[What follows is an edited version of remarks I delivered to Truett Seminary’s Fall 2017 Graduates. My talk was heavily influenced by Mockingbird, and with gratitude I post this here.]

It has been about 30 years ago now that I waited to hold my seminary diploma in my hands, and I was saddened this week to recollect that I could not tell you one thing about who spoke or what they had to say. So, if anything, my expectations for this address are even lower than yours! Yet perhaps in God’s providence some little nugget of truth might be stored up for a future day.

In my devotional times over the last few months, I’ve been working my way through Mark’s Gospel. Some weeks back, I was reading in Mark 2. As you recall, this is the place where Jesus speaks some of the most anti-climactic words ever to issue from his lips.

Now, the scene does not start off that way. Jesus is back in his home base of Capernaum, and even though we are early in Mark’s gospel, news about Jesus has already spread wildly through that little fishing village. Jesus attempts to lead a home Bible study, but the crowd feels like Walmart on Black Friday. Mark tells us “there was no room left, not even outside the door…” Still, the intrepid Jesus “preached the word to them.” He preaches that is, until sunlight and perhaps dry reeds and pieces of baked clay began falling on his head. He looks up in time to see four men who literally “unroof the roof” and lower a mat with a paralyzed friend down through it to Jesus. Jesus first sees the faith of these four courageous friends, and then he looks at the victim on the mat.

Can’t you almost hear the drumroll in the background? This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Come on, Jesus, let us say it with you. “Arise, take up your mat, and walk!” But that’s not what Jesus says, is it? At least not at first. What he says is, “Son, your sins are forgiven (vs. 5). Can you feel all the air rushing out of the balloon? That’s it??

It is right at this point that I always thank God for commentators (several of whom grace our presence today). Whatever thicket the text presents us, good commentators will chart a path. So yes, as we crack open the commentaries, we learn that there is this dicey connection in the Bible between sin and sickness. Certainly, the “authority” that Jesus later references with his theological opponents encompasses both healing and forgiveness. But as Tom Wright suggests, if forgiveness were all the man needed, his buddies should have taken him to a priest and not to Jesus.  And of course, the climactic moment we wait for, the one where the lame man finds strength and carries his mat out of the house, eventually comes (after some banter with the scornful religious authorities).

Still, Jesus throws us off with that first pronouncement, doesn’t he? This is not what we expect to hear. And yet, the more years I spend in ministry (truly, the more years I spend on earth), there is something so right and essential to me about the order of Jesus’ pronouncements. Graduates, if I were to distill my counsel to you in a single sentence, I would phrase it this way.

“Let Mercy Speak the First Word.”

What I mean is this. In the arenas where you currently serve or will serve, you may have much higher ambitions for yourself and those you serve than mere forgiveness. And humble ambition is a very noble thing. Still, you will likely feel like God didn’t bring you to this church or that organization to simply baptize the status quo. Well and good.

But I’m begging you, let mercy go first. Let mercy speak the first word. In other words, before you try to fix the people you serve, assure them that Jesus Christ has authority to forgive their sins and will surely do it and indeed has done so. Before you attempt to re-engineer the church, repeatedly and graciously present to them the broken bread and precious cup of our Savior and assure them that their sins are forgiven. Yes, there will be time and more time to try to exorcize a spirit of affluence and put moribund ministries back on their feet. But everything must begin with mercy and be sustained by mercy and (if I may be so impertinent) just about everything you do must in some ways be forgiven by mercy.

Let Mercy speak the first word…you know, to them. But even more importantly, dear graduates, let Mercy speak the first word to you.

I’ve already mentioned that today is in part an exercise in nostalgia for me — 30 years of post-seminary life and ministry. And I fleetingly wondered at one point, if I could launch my ministry in 2017 instead of 1987, would I make the switch? In 1987, I couldn’t pull up a whole set of commentaries on my phone! So 2017 it is, then! But back in 1987, there was no such thing as the intense pressure social media exerts upon ministers of the gospel.

I was at a lunch recently with some pastor buddies in North Dallas — many of us have gathered on a monthly basis for about 18 years. And we were reflecting on how often recently we have read statements like this in our Twitter feed: “If this Sunday your pastor doesn’t preach on … (fill in the blank latest national crisis or moral issue), you need to find a different church!” In other words, graduates, you don’t need the lectionary or the Holy Spirit anymore. Twitter will tell you what to preach.

What I know about the world you face is that it is full of judgment for people like you. It does not believe your supernatural worldview even makes sense in a modern world of such intellectual sophistication. It questions many of your ethical stances, and it generally thinks people like you thwart enlightenment, not advance it. And even those inside church walls (and sometimes especially those inside church walls) have so much prophetic judgment stored up for you. They have been burned in the past by people in your profession, so they’re not so sure about you. And perhaps many of you are your own harshest critics anyway.

In the face of such judgment and innuendo and shame, I’m here to tell you that you cannot hope to navigate this ministerial calling without huge daily helpings of mercy. As the novelist Ann Patchett has put it: 

“I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.”

Yes! Now apply that logic to writing a sermon or directing a choir or running a camp or serving the homeless or leading a non-profit. You see, you will constantly have to negotiate that gap between the vision in your head of what you with to accomplish and the reality of what actually happens. And you will have to daily, as she says, “face down your own inadequacies.” But you won’t be alone! At each moment, the Holy Spirit of the Risen Christ is there to say, “Daughter…Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Graduates, I join your faculty and your family in praying that you do great things as Christ enables you. I pray the Savior sees such faith in your eyes. I pray you build great things and bind up the brokenhearted and proclaim good news to the captives. I pray you raise the roof! But even as you do, and especially when you don’t, let Mercy speak the first word. And let it be the middle word. And let Mercy be the final word.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, Amen.