Just Mercy

The text for this sermon is Luke 10:13-17.

I have a theory that our personal relationship to the laws of scripture are revealed in the way we follow the speed limit. The first camp are those who stick closely to the speed limit, thinking a law is a law is a law. The second camp, brags that they never break the speed limit, but they consistently go five miles over it. Their defense of this incongruity is that going five miles over isn’t breaking the law really, because it’s so close that even the police officers don’t seem to care. The third camp, follows the law until they can be assured by an online app like Ways that no one is looking. Then it is off to the races, ten or fifteen miles, even twenty over the speed limit, no problem. The fourth camp, simply have a lead foot. They speed. They get caught. They pay the penalty and they go right on speeding. Any penalty for breaking the law never changes their behavior. 

Laws, whether we are talking about the Ten Commandments or speed limits order our world. When we pick and choose what laws we are going to follow and what laws we are not, our world can get out of whack pretty quickly. Yet, often we treat the guy intent on following the letter of the law as the bother. Seriously, how many times have you come up behind someone on the highway going the speed limit and became irritated with them. Laws order our world, but our human nature causes us to constantly push back on them.

So try not to immediately roll your eyes at the rabbi in our story. He is just following the law as he was taught. Like that guy going 55 MPH, exactly, on a straight, empty country highway through farmland in northwest Ohio. Really 55. There is no one around. Sixty man, at least. Sorry. He is not enforcing some minor Jewish law like making sure people don’t wear cotton and wool at the same time. He is making a stand on one of the big ten, thou shall keep the Sabbath holy. 

He is likely not a big city rabbi, a Jewish priest or leader of Israel. This was a country pastor. His rabbi taught him that God gave Israel a day of rest when God freed them from slavery. They didn’t have a day of rest as slaves in Egypt, so that was something to celebrate. They celebrated by giving thanks and praise to God. There were debates about how to interpret what was rest and what was work, conservative views, liberal views, yadda, yadda, yadda. But this guy probably wasn’t part of those debates. It was the sabbath. Sons and daughters of Abraham ought to rest by God’s command. Healing someone who did not have a life threatening ailment, like the woman in our story, was working in his eyes and in the eyes of many other rabbis of his day. 

The laws of God bring order to our world. Once you start making exceptions to God’s law, pretty soon it ain’t a law, but a suggestion. Frankly, this is how our Christian view of the Sabbath has become. All but a few Christians think nothing of working on our Sabbath. And though the commandment is to keep it holy, only 25% of  people who call themselves Christian go to church to worship on our Sabbath. We, 21st century Christians, are so far away from being concerned about the Sabbath, that this simple hard working village rabbi, who is carefully following the law just seems like a nuisance, driving the speed limit on a clear, dry and straight highway. 

We need to start here. The rabbi was wrong, but not because Jesus advocated for a world without speed limits. He was wrong because his adherence to the law made him blind to the times it needed to be broken. The rabbi would have argued, of course, when there is a pregnant woman in the car, you just have to break the law to get her to the hospital. Jesus was saying, yes, but sometimes it is not dire like that, but just as important. Like a woman whose life is transformed by an act of grace. Jesus is arguing for a universal reason to break laws, all laws, at times…and it isn’t because your Ways app has told you there are no cops on the highway. As important as a law is, even one of the big ten, it must always bow to mercy. We are to value the law always…and at times suspend a law to show mercy.

Brian daughter Amber in his book Just Mercy, by Bryan Steveson, he tells the story of convicted murderer Avery Jenkins. Stevenson is an Alabama lawyer who leads the Equal Justice Initiative, to free or find justice for those in our prisons. Avery Jenkins at twenty years old brutally stabbed an old man in his own home. It appears the old man simply answered his door to a stranger. Jenkins was found at the scene incoherent, screaming at demons around him, bloody from the multiple times he stabbed that old man. 

Jenkins father was murdered before he was born. His mother died of an overdose when he was a baby. He spent his life in foster care. 19 different homes before he was eight. School records show that he had clear signs of some organic brain damage and early signs of schizophrenia. One foster mother became so frustrated with him, she tied him to a tree to die in a forest. Hunters found him three days later. His story is full of every sort of abuse you can imagine in the foster homes that “cared” for him. 

He began having hallucinations and psychotic episodes when he hit puberty. In his teens, he began to use drugs and alcohol heavily. At seventeen, he was deemed too hard to handle for foster care and made homeless. He spent time until he stabbed that man repeatedly, either in jail for minor crimes like vagrancy, or homeless on the street, talking to himself and shouting at shadows. It appears he thought the old man was a demon. His state appointed attorney never brought any evidence forward about Avery Jenkins documented mental health problems. He had spent seven years on death row when Bryan Stevenson met him. 

Stevenson writes from the first time and every time after he met with Jenkins, he would ask for a chocolate milkshake. When he told him, the prison wouldn’t let him bring him one, he would have to spend valuable minutes trying to get him to talk to him, so sullen and disappointed he would become. To talk to Jenkins, sometimes he would have to get past a notorious white prison guard who always gave Stevenson, an African American, a hard time. He insisted on strip searching the lawyer even though this was not the protocol. He made sure Stevenson saw his racist tattoos. This guard was known in that prison for being especially abusive. 

It was this guard that was assigned to transport Jenkins for the three day court appeal Stevenson won for him. During the appeal, that guard, sat and heard Jenkins story. It turns out he was also raised in foster care and been abused. His heart cracked. One day on the way back to prison, that guard broke the law. He stopped at Wendy’s and brought Avery Jenkins, a chocolate Frosty. Bryan Stevenson found justice for him. Avery Jenkins was taken off of death row and put into a mental institution for life. The guard gave him mercy, by buying him a milkshake. Stevenson writes that every time afterward when they met, Avery mentioned the milkshake brought by his friend, he said. Stevenson wondered if that didn’t change his life more than being released from death row. 

The woman with the stooped posture likely believed the same thing her rabbi believed. We ought to worship on the Sabbath and do nothing else, unless our life is threatened. When God straightened her back and she saw the world anew, like she had not for eighteen years, she didn’t forget about the Sabbath law. It just got pushed to the back as shouts of alleluia came from her mouth. Jesus chose to break the Sabbath law to show mercy. We can do the same with the Sabbath law or any law. When we do, the Kingdom of God draws near. 

David Lose in a great article on this lesson from six years ago, writes that the law orders our world, but only grace creates life. This nameless woman, who had figured out how to live a good life without being healed, who could have waited another day to be healed, was recreated in that healing. Luke tells us she spent the rest of her days praising God. Avery Jenkins was surely better off in a mental institution than an Alabama prison, but what he would tell you changed his life was that Chocolate Frosty. Jesus didn’t come to destroy the law, but to bring life. When the law keeps our neighbor from life, God’s mercy is pleading to be heard.

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