October 28, 2018
23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Reformation, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
This is called the Jesus prayer. We hear a form of it in Bartimaeus’ cry outside Jericho as the crowd passes by, “Heir of David, have mercy on me.” It’s one of the simplest and most ancient mantra-type prayers in the tradition. There’s a record of it being used in 407 CE by John Chrysostom. The desert mothers and fathers in the fifth century said we should breathe in on, “Lord, Jesus Christ,” and then exhale on “have mercy on me.”
If you’re comfortable, do that with me. Breathe in: Lord Jesus Christ. Exhale: Have mercy on me.
In later centuries the phrase, “a sinner,” was added to the end. “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” These words come from the story of the Pharisee who says, “Thank God I’m not like that tax collector.” And the tax collector who says, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
I’m not sure if this prayer was common in Reformation times. If so, Luther would have heard it with the ears of medieval Europe, that tended to have what’s called a “juridical view” of sin. God was perceived as a righteous judge, who demanded obedience. Punishment was the justified response for breaking one of God’s commandments. As we know, Luther, early in his life, believed that God was primarily angry, demanding perfection. His eye-opening moment came when he discovered in the book of Romans that God was primarily a gracious God, who forgives, and loves. We are justified by grace through faith, not by keeping all the rules. He began to talk about sin in a different way. He considered the cross to be the symbol of the “happy exchange.” Christ took on our sin and exchanged it for love. He takes our sin. We receive love and grace. (There’s your Reformation lesson for Reformation Sunday.)
Let me switch to the Eastern Orthodox family of Christianity. In the East, sin tended to be considered through medical terms, sickness and healing, brokenness and wholeness. Instead of breaking a rule, being a sinner meant more like “not being all that you were created to be.” Repentance in the Eastern heart isn’t necessarily because you did some bad thing but because you yearn to change into something better, to live into the image of God: more beautiful, more whole, more peaceful–to see more clearly what is true.
This is, of course, how Bartimaeus means it. He yearns to see, so he calls out to Jesus, “Heir of David, have mercy on me.” He’s creating a disturbance. The people around him tell him to hush because, of course, he’s a blind beggar. He’s outside the gate, not part of the caravan of Galilean peasants and refugees on their way to Jerusalem. In the first century, his blindness would have been considered to be his own fault or the fault of someone in his family. He would not have deserved attention by this one who is headed to the Capitol city. Yet he lays claim to a world that is bigger than the one that he can’t see, and he shouts louder, “Heir of David. Have mercy on me.” Interestingly, he already sees Jesus for who he is.
To call on the mercy of God is already to claim a world that we cannot see with our own eyes, but see clearly in the heart;
to call on the mercy of God is to see and understand our deep brokenness as a nation, a community, a church;
to call on the mercy of God is already a turn toward newness, reformation, change.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
“Kyrie Eleison,” if you want to be fancy and say it in Greek.
Maybe the Kyrie is the prayer that we need for 2018. In the face of anti-Semitism that give rise to murder. Kyrie Eleison. To Lutheran complicity in the holocaust. Kyrie Eleison. To the anti-Semitic writing of Martin Luther. Kyrie Eleison. In the face cruel and demeaning speech, regularized by considering it to be harmless campaigning. In the face of bombs sent in the mail. A nation divided and on edge. Kyrie Eleison. In the face of climate change; in the face of the opioid epidemic; Kyrie Eleison. In the face of student debt; in the face of our own faltering relationships and inability to live out of our God-given grace and love; Kyrie Eleison.
Give us sight, Lord Jesus, to see this world as you do. Give us ears to hear the voices of modern-day Bartimaeus, calling to us from outside the gate, at the edge of the crowd, alongside the caravans of the hopeless, in Jewish neighborhoods from Pittsburgh to Portland.
At the place of prayer, there’s a turn in the gospel text. Jesus stops in his tracks and sends the disciples to Bartimaeus, “Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.”This is Jesus response to us, no matter our need for mercy: Take heart. Get up. I am calling you.” The response of Jesus is to empower us to get up and be on the way. I’m not sure about you but I need the reminder to take heart, because it’s so tempting to despair or to be overwhelmed by what’s facing us, or afraid that we don’t have the resources or the grace to live through what we’re being asked to live through.
On Friday morning, I watched the interment of Matthew Shepard’s ashes in the National Cathedral. Twenty years ago, he was brutally beaten and left to die in the cold night. The tears streaming down his face, his own cry for mercy, washed the blood from his cheeks. Bishop Gene Robinson, the preacher, told the story of Reggie Fluty, first police officer to arrive where Matt had been tied. She reported that as she approached his body, she noticed a deer was lying beside him. From the looks of things, it had been there all night long. When the deer saw her, it looked at her in the eyes, and then ran away. She said, “That was the good Lord, no doubt in my mind.”
In the face of incredible suffering and death, she saw God’s presence.
In a mercy that is stronger than death, God raised Matthew up to a life in eternal love. And, in the mercy of God, his death set into motion progress on civil rights that continues still, despite opposition from the highest level of our government, both then and now. There may be times when taking heart is heavy, but in these most desperate moments, Jesus calls us.
Mercy always will carry the day. Praying for mercy is like reaching into the future that we don’t yet have and claiming it as the source for living today.
At the end of his sermon, Bishop Robison said, “Remember. Get to work. Vote.”
Get up. Take Heart. Jesus has called you live in this moment, in this very time.
This is the voice of mercy. The voice of reformation. The voice of God.
Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us, sinners.
Keep praying that until your eyes are open and you are on the way.