I love movies. All sorts of movies. I love babies. All sorts of babies. But my heart sinks when I see parents bringing a baby into a movie theater that I’ve settled into. A crying infant will break the spell of the movie experience and focus all my attention on a baby in distress.
Even with booming special effects or a swelling musical score, the baby’s cry will force everything else into the background of my awareness. It’s not that I get angry at the parents or resent the little one for being hungry or scared or messy. I just can’t help responding to a sobbing papoose.
It’s difficult for anyone to ignore crying babies. Our brains respond to wailing infants before we have a chance to think about it. A recent study from Oxford University demonstrated just that.
The study involved thirty childless adults who had no special experience in caring for children. The researchers played recordings of babies and adults crying, as well as sounds of animals in distress.
Brain scans revealed that each of the participants responded to the sounds, but only the baby’s sobs produced activity in the brain’s emotional centers. The response time, by the way, was 100 milliseconds.
Our emotions motivate us to act. When babies cry, we feel an urge to do something about it. They need help and they are powerless to help themselves. We are hardwired to come to their rescue with milk or formula or a pacifier or a fresh diaper.
Of course I don’t do this in a movie theater because the parents are right there. Usually one of them grabs a diaper bag or scurries out of the theater for a few minutes. But my blood pressure goes up precisely because some primitive part of me is straining to make it all better for a helpless baby.
We are hardwired for compassion toward babies. By contrast, we have learned to tune out cries for help from others. Television, radio, the internet, and newspapers inundate us with stories of human suffering. People are devastated by war and natural disaster, and famine pushes millions to starvation. In our daily rounds we encounter the poor, the homeless, the illiterate, the mentally ill, and the addicted.
To borrow a phrase from William James, if we didn’t filter out these cries for help we would be lost in a buzzing, booming confusion of misery. There are too many cries for help competing for our attention, and we have too little time and too few resources to deal with even a small percentage of these cries. And so, to focus on what we need to do for ourselves and for the small circle of friends and family who depend upon us, we learn to filter out the cries.
And yet Jesus teaches us to be merciful: to hear with our hearts the cries for help around us and to respond with the same help that Jesus has already given us. We have received mercy so that we can show mercy. A vital congregation is known for its works of mercy.
Jesus’ healing of blind Bartimaeus teaches us some helpful things about being a merciful congregation. That story invites us to explore three questions:
What is mercy?
What are the works of mercy?
What effect do works of mercy have on the believing community?
We’ll start by sorting out the first question. What is mercy? Bartimaeus illustrates it for us.
Bartimaeus is blind. He wants to see, but he cannot restore his own sight. When Jesus asks him what he wants, Bartimaeus is direct. He wants to see.
He is not asking Jesus to give him something that he might be able to achieve for himself with a little extra effort. He needs something that he could never provide for himself. He needs mercy. He needs a savior.
Grace and mercy are closely related concepts. They refer to God’s freely given gift. Sometimes you will hear them distinguished like this. Grace is when God gives us the good we do not deserve. Mercy is when God does not give us the punishment we do deserve.
But the story of Bartimaeus gives us a different understanding of mercy. When he cries out to Jesus, Bartimaeus is not asking for a lighter sentence or a last minute reprieve. Instead, he is asking Jesus to relieve his suffering in a way that only Jesus can.
Jesus restored his sight but also gave meaning to his years of blindness. Scripture does not tell us the specifics of what Bartimaeus did with his life once he could see, but it does tell us that he followed Jesus on the way.
In other words, Bartimaeus responds to Jesus’ mercy by devoting himself to showing mercy. He knows what it’s like to have been blind and now to see, and so he has a new appreciation for others’ suffering and a commitment to its relief.
I cannot count the number of people I know like that. Cancer survivors lead support groups for sufferers. Widows and widowers form grief support groups. Recovering alcoholics and addicts help others to get sober. The list goes on and on. Christ’s mercy has turned someone’s past suffering into the power to show mercy.
Works of Mercy
The source of all mercy is Jesus Christ. He extended his mercy on the cross once and for all. The cross relieves our suffering in all the many forms it takes. For Bartimaeus, that suffering took the form of blindness.
After receiving mercy, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way of mercy. And that is what Jesus challenges us all to do. Not only as individuals, but as congregations. Among the practices that mark a congregation as vital, none is more important than works of mercy. And this brings us to our second question. What are the works of mercy?
Over the years followers of Jesus have taught that there are two broad kinds of works of mercy: corporal and spiritual. I will talk about spiritual works of mercy in another sermon at another time. For our purposes today, I’ll just share the traditional list of corporal works of mercy:
To feed the hungry;
To give drink to the thirsty;
To clothe the naked;
To shelter the homeless;
To visit the sick;
To release the captive; and
To bury the dead.
A vital congregation is attuned to the world’s misery. We do not believe that we can be fully happy while others suffer.
We are the Body of Christ. Blind Bartimaeus is crying out to us. “Have mercy.” “Take note of my misery. Show me that I matter. Relieve my suffering.”
The disciples’ first response to Bartimaeus was to tell him to be quiet. But Jesus gently corrected them. “Call him here,” he said. And for once, they seemed to get the message quickly. They said, “Take heart.”
They understood that Jesus had come to show mercy. To relieve suffering. And that he was teaching them how to hear the suffering around them. How to be his instruments in relieving it.
Who is Bartimaeus in your surrounding community? What suffering is he calling you to relieve? What gifts of compassion in your congregation has his suffering helped you to identify?
And this brings us to our third and final question. What effect do works of mercy have on the believing community?
Clearly works of mercy are responses to Jesus’ saving work in our lives. They do not earn mercy for us. We give mercy in response to having received mercy.
But for many of us, works of mercy teach us to be merciful. That probably sounds paradoxical. You might assume that works of mercy arise from merciful feelings, like the emotional responses we have to crying infants.
In some cases this is true. Some among us seem born to be attuned to the suffering around us. But most of us learn to filter it out so that we can focus on other worthy things.
Mercy works from the outside in, not inside out. We begin to feel compassion after getting to know and ministering to a hungry man, an abused woman, a homeless family, or a handicapped child. Addressing their suffering personally makes our heart grow.
It’s as if works of mercy rewire our brains. At first, we seek to relieve the world’s suffering because we know that we should. It’s what Jesus would do, and he has already done so much for us.
Over time, gradually and perhaps imperceptibly, what we do in Jesus’ name makes us resemble our savior more closely. The love that we have been given becomes the love that we yearn to give. When we hear cries for mercy, we say, “Take heart,” before we can even think about it.
This sermon was preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, Louisiana.