u.s.

He starts on the man with the biggest debt: “Pay up. Now!”

“But, Your Highness,” says the groveling man, “my debt is ten thousand talents. It’s more than I could repay in a lifetime of hard work!” (That’s actually an understatement — a single talent, a large bar of pure silver, is an unimaginable fortune, and ten thousand of them is equivalent to the national debt of some countries.)

“That’s all right,” says the king. “Don’t worry about it. Whereupon he tears up the i.o.u.

As you can well imagine, “overjoyed” doesn’t begin to explain how this guy feels. He doesn’t walk back to his village, he skips! It’s as though a tremendous burden has been lifted from his shoulders.

On his way back, he bumps into one of his slaves, who owes him a hundred denarii (a denarius is a small silver coin). “Pay up. Now!” he commands. And, despite every entreaty of the poor debtor — begging, through his tears, for just a little more time — his creditor cruelly throws him into jail.

This parable has a happy ending, of sorts — or, at least, a just one. The king finds out what a skinflint his former debtor is, and sends him not just to jail, but to the torture chamber!

Now, let’s bring it home. Remember, in the parable, how the man who owed ten thousand talents — ten thousand huge bars of silver — has a debt so large, it approaches the national debt of some countries? Now, think of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber. The debt this man owed to society for his unspeakable crime is in the neighborhood of ten thousand silver talents. Such a debt can never be paid back in a single lifetime. It’s mathematically impossible.There’s no way, in any system of justice, that such a monster ought ever to be allowed back onto the street. And so, when his jailors extend a miraculous, jaw-dropping offer of mercy, it is a rare wonder to behold.

Now, you may be thinking you’d prefer not to live in a world where such radical acts of mercy exist: where it’s not always true that wrongdoers get what’s coming to them, and then some. But, let me turn the question around: would you rather live in a world without mercy — a world where justice has the power to beat mercy into submission every time?

Think of the worst sins you have committed, in your own life — the acts you feel most sorry for, the things that cause a twinge of pain deep inside, as you call them forth from memory. Would you really want to live in a world where, even though you have begged for mercy — begged many times over — no mercy is ever offered? You, along with everyone else in the world, would then be living according to that primitive Babylonian legal code of Hammurabi: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

Such a world would be a grim and heartless place. Remember what Gandhi said about it: “An eye for an eye means the whole world goes blind.”

My friends, with the example of Jesus’ mercy beckoning us to go and do likewise, we have the power within us to extend this conspiracy of mercy to include the ways we treat others. When someone injures us, it’s tempting to hold tight to that memory of how we’ve been hurt, to cherish it, to savor its bitter taste. Yet, that is not the way of Jesus. Our Lord never abandons justice. He just surrounds it with a far greater, more expansive mercy.If you and I are truly honest with ourselves, we’ll take a famous little quip of G.K. Chesterton to heart. He once observed, with brutal honesty: “Children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”

So, let us now sing of the wondrous mercy of God: a mercy so wide, it knows no bounds!