There is a lot of disagreement about the best way to be a Christian. Wars have been fought over it. People have burned at the stake. We’ve excommunicated one another and broken away from one another. You might imagine that the causes of such violence and discord had to be of the utmost importance, but many of our disagreements are almost too silly to even say out loud: How much water is required for baptism? Was Jesus 50% human and 50% God or 100% human and 100% God? That sort of silly stuff—questions Jesus himself was never concerned with.
How many sermons did Jesus ever preach on the proper way to baptize someone—let alone how much water to use? Baptism is an encounter with the living God—it’s meant to be an experience. That’s where the focus should be: What is being experienced? That’s what churches exist for—to help people have an experience of God! But for many churches the experience of God has gotten lost behind very banal rules and disagreements over, for example, the quantity of water being administered at baptism.
This process of creating and enforcing a nitpicky orthodoxy is the way that churches kill Christianity—it’s how we turn a living, relevant religion into a bunch of stupid, misdirected rules and “beliefs” that have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus and nothing to do with faith.
And so many people today, in this liberal era where you have choices about how you spend your Sunday morning, many people today are not coming to church. How many people do you know who tell you that they don’t come to church because they experience God more out in nature on a hike on Sunday morning? And us church people, we sort of roll our eyes at things like this. But what if we took them seriously? If you think about it, of course they feel that way, because out on a hike there is only experience; there are no irrelevant rules about how and what you’re supposed to be experiencing.
In order for a church like ours to break through the burden of history in which many churches have alienated spiritual people through nitpicky orthodoxy and to break through the cultural malaise making people feel that church can only be irrelevant to their life and to their experience of God, a church like ours needs to focus its energy on the direct experience of God without arbitrary rules about what is and isn’t appropriate in an encounter with God.
And in our scripture reading this morning, Jesus shows us the way. I believe that a church that prioritizes feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and visiting the prisoners is a church that is prioritizing the experience of God and minimizing the baloney. And Jesus says it right there. This is how you get to know me. Because as you serve and live with those in need, you serve and you live with me.
In my own life, I heard the call to ministry at 16-years old. I went to Boston University and studied religion academically, hoping that that would sort of scratch the itch and I wouldn’t actually have to go through with becoming a minister because I wasn’t all that excited about serving in a church because I had also felt the lack of focus on the experience of God in church. Studying religion academically didn’t quite do it, unfortunately. I found myself just more and more fascinated by all the ways in which people experience God and what the experience of God can do to a life—it can totally transform it, it brings meaning and purpose and satisfaction.
So, after graduation, still trying to get myself out of ministry, instead of going to seminary, I decided to go to Miami. I joined Americorps and ended up working as an on-site volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Miami. And do you think it worked? Do you think I got out of my Christian faith in Miami? No, because again, as I was running away from church, I ran directly into the arms of Christian experience!
Let me explain: Down in Miami, I sometimes went to a liberal Presbyterian church I liked on Sunday. But mostly, and unexpectedly, I found God among the rafters and frames and people of the Habitat houses. Every day was a day of work for God’s people—giving families and children a home. I began to understand my work building houses as essentially Christian work, as a Christian experience, and I found my understanding of God’s love growing more than it ever had before. I didn’t just love the neighborhoods I worked in and the families I worked for—I also worked in and for them out of my love for them. I began to understand that love is an action, not a feeling. We should measure our faith not by what we believe in or not, but by the actions we take and the relationships we build and the difference we make.
If we want to really attract people into our church, we need to prioritize the experience of God. I’m not saying that we don’t do this at all. But I think we have an opportunity to grow in our experience of God which will create an opportunity to grow as a congregation. Jesus’ words this morning: Feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoners serves as the bottom line of what it means to be a Christian. Are you a sheep or are you a goat? In the end, Jesus says it all comes down to this—our willingness feed, to welcome, to clothe, to heal, to visit. The activities are not irrelevant—they are the foundation of our faith, a cornerstone of how we experience God. If we make these core activities a core part of our mission and identity, then people who desire a Christian experience of knowing Jesus, won’t think of our church as irrelevant—they will know that at a minimum they will be called upon to act out the love of God in the world. That’s not disconnected from people’s lives, that’s about deepening the connection to your life, that’s about finding real meaning, it’s about living a living faith.
My experience is that if you’re feeling disconnected from God or from faith, all you need to do is look to the needs of the people who are closest to you. Right here in our neighborhoods, in our area, there is a need for new relationships to solve old problems. And if we’re willing to do that, our lives will be full of meaning, full of connections, and full of love.
I think we’re a nice-Jesus kind of church. I know that I’m a nice-Jesus kind of preacher. Man, do I struggle when Jesus says something like this: “For to all those who have more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” That doesn’t sound very nice.
I love it when Jesus says, “So, the last will be first and the first will be last.” That’s my Jesus—turning the powers of this world unexpectedly upside down! And Jesus just said that five chapters ago in Matthew. I preached a great sermon about it. No problem! But now here Jesus is saying what? Instead of the third slave with the least moving to the front of the line, his talent is taken away from him and given to the first slave who already has the most?! This is the exact opposite of the last will be first! This is the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, right? Something’s got to be going on here.
We’re not the only ones who are confused here. Plenty of Christians have been uncomfortable with this particular parable in Matthew right from the very beginning of the faith. In other gospels, the gospel writers try to make us feel less sympathy for the third slave. Luke says the third slave stores the money improperly—he doesn’t bury it to keep it safe as was the accepted cultural practice at the time. He’s careless with it. So, that explains the harsh judgment. In the Gospel of the Nazoreans, the third slave spends the money on wine and loose women, so obviously when the master throws that criminal in prison, it feels like justice—it completely contradicts the parable of the prodigal son, but it’s something anyway.
Because when it comes to this poor guy in Matthew’s gospel, I feel terrible for him. He wasn’t irresponsible. He wasn’t wicked. He was just afraid. He had the least of anybody, and he didn’t want to risk it. He was cautious, scared. Haven’t you ever been scared? I’ve been scared. And sometimes it’s sidelined me too…
Last week I told you all about “hitting rock bottom” in my early twenties. Basically, I was running away from my call to ministry because I was intimidated by it. Basically, I was scared. I was afraid of failure because there are a bunch of scary things about being a minister. You have to do it all. You have to write and preach a sermon every single week for like the rest of your life. You have to always do and say the right things. You have to offer care to people in crisis, and make sure the grass has been cut properly, all while thinking of the big picture and having a plan for the future of the church, all at the same time, all while managing conflict and disappointment and disagreement, all while practicing healthy boundaries and finding balance and being spiritually healthy, and doing it all in a way that makes it look easy and inspires people.
It basically feels (from the outside looking in) that you have to be perfect. And I knew then (and still do) that I ain’t perfect. My fear of my own life, led to a strong feeling of being unfulfilled, which led to depression and a spiritual hole in my life, which led to self-medicating and ultimately unhealthy behavior, which led me to one of those rock-bottom moments where you look in the mirror and you barely recognize the person you see reflected back at you. All because I was scared. All because I thought that the potential for failure was just too risky. Why did I think that? Why did I think that the potential for failure was such a terrible thing to risk?
An interesting thing about this parable is that it gives us no information about the hypothetical slave who got maybe three talents and went out and put them work, took risks, did his best, but through no real fault of his own cleverness and willingness to do business, ended up failing—ended up losing the money. What would the master have done to him? Well, we don’t know. Which is interesting. In this parable, failure is surprisingly not really an option. You either risk and succeed or you get scared, and you don’t try at all. Risking and failing is not something that this parable wants us to worry about. That’s our fear talking. And when we let that fear overcome us, that’s when we end up at rock bottom—in the outer darkness. It’s not failure we need to fear. As FDR famously said from the depth of the Great Depression, “All we have to fear is fear itself.”
Now the story of how I went from rock bottom to the near-perfect superstar pastor standing before you today is just too long and involved a story for any one sermon, but it began with the realization that any risk, any failure was better than sitting myself out of my own life in the outer darkness that I had damned myself to out of fear of playing the game of life.
If I’m being honest, I wasn’t just afraid of failure. I was in some unconscious way afraid of God. Maybe this is why I feel so much sympathy for the third slave. It’s not failure he’s afraid of, it’s the master he’s afraid of. He says it directly: “Master, I knew you were a harsh man, so I was afraid.” “Oh, you believe, I’m harsh?” says the master. “Then I will judge you according to your own faith.” It was my faith, my fear, that landed me in the self-exile of rock-bottom outer darkness. It wasn’t a damning, judgmental God up in Heaven looking down his nose at me. It was God within me. I faced the judgment that I most feared to face because I allowed my fear to rule my reality.
I can’t tell the whole story, but the turn around moment for me began with this simple act—I allowed myself to pray a fearless prayer to God. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something like, “God, I want to risk everything for you, I don’t want to play it safe, I want to give you everything I’ve got, I want to make a difference in the world even though I’m scared. I know you’ve got my back, I know you’re calling me, I know you have a plan, I know it won’t be easy, and I believe that if I live my life well that even if I fail I cannot fail. Take away my fear and show me the way.” And once I prayed that prayer, everything changed. I opened the door just a crack and God came rushing through. And I was suddenly on the fast-track to seminary.
Now, since those miraculous days I have failed many times. I have messed up, missed the boat, fallen short. Many times. I’ve beaten myself up for these things at times, but I have never again known the outer darkness that I was in when I buried myself out of fear instead of trying out of faith.
Now, today is Consecration Sunday—in just a moment we’re going to turn our pledge cards in with our weekly offering and we’re going to bless them. Now, often this parable from Matthew gets interpreted through a Stewardship lens. We think this is a parable about investment, self-improvement, personal responsibility. But I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s about fear.
And so my hope is that whatever number is on your pledge card today, that you turn it in fearlessly, in the presence of our God who wants nothing more than to welcome you into the joy of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever may come in 2024, I know that we can’t fail as long as we’re willing to be church together.
I think we’re a nice-Jesus kind of church. I know that I’m a nice-Jesus kind of preacher. I love those stories in the gospels when Jesus throws the doors open wide to everybody, when he heals, when he sits downs and eats with the sinners and the tax collectors, when he forgives, when he teaches us to love everybody. That’s my Jesus.
But you can’t be nice all the time, can you? It doesn’t work out. If you’re always nice, if there’s never a boundary, if there are never any consequences, eventually you’re going to get taken advantage of, right? We all struggle with this. Parents! We want our kids to know that we’ll always accept them for who they are no matter what and that we’ll always love them. And most of us figure out that as the primary and unconditional source of love and acceptance in their lives, we are also in the best position to tell them, “NO! No way! No, you will not jump off the roof. Yes, you have to go to school.”
And, in fact, if we don’t do this for them, we’ll do our kids a great disservice. We model for them what their own internal reasoning and morality should eventually look like—we help it to grow in the right direction. That requires sunshine and water and fertilizer and, when things get really hairy, it requires the pruning shears.
So even a nice-Jesus preacher like me has got to take Jesus seriously when he says “mean stuff.” Just think about what happens with our kids: “No, you can’t have another cookie.” “You’re the meanest dada in the world! I don’t like you! I’m not gonna be your friend anymore!” Geez, kid, give me the benefit of the doubt. Could you just for a minute imagine that I still have your best interests at heart even though I’m saying NO? So, let’s give Jesus the benefit of the doubt this morning.
Remember, Christianity is not a religion of total acceptance. It’s a religion of total acceptance and radical transformation. When you hit rock bottom, it’s good to know that you’re accepted just as you are, but you don’t want to stay down there forever, do you? Accepted or not, it’s good to know that there’s a way back up. But sometimes the way back up begins with the door slamming shut in your face, right? That’s what rock bottom is. It doesn’t feel like a feast of acceptance. It’s a transformative coming up short. A radical and undeniable NO from the very depths of your being. And, sometimes, we need that.
When I was in my early twenties, I moved out to San Francisco. I moved out there to work in theater, because I loved theater, but also to run away from my calling to ministry, which I found very intimidating. And life got messy really quick because I was depressed, and anxious, and unfulfilled, and I didn’t know what to do about it, so I was doing everything I could do to avoid the fact that I was avoiding life. And when you’re behaving like this, bad things happen.
I had a wonderful girlfriend who I moved to California with. I messed that up royally by being totally emotionally unavailable. She ended our relationship rather spectacularly, which left me devastated and emotionally and physically homeless. I wasn’t taking care of my health. I was drinking and smoking and eating at Chili’s every single day. I became really bitter and angry. I started partying with my coworkers after work. And nobody parties better than theater folk! Anything to fill the spiritual hole inside of me.
One night after too much fun, I realized I had done too much damage to myself to even be able to drive down the street, let alone all the way home. So, I climbed into the back of my pickup truck, and I passed out. I was parked out in front of the bars, so I could hear everybody laughing at me as they walked home—pretty humiliating. At some point it started raining. I wake up in the morning sick and wet and it’s time for me to be back at work.
So, I drag myself inside the theater and I go in the bathroom and try to clean myself up. And I look in the mirror. And you can imagine what I must look like. And as I looked at that sin-sick, bedraggled reflection in the mirror, I heard a voice in my head, but a voice bubbling up from the deepest chamber of my heart. And it said to me, “I don’t even recognize you. Who are you? Truly, I tell you, I don’t know you.” Boom! Rock bottom. The door was slammed shut in my face. And thank God! Thank God! Because that moment was the beginning of me turning it around.
I think one of the problems we run into here is that we think of Jesus as some judgmental guy up in heaven somewhere damning us to hell with the flick of his wrist for some very human mistake. But was the voice that I heard when I looked in that mirror an external, judgmental voice? No! No way! It was an internal, loving voice. The voice of someone who loves me so much, he was willing to say NO. He was willing to tell me the truth that I had been running away from.
Jesus is not just some guy up in heaven, right? He is also the Christ-child born within me, the logos, the Word which was in the beginning with God, the ordering principle of love through which everything which is made is made. If God is everywhere, then God is also within me and within you. We are never just damned from the outside. We’re guided lovingly from within by a voice and power that is bigger than us.
Now, why did I hit rock bottom? Well, in part, it was because I was running on fumes. I had no gas in the tank. Or to use a more ancient metaphor: I had no oil in my lamp. I was a foolish young woman. And this is the other place where this story feels a little mean. When the foolish young women ask the wise young women if they can spare a little oil, the wise young women say NO. Now, this doesn’t feel like a loving parent saying no. This feels more like sibling rivalry. It feels mean and stingy.
Doesn’t God want us to share with others? Doesn’t Jesus teach us to be generous and charitable with those in need? And who could be more in need at this moment that these young women with no oil so close to being swallowed by the darkness?
But this parable isn’t about external social relations. This parable is about something inside of us. And so the metaphor kind of breaks down here. If I’ve mistreated myself and run out of gas and I’m about to break down, I can’t just borrow $20 bucks from someone to get a couple gallons to get me home. It doesn’t work that way. Nobody else can give you oil from their lamp. It doesn’t work. The oil you burn to be a true light to the world is an oil that must come from within. You can’t get it from anybody else. You have to do the work yourself. It’s your work. It’s your life.
Now, there are lots of people who will promise you that they can give it to you. And whatever spiritual snake oil they sell you may even get the engine going for a little while, but ultimately, it’s not going to work. The oil you burn to be a true light to the world must be your oil—oil you have made with your life. The wise can’t give to you. The merchants can’t sell it to you. It comes from God inside of you.
So even a nice-Jesus preacher like me has got to take Jesus seriously when he says “mean stuff.” Because sometimes we need that voice of wisdom and discernment, guiding us from within, to set us back on the right path. If you have no oil in your lamp, if you have become acquainted with the rock at the very bottom of life, you've got to do the hard work of getting back on the right path. But if you are fortunate enough to have oil in your lamp, here's what Jesus might say to you, you wise young women:
Share your light generously. Allow it to spill over into the lives of others through acts of service, words of encouragement, shoulders to cry on. Let it light up the lives of others through generous giving to your church this stewardship season. Remember, next Sunday is Consecration Sunday, when we turn in our 2024 pledge cards for a blessing.
You can’t give oil to anybody else. But you can burn your oil to make light for others. When someone else is down, and your light touches them in the darkness, and helps them to find their feet again, you’ve changed that life for the better. That’s what a church is in a lot of ways. It’s a place where the people with oil in their lamps make light for the people who are running on fumes. And when the time comes that we’re on empty, we can trust that others will be there to help light the way home. And the brighter that light shines, the greater the impact of our ministries and our work together.
The oil in our lamps may come from within, but the light shines outwards, illuminating the world around us with compassion. So, let’s tend the lamp within, trimming the wick, replenishing the oil, and together let’s keep the lights on at Glen Ridge Congregational Church.
As a busy parent with two young boys, I sometimes walk into my messy house and think, Marie Kondo would have a heart attack in here. If you don’t know who Kondo is, she’s a Japanese tidying guru who helps people with cluttered homes let go of the stuff that doesn’t “spark joy” in their lives.
Kondo always starts the tidying process with clothes. Each member of the household has to take every piece of clothing they own and make a pile of it. When she tells people to do this, a lot of them visibly pale or start sweating on camera. And it sometimes takes a long time to make that pile—multiple closets, and chests, and wardrobes, and laundry baskets, and boxes from storage are all emptied out onto one bed.
And usually it’s astounding—one person’s clothes piled from the bed to the ceiling with lots of little piles falling down onto the floor. Kondo says she does this in order to shock her clients. When you see just how much clothing you really have, you suddenly feel like you don’t want that much clothing.
Now they have to go through their piles. They hold each piece of clothing in their hands and look at it to see if it still “sparks joy” in their life. If it doesn’t, they get rid of it. If it does, they keep it.
Our clothing piles are so big that it strikes us as a bit strange when the Bible commands us to clothe the naked. Hunger, homelessness, sickness, poverty, imprisonment—they’re as much problems in our world as they were in Biblical times, but nakedness is not something we encounter as a problem much in a world that cheaply and disposably produces 80 billion new garment items each year.
But in the time of the Acts of the Apostles, there was not a global industry providing all kinds of cheap clothing to people. Instead, clothing production was mostly done in the household, and it was the highest skill and most labor intensive of the household chores. So, it wasn’t cheap.
In Joppa, the widows who were too old or too sick or too poor to make their own clothes had clothes made for them by a Palestinian Christ-following Jewish woman named Tabitha. In Greek she was called Dorcas probably because she interacted with people who spoke both Aramaic and Greek, both Jews and gentiles. We don’t know much about Tabitha, but we know how respected, beloved, and important she was in her community. We know she was renowned for her good works and her charity. She was important enough to bring the Apostle Peter to town. She was important enough to be called a “disciple.” Tabitha, believe it or not, is the only woman who is specifically called a disciple in the whole New Testament.
We don’t know, but we can theorize that she might have been a widow herself, and maybe a woman of some independent means who had the resources to support others. But Tabitha doesn’t just donate money, she’s a hands-on kind of disciple. She makes the widows in her community clothing with her own hands—a labor-intensive, high-skill, time-consuming process.
She didn’t throw her hand-me-downs into a bin at Goodwill the way we might. Tabitha made individual people individual pieces of clothing. To me that’s the only explanation for why the women mourning her death are holding onto pieces of clothing that Tabitha made for them. That piece of clothing must have been beautiful and individually tailored and designed to the woman it was given to.
Tabitha’s clothes were intimate. She got to know a woman. She got to know her tastes, her style, her needs, her personality. She measured out her body. And then she crafted a garment with love for a woman who probably had very few people who could show her that kind of love and intimacy.
These clothes that these women are showing to Peter are not just shirts and coats. These clothes are Tabitha’s love, her good works, her relationships. That’s why, when she was gone, the women held onto these pieces of clothing. After she was gone, they continued to “spark joy.” After she was gone, the clothes were a testament to her life and love.
As most of you know by now, we are in the midst of our 2024 Stewardship Season, that special time of year when we talk about money and giving to the church, and when we talk about our dreams as disciples and as a church together—what are we giving to, what do we want to achieve with our money in 2024? In order to figure this out we all need to do some real practical planning—budgeting. But I also hope you see it as an opportunity for some deep spiritual reflection.
One of the big lies of our culture is that you can buy your way to happiness. Now, nobody here is a dummy. So, we all know that it doesn’t really work that way. And yet I still see it all the time in the world around us. Despite knowing that it’s a lie, we’re all still enthralled to this mythology. There are some assumptions that underlie this big lie that we might not be aware we still believe in.
For instance, the idea that I am first and foremost a consumer—someone who is primarily oriented to getting something for my money—rather than someone who lives a life of service—someone who is primarily oriented to creating something for others with my money. Or the idea that the most important goal of my life is my happiness, instead of believing that the most important goal of our lives is being here for one another whatever it is that we might be going through—joy or sorrow.
Tabitha didn’t buy her way to happiness. She served her way into a life that was bigger than just her. Now, was Tabitha happy? I don’t know. I hope so. But she may have lived a very hard life. And no matter what, you can’t be happy all the time. It’s impossible. But no matter what you’re going through, you can live a life that is bigger than just you—and that is the experience that will bring joy and meaning to your life.
The Ministry of Stewardship has issued us all a worthy challenge this year—to increase our giving in 2024 by 20%. That’s a big challenge, and I appreciate it. I and my family are able to meet that challenge. We are privileged to be able to increase our pledge by 20%. Some of you will also be able to meet that challenge. Others of you are already giving at the very edge of your budget’s ability, and that’s very appreciated as well.
The amount of money you give is very important—we live in reality and we need money. However, the amount is less important than the follow-up to the giving. Tabitha gave so that she could serve. So, my challenge to you, as your pastor this year, is whatever amount you’re giving, give it with a Tabitha attitude. Let your pledge spark joy in the lives of others. Your pledge is not part of some hollow transaction, it is a sacred act of love and service. It is a chance to lift up the downtrodden, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry. We give not to fill our own needs, but to meet the needs of everyone among us. We give not to feel good, but to do good. And when we do good, guess what? We feel good!
When we give in this spirit, our lives expand beyond ourselves. We become part of something greater—a community of radical love and transformation. You can’t buy radical love. You can’t buy transformation. You can only give and serve your way there. So, beloved, give boldly. Give generously. Serve with your whole heart. And know that your offerings will come together to weave us all a whole wardrobe of hope and joy.
Back in 2007 I was a community minister at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. At the time, our big project was the Sanctuary Movement. The goal of the Sanctuary Movement was to raise awareness of the bureaucratic inhumanity of the immigration deportation process and to provide relief to good people caught up in an unfair and unintelligent system.
For example, Jean, a member at Judson, was born in Haiti and came to the US as a very small child. As a teenager he got in trouble for drugs, went to prison and served his time. He got out of prison, was never in trouble again, got married, had kids, started a successful business, employed people. He was a good person, an important part of our community, and he was needed here in the US to care for his family and his employees. But legislation had been passed that said because Jean had once gotten in trouble with the law years ago, he was now a danger to all of us, and he needed to be deported to Haiti despite having no connections there, not speaking the language, and having two young children here at home. This was frankly a no-brainer for us, and we agreed that if it came down to it, we would give Jean “sanctuary” in the church, and make DHS come and get him if they wanted to arrest and deport him.
The senior minister at Judson at the time and one of my great mentors, Rev. Donna Schaper, was invited onto Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor to defend our work. Bill O’Reilly was flabbergasted that a Christian minister would even consider defying the law. “Render unto Caesar!” he said, “You’re not rendering unto Caesar! You’re putting compassion above the law!” And Donna responded, “Of course. What choice do I have?” And she told the stories of people like Jean and his family and how wrongheaded, and counterproductive, and unjust deporting him would be.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Bill O’Reilly (in this situation anyway) was incapable of holding two opposed ideas in mind at the same time. He couldn’t function in a reality where both immigration law and the Sanctuary Movement were required to get to the right answer. So incapable was he of existing in this kind of ambiguity that he could only bring himself to quote one quarter of Jesus’ teaching, “Render unto Caesar,” he said over and over again.
But, of course, that’s not what Jesus said, is it? What Jesus actually said was, Give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar. AND (you should always pay attention when Jesus says “and”) give to God that which belongs to God. And so as Christians we at Judson looked at our beloved Jean and his family and we asked ourselves, “Do they belong to Caesar? Or do they belong to God?” And the answer was obvious!
Bill O’Reilly accused us of promoting anarchy. But the Sanctuary Movement wasn’t about the abolition of immigration law, it was about sensible reform to immigration law and providing humane waivers to people like Jean who weren’t a threat to anybody. Yes, we render unto Caesar. Yes, we render unto God. Yes, sometimes that’s a little messy. But if the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function, then Jesus is showing us the quality of true intelligence.
Jesus is one of those spiritual geniuses who has no problem finding the middle way here, when so many of us have a hard time with it. It’s not just sensible reform to immigration law, right? There are so many ways in which we can get stuck in the belief that the righteousness of my position is not just compatible with, but actually demands total inflexibility.
I'm not sure when it was that I first became politically aware of the plight and the suffering of the Palestinian people, especially in Gaza. I think it was around the time I was a community minister at Judson. There was then, and there is now, no doubt in my mind that our God is a God who is with all oppressed people. And that means that our God dwells with every Palestinian man, woman, and child in the Gaza Strip. And God will remain there faithfully until that place becomes a place where people can have hope for the future of their children. That has always been my belief and it always will be.
But I’ve been deeply discouraged over the last two weeks to see the inhumane inflexibility of the responses from some on the left to Hamas’ terrorist attack in Israel two weeks ago—responses that have blamed innocent victims, dehumanized them, minimized their suffering, and excused, romanticized, even defended their murderers. It’s left our Jewish neighbors and friends feeling abandoned, wounded, and afraid for their safety. And we need to do what we can to comfort and reassure them.
Imagine if after 9/11 our closest allies and friends had used that particularly devastating moment to righteously critique America’s policies in the Middle East. Imagine if they had suggested that our murdered neighbors and loved ones actually were legitimate targets for violence. Imagine if they had shown sympathy, even admiration, for al Qaeda. It’s unimaginable, right? But for our beloved Jewish neighbors, here we are.
Do the Palestinian people belong to Caesar or do they belong to God? They belong to God! Do the people of Israel belong to Caesar or do they belong to God? They belong to God! Do we have the intelligence—the humility and the compassion to hold both of these truths in our minds and in our hearts at the same time? Jesus says we do.
Yes, it is complicated. Yes, it is messy. But if we are ever going to get to anything that looks like a just and sustainable peace in the Holy Land, if the solution is going to be something other than the total destruction of one people or the other, then we’re going to need develop the spiritual capacity to hold all of the people—the Palestinian people and the Israeli people—in our hearts at the same time.
This is not an argument for neutrality. I’m not neutral. It’s simply an argument for a love and compassion so great that it can even encompass and hold those we disagree with in their greatest moments of mourning and devastation. This, after all, was Jesus’ greatest teaching—despite the righteousness of our positions, despite the wrongdoings—real or perceived—of one group or another, to love all our neighbors without distinction and without qualification. There are some who believe that’s a wishy-washy, morally bankrupt copout. I believe that it’s rendering unto God what belongs to God, and that it is the humble, compassionate, middle way to a true, lasting, and just peace. And may it be so for all the people—Palestinians and Israelis. Amen.
I read a lot of poetry. I was an English major. I know, you can tell that I was an English major. I’m not sure it’s a compliment, but I get that a lot. I don’t just read a poem I love once or twice. I read it over and over and over again. I memorize it. I examine it—I want to know what makes it tick. How does a poet, using the same language, the very same words that might appear on the back of a cereal box, or in the manual that came with your new immersion blender, or inside a billion bot-produced spam emails a day—how are those same little units of language—words—transformed into something profound, moving, and sometimes even holy? What’s the magic formula that makes words that have died on the page right in front of our eyes a thousand times suddenly and beautifully come back to life?
See—I told you—English major. I just can’t turn it off. But it’s relevant because we just read the 23rd Psalm together. There are lots of prayers in the world, right? But there are only a handful of prayers that we keep coming back to over and over again. What is it about this psalm that keeps bringing us back? Why is it that even though we’ve heard it a thousand times before, even though we’ve memorized it, every time we come back to it, it still feels alive, fresh, new?
Now there’s all kinds of English major moves we could make on this psalm to explore that question. We could write a book on it. But let’s skip over all the smaller reasons today (because frankly it’s been a hard week, right?) and go straight to the heart of the matter—the reason we keep coming back to the 23rd Psalm and the reason that we can encounter it over and over again as deeply meaningful is because it is teaching us a lesson that we haven’t learned yet. It’s teaching us a lesson that our souls know is true, but that our spirits and our minds still haven’t really even heard.
The reason that the 23rd Psalm is one of the most prayed prayers in the world, the reason that it stands out as one of the one most beautiful and powerful pieces of scripture in any religion is because the 23rd Psalm doesn’t ask for anything. It doesn’t ask for anything. The Psalmist doesn’t ask God to be their shepherd. The Lord IS my shepherd. The psalmist doesn’t ask God for help paying the bills or for protection from disaster. They simply state, I SHALL NOT want. And it goes on just like that for all six verses—this is who God is, this is what God is doing, and therefore I am forever safe, I am completely provided for forever.
And even after a week like we’ve had—witnessing enormous pain and suffering and hatred and violence and death in Israel and the Gaza Strip—and even on a morning like this when many of us are grieving deep personal losses, the 23rd Psalm doesn’t come off as naïve. In fact, in our worst moments we want to come back to this prayer. In our times of greatest sorrow and fear, we return with confidence to the enormous spiritual claim of these words and find them not insufferable, but comforting because we feel in the psalm that the psalmist themself has been through the valley of the shadow of death and has given us the words to understand what we’re going through.
Friday night, we had an all-night, sleepover lock in for our confirmation class. It was awesome. We had a ton of fun. It was the best youth event I’ve ever been to—even the adults had fun. It’s a great group of kids. And I know we made memories Friday night that will last them a lifetime. And that’s really meaningful.
To inaugurate their confirmation journey, at about 9 p.m. we started “the ritual.” Every kid got an envelope. They wrote their name on it. They got six pieces of paper and had to write on each piece of paper some part of their identity—something meaningful to them, good or bad, ways they describe themselves or ways other people describe them: Student, daughter, soccer player, Black, funny, bad at math, whatever felt most meaningful to them. That all went in the envelope. We turned off all the lights in the whole church and we prayed by candlelight together for a good journey, with each kid adding words to the prayer.
Then we walked in total darkness and silence through the church. We started up high and went down through a really creepy basement and outside and eventually to the sanctuary. There were six candlelit stations along the way. We’d stop at each station and tell a Bible story or read scripture about having to leave something behind, send something away, give something up, or sacrifice something, so that some new thing could be found, or so a new dream could be discovered, or to meet God, or to meet your true self, or your true destiny. At each station we’d ask the kids to look over the pieces of paper in their envelope and that they had to leave one behind to move on to the next station.
The final station was in the dark in the sanctuary. All the kids had left now was an empty envelope with their name on it. And they put that down too, so they were now completely emptyhanded. And then we served them communion, reminding them, number 1, that sometimes to get back to the beginning, to get back to God, to get back to our true selves, we have to let go of everything we’re carrying. Another way of saying that is: The Lord IS my shepherd. And, number 2, our God is a God who is providing, even when we have lost everything. Another way of saying that is: I SHALL NOT want.
The whole ritual took an hour, and beloved, we had nine thirteen and fourteen-year-olds and they did not make a single peep, not a giggle or a soda-flavored burp for that entire hour. And when it was over, they walked out of the sanctuary and without being told to do so, they all just sat down at a table and processed their thoughts and feelings in silence. Woah. It worked.
Last week I preached to you about the power of a direct experience of God as opposed to worshiping an idea about God. On Friday night, we turned ideas about God into an experience of God—I believe that’s a key component to a living and real religion. And I always want to ensure that the important religious lessons we’re teaching our children in church school, in youth group, in confirmation are also being translated into religious experiences.
We keep coming back to the 23rd Psalm because it works. It works for the same reason that “the ritual” worked on Friday night. Neither of them ask God for anything. Both of them trust God for everything. Neither of them provide us with concepts or ideas or theology or morals, instead the 23rd Psalm and “the ritual” both speak directly to the soul. Beloved, you can continue the conversation. The next time you’re in need, and asking God for something, shift your perspective from spiritual scarcity to spiritual abundance by praying as well, “I shall not want. I shall not want.” Amen.
When I was 6-years old, I broke one of the ten commandments. I killed a guy. No, I didn’t. I didn’t! I kinda wish I had though, because, man, that would’ve been a great way to start of a sermon. I stole a matchbox car. I stole a matchbox car. Not so impressive, and not so bad, right? But no other experience of my life has separated me further from the experience of God than that stupid matchbox car.
Now, look, you shouldn’t steal. We all know that. But, also, if you steal a matchbox car as a kid, you shouldn’t feel totally depraved and hell damned, wracked with guilt. I did. And at age 12, years later, I was having horrible dreams about being damned by God for that stupid car. I would have this terrible, recurring nightmare that I would wake up buried in my coffin and know that I was separated from God totally because God hated me because I was such an awful sinner. This was all about a matchbox car.
And the problem was, I think, that the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” was made out to me by some of my early religious educators to be more important than God. The idea of my sinfulness, which was an idea put in my head by— I’m sure—well-meaning adults, was an idea that prevented me for a long time from directly experiencing the fullness of God’s presence in my life. My fallenness, my guilt were made out to be more important than my experience of a loving, forgiving, and saving God. My dream of that coffin is the exact opposite of the truth of the Good News of God, right? The exact opposite. They got the facts right—we need saving. They got the emphasis exactly backwards. It's not sin first, God second. It's God first, God first, God first.
So, my first question for you this morning is what is coming in between you and the full experience of God? Which of the ten commandments is standing between you and forgiveness? What past action—from murder to matchbox cars—has gotten in between you and God? What emotion, what feeling, what guilt has squeezed in between you and the experience of God's love? Even if you have something to truly be ashamed about—I bet you do. I have some of those too—the good news is they are not God. And our God is bigger is them all. Don’t damn yourself when there is a God who has made a way beyond hell. God has made a way for all broken people to heal. The question is, are you willing to climb the fiery mountain to that forgiveness and relationship? Or would you rather say in fear, don't let God speak to me. I'll surely die. Are you willing to be in the presence of God? That's the question.
Now, luckily I don’t have a grudge against the ten commandments. They actually taught me a lot. They taught me a lot more than don’t steal, don’t kill. They taught me, Don’t ever let anything get between you and God! Don’t ever let anything get in between you and God. Oh, and by the way, that’s the first commandment. Don’t let anything get in between you and God. There is no other god, no other anything, that comes before God.
There have been more than a few fights over the ten commandments—displaying them in schools, in courthouses, in front of your statehouse, stuff like that. It’s gone all the way to the Supreme Court even. I think it’s silly to try to erase the symbol of the ten commandments out of our history. But there are a few things I have always found very ironic about the desire to display the ten commandments and to be putting up new displays of the ten commandments—especially as a sort of evangelical Christian move to wrap the ten commandments up in the flag.
The great irony to me is that true believers are fighting to put up in public graven images—literally—of tablets that directly command us not to make graven images. Now, you could certainly argue that statues of the ten commandments are not technically idols, but I think it all depends on how you relate to the image, to the display. Is your focus on the object, on the display, directing people to the ultimate God behind and beyond the ten commandments, or is it just sort of muddying the waters? Yes, God gave us the law, God us the ten commandments, but God doesn’t ever want us to replace the direct experience of God with any thing, any graven image, any other idea or concept at all—even one as lofty as the ten commandments.
The first time we get the ten commandments, in our scripture reading this morning, God doesn’t even write anything down. This is God’s original intention for the ten commandments. No tablets at all. (The second time we get tablets, but they get smashed. The third time we get new tablets, and they get lost. It’s not about the tablets.) God just speaks the words on the mountaintop—with lots of thunder and lighting and smoke and fire. It’s not about a display of stone tablets—it’s about an overwhelming, direct, undeniable, human experience of God.
But the people are terrified. Who can blame them? I was terrified when I was a six-year-old boy. They’re scared to death of experiencing God directly, right? They say to Moses, “We’re never going up that mountain, buddy. No way! Leave us outta it! You go up there. You speak with that God. Come back down. You can tell us what happened. But we’re not going up ourselves.”
So my second question for you this morning is: Do you have an experience of God or are you merely surrounded by displays of stone tablets? Now, I am not asking you, “Have you ever in the past had an experience of God?” I’m asking if you actively have an experience of God, in this present moment. Is there some piece of your soul, right now, on the mountaintop speaking with God? Or, instead, are there a lot of thoughts, ideas, beliefs, idols, words, words, words, mediating between you and that mountaintop—that direct experience of God?
One night when I was 12-years old I was at summer camp and I had the nightmare of being stuck in my coffin. And I woke up in this pitch black, unfamiliar bed, all tangled up in my sleeping bag and I thought for sure that I really was in that coffin for real this time. And I was about to SCREAM. When all of a sudden I heard this little whimper next to my bed. And by instinct, I sat up and reached out and touched this little trembling body next to my bed. Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhhh. I rubbed his back and I remembered where I was. And it was one of the younger campers had woken up in the night and had to pee, couldn’t find his flashlight, got lost in the dark and got stuck next to my bunk and started to cry. So, I gave him my flashlight. He went to the bathroom. Left the bathroom light on and jumped back in his bunk.
And I was just sitting up on my bed watching all of this when suddenly it felt as if something had very gently, very pleasantly taken off the top of my skull and had started to pour molten lava down through my head into my whole body. It felt like God was pumping pure love through my whole being. And it was so incredibly overwhelming that I fell back on my bed in a swoon. And in that moment, I KNEW that God is not the one who damns us to the darkness, but that God is the one who reaches out to us in the darkness. And I knew that no matter what happened to me—even if I WERE to wake up in my coffin—that SOMEHOW I would be as SAFE as I was in that mystical moment being filled up with God's love.
That's the realest thing I've ever experienced! More real than anything else I could ever imagine experiencing. Nothing could ever happen to me that would be bigger, more real, more important than that experience. I received an incredible gift—a direct and orchestrated experience of God’s truth and love. That experience is not in my past, it lives in the present moment. It’s always there. It defines me, it defines the reality I experience, it defined what I believe is possible in the world, and it defines what I believe, Beloved, is possible for all of you—a direct, unmediated experience of God. Let no idol, no idea, no belief, no sin, no sacredness come in between you and that living, real possibility. Do not worship the idea of God. Bow down and worship no idea. Bow down and experience. And I promise you, God will show up first and foremost because there is nothing before God. The first commandment promises us that this is true. Do not be afraid! Let nothing stand between you and God.
Man, this is hard. This is hard. But I don’t know how to preach this sermon this morning without telling you this. So, I’m just gonna rip the Band-Aid off right at the beginning. Here goes: Freshman year of college I got an F—it gets worse—I got an F in my Intro to Photography class! Not easy to admit! I had never failed a class before. I was an A student. I was on the National Honor Roll. But I got an F from Boston University’s College of Communication, School of Journalism—JO305 (I’ll never forget it!) BASIC PHOTO. An F! Oi.
In my defense, kids, this was way before the days of digital photography. Everything was on this stuff called film, and I was good at taking pictures but really bad at developing film—you’re in this dark room and it smells weird and you’ve got to mix all these chemicals together and put the pictures in just long enough but not too long, and there’s sort of an intuition to it. It’s like cooking, and I was burning the salad every time. I just didn’t have it.
Also, my transition to college was tough. I started struggling with depression and anxiety second semester, and I had no idea that was even a thing you could get help for, so I just kind of pulled the covers over my head when it came to this photo class because it was stressing me out. Don’t do what I did, ask someone for help.
Anyway, because I failed this class, my GPA dropped, and I lost my merit-based scholarship. Which meant that, to send me back to school for sophomore year, it was going to cost my parents thousands of more dollars than they thought it was going to cost them when they sent me to school based on a fairly simple agreement: You’re gonna work hard, you’re gonna do your best, you’re keep your grades up, you’re going to maintain your scholarship, you’ll work part-time for spending money, and we’re gonna bankroll the rest (which was still the vast majority of the cost and a lot of money.)
My dad felt that I had not lived up to my end of the bargain. He was right. I hadn’t. He thought the fair and right thing to do was to pull me out of school, let me get a full-time job and start earning my own money, and figure out my way through college. He was annoyed and disappointed with me, sure. But this wasn’t a punishment. He really felt that holding me accountable, letting me suffer the consequences of my own failures, and making me responsible for my own path forward was the best thing for me. When my dad graduated from high school there was no money to send him to college. So, my dad went to Vietnam. And he made his own through war and life after that. So, there was nothing unfair about what he was offering me here, right? It was still a way better deal than anything he ever got.
But my mom wouldn’t let him do it. She wasn’t soft or anything. That wasn’t it. She wasn’t anything goes. But my mom, who got pregnant out of wedlock while she was in college, and who was put into a Catholic home for embarrassed young ladies, and lost the support of her family, and who was forced to give her child up for adoption by a system that never really gave her any choice, understood in her bones that when someone is drowning—first, throw them a line. First, save their life, then from there hold them accountable. It’s not that my mom didn’t want to hold me accountable. That wasn’t it. It wasn’t even a calculation; it was just a decision. In the end, my parents decided to put my need ahead of their fairness.
What’s incredible to me is that despite this fact—despite the fact that I have been and am in need of mercy (in so many ways! Not just this one!) despite this fact that I am in need of mercy, whenever I read our scripture reading from this morning, I immediately identify with the complainers who are saying, NO FAIR! No fair! We’ve been working all day in the sun, and these Johnny-come-latelies, who showed up just a few hours ago are getting the full day’s wage just like us. NO FAIR. I hear their complaint and I feel it, I understand it. They’re right. That’s not fair. And I bristle and I worry and I get upset on their behalf.
I’ve received mercy in my life. Why don’t I identify with the workers who are given the extra money? Why don’t I feel their joy? I’m not rich, but I have resources. And I could use the money I do have to benefit people who need it. So, why don’t identify with the vineyard owner who has no obligation to be generous, but does it anyway? There’s just something about being human. We’re obsessed with fairness because we’re made sick by the idea that someone else may get something that we didn’t get—someone else may get ahead of us in line, get a handout they don’t deserve.
But let’s not go too far here. I mean, fairness is very important. Civilization, in part, depends on there being some sense of law and order and fairness. If we’re going to come together and freely form a society, then we have to trust that there will be some means of enforcing fairness. And civilizations are rocked by unrest and protest and civil war when trust in our institutions and in our neighbors fails, right?
Not everyone agrees on what fairness looks like, right? But no one ever argues before the Supreme Court, for example, in favor of unfairness, right? Both sides of whatever the issue is will make the case for fairness. We saw this in the Affirmative Action in college admissions case. Both sides made arguments appealing to fairness.
And so we might think that fairness is a more-than human desire, right? Selfishness is the human desire. So, fairness must be divine. It must be God who inspires us to fight for fairness. And certainly that’s true to an extent. But for those of us who cling to fairness like an immovable rock, Jesus has an unwelcome message for us: God is not fair. God is not fair.
I think Jesus understands that there is virtue in the human longing for fairness. No doubt about it. I have no doubt, for example, that the civil rights movement of the 1950 and 60s was inspired by God and watched over by heaven. God cares about justice in human affairs. But God is not fair.
The reason that fairness is not a divine attribute is because fairness, despite all its virtue, has a shadow side. The light side of fairness is exactly what we all know it is—equal treatment, equal opportunity, nobody taking advantage of anyone else, no one getting ahead by cheating, fair and square right across the board. But there’s a dark side to this kind of thinking too. A fair world can be a world of terrible consequences for even small mistakes. It can be a world that doesn’t offer second chances. It can be a bloody, violent world with little to no mercy. A society that was truly puritanical about fairness would be a mean, hard, cold world—a world without mercy and a world without comfort for all those who had ever fallen off the wagon of perfection.
Being human means being kinda messed up. It’s hard. It’s painful. There’s a lot that can go wrong. Fairness just says, Tough. That’s not my problem. You made your bed and now you’re gonna have to sleep in it. Is it fair to have to feed the hungry? I put food on my table. Is it fair to have to heal the sick? I take care of my health. I maintain my health insurance. Is it fair to have to visit prisoners? I haven’t done any of those terrible things.
But, beloved, our God isn’t fair. Our God is more than fair. And sometimes when God is more than fair to someone else, it can feel like God is being unfair to me. And when that happens, it’s a good time to engage in the spiritual practice of being thankful for God’s mercy. It’s a good time to remember—because it really was hard to tell you I failed my photo class 26 years ago! I really would rather forget about that—so, it’s a good time to remember the mistakes we have all made and the mercies we have all received. We bury those memories. We like to forget that stuff in preference for the story of how we deserve everything we’ve got. No doubt you’ve worked hard. No doubt you’ve made good decisions. And no doubt you’ve received mercy and been forgiven and been given second chances and been helped out from time to time.
I stayed in school. And I took responsibility for myself. I talked to a therapist about my depression, I earned straight As the following year, I reapplied to and won my scholarship back, and to my mother’s never-ending delight and pride I graduated Magna Cum Laude. That propelled me on to seminary, which led me right here, standing before you this morning. Is it fair? Nope. It’s not. Thank you, God, that you are more than fair. And thank you, God for this vision!
I see it! At the end of time after the last trumpet has blown! The whole human race is lined up before the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven. The gates open, and Jesus emerges with a serious expression on his face. He looks at the line, billions and billions of people long. And he starts walking—slowly, intentionally—looking each and every one of us in the eye. He walks past saints. He walks past popes. He walks past presidents, and activists, and humanitarians. He walks past Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He walks past Rosa Parks. He walks past every historic name and every famous face, every contributor to human goodness and flourishing. He walks past me and he walks past you. And he looks each of us in the eye, until we look away.
Until he comes to the end of the line—to the souls who just barely made it all: the last, the least, and the lost. And he walks until he comes to that very last soul in line—some wretched old fool who made every mistake and made it twice. And he’s such a fool, he doesn’t even know to bow his head when Jesus stands beside him. He just looks up without any pretense, without any posturing; he just stands there, the last of us all, staring into the eyes of judgment. And Jesus’ stern face finally breaks into a smile, his eyes crinkling with joy. And he reaches out and takes that fool by the hand and he says, “I’m so glad you made it.” And may it be so for all of us. Amen.
Whenever a minister asks a congregation, “What do you want me to preach about?” one of the most common responses is “forgiveness.” Some people say that the reason for this is that Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness are really difficult. I think of it a little bit differently: Anybody’s teachings on forgiveness are difficult because forgiveness is just difficult.
It’s interesting that forgiveness is difficult and that despite that we still want to hear more about it. Because there are plenty of difficult things that we’d rather not hear anything about at all. But forgiveness is different because deep down inside of us—even though we think that forgiveness is unfair and maybe too hard—deep down inside we know it would be good for us. We long to let go of the hurts that have bound up our thoughts and our lives; we long to be free!
But sort of like moderate exercise three times a week and eating leafy green vegetables, despite the fact that we know it would make us feel better, we find ourselves stuck on the couch of resentment, eating a greasy bag of high-calorie curses and processed grudges. We get overwhelmed and we get stuck in the groove of anger, and bitterness, and hurt—which are the toxins that are best cleaned out by forgiveness.
So, I want to talk really practically this morning about what forgiveness is and isn’t. First, we’ve got to get rid of this idea that forgiveness is exceptional. If you search the news for stories about forgiveness, what you’ll find is these incredible stories of forgiveness and reconciliation. I read a story this week about a man who became a close friend to the man who murdered his brother. He befriended the man who was in prison for murdering his beloved brother. It’s an incredible story. It’s a beautiful story. And it’s an exceptional story. And it is not what forgiveness typically looks like or what it absolutely requires of us. That man is winning gold in the forgiveness Olympics. God bless him. But don’t let him intimidate you. You do not have to be friends with the person who murdered your brother in order to experience the vast majority of the very real, life-changing benefits of forgiveness.
Next, we’ve got to let go of the very unhealthy stereotypes of Christian forgiveness. Offering forgiveness is not ever about being a doormat, staying in an abusive relationship, accepting injustice, being taken advantage of, or putting yourself in any way in any kind of dangerous or potentially harmful situation. I’ll give you a very simple rule about forgiveness: If it’s not to your benefit, it’s probably not forgiveness. If you don’t feel like you can afford it, it’s probably not forgiveness. It’s some distorted version of forgiveness.
Also, forgiveness is not a way of avoiding conflict. We talked about this last Sunday—Jesus has some pretty good, direct advice for us about how to deal with conflict and the possibility of reconciling with someone who has sinned against you. There is a difference between reconciliation and forgiveness. Jesus says forgiveness is always required—and I believe that’s as much for our benefit (and oftentimes more for our benefit) than it is for the benefit of the people who have done us wrong.
But reconciliation is not always required. Jesus says we have to go through the process of conflict resolution together, but whether reconciliation happens of not, it depends on the person who did you harm taking responsibility for what they did. If they can’t do that, Jesus is clear, you should cut them out of your life AND you should forgive them. And even if you do reconcile, reconciliation might just mean peaceful coexistence. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to invite this person over for dinner and become their best friend. Forgiveness is much simpler than all that.
So, forgiveness is always for your benefit. It should always come from a place of power. If it doesn’t feel like it’s to your benefit, it’s probably not forgiveness, it’s some unhealthy, twisted-up version of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the way we clear the toxic mess of hate and anger and obsessive thinking and the desire for revenge out of our lives. So, how do we do that?
When I was at Union Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights, there was this one beautiful, warm early spring day. And that evening I just the bug, I wanted to go jogging, so I went out to Riverside Park and headed north. Lovely evening. Gentle breeze. It was getting dark. The little lamps were coming on in the park. Other people were out enjoying the river. I was just in my own head, not really paying attention.
Suddenly, I realized I wasn’t on the main path anymore, somehow I’d taken a bad turn. I was basically in the woods directly under the George Washington Bridge. It was dark, there were no lights, and I was on like a dirt path to who knows where. And suddenly up over the hill in front of me comes a group of about 15 teenage boys.
And I was a little scared. They just had an energy to them that made me think they were out that night looking for trouble. And I had to figure out what to do. Do I just turn around and run the other way? That seems a bit disrespectful. So, I decided I’m just gonna give them the benefit of the doubt and run past them. And they beat me with a baseball bat.
And I was lucky, because I realized something was going to happen and I checked over my shoulder and saw the first swing coming at me and I managed to take the blow in a way that it didn’t just end me right then and there, and I was warmed up and bigger than them and I managed to outrun them. Nothing was broken, but I was bruised and injured, and I was scared. They wanted to mess me up. I heard later that probably these same kids were assaulting women in the park and they put a Columbia student in the hospital.
So, what is forgiveness here? How do I get started? First and foremost, I remember that I am not better than anybody else. I am not better than anybody else. I am luckier than a lot of people. I am probably luckier than those 15 boys.
When I was in the 6th grade, some big kids jumped me and two of my friends after school and beat us up a little. And so I went home and I got a knife. A knife. It was a utility knife, but it was a knife. And I went back out, I guess to like cut up these kids. I don’t know what I could have possibly been thinking. I was angry. And I got lucky.
Because I caught up with these kids, pulled this one-inch blade of this utility knife out, and I was like, “Let’s go!” And the big kids laughed and one of them whipped out a butterfly knife and he was like (butterfly knife sounds), and it looked like it was about a foot long. And they beat me up again, without stabbing me, and I went home and told my mom. And so of course my parents went over to their parents’ house. And then they came home. And they were like, “Did you pull out a knife?” And I was like, “Oh Yeah.” And they grounded me.
I’m not better than those boys. I know what it’s like to be angry. I bet they were angry. I know what’s it’s like to want to hurt someone. I pulled a knife on someone when I was like 12. I did that. And I’m simply morally lucky that it didn’t go way worse than it did. And I’m morally lucky that I had parents who had the time and capacity to unambiguously and forcefully correct my mistakes. I’m not better than the kids who beat me with a baseball bat, I’m luckier. So much luckier.
Even if the sin against us is far beyond anything we’ve ever done to another person or even anything we think we’d be capable of doing, the path to forgiveness starts with a sort of realistic humility about our own righteousness and perfection. It is very difficult to forgive someone when you feel like they’re less than human or when you think about yourself as somehow better than them. I am not better than anybody else. If I remember this, I’m setting the stage for forgiveness.
The second thing we need to do is to actually forgive. Now, this might not sound too profound, but I really mean it. Forgiveness is an act. It is not a feeling. Many of us feel like we’ll have forgiven someone once our feelings stop being hurt. So, we wait for our feelings to stop hurting. But that’s not the way it works. It’s the exact opposite. Once we forgive, our feelings begin to heal.
The king in Jesus’ story doesn’t just sit there until his feelings stop hurting about losing all that money. Right? We don’t know exactly how the king feels, but we know he makes a decision to forgive the debt—from a place of power and having the capacity to afford the loss. He doesn’t say, “Oh, well, for some fortunate reason I just happened to get over it now, so I guess you’re forgiven.” He acts.
We have to do the same thing. If it’s a small thing, you may only need to say it once. But if it’s a big thing you may need to say it more than once, more than seven times, more than 77 times. We act consciously to affect ourselves unconsciously—to affect the way we feel. We can’t just decide we want to be over something. We don’t work that way. We have to act out our forgiveness, and slowly over time, your heart and your soul catch up with your act. And then you’re free.
It’s the way magic or any kind of inner transformation works—you must find a way to enact the forgiveness. You cancel the debt. You write, “I forgive Bob,” in a journal 50 times every night right before bed. You take one of those pages, you tear it out of the journal, you fold it up, and you stick it inside your Bible or you hide it somewhere here in the sanctuary, put it somewhere on the altar. Your unconscious mind, your soul, remembers that little ritual of forgiveness, it holds onto it, and forgiveness begins to take a hold of you. The transformation of forgiveness begins with you decision to act despite the way you feel in order to transform the way you feel.
Are you willing to say it with me? I forgive! Will you say it with me? I forgive! Say it one more time, this time say, “I forgive you!” Say it to the person who’s got you bound up with hate and anger, “I forgive you!” Say it to them! Say, “I’m no better than anyone else!” And say this one, “I forgive myself!” Say it again! “I forgive myself!” And say this, “Thank God for mercy! Thank God for forgiveness. Thank God I am free!” Amen!
Well, I'm really happy to be back here with you all after two Sundays off. Thank you so much for the break and the opportunity to spend some time with my family on vacation. We went down the shore, as we New Jerseyans say, and we were in Wildwood on the beach. We had a wonderful time together. I never realized exactly how much sand could get caught in the cracks and crevices of a one-year-old after just about five minutes on the beach, but as soon as I accepted the fact that sand and grit was our new reality, everything went just fine.
Bonnie asked me, well, hey, where do you want to go on our vacation? And I said, anywhere where we don't have to fly will be fine with me. I've never loved flying. I don't mind being way up in the air. That's not the problem. I just don't like all of the little procedures that you have to go through to get on the plane and waiting in line constantly and, you know, the near constant snafus of cancellations and delays and the tiny little seats. I never liked any of that. But over the last few years, since the pandemic, really, something has shifted in flying. And now I'd say that the worst part about flying is other people, right? Your social media feed and your news feed, they're probably full of the same kinds of news articles and viral videos that mine are full of—showing lots of people behaving really badly on planes. The old saying goes that misery loves company, but the airlines should maybe rewrite that line: Company is misery.
I was listening to a podcast recently, and this eminent primatologist and evolutionary anthropologist made me think about this a little bit differently. He said that one of the remarkable things about human beings, when you cram a couple hundred strangers into a flying sardine can, one of the amazing things about human beings is that any of us emerges alive at the end of that flight at all. Because if you did something like that with our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees say, they would just eat each other's faces off. It would be total pandemonium. No one would survive.
Now of course, you know, we often worry and we grieve about our tendency towards violence as a species. And that's as it should be. No violence is really acceptable or good at any level. But according to this scientist, we're angels compared to our closest animal relatives because part of being human is suppressing a deep-seated instinct for conflict and for violence. And that's fine if you're on a plane. It's good if you're on a plane. It is what allows you to survive that flight and reach your destination alive and then just—walk away. Just walk away. You never have to see those people again. You don't need to be a part of their lives. Just walk away.
But Jesus is very clear with us. And we read it in our scripture reading this morning. That kind of total suppression is a necessary evil in certain situations, but it is not ever a spiritual virtue. And it is not the way, not the way that we should behave in a healthy community. Now what Jesus is telling us this morning and what he tells us throughout the Gospel of Matthew is that when it comes to your spiritual journey, when it comes to being a Christian, you can't go it alone. We need each other. Community, being together, loving and serving one another, working together, showing grace, receiving forgiveness—This is how we Christians transform the world together. Christianity is about serving and loving others. You can't do that alone. It requires others. Christianity is about forgiving and being forgiven. You can't do that alone.
Christianity is like dancing, okay? You can dance by yourself, sure, you can. But there's something just magical about stepping out onto a dance floor with other people. And I'm sure you've felt it, moving with them, responding to them, allowing them to carry you along, to challenge you, to do that move, to bust out that move that you haven't busted out in a long time. It's possible to dance in your room by yourself. But if you're going to dance all night long, if you're going to dance until your feet hurt, if you're going to dance until your cheeks ache because you've been smiling for so long, that is a magic, a grace, a dance that only other people can provide to you. Christianity is like dancing. We need partners. We need a party. And Christianity is like dancing because once you get out there on the dance floor, somebody almost certainly is going to step on your toes. It is inevitable. And what do you do then? Oh boy.
When somebody hurts you in community, (you know, in church, but it could also be at home, in your family, among your friends, in school, at work), you could hurt them right back, right? You stepped on my toe, I stomp on your toe. A toe for a toe, to paraphrase the Bible. Chimp justice. Jesus taught us not to do this. It's not the way. However, for most of us, it's not really a temptation, right? It's not how we do things. We have other ways of handling this kind of thing.
One of those other ways is to pretend like it didn't really happen, pretend like it didn't bother me, and then sometimes without even realizing what we're doing, we seek out revenge. We're not going to stomp on their foot. That would be too obvious. But we start secretly plotting their downfall. How can we get them? How can we expose them as the dirty foot stomper that they are? What is something they want? What's something that they love, that we can oppose or ruin without anyone ever being the wiser that we're actually acting out of malice, acting from this small and wounded place within us, acting out of a conflict that we just haven't dealt with yet?
Now, just below that is another way that we can deal with things. We can complain to everybody else. I'm not going to say anything to the guy who stepped on my toe. That might be awkward. But within an hour, everybody at the dance is going to know that he stepped on my foot and know that I think that he did it on purpose, and he didn't even say that he was sorry. And by the end of the night, he might be the only person left in the room who does not know that he stepped on my toe. How's that for dealing with conflict?
Now just below that is old reliable, the cold shoulder. I'm not going to do anything at all. I'm too mature for that, except I'm never going to dance with you again. I'm never going to dance near you again. But if you really tick me off, maybe I'll just never dance again. That'll show you. Or I'll go find somewhere else to dance all together. I've got options. There are options out there. So why be the bigger person? Why? When you can just walk away, and it's so much cleaner and easier, right?
Now just below that is the level that I think that most of us aspire to, or we think we're supposed to aspire to. And that is, just forgive and forget. It's no big deal. That's life. It was only a small fracture. It was just my pinky toe. The ER bill was mostly covered by my insurance. I only had to wear that boot for like two months. It only hurts a little bit now. Only sometimes. You know, some people don't even have feet at all. If you think about it, I'm very lucky. I should be thankful somebody stepped on my foot. I have no right to complain. I'll just let it go.
And this is actually the caricature of the Christian ethic of forgiveness—that forgiveness is just this weak and wimpy thing, that it's all about rolling over and letting yourself be abused and not seeking any kind of reconciliation or justice whatsoever. And to be very fair about it, this has been the way that forgiveness has actually been preached by some Christians in some places and at some times and still to this day. You know, for example, male clergy advising women in abusive relationships to remain in their marriages. Or state churches preaching to the poor that they must accept their lot in life, their place in the world that God has foreordained for them. Or white clergy preaching tolerance and forgiveness to black people for “historic wrongs,” right? But Jesus tells us unequivocally that this just forgive and forget, let bygones be bygones, get over it, approach to forgiveness is not the Christian way. It is not. Because, and we know this from our own lives, we know this from our own lives, it just doesn't actually work. Instead, Jesus teaches us against every instinct that we have, to directly, personally, and publicly deal with sin and conflict in our community. Now my guess is that most of us have never really done anything like what Jesus is telling us to do here. And even if you have, you probably don't do it often. You certainly don't do it every single time because wow, what Jesus is asking us to do is really hard work.
So just imagine with me for a second. You know, speaking of bad behavior on an airplane. Imagine you're sitting in your pew one Sunday. When out of the corner of your eye, you notice that someone sitting right behind you has taken off their shoes and put their stinky feet up on the back of the pew right next to your head where you're sitting. I think we can all agree, way out of bounds. Don't do it on an airplane, don't do it at church. So step one—let me get this straight—I need to go to Stinky Foot and confront him directly. Now hold on. Stinky Foot should be apologizing to me, shouldn't he? Why do I have to go to him? That's not fair, that's not fair. And you're right, that's not fair. And as much as Jesus cares about fairness, and Jesus does care about fairness, he cares more about community. Fairness is good, fairness is necessary, but fairness will never be a party. It takes community to dance. It takes community to dance. And so what we want is a community where we can dance together, party together, be together. And that sometimes requires a little bit of a sacrifice of a little bit of fairness. And so Jesus does as he often does. He assumes that the aggrieved party is wiser, stronger, and smarter, and he says, you the aggrieved, it is your job to deal with this—personally, one-on-one, you’ve got to deal with them. Before you complain to anybody else, you’ve got to deal with it. Now this is of course, with the caveat that the sin here wasn't a criminal act. This person isn't dangerous to you. It is safe—it's uncomfortable, but it's safe to do. You go and deal with them one-on-one.
And what if they don't listen? After all that, after you put yourself out there like that, what if they don't listen to you? What if they don't give you that reassuring, oh, I'm so sorry, I can't believe I did that, I didn't think of it that way, please forgive me. Well then, can you write them off? No, says Jesus, not even then. No, no, no, no, no, no. You’ve got to go get some friends, and then you’ve got to go and talk. Now can you imagine the Saturday after the Sunday of the foot incident? You're standing on Stinky Foot's front porch and ringing the bell with two or three friends, knocking on the door. Can you imagine the kind of conflict that that could cause? That could embarrass him. He could get really angry. He might stop coming to church. He might stop paying his pledge. I bet he wouldn't answer the door at all, right? But Jesus said it's worth it, because we can't have that kind of behavior at the party, and we've got to deal with it somehow, right? And you know, if church is a dance, and if Christianity is a dance, you know, sometimes you might be a good dancer on your own, you know, but then you start dancing in community, and you realize when you're dancing out on the dance floor with a lot of other people, there's certain things that you can't do that you can do when you're alone, right? And sometimes it might take a couple other people to come over to the house and say, hey, we're going to give you a little dancing lesson. We're going to teach you a few moves. We're going to show you how it goes.
But what if he doesn't open the door? What if he doesn't listen? Well, this is where Jesus's advice just goes way over the top. This has got to be hyperbole. This is just too much. He tells us then, you’ve got to get the whole church involved, right? It seems like that could cause all kinds of conflict, could split the church, people could take sides. It seems like it's just too much, it's too strict, it's too mean, but I don't think that that's the way that Jesus means it to be. Because I think Christianity is like a dance party, and the best way to learn how to dance is for the whole church to turn the music up and just start showing people how to move, and showing people how not to move, and showing how we move around one another, and show one another grace, and showing that when you step on somebody's foot, you turn and you say, oh, I'm so sorry. And the best way you can teach that to somebody is by bringing them back on the dance floor as one big church and trying to show them what to do.
You know, this thing that we do, this thing called church, this community, this dance party, this is how we make Jesus Christ come alive for people. It's how we make Christianity come alive for people, and the only way we can do that is if we are 100% engaged with one another to show one another that kind of grace. You can't do that if you're secretly plotting somebody's demise. You can't do that if you're gossiping about how awful they are. You can't do that if every time they come near, you turn away and you shut your heart down. You cannot do it if you just say, well, my feelings don't matter. Nothing's really important. I'll just let these people walk all over me. Because if they're walking all over you, they're going to walk all over somebody else as well, and the dance party can't survive that. So what it takes is all of us together dancing, and it's a dance when everything is going well and everything is beautiful and everything is fun and fine, and it's a dance when somebody gets their foot stepped on, and then we all show one another how to deal with that, how to dance around it, how to make it work again, how to get back into the rhythm.
Beloved, we need one another. As Christians, as human beings, we need to be in community with one another. It is the most important part of our faith, Jesus tells us, the place where everything comes together. You can be in a relationship with God, but in some significant way, you can't be a Christian unless you're together, working together, loving together, and healing one another. So my prayer for all of us this Celebration Sunday is that we dance with one another, and we dance and we dance and we dance, and we love one another, because when we dance together and when we don't run away from the party when our toes get stepped on, when we don't avoid conflict, when we don't allow people to come into the dance party swinging their elbows around and hitting us in the face, that is the way that we heal the world.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations