The Gift that Never Grows Old
April 8, 1990
Some of you have heard this story, but it bears repeating. About 16 years ago some researchers decided to find out if seminarians really were Good Samaritans. In order to conduct their experiment, they enlisted 40 volun-teers from a major American seminary. They divided the volunteers into two groups of 20 each and told them that they were conducting research into careers in the church. Both groups were asked to go individually to another building and make a tape recording on an assigned topic. One group was given the topic of career concerns while the other group was asked to talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
That was all the students were told. Unknown to them, the researchers they hired had planned a little surprise. They had hired an actor who stood on the sidewalk which led to the building where the seminarians were to give their impromptu talks. As each student walked along, the actor would suddenly slump to the ground with great moans and groans, giving the appearance of having suffered a sudden heart attack. The real purpose of the exper-iment was to see how many of the students would stop and help the “victim” and how many would simply hurry on their way.
You will not be surprised to hear that over half the students walked right on by the “victim.” According to the researchers, “some, who were planning their dissertation on the Good Samaritan, literally stepped over the slumped body as they hurried along.” (William McRae, Dynamics of Spiritual Gifts, p. 54)
What can we conclude from a story like that? Two things, I think. First, that there is a big difference between talking about the Good Samaritan and actually being one. Second, that there is not much difference between the average seminarian and the average church member.
Most of us would have walked right on by, I’m sure. I know I would have walked on by unless the person on the sidewalk happened to be somebody I knew, in which case I would probably have stopped. I say that without the slightest bit of hesitation because I know it is true.
But the point this morning is not about the people who walk by, but rather about the people who stop. They—that small, select group of truly Good Samaritans—are the focus of my message.
What makes some people stop while others just keep on walking? There are many answers to that question, but here is one you perhaps haven’t considered. The people who stop have a certain spiritual gift which actually causes them to stop and help someone in need. It’s not the gift of stopping, although that’s not a bad way to put it. It is instead the spiritual gift of showing mercy.
That’s right. Showing mercy is not just a command of Scripture; it is also a spiritual gift. Some people have it and some people don’t. The people who have it will stop every time. You can count on it.
This morning we’re going to talk about the spiritual gift of showing mercy—what it is, how it works, and some practical ways you can use this gift for the Lord.
A Sidebar On Spiritual Gifts
But before we do there are a couple of preliminary things we need to talk about. First of all, we need to get our definition of a spiritual gift clearly in mind. A spiritual gift is a God-given ability which enables a believer to effectively serve the body of Christ. That is to say, what the New Testament calls the gift of teaching is a God-given ability in the area of teaching. Likewise, what the New Testament calls the gift of giving is a God-given ability in the area of giving. Take any of the gifts mentioned in the New Testament. They are each God-given abilities in particular areas.
It will also help to remember that a spiritual gift is not the same as a natural talent, such as singing, writing or playing football. Natural talents are God-given abilities that come by virtue of our natural birth into our earthly families. Spiritual gifts are God-given abilities which come by virtue of our spiritual birth into the family of God. Both are God-given but they come to us at different times. We are born with natural talents and we are born again with spiritual gifts.
A further important point is that spiritual gifts are not the same as ministry roles. That is, a spiritual gift might be used in many different ways. The gift of teaching might be used in teaching two-year olds or in teaching a Young Life Club or in teaching Nigerian Christians on the mission field. The same gift may be used in a variety of ministry roles.
Unwrapping Our Spiritual Gift
With that we turn to our first spiritual gift—the gift of showing mercy. There is only one reference to this gift in the New Testament. Romans 12:8 says, “If it (your spiritual gift) is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” There are several reasons to choose this gift first:
1. It is non-controversial. Everyone agrees this gift is for today.
2. It is widely distributed. By that I mean that in any congregation there will be many people with this spiritual gift. In fact, I would hazard a guess that perhaps as many as 30-40% of our people have the gift of showing mercy.
3. It is desperately needed. Ours is not a merciful world. There is brutality, neglect and abuse on every hand. We need more “mercy people” and more “mercy churches.”
Mercy in the biblical sense is “compassion for those in need.” It is compassion in action, a deep desire to help which moves from emotion to decision to action. Mercy is that quality which leads God to show pity on us. In fact, Deuteronomy 4:31 speaks of “a merciful God.” And Titus 3:5 says God saved us “according to his mercy.” Ephesians 2:4 tells us that God is “rich in mercy.”
Add to that the fact that mercy is to be characteristic of all Christians. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) So there is a sense in which all of us are to be “mercy people,” remembering that to be merciful literally means to be “mercy full.”
Bring God’s Sunlight In Your Face
But what exactly is the spiritual gift of showing mercy? Here’s a simple definition: The spiritual gift of show-ing mercy is the special ability God gives to certain members of the body of Christ which enables them to see human needs and to move to meet those needs in a compassionate way. The key phrase is “to certain members of the body of Christ.” All of us are to be merciful. But God gives to certain Christians unusual ability in this area. It enables them to do three things:
1. To see the needs around them.
2. To feel compassion for those in need.
3. To move to meet those needs in a compassionate way.
Down in Texas I knew a man with the gift of mercy. He said to me—in all seriousness—”I bleed for people.” It’s true. God has given him a unique sensitivity to the needs of those around him. He knows when someone is hurting and he is right there to help them out.
Note if you will, the qualifier Paul puts on this gift. He says to exercise it “with cheerfulness.” The Greek word is the root from which we get the English word “hilarious.” A good translation would be “with joyful eagerness.” We’ve all had the experience of having someone try to cheer us up and when they leave, we feel worse than when they came. That’s not the gift of showing mercy. Mercy given cheerfully is like a sunbeam breaking into the heart; it drives the clouds away. Here is how Arthur S. Way paraphrases our text: “If you come with sympathy to sorrow, bring God’s sunlight in your face.”
Broken Dreams And Broken Hearts
Let me frankly say that no gift is more needed today. There are so many hurting people in the world. If you started in our own congregation, and if we dared to tell the truth, you would find a world of hurt behind our smiling faces. Behind almost every door is a story of sorrow and disappointment. Name a human problem. You can find someone in our church struggling with it if you look long enough: Divorce, abuse, incest, neg-lect, homosexuality, AIDS, alcohol, suicide, drugs, wayward children, alcoholic parents, abortion, depression. It’s all there. If not here in our church, then in the lives of those we love.
That’s why God gave us folks with the gift of mercy. They have a special ability to see the needs of others, their hearts are easily touched, and they instinctively reach out to those who hurt. They lead us and guide us in reaching out to the people we might tend to overlook. They understand the language of the heart and they can see past a casual smile. Their greatest joy is to lift the burden from someone struggling under a load. They love to work one-on-one, they don’t want to be paid, and they aren’t looking for publicity. They are God’s unsung heroes.
Given that explanation, it’s easy to see who is on the receiving end of the gift of mercy: The hurting, the help-less, the blind, the deaf, the sick, the infirm, the elderly, the handicapped, the dysfunctional, the shut-ins, the grieving, the imprisoned, the suffering, the weak, and all those who are emotionally distraught. But these are the very people we tend to overlook because they exist at the fringes of life. By definition they don’t fit the pat-tern of being healthy, happy and all-put-together. It’s easy to skip them, to just pass right on by. But the “mercy people” stop because they see the people the rest of us miss.
How To Spot A Mercy Person
How do you spot the people with the gift of mercy? Here are 16 good clues:
1. They have a knack for turning compassion into deeds of kindness.
2. They know how to say the right thing at the right time.
3. They are the first people you call when you are hurting.
4. They make people feel better just by their presence.
5. They don’t mind spending hours behind the scenes helping other people.
6. They generally aren’t leaders or teachers.
7. They have lots of prayer requests because they know all the hurting people in the church.
8. They are the first to go sit with the grieving and the first to congratulate someone on a great success.
9. They have the innate ability to sense when others are going through a hard time.
10. They are deeply emotional and naturally sympathetic to others.
11. They sometimes have a hard time understanding others who don’t seem as compassionate as they are.
12. They are well-liked in the congregation because people are attracted by their genuine compassion.
13. They are sometimes too gullible because they want to believe the best about people no matter what.
14. They are quite willing to sacrifice their own time and energy to help others.
15. They are easy to talk to and generally make good listeners.
16. They put the needs of people above the needs of the organization.
Three Levels, Three Categories
There are three levels of response to the needs we see around us. Level one is to say, “I see the need, I know how bad it is, and I know it could have been me.” Level two is to say, “I see the need and it hurts me to see it.” Level three is to say, “I see the need, it hurts me, and I’m going to do something about it.” People with the gift of mercy live on level three.
Or to put it another way, there are three categories of people in the church. First, there are those people who don’t see a need until it is pointed out to them. Second, there are those people who see the need but wait to be asked to help. Third, there are those who see the need and get involved without waiting to be asked. That, too, is the gift of mercy.
There are a number of good examples of “mercy people” in the Bible but one of the clearest is a man you may never have heard of—Onesiphorus. His story is found in three verses of II Timothy 1. Paul was in jail in Rome for the final time. Eventually he would be beheaded by the emperor. Evidently some of the Christians in Rome felt ashamed that an apostle would wind up in jail and they found ways to conveniently ignore him. But one man wasn’t ashamed at all. He came to Rome and searched until he found Paul in prison. Here is how Paul responded:
“May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day.” (II Timothy 1:16-18)
Onesiphorus had the gift of mercy. Incidentally, his name—loosely translated—means “mercy-bringer.” Paul is so grateful for his ministry that he prays that the “mercy-bringer” will find mercy from the Lord.
And that’s how mercy-people work. They see the people the rest of us can’t (or won’t) see. They go out of their way to help the needy and they aren’t the least bit ashamed to do it.
I’ve known a few people like Onesiphorus in my life. What a blessing (and challenge) they are. My secretary in Texas had the gift of mercy. You could almost see it in her eyes. Gretchen would cry at the drop of a hat because her heart was so tuned to the needs of people. More than once I came out of my office to find her wip-ing her eyes as she talked on the phone.
I’ve never forgotten what happened when Jim Sadler died. Gretchen was crying when she gave me the news. Although he was only in his late forties and in apparently good health, he had died of a sudden heart attack. I went over to comfort his wife Vickie and their son Shay as best I could. But it wasn’t easy and I hardly knew what to say. That night Gretchen packed her suitcase and spent the night with Vickie. Gretchen’s husband had died in an accident some years earlier so she knew what Vickie was going through.
She stayed with Vickie that night and most of the next day. No one told her to do that. She just did it. What a difference it made. She and Vickie talked together and wept together and prayed together. She was there in the moment of great need and Vickie was not alone.
That’s mercy in action. It’s seeing a need and moving to meet the need without waiting to be asked.
But it’s not always that dramatic. Several months ago I heard that one of the newer couples in the church could not attend because the wife (who is in a wheelchair) could not come because the lift mechanism on their van was not working. One of our men found out about it and told a friend who knows how to fix things. That friend volunteered his time, went over to their home and with his own hands fixed the lift mechanism (and has done it more than once) so that couple could come to church. That, too, is the gift of mercy.
A Heating Pad And Black Bean Soup
Sometimes mercy shows its face in a humorous way. Some of you will remember that in the early morning hours of New Year’s Eve we had a severe ice storm that left a half-inch of ice on the roads and sidewalks. Because it was a Saturday morning, I was the first one up at our house. When I opened the door to pick up the paper, I thought it had just rained a little bit.
I found out differently the moment I stepped outside. My feet went out from under me and I started to fall. I grabbed for the rail but it, too, was covered with ice.
There are seven steps leading up to our door. I hit every single one of them with my tailbone. I mean, I bounced right down … thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk. I hit my tailbone each time and each time a little harder until I finally hit the bottom. The last hit completely knocked my breath away. When I tried to stand up, I slipped again and fell over on my belly. There I was, in my pajamas and bathrobe flat on my belly at the bottom of the steps in front of my house at 7:30 in the morning. I couldn’t get up and I couldn’t call for help because I couldn’t breathe. It was like something out of a Keystone Kops movie.
When I was finally able to breathe I tried to get up and realized that something bad had happened to my back. All that jolting had torn something out of place or out of socket or somehow out of whack. So I crawled on my hands and knees back up the stairs and into the house.
I made it back to my easy chair and started moaning. That made Marlene get out of bed and come see what was wrong. I told her and she checked me over to see if I was okay. When she knew I wasn’t bleeding and wasn’t going to die, she did what any good wife would do. She started laughing. That made me laugh and that made my back hurt even worse.
An hour or so later I decided to go to church and work on my sermon. It was a bad idea but I went anyway. After I had been at church for a while, my back really started hurting, like somebody had taken a two by four after my rib cage. I needed a heating pad, but when I called Marlene, she said we didn’t have one.
So I called Sharon Jahns. I’m not sure why, other than I figured she would have a heating pad. She did and she said to come by and she would give it to me. I hobbled out to the car, got in and drove across the ice-glazed streets. Sharon met me by the curb with a heating pad and a jar of what appeared to be black tar. She said it was black bean soup. Go home, she said, and stay put.
So I did. I went home, got set up in front the TV, turned on the heating pad, and tried to figure out a way to help my aching back. At length the doorbell rang. It was Sharon Jahns. She came in with two bags full of stuff. There was another heating pad, two liters of medicinal-strength Coca-Cola along with cookies, O’Boisse potato chips and other protein-rich junk food. She fussed over me for a while and then left. I spent the rest of that day watching TV, drinking Coke, eating black bean soup and generally being a couch potato.
The heating pad plus the special diet worked wonders. The next day I was able to get around enough to preach without pain as long as I didn’t move very fast.
What does it all mean? That story illustrates the gift of mercy very well. Mercy is simply seeing a human need—big or small, happy or sad, humorous or serious, and moving to meet that need with whatever is required at the moment. If it means moving in overnight, then you do it. If it means fixing a wheelchair lift, then you do it. If it means providing heating pads and black bean soup, you do it. Mercy is seeing a need and moving to meet that need in a compassionate way.
30 Ways To Use The Gift Of Mercy
How might this gift be used to serve the Lord? The number of ways is almost infinite because the number of human needs is almost infinite. But here are thirty practical suggestions:
1. Visiting the sick
2. Preparing meals for new mothers
3. Serving in a prison ministry
4. Counseling unwed mothers
5. Volunteering to serve as a camp nurse
6. Helping in the food pantry
7. Tape recording books for the blind
8. Tutoring at Circle Urban Ministries
9. Providing transportation for those who don’t have a car
10. Being a greeter on Sunday morning
11. Offering support to women going through a divorce
12. Inviting an overlooked family to your home for dinner
13. Visiting the shut-ins
14. Serving as prayer chairman for a Sunday School class
15. Ministering to AIDS patients
16. Writing cards and letters to those who are hurting
17. Joining the Calvary Counseling Corps
18. Becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister to a needy child
19. Visiting the senior citizens at Mills Tower
20. Writing letters of encouragement to prisoners
21. Hosting an international student
22. Picking up kids from broken homes and bringing them to church
23. Offering to clean someone’s home
24. Learning how to interpret for the deaf
25. Becoming a Missionary Advocate on the Missions Committee
26. Serving as a Funeral Coordinator
27. Distributing gifts through Project Angel Tree
28. Becoming a foster parent
29. Caring for the widows of the church
30. Volunteering as a helper with the mentally retarded
That’s just a beginning. Blessed is the church filled with “mercy people” who are released to use their gift to help others. That church is blessed and will be blessed and will grow because the number one question people have is, “Does this church care for me?” God gave us gifted “mercy people” in order that we might be able to answer with a resounding “yes.”
Remember, not everyone will have this gift. In fact, most of us won’t. That’s all right. We each have our own spiritual gifts. But it is incumbent upon us to support the “mercy people,” to make sure they are released for hands-on ministry. It may mean shifting some people around and it may mean creating some new outreaches. And it will eventually mean that our church will attract some unlovely people with difficult problems. Will it still be okay then? Would we be ashamed to come to church if someone with AIDS were sitting next to us? May God give us grace to back up our pious words with Christlike action.
Who Is My Neighbor?
Do you remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Who passed by on the other side? First a priest, then a Levite. It was the religious people who didn’t have time or didn’t care or were afraid to get involved. And who stopped to help that poor man? It was a Samaritan, a hated half-breed, a man the priest and Levite despised, who saw the man and took pity on him. It was the Samaritan who bandaged his wounds, who poured on the oil and wine, who put him on his donkey, took him to the inn, and paid for his room out of his own pocket.
Unfortunately, far too often, we get so wrapped up in ourselves that we don’t even see the needs, or if we see them we turn our heads and walk the other way. But, thank God, it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Who is my neighbor?,” the lawyer asked. And Jesus told that great story. When he got through, Jesus said, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robber?” The lawyer answered, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)
Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is anyone in need who crosses my path whose need I am able to meet. That’s simple enough. Mercy is nothing more than meeting the needs of those around me with the resources I have on hand. Mercy is not an organization or a program. It is people caring enough to get involved.
Not A Merciful Generation
In the history of mankind, ours will not go down as a merciful generation. There has been too much killing, too much cynicism, too much moral decay. Who would dare walk the streets of Chicago after dark? Who is surprised by news of yet another corrupt politician? We are the most technologically advanced nation in the world, but it seems to make no difference in the way we treat other people. A thousand years from now, what will the historians say of us?
Not long ago I ran across a striking thought: Jesus died to create a race of merciful men and women. A race of men and women who have received mercy and now gladly give it away. A race of men and women who would go into this wounded world and bind up the broken. What an impact those “mercy people” could make in our generation.
Normally I end my sermons with a prayer. This time I will do that, but not with a prayer of my own. Instead, these are the words of Peter Marshall, who gained national fame as the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate in the years following World War II. This is his prayer before the Senate session on Friday, June 4, 1948 (The Prayers of Peter Marshall, p. 231):
Lord, we are ashamed that money and position speak to us more loudly than does the simple compassion of the human heart. Help us to care, as Thou dost care, for the little people who have no lobbyists, for the minority groups who sorely need justice. May it be the glory of our government that not only the strong are heard, but also the weak; not only the powerful, but the helpless; not only those with influence, but also those who have nothing but a case and an appeal.
May we put our hearts into our work, that our work may get into our hearts. Amen.
There are many reasons why we might not be merciful. Foremost among them is this: We are so busy taking care of ourselves that we have very little time left over to give to others.
Mercy is hard work to do. We struggle with it and against it.
But it is the work of God. Mercy is nothing more than caring for people the way God does. As Peter Marshall said, “May we put our hearts into our work, that our work may get into our hearts.”
Let us say that … and go from this place to a world in need … and show them mercy … show them Jesus … show them God.