In 1996, Johnny Cash sang this remake of the Carter Family song, "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea." In this song, God hears the cry of a man kneeling at his mother’s grave. For whatever personal reasons, he didn’t make it in time to say good-bye. But he shouts up to God for mercy, and God looks down upon him. Depending on how you see yourself this song, or at least the portion I read, God’s mercy could be interpreted in two ways.
The first way is that God looks down upon the drunk, and shakes his head in disgust. God then picks up an index card and a pencil, and begins to scribble down all the sins this drunk has committed in his life. God then he hands the card to an angel who rushes it to a warehouse that is filled with countless white cards just like this one. It's here they are all safely stored there until that fateful day when the drunk is brought before God in judgment. That’s one way of interpreting the Bible and Christianity.
The other way is more like this. God looks down on the drunk and sees a man, empty, broken and in dire need of help. God feels the man’s pain, and has empathy. When God hears the man crying over his mother’s grave, He can't help but be reminded of all the tears shed at his son’s death. God knows the drunkard’s story, because he has walked with people just like him. People whose bad choices...have made their life a living hell. So in hearing the man cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me,” God pulls out his pencil and begins to erase the man’s index card. Ever since Abel’s blood cried out from the ground, God has responded mercifully to our pleas.
This morning's gospel reading offers us yet another one of these moments. Bartimaeus sees clearly now for the first time, both physically and spiritually. Moreover, the disciple’s eyes are finally being cracked open. These faithful, bumbling 12, have struggled to understand the way before them are beginning to see how following Jesus is both risky and rewarding.
Now I am hoping everyone received an index card when you came in. I want you to look at it. Don’t write anything on it, just look at it. As you look at this clean white card I'd like you to visualize all your transgressions and iniquities you've committed over, let's say the last 24 hours. Again, don't write anything down...This is a thinking exercise. Not a confession. All I want you to do is see the sins appear on the card. We have plenty of cards in case you need more. Are you able to see the words? If so, imagine what God's response will be...when you hand him a card filled with the things you have done and not done.
If you understand God to be a vindictive judge who holds every sin you’ve ever done in some filing cabinet, then what does that say about God? Or what does it say about God's grace through Jesus Christ, our great high priest? I know some of you still carry fear in your heart that whatever you did, whatever sin you committed, has made you somehow unforgivable. All it has done is made you blind.
By its very definition mercy is tied directly to forgiveness. If we are unable to forgive ourselves, or others, then we create a spiritual blindness within us that denies God’s mercy and grace. Not only does it distort the word of God, but also it nullifies the cross of Christ, and all its saving power.
John’s gospel reminds us that Christ did not come to condemn but to save us, to care and love and redeem us back into God's family.
Or as Brennan Manning so creatively explains, “Jesus comes for sinners, for us who are outcast or caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams.”
Jesus himself said, I did not come for the healthy but for the sick.
Jesus hears the cries of the blind and the lame and the lepers and the demon possessed, and he comes to them. He hears the cries of the star athlete who has been repeatedly molested by his uncles and comes to him. He comes to the prostitute who prays to her Sunday School God to help her find a different job so she can support her 2-year-old daughter. He comes for street people, corporate executives, drug addicts, teachers, farmers, prostitutes, ministers, bartenders, drunks, social workers, abuse victims, IRS agents, EMTs, janitors, security guards, AIDS patients, frustrated caretakers, lonely shut ins, movie stars, sports stars, the unknown, the unwanted, and used car salesmen. The list is endless, because there's no ending to God's love.
Jesus comes to you...he comes to me. And he doesn't just come to us, but Jesus breaks bread with us, talks with us, prays with us, heals us, tolerates us, and of course, he does the unthinkable for us…He gives himself up as a servant and sacrifice for all. At the end of the day, what God desires the most isn't an index card...but a relationship with us. As a great church Saint once joked, "If God condemned every sinner then who would he have left to forgive?"
But mercy isn’t only about forgiveness. It's also about compassion. If you see God as compassionate and loving, then you have probably received God’s mercy. You have seen and felt God’s love in the most blessed form.
In the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man cries out, “Jesus, have mercy on me.”
And Jesus responds by asking him the same question that he asked James and John in the previous passage, “What is it that you want me to do?”
Bartimaeus pleads, “Let me see again.” And Jesus replies, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately his sight is restored. And Bartimaeus sees the truth standing right in front of him; the truth of God’s love revealed in the flesh.
Jesus’ entire journey so far has been one eye-opening lesson of forgiveness and compassion. As we walk with Christ our eyes are cracked open too. And we begin to see what these two things mean to the health and salvation of the world around us. To truly follow Jesus, to pick up our cross and carry out his commandment to love, requires us to embrace a servant’s heart. We too must give ourselves over to attend to the cries of mercy.
Whether they are in refuge camps or in the closet in our own home. The truth of God’s grace is revealed to us and through us. For the mercy we are shown by God is the mercy we are to give to others. Our ability to forgive and show compassion is the standard by which God measures us.
When I look at this index card, I can’t see my sins. My card of mine has been washed clean with the blood of the lamb. (hold up card) This is the gospel of grace. It’s a clean slate or index card. For God to fill with the mercy we show to others. Jesus tells Bartimaeus to "Go." I charge you with that same imperative. Go and show forgiveness and compassion to those in need.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
And in case you were wondering,...in the final verse Johnny Cash joyfully proclaims, “Three years have passed since she went away. Her son is sleeping beside her today. And I know that in heaven his mother he sees, for God has heard that drunkard's plea.”
Now if that isn't Good News, then “Lord, have mercy on me.”
Bible, NRSV. Mark 10:46-52; Hebrews 7:23-28
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, ed. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Cash, Johnnie. Kneeling Drunkard's Plea. Cash. American: 1997.
Manning, Brennan. The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat Up, and Burnt Out. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2005.