The Second Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 7 (Year C)

“My Friend Jack”

A sermon by Patrick Foster

This morning I’d like to talk about a couple of words – justice and mercy. Justice is a great word and it’s used a lot today. It’s what everybody wants, right? Well, maybe not. My best friend Mike likes to say “I don’t ask for justice – I want mercy.” Mike is a great guy. I’ve honestly never found a single person who has anything bad to say about him. But he wasn’t always that way. Forty or so years ago – long before I met him – he lived the sort of life he now regrets. But he changed.

There’s a beautiful story in the bible that I especially like. It’s the one where Jesus has finished preaching to a crowd and is quietly writing in the dust with his finger when all of a sudden, a crowd of angry men come up to him, dragging a woman with them. “This woman” they cry out to Jesus “is an adulteress! She was caught in the very act of adultery!” But Jesus appears to have barely heard them and continues writing in the dust-maybe absently nodding once or twice to acknowledge their presence. Anyway, the outraged men continue shouting. “Moses said that such a sinner should be stoned to death! What do you say?” The message seems clear- they want to kill this poor woman. But in fact, what they’re really trying to do is to trap Jesus, knowing he will not condemn the woman to death- thus going against what Moses said. Jesus pauses, looks up, again perhaps nodding in vague agreement, and then says simply “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone”. A silence follows. The men are dumbfounded – they hadn’t expected this! The first man, after thinking of all the sins he’d committed in his life, drops the rock he was holding and walks away, completely baffled. And then one by one the other men drop their stones and drift away as the crowd slowly melts. In a few minutes all that’s left is Jesus and the woman. He looks up from his writing again and says “Is there no one left to condemn you?” “No” she replies, probably still scared out of her wits. Then Jesus says softly “Then I do not condemn you either. Now go- and sin no more”. Jesus showed her mercy- not justice.

Let me tell you about my friend Jack. Jack was a scoundrel, a lawless, Neer-do-well who drank and gambled and stole, ran around with floozies and generally made sure he always had a good time at someone else’s expense. Jack didn’t work, he lived by his wits and his gambling and heaven knows what else, and when he was low on money, he would sometimes break into his sister’s house when she wasn’t home and steal money from her. A few  times she hid her money too well, so he went into his niece’s and nephew’s bedrooms and stole money from their piggy banks. This kind of life usually ends badly, and Jack eventually lost everything. His sister changed the locks on her house, and Jack ended up living in his car, on a side street in a bad neighborhood in Bridgeport, homeless and friendless.

Did I mention Jack was a mean drunk? He’d be drinking quietly in a bar and then suddenly explode into anger. One night he did that and the guy he began fighting with pulled out a knife and cut Jack from his belly up to his eye. When Jack woke up next day in the hospital, not knowing why he was there, the doctor told him it had taken something like 85 stitches to sew him back up. And, oh by the way, he said- you lost your left eye.

Laying there in the hospital- at the lowest point in his existence- something suddenly came over Jack and he vowed to change his life. He told me that once he made that decision, he suddenly had a feeling of well-being, that he was going to be all right. Did God come to him in that hospital bed?  You tell me. Jack went into the hospital one person, but he came out a different one. It was a complete change; his roots grasped new soil.

Jack stopped drinking, gambling, stealing, lying, breaking & entering and all the other bad things he’d been doing all his life. He got a little job and in time was able to get an apartment too. He did his best to repay his sister and her kids, and to make amends to all the people he’d harmed over the years. Then he did one more thing- he began to help others less fortunate than himself. He would visit guys in lock-up or jail and tell them his story and offer to help them find a better way to live. He helped a lot of people. Jack didn’t preach the gospel or carry a bible, or anything like that, but he was one of the most Christ-like men I’ve ever met. In many ways he was a living miracle, a testament to the power of God in men’s lives.

For the rest of his life Jack had to wear a patch to cover his missing eye. He had a good sense of humor, though, so he didn’t mind it when I gave him a nickname- ‘One-Eyed Jack’. Jack died some years ago, and I was sad to see him go. You know, he never made any money, or became famous or important- never got his name in the newspapers- but he was one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.

In other sermons I’ve spoken about the need for us to refrain from judging people. I said we’re not in the judging business, and we shouldn’t be in the judging business because judging people is God’s exclusive territory. I also noted that God reserves his judgement until after we die, because he knows that even the worst sinner can reform. To that I’d like to add that we shouldn’t wish for justice for every crook, criminal, or down-on-his luck person in trouble; I suggest we pray for mercy instead.

You know, Christianity is a very simple religion. All we need to do is to love one another. That’s it! No secret handshakes or passwords, no blood oaths to take-  just live a life of love and service. So, let’s go forth this day and always, doing our best to love one another, to not judge people and to remember that what people need most is love- and mercy.