August 7, 2011 “Lord, Have Mercy”
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Matthew 5:7
[Play, “Lord Have Mercy,” by Memphis Slim. Through 2:12 only!]
Everybody crying’ mercy. I wonder what do mercy mean? The folks on Walton’s Mountain were probably asking that same question when they first encountered recent divinity school graduate, Rev. Fordwick. Rev. Fordwick stays with the Waltons as he prepares to preach his inaugural sermon at an all-day tent revival.
I’m sure they covered the Beatitudes in Rev. Fordwick’s New Testament class, but he must have missed the day when they talked about mercy. At one point, he practices his sermon. It goes something like this. “Repent! For I say that the hour is nigh when judgment shall be visited and the sheep shall be sep-a-ra-ted from the goats. Drunkenness is an abomination. Repent! Fornication and lustful ways must be abandoned. Repent! Lying and stealing and bearing false witness are abominations. Repent, ye sinners! Carve out sin from your hearts like a boil. Repent! For whatsoever ye sow, so also shall ye reap.” Rev. Fordwick asks young Jim-Bob how his sermon sounds. “Scary,” says Jim-Bob.
As the Reverend walks up the steps to go inside the house, John Walton says to him, “I heard you practice.” “Perhaps you have a suggestion?” Rev. Fordwick asks, somewhat defensively. John tries to tell the young preacher that the folks on Walton’s Mountain don’t respond well to shouting and the use of fancy language. He gently suggests that the preacher say what he’s going to say, just to do it a little simpler and easier. Rev Fordwick’s response is less than gracious: “I have spent four years, Mr. Walton, learning and studying to preach the word of God. It’s up to you to accept or reject it.” And with that, he goes inside.
It’s clear with the slamming of the door that young Rev. Fordwick might know the Bible, but he doesn’t know much about people…or mercy.
But—it is The Waltons, after all—Rev. Fordwick gets a great lesson in mercy (and humility) before the end of the episode. The day before the revival, he receives a letter from his mother, who asks him to look up her cousins and extend a personal invitation to the all-day service. His mother’s cousins, as it turns out, are the Baldwin sisters.
For the uninitiated, the very proper spinster Baldwin sisters are the suppliers of moonshine on Walton’s Mountain. They refer to their “herbal elixir” as “Papa’s Recipe.” To refuse Emily and Mamie’s gift of recipe, is among the rudest things a visitor can do. Which is why Rev. Fordwick accepts the first cup of recipe offered. And the next. And the next.
By the time Grandpa drives him back to the tent where they’re setting up for the revival, the preacher is three sheets to the wind. The Waltons hurry him to the house to let him sleep it off.
As you might guess, Rev. Fordwick is deeply ashamed of what he’s done. The next morning as he makes plans to leave—both Walton’s Mountain and the ministry—he asks John Boy: “How can I ask people to do what I can’t even do myself?” Being the merciful people they are, John and John Boy convince Rev. Fordwick to preach as planned.
When they arrive at the revival, Miss Prism, a missionary, is talking to the crowd, calling the people sinners and abominations and outcasts who are not worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven—things like that. John interrupts her and asks if it isn’t possible for Rev. Fordwick to preach as he’d been scheduled to. Miss Prism resists, but steps aside when John says something about “he who is without sin casting the first stone”….
Here’s Rev. Fordwick’s sermon. I am a sinner. I guess I don’t need to tell you that. But I need to admit it. Maybe it takes a sinner to know another sinner, to know how it feels to do wrong things when you want to do what’s right. I think the Lord understands how hard it is to be good. He appreciates it when we are, and he’s sad when we aren’t, the way you parents are when you watch your own children making mistakes. It hurts. It’s hard to live in this world, especially these days. And I just want to say one thing…that the most important thing is to love the Lord and to try to do what He wants and to pray for forgiveness when you fail.
Unsure of how to end, he stands there awkwardly, still certain, it would seem, of his unworthiness to be in a pulpit preaching. Grandpa Walton—as only Grandpa can do—seizes the awkwardness and transforms it into a moment of pure mercy…he stands and begins singing “Just As I Am,” the standard Baptist altar call hymn. And wouldn’t you know? Every person in the place walks the aisle and joins Rev. Fordwick at the pulpit.
Did Rev. Fordwick deserve that act of compassion? No. Had he earned the good will of the people? No. But, as Richard Rohr has said: “You don’t know mercy until you’ve really needed it.” And Rev. Fordwick need those people’s mercy like nobody’s business. Happily, the people of Walton’s Mountain were gracious in extending it.
Here’s the thing. Before he had experienced mercy, Rev. Fordwick was unable to extend it to others. But, as his behaviour in subsequent episodes reveals, receiving mercy when he’d failed changed him for the better. Receiving mercy made it possible for him to give mercy to others.
What about you? Have you experienced mercy? Has someone shown you compassion that you in no way and no how deserved? And if someone has shown you compassion, have you allowed yourself to receive it? Have you taken their love and forgiveness and acceptance into your deepest self? Have you experienced mercy?
I don’t know this, but I suspect that part of the reason we resist taking mercy in is because, in order to do so, we have to acknowledge just how far off the mark we are…just how much we’ve messed up, just how far from God’s hopes for us we’ve wandered. And who wants to do that, right?
But if we only allow God into our good parts, are we really experiencing mercy? How much more deeply might we experience God’s mercy, how much more deeply might we experience God’s love, if we allowed God into the deepest depths of ourselves? The only way to receive God’s forgiveness, mercy and love into our depths is to acknowledge all of who we are in our depths…which includes the not-so-great parts.
That’s where we can learn a lot from the blues. The thing that’s so great about the blues is that they tell it like it is. There’s no pretense in the blues, no trying to put a positive spin on things. The blues start where you are—at the bottom…at the bottom of the bottom… at some place so low you’ve got to look up to see the bottom…a place you’re probably in because of something you yourself have done. If anybody needs to ask for mercy, it’s someone singing the blues.
“Everybody cryin’ mercy. I wonder what do mercy mean,” Memphis Slim asked. For Richard Rohr, mercy means “God’s very self-understanding, a loving allowing, a willing breaking of the rules by the One who made the rules—a wink and a smile, a firm and joyful taking of our hand while we clutch at our sins and gaze at God in desire and disbelief.” Then he quotes Thomas Merton who described his experience of God’s love as ‘Mercy, within mercy, within mercy.’ Rohr says: “It’s as if we collapse into deeper nets of acceptance, deeper nets of being enclosed and finally find we’re in a net we can’t fall out of. We are captured by grace.” (Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, 136)
Can you imagine? Looking honestly at your sinfulness, at the things you’re most ashamed of, and at the same time, feeling secure in a mercy net that you can’t fall out of, knowing—knowing— that you are “captured by grace?”
It’s when we can look squarely at all the things we’re embarrassed about, all the things we wish were different about ourselves, it’s when we can look honestly at everything we don’t like about ourselves and still feel, really feel, God’s love, that we truly know mercy. And it’s only when we truly know mercy that we are able to extend it to others.
And so, I’m feeling a little like a Baptist here, but I’m going to invite everyone to take your hymnal, open it to #207 and sing together “Just As I Am, Without One Plea.” This isn’t an altar call…but it is an invitation to acknowledge yourself “just as you are” and, at the same time, to feel God’s love and acceptance into the depths of who you are…to feel yourself “captured by grace.”
[Sing “Just as I am”]
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2011