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.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations