Grace and mercy
Last week, I showed up at the rental car counter, traveling to give a talk about RenewalWorks. I could tell that the woman behind the counter had had a long day. I was sporting my clerical collar, and when she figured out I was clergy, cranky demeanor gave way to a smile. (Sometimes the reverse happens.) She told me she was from a long line of preachers, that she had a degree in divinity, that this job was interim, that she was looking forward to a ministry in the pulpit.
She asked if I was off to preach the word. I said I was, that I would do so as best I could. (Okay, I confess I kind of hoped that based on my answer she might give me a discount, or upgrade me to a black Saab convertible. Didn’t happen.)
Then she asked: And what’s the word you will preach? I gave the answer that popped into my head: grace. I thought it was pretty good that I could come up with something to respond to an unexpected question. But she decided to correct me. She said the word she preferred was mercy.
It got me thinking about mercy and grace, how those two things are alike and how they differ. One commentator said that grace is a matter of receiving what we have not deserved. Mercy is not receiving what we may have deserved. Grace as gift, unmerited favor. Mercy as forgiveness. They’re in the same neighborhood for sure, but not quite the same.
On Wednesday this week, we observe the feast of St. Matthew, tax collector shown mercy by Jesus. He answers Jesus’ call: “Follow me.” (The story of his call is below.) After he answers Jesus’ call, Matthew and Jesus hang out, socialize, fraternize with a bad crowd. Jesus gets criticized by good church folk for doing this. Imagine! He responds to those folks by taking a page from the Hebrew scriptures (Hosea 6:6) saying that what God desires is mercy not sacrifice.
So what does it mean to show mercy and what does it mean to show grace? If we see ourselves in Matthew’s story, if we hear a call to follow Jesus, then part of what we are called to do is to do what Jesus did. To show grace. To show mercy.
Even my dogs know about the fairness index. They get put out of sorts if one of them gets more than the other. When Jesus calls for mercy and grace, it seems to me he’s saying that we need to abandon fixation on the fairness index as guide for our interactions. What is important is grace. What is important is mercy. The woman at the rental car place and I can disagree about which is more significant, but we probably each have a lot of growth opportunity, a lot of room, a lot of space to offer both.
Grace can be a random act of kindness. An over-generous tip. A word of thanks to somebody who never gets recognized.
Mercy can be a moment of compassion. A decision to walk in someone else’s shoes. A determination to listen and understand before speaking and critiquing. Basically cutting someone some slack.
This Monday, where will God open the door for you to show mercy, to show grace?
We can’t show grace and mercy unless we know grace and mercy. Where and when have you experienced grace and mercy? Give thanks and praise this morning for Jesus who comes to us with the grace of unmerited favor and with mercy marked by compassion.
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.
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