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.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations