Text: Hebrews 4:14-16
Theme Verse: “Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
‘Mercy’ has become more of an expression of disbelief, like my grandmother who often hollered, “Mercy sakes!” than it is an embodiment of empathy for another. Maybe we have achallenging relationship with mercy. We feel mercy was always withheld from us so we withhold from sharing it with others or, in a state of privilege, we hoard mercy as if we’ve earned the right to do so along the way. The writer of Hebrews suggests we not only need mercy ourselves but we should seek it boldly that we might find grace enough to help others in times of need. Perhaps it’s less grandiose and more daily-dose that will reveal mercy’s deepest impact.
anthem : 'Nearer, My God, To Thee' (arr. D.Forrest) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly Ford, director; guest artist, Krassi Figg, cello
opening : 'Mercy Mercy' (HillsongUnited) :: The Rising Band
reader : Jane Whitt
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
closing : 'Mercy' (D.Matthews) :: The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, lead
Baker Mayfield planted a flag last week. I know OU had another game since their incredible victory in Columbus, Ohio a week ago, but let’s be honest, Sooner fans are still living off that planted flag in the middle of Ohio Stadium. It was an impressive win – the number five ranked team in the nation going into the home stadium of the number two ranked team in the nation and playing with all confidence that they were the better team. A friend says to me this week, “Pull out your iPhone and ask Siri this question: “Who owns Ohio Stadium.” Siri’s response, revealing the grandest smile I’ve ever seen on my friend’s face? “Baker Mayfield.” That Siri can roast you with the best of ‘em. There were more articles than I cared to read this past week about Baker and his flag. Some were displeased with his sportsmanship saying, “Mayfield owns Ohio Stadium the same way America owns the moon.” We planted a flag there, you know. Others, following Mayfield’s public apology for his flag-planting-passion, said, “Why is he apologizing? He was passionate and energized and who can’t appreciate his gamesmanship?” One writer was from Stillwater, the other from Norman. I’ll let you decide which is which.
Today’s message is not a debate about Baker Mayfield and his flag. I’ve survived eight years as your pastor (for the most part) by staying out of matters of the collegiate football variety in the state of Oklahoma. Nonetheless, Mayfield’s act got me thinking about flag planting. We plant flags too. Sometimes we do so passionately and definitively, other times we do so casually and apathetically. If I put a flag in your hands right now with the only instruction being to plant it on the very thing that you most stake your life upon… where would you plant it? Some of you are clear as day on this. Some of you are mad at me for making you think about it. Some of you want to be told the answer. Some of you are skeptical that there is anywhere to plant your flag at all.
There’s a story about a Master teacher named Akiva. He lived some 2,000 years ago in the Middle East. One dark and foggy night, on a walk home to his village, Akiva missed the path that led to his village. Before he even realized he had gone the wrong way, he ended up at the gates of this massive Roman military fortress. He hears some rustling up above. It’s a solider on top of the gate. The solider hollers down: “Who are you and what you are doing here?” Akiva, a bit startled says, “What?” The solider hollers again: “Who are you and what are you doing here?” With his senses re-focused, Akiva responds: “How much are they paying you?” Slightly confused by the question but ultimately willing to answer, the soldier says, “Ten denarius a week.” Akiva says, “I’ll pay you twice that to come to my house every morning and ask me those two questions.” Who are you and what are you doing here? Upon what are you willing to plant your flag?
Job. Family. God. Looks. Faith. Justice. Grace. Being right. Success. A meaningful series on Netflix. There’s always something out there for which you’re ready to say, “Yes. That. Flag plant.” We’re all trying to make sense of who we are and why we’re here. It seems you cannot avoid this fundamental human longing to make sense of life. Our culture is more than ready to drill into our minds what is worthy of our flag-planting. We’re taught to get after it; multi-task, pad your extra curriculars in Middle School because it will look good on college applications. We’re taught how to get ahead, how to impress your boss. We learn that being there first in the morning and the last to leave at night makes a statement about what’s important. We are raised in a world that teaches us to climb ladders. Our culture is way less inclined to turn us inward to the soul. The culture says, “You don’t have time for that. You’ve got ladders to climb.” What do you think? I’m wondering… if even for this brief time together this morning as you hold that flag in your hands… if you’d take a trip inward; see what you find.
We’re in week two of our Life Hacks series where we are considering practices that help us approach the ways of God with greater clarity. Like the life hacks you may see online everyday with the latest practical use of Q-tips, for example, we’re thinking about mercy today – how do we embody it, and in turn, live out more fully the realm of God on earth. Mercy is a term we don’t throw around all that much any more. You may think of Uncle Jesse on Full House when you hear the word. I can hear my grandmother saying, “Mercy sakes” when grandpa would throw a higher trump card on the trick she was about to take. We might think of mercy in an oppressive sense – as a person of power or privilege holding authority over someone to punish them or let them go… mercifully.
There are several Hebrew and Greek terms that lie behind our English term, “mercy.” The chief Hebrew term is hesed, God’s covenant of loving kindness. In the Septuagint, or the Greek translation of the First Testament, we see a form of the word, eleos – a term connected with the idea of compassion. In this sense, we might think of mercy as a form of empathy. This understanding is unique to the Christian faith as we consider Jesus, God made flesh, embracing the human experience – the only way of truly being empathetic to our realities. Many of the pagan gods were touted as being without feelings at all. Others believed the gods were not even aware of the earthly world at all. The majority of such deities were altogether different from humanity, feeling-less, and completely detached from the daily experiences of this realm. Into such a world of thought came the Way we would later name Christianity with this incredible conception of a God who would deliberately undergo the human experience. This is such a powerful difference. Something I always loved about the coaches I had growing up; I loved the coaches who got out there on the line and ran the drills with us, the gasers, the burpees. The detached coaches who seemed to have no heart and found some pleasure in our suffering never enlisted a whole lot of loyalty from his players. But this Christian approach ultimately gave God the quality of mercy. God understood our pain and that was a game-changer. It may be within our power to judge or harm another but mercy says, “Hold up. Haven’t you been there? Couldn’t that be you?” Empathy comes with mercy and it changes everything.
For some reason, however, empathetic and merciful are not things those outside of the church identify when they are asked about their perceptions of present-day Christianity. In fact, according to the Barna Research Group, ‘judgmental’ is the term that most readily comes to mind. Some 87% of those outside of the church said that’s what they think of when they think of Christians. 85% throw in ‘hypocritical’ for good measure. That stings a little bit, doesn’t it? Now let’s think about the differences between judgmental and merciful. And… just for fun since you’re thinking about where you might plant your flag today… consider the differences of judgment and mercy. Let’s just say when you woke up this morning and stood before that bathroom mirror, Judgment and Mercy were already working you from the inside. Judgment speaks first. “Hey, I’m here to look out for you today because it’s a tough world out there and without me, people will walk all over you.” Judgment always speaks up first and Mercy waits her turn. But she does speak. Mercy says, “I’m here to show you how to look out for somebody other than yourself today because it’s a tough world out there and without me you’ll walk all over people.”
Now… Judgment is part of our human nature. It serves a good purpose now and again – can keep you out of trouble and focused on your priorities. How you utilize good judgment helps you set the course for your life that brings about some stability and healthy practice. Good judgment is used to help you achieve your goals. Being judgmental is purely a tool you utilize to put someone else in an inferior position to yourself. Mercy – doesn’t tend to come naturally – it’s connected to our Christian nature. Most every day of our lives, we struggle between these two natures. Do you tend to let judgment have his way? When that homeless man walks in and asks for money for that bus ticket, Judgment asks me if he deserves it; mercy asks me if I deserve the car I’ll drive home from work that day. When somebody takes a mean shot at me, Judgment says, “Never forget it!” Mercy says, “Remember who you are.” When someone provokes me, Judgment says, “Stand your ground.” Mercy says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” When Judgment says to me, “You don’t have to be church with somebody like that,” Mercy says, “That’s the very reason you need to be church with somebody like that.” When I get hurt by another, Judgment says, “An eye for an eye!” Mercy says, “Turn the other cheek.” Judgment keeps an eye on his enemies. Mercy prays for them. Judgment keeps a pencil in his pocket to keep score of rights and wrongs. Mercy carries an eraser to wipe them all away. Judgment is a realist. Mercy, an idealist. Judgment says, “There’s no space for them.” Mercy says, “Remember when someone made space for you.”
The writer of the book of Hebrews essentially said, “Come plant your flag on mercy.” It’s a bold move. Planting a flag always is. Baker Mayfield didn’t kindly ask the Ohio State University administration if he could plant his flag on their field. He didn’t nonchalantly place his flag at mid-field. He ran and yelled and slammed that flag in the ground (even though it didn’t stick in the turf). It seems odd though, doesn’t it, to come boldly to the throne of grace… to receive mercy? Don’t we only come seeking mercy from a position of shame? The writer of this letter says, “Not in the least bit.” “Come boldly to the throne of grace that we might find mercy.” This confidence is to say something about the kind of God we have. The writer started in about Jesus – the high priest who is not a distant deity – but a close companion who empathizes with our situation, whatever that situation may be. Because he knows, because he cares, because he’s been there… the writer says, “Come on in for that mercy like a child coming to fall into the arms of a loving parent.” And why? Well – that depends on the English majors in the house today. Look at verse in question. Verse sixteen. Because we have a God who’s been through it and understands, what… “Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” We can argue all day about translation issues and various languages and what not but let’s just live in this possibility for a moment. After all, you’re holding your flag and you’re thinking about judgment and mercy (and maybe lunch) – and wondering where you’ll plant it. Maybe this will make a difference. You might read this verse as if it says to come with boldness to get your mercy as well as find some help in your time of need. Fair enough. But… and as my six year old son is apt to say of late, “Now hear me out…” What if we read it to say, “Come boldly and receive mercy so that… so that we might find grace to help another in their time of need.” If mercy is the embodied gift of empathy, and we are to be a reflection of Jesus who came to earth to embody such a gift for us/with us, the high priest we claim as Lord, then we are to behave in the same way – we receive mercy and in turn let that mercy and grace flow right through us to another. And that should remove a two ton weight off our very being. How amazing is that. Such joy that we just become a constant conduit of mercy and grace.
I think Peter would chime in here and say, as he did in his first letter which made the cut of sixty-six books that were canonized as our holy scriptures – “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). Once we were left to our preference of judgmentalism so we dished it out all we could. But now we’ve found mercy and we plant our flag there. And in that mercy, we should have utter and complete joy. It should move us so much that we can’t help but spill it over into a world that has been taught to judge each other and live in the shame of that judgment. Mercy isn’t a free ticket to sin; it’s the gift of living free. Everyone has a history and we may have some guilt from past mistakes. But guilt is not to lead to shame. Guilt says “I made a mistake.” Shame says, “I am the mistake.” Jesus, our high priest, says, “Done. Over. Mercy. No shame. New start. Share the love.”
Dave Matthews sang this week for a benefit for hurricane relief. The benefit was called “Hand in Hand” and there were many big names who lent their talent to help the cause. In just a couple of hours they raised upwards of $44 million to support people in need. Dave sang his song called “Mercy.” Do you know it? He sang, “Me and you, and you, and you just wanna be free but you see, all the world is just as we’ve made it… and until we have a new world I’ve got to say that love is not a whisper or a weakness. No! Love is strong, so we got to get together until there is no reason to fight. Mercy, will we overcome this?” Sounds like come boldly to the throne of grace, receive mercy, plant your flag on it, and embody it in the world.
I have a friend named Rick. He and his wife were intricate parts of our church family in Indianapolis. Just quietly inspiring people. I loved them so much. They had been through their share of hurt and heartache and, I would come to learn, carried some guilt about some things in the past as most of us do. But Rick didn’t carry it with a heavy spirit. I served Rick communion more than my fair share of the time in worship. He would come forward in that line of folks coming to receive communion – the mercy line if you will. And he would smile as big as any on his way forward. He would step to my station and pull off the biggest piece of communion bread I had ever seen anyone pull. The first time, I thought it had to be an accident. That happens, you know. People come forward and all polite like try to pull that perfect pinch of bread — not too much, not too little — just the polite communion size. They pull too big a piece and their eyes get big and sometimes they try to put some of it back. But not Rick. Every time, he’d pull off a huge chunk of bread, dip it boldly into the chalice I was holding and eat the whole thing right then and there as he pressed my hands that held that cup with his own as an affirmation that we were in this thing together. I leaned against the back wall of our worship space one day with Rick and this very thing came up. He said, “You may have noticed…” (Uh, yeah… huge piece of bread). We laughed for a second but then he says, “The mercy of Christ is like nothing else and I’ll take as much of it as I can get.” And I’ll tell you what. Rick is as merciful a guy as I have ever known. He felt your pain. He empathized with your struggle. He planted his flag in mercy and he was mercy to me over and over again.
Well… are you tired of holding that flag yet? I know, “Wrap it up, Briley.” I’m not sure I was convincing enough. And – it’s not my job to change your mind or change your heart… that’s between you and God. But I do wonder about that flag you’re holding. I wonder where you’re thinking you might plant it today, tomorrow, this week, next year. There are so many places you could put it, after all. And you’ll walk out of this place today to a world that is quick to tell you where you should plant it. But I won’t. I’ll just share that one line that’s got me wondering this week about my own flag. “Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy … and… find enough grace to help in time of need.”
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 This story has been told in many ways and many places. Here is one: http://www.mobilizingdisciples.com/blog/rabbi-akiva
 The Letter to the Hebrews. William Barclay. Westminster Press. Philadelphia. 1976.
 As referenced in David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon’s book, “unChristian.” Baker Books. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2007.