A Severe Mercy

A favorite scene from “The Simpsons” is when Homer cautions Bart against attempting to cover up something from his mother.  “You couldn’t fool your mother on the foolingest day of your life if you had a electrified fooling machine.”[1]

That spark of divinity — dare we call it God? — within each one of us is not fooled any easier than Bart’s mother, Marge.  Reality can’t be fooled, for God is in and through reality.  Fentanyl is the proof of this severe truth.

Gregory Brown, an African-American man who looks to be in his sixties, has lived on the streets of North Hollywood for over a year.  He became unhoused when he caught his girlfriend cheating on him.[2]

“It was several months ago, as he was lying in his tent that he heard a man screaming, ‘She’s dying!  She’s dying.’”[3]

Brown recalled rushing out of his tent, shirtless. A woman’s eyes were rolled back, and her lips were blue. He shouted for someone to call the paramedics.

“’I kneeled down and said, ‘God, please, please, save another one.’”

He pumped her chest with his hands, then blew air into her mouth, he said. His tears fell on her face as he continued to perform CPR.

Eventually, the woman came back to life. She looked tired, he said, as if she had been awakened from a deep sleep.

Inside his tent afterward, he was still crying. He thought of his mother, who died nearly two decades ago, and how proud of him she would have been.

Reflecting on his role in saving the woman, he said: “I’m proud to say I did that, and I’d do it again.”

A not unusual day on the streets of the Los Angeles Metropolitan area, the Inland Empire, the San Joaquin Valley.  Opioids are the killing scourge of those living on our streets – those whom Sam Quinones calls “the least of us.”

This morning our text from Matthew is all about these folks, the least of these:  Jesus calls one of the least, a despised tax collector, traitor to his people, Matthew to be a follower.  Sits down at table with him.  When berated by religious know-it-alls, he responds that those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means.  And while you’re at it, mercy is what is called for.  Not sacrifice. 

He then heals two women, both considered to be unclean.  One assumed to be dead and another with a disgusting flow of blood, suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  Unclean for sure.

At the moment of urgency, it was Gregory Brown who was Christ of the Streets, agent of mercy. 

That’s where House of Hope engages the crisis of “Lives of Despair.”  It begins with those of the QRT, at work early in the morning.  QRT – Quick Response Team, a group of four: a medical person, a social worker, a clergy person and a police officer or sheriff in plainclothes.

This team, as soon as the new activity of the day begins, is at work checking hospital admitting rooms, jails, courts, the streets – all in the hope of reaching those who had overdosed the previous night.

And what they offer is a severe mercy.

The conversation goes something like this – let’s assume for the sake of our story that “Bob” is the name of the guy found by his housemate on the front lawn at 2 o’clock that morning.  Not breathing, blue lips and no discernable pulse.

“Bob,” the leader of the QRT group says.  “How are you doing this morning?  Do you know what happened to you last night, where you were found?  Your friends thought they’d about lost you.  This time you came really close to permanently checking out.”

“Do you want to live?”  (silence).  If you want to live, we’re here to offer you that chance – the chance to get into a treatment program that is serious about recovery – not like the Suboxone clinics you’ve been through.  This is a serious, two-year program that will lead you into a whole new life.”

“If you want to live, we’re here to make that possible for you.”  Don’t worry about the cost, that’s already been taken care of.”  Our only question to you is, ‘do you want to get well?’  Yes, it will be hard.  Maybe the hardest thing you have ever done.  But you won’t be alone.  You will discover a whole new group of friends.  True friends who will call you to honesty and accountability.  True friends who put their trust in you to be responsible for your own recovery.  It’s hard, very hard, but we’re here because we believe you’re worth it.”

“If your answer is yes, as soon as the doctor releases you, we will pick you up – you can come with us and your journey to recovery can begin.”

A severe mercy.  Severe, because nothing is sugar-coated.  Life hangs in the balance, suspended on the scaffold of addiction.  Mercy, because that is the nature of redemption, the nature of second and third chances.  Such is the heart of God.

Like Matthew, whether we knew it or not, this is what we signed up for when we enlisted in the Jesus Movement.

And what moves our hearts to engage in this work?  It is the memory of the same love we have received.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all recipients of second chances.  Or third or fourth.  Or is it seventy times seven?

It is a way of life that is Life itself.  And Life even more abundant returns to fill our souls to overflowing.

In response to my recent letter to the Claremont Courier chiding those who would rather we shoo the homeless off to some neighboring city, came a couple of letters suggesting that we “do-gooders” were naïve concerning this population.[4]

They refuse treatment.  They commit crimes.  They are mentally ill.  It will cost a lot to address their needs.  They’re druggies with no incentive to get sober.  They present needs that go 24/7, 365 days a year.

Yes, I would admit.  All true.  But does the shepherd abandon the sheep because of the difficulty of the sheep?  The whole point of Jesus calling Matthew is to say, “NO.”  His gospel is a preferential outreach to those in need — the sick who require a physician.  This is a greater righteousness that goes beyond the letter of the law.

That is our mission to the addicted – to offer a way of Life that itself is a door to Life Eternal.  Easy, no.  Essential, yes.  For our sake and theirs.

Ron Ruthruff – a professor at Seattle School of Theology and an associate with the Center for Transforming Mission for 27 years — tells a grace-filled story arising out of his work there. 

This organization in Seattle that works with homeless and runaway adolescents.

“The work was made up of meeting kids on the street and then, through relationships, inviting them in to receive services that could help them exit the streets. A drop-in center included a clothing room, Ping-Pong and pool tables, showers, and laundry — all impor­tant emergency services. And a nightly dinner provided a key opportunity to build trusting friendships with kids skeptical of service providers.”[5]

“One evening I noticed a young man sitting alone at a table in the drop-in center. I went over and began a conversation with him. He told me his parents were first-generation Americans from Ethiopia and that they didn’t understand him anymore. He quickly grew silent, feeling he had shared too much, too soon. Trying to reengage, I turned the conversation to food and asked him if there was a good Ethiopian restaurant in Seattle.”

“He told me of a little place near where I live. When I assured him I would try it, he cautioned me: “It’s very traditional; we all eat from the same bowl.” I said I was familiar with the custom, but he shook his head as if to say that I really didn’t understand what I was saying yes to. He held out his hands, dirty from the streets, and asked, “Would you share a bowl with these hands?” Suddenly, this story from Matthew rushed to the front of my mind. This was Jesus in the house of Matthew.”

In entering Matthew’s house, Jesus demonstrates the same radical hospitality that God has shown to each of us.  Station, education, race – it all makes no difference.  All are invited to table.  ALL is what sets apart those of the Jesus Movement — it’s ALL, including us imperfect followers who straggle along.  God sets a bigger table than our often too small imaginations allow for.  A severe mercy. Ron concludes, “Sitting in Matthew’s home and with a boy from Ethiopia, I see a radical dinner invitation. Jesus, sent from the Transcendent One, shows up to be with Matthew and his friends. No house uninhabitable, no hands too dirty. This is the Good News for us all.”   Amen.

[1][1] “The Simpsons,” Season 4/Episode 18.

[2] Reuben Vives, “Homeless people fight to save lives, and stay alive, as L.A.’s fentanyl crisis worsens,” Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2023.
3 Ibid.


[4] Claremont Courier, Letters to the Editor, June 9, 2023.

[5] Ron Ruthruff, “Sitting and talking with a boy from Ethiopia, I received a radical dinner invitation,” Christian Century,” June 5, 2023.

St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach
2855 Sterling Avenue, San Bernardino, CA 92404

June 11, 2023 – Pentecost 2
Proper 5

“A Severe Mercy”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Hosea 5:15-6:6; Psalm 50:7-15;

Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

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