This week there was an article on National Geographic entitled, “What is Advent—and why do we mark it with treat-filled calendars?” This just proves my personal thesis of the moment that somewhere along the way we lost touch with the meaning of Advent, and I believe that’s a spiritual loss. I’m hoping to convince you this season that it is, indeed, a spiritual loss and I’m hoping to invite you into this season of Advent with me to begin to address that loss and to restore yourself in this season.
National Geographic defines Advent as a season of candlelight, reflection, and expectation that prepares Christians for Christmas. That’s a pretty good start, but because even those of us who observe Advent treat it like it’s a 24-day extension of Christmas, full of Christmas-themed events and Christmas joy and lights, this season I’m also trying to remind us all that Advent takes place during the darkest time of the year, and that darkness is an important part of the season. Because constant exposure to light is not good for us.
Scientists are beginning to discover just how bad constant exposure to light is for us physically. Thanks to smartphones and other screens, we’re now studying the effects of certain kinds of light on our natural bodily rhythms and our sleep rhythms, and we’re discovering bad news about how bad it is for us to look at screens after the sun goes down and how disruptive it is to sleep in a room with the lights on in it.
Well, what’s true of us physically always also has been true of us spiritually. Just imagine the star of Bethlehem that led the three Magi to the little baby Jesus. You and I live in a place where it would be very difficult for us to see, let alone follow a star anywhere. This is a physical limitation, but it has also become a spiritual limitation. What I mean is, maybe the bigger challenge than physical light pollution would be that none of us would be outside looking at the stars anyway because we’re inside consumed by much brighter lights—streaming shows, scrolling social media, working late—these things can only happen with our bright little screens, but they are also a spiritual choice—choosing or maybe just being overwhelmed by one kind of light, instead of paying attention to another kind of light. But if the power were to go out everywhere for like a week, then we might rediscover our interest in the much fainter, but oh-so-beautiful stars. Advent is meant to be one of those times, a sort of Sabbath in the longest nights of the year where we allow our eyes to readjust to the dark. The physical darkness of the season is a sign, a symbol for what we hope to achieve spiritually. Because in the dark our eyes open up. And from darkness, we can begin to see the beauty of even the faintest stars.
You see, I’m trying to rehabilitate the spiritual symbol of darkness. Darkness has gotten such a bad rap in our culture. We associate darkness with evil, danger, and being hopelessly lost. Light is knowledge, righteousness, beauty, and truth, and darkness is their opposite. But we forget that we live in a world with a lot of bad lights. I heard a story recently of how beach bandits would sometimes set up false lighthouse lights to lure ships onto the rocks, wreck them, and loot them. There’s such a thing as bad light. Alex Jones, for example, is a bad light. He leads people to him with the light of lies and with hate speech masquerading as the moral light of free speech. When you speak hate and defend yourself by saying you just have a patriotic belief in free speech, that’s not the truth. Perhaps you do really believe in free speech for everybody, but you also believe in hate speech. Let’s not forget that. That’s what’s making you money, right? Not patriotism. Jones has made himself millions and millions of dollars doing this.
He’s an extreme example, of course, and it is fully evil, what he does, but—back to my point--it’s not darkness. Darkness doesn’t work hard to mislead you. That’s the work of a bad light. Darkness isn’t trying to trick you. If you trip in the dark, that’s just because that’s the way darkness is, but darkness isn’t trying to mess with you. Darkness just is. And what it is can be wonderful. Darkness is rest. It’s quiet, it’s meditative, it’s contemplative. And darkness is also the place of incubation—the place where creation literally began. It began in darkness. And it’s where all new life begins.
Our scripture reading this morning is such a magnificent vision of hope. Imagine a world where the lion lies down with the lamb, a world of peace and justice, a world where there is no more pain, a world where the oppressed are heard and uplifted, and the wicked are finally silenced. It is a light-filled prophecy. And where does this light-filled prophecy come from?
It comes from the dark. It is a branch, our reading says, growing up from the roots of Jesse, from the deep earth, under the dark soil, where no light can go, there is a dream that is being incubated, a dream of a future hope for peace and justice. This deep longing does not come from the light. It wasn’t dreamed up while swinging from the light-filled crown of a healthy, growing tree. It comes from the deep, dark, quiet, contemplative, life-giving roots of a stump.
Christmas is the day that the branch shoots up out of the ground. Christmas is the day the child takes the lion by the whiskers and leads him. Christmas is the day we walk outside proudly wearing the belt of our faithfulness. But Advent is those roots, it’s all the days and years of darkness that incubated and grew that dream and that made its reality possible. When we skip that kind of darkness, because we think darkness is just depressing or just too scary, we get an empty Christmas, don’t we? We get a Christmas that’s pretty, but leaves us feeling unsatisfied, unfulfilled. Every adult in this room has felt that feeling at Christmas at some point or another. Why? Because nothing has come alive within us. Because nothing has been incubated within us. Because we avoided the dark.
This is the good news, beloved. Have you ever lived through a time in your life when you didn’t know what to do? When you didn’t know where to turn to? You weren’t sure what tomorrow would bring? You didn’t know when things would get better? Advent is the season in which we learn not to try to rush our way out of the darkness. We all know that the darkness can be uncomfortable. That you can’t see what’s coming. That’s scary. But darkness is also the place where new life, hopes, and dreams for the future are incubated. Darkness is not a problem to be fixed. It’s an experience to be endured with candlelight, reflection, and contemplation. It is an opportunity to grow a new branch for a new journey in a new direction.
So, this Advent, try turning off the lights. You can do this, physically, to the actual lights in your house, as a physical signal to your spiritual side that you want to spend some time in the dark. Darkness is not necessarily for feeling depressed or pessimistic or bad in any way (but it’s fine if you do feel that way). Ultimately Advent darkness, pre-dawn darkness, root darkness, incubating darkness is about turning down the brightness on the all the world’s lights (good and bad) and sitting in quiet emptiness for a while, without being stimulated by anything but the hope and the expectation for the coming of Christ into our world and into your life. Spend a little time in the dark this Advent. On Christmas Eve, a star will appear in the sky. Will you be ready to see it? Will you be able to feel the promise of Christmas kicking in the dark within you?
We don't often think of New York City as being a place of spiritual pilgrimages. But here's one that happens every year. When I was living on the Upper West Side, I got to experience it one morning in late June on the summer solstice to be exact. I got out of bed long before the sun rose and walked over to the cathedral of St. John the Divine, one of the largest church buildings in the world. It was sometime before sunrise, before 4:30 AM when I arrived. But the street and the stairway up to those giant doors of that church were bustling in the dark with the quiet pilgrims, thousands of us filing into the dark interior of that cathedral. It's never really dark outside in New York City, you've probably noticed if you've ever lived there or walked through the city at night, not truly dark, but inside that enormous cave of that church, it was truly dark.
And there were ushers there who were helping us through the narrow pathways between all of the seats in the dark. And they had these tiny little flashlights, but they were using them sparingly. There were no lights on in the whole place. And only if somebody was really struggling did they flash the lights for you so that you could see where you were going, only when necessary. They were there to guide the people, but they were also there to protect the darkness. Once we were settled into that holy darkness, the organ began to play a concert of low rumbling notes that filled the entire chamber of that space. And as the music played, slowly (as our eyes fully adjusted to the total darkness) we began to see a glow. It was coming through the cathedral's 40-foot-wide, east-facing rose window.
The sun was rising, and it was not just any sunrise. It was the sunrise of the longest day of the year. 10,000 individual pieces of glass began to glow, and then sparkle, and then blossom with color as the organ swelled and crescendoed. It's one of New York City's great mystical traditions, a ritual that reaches deep into our spiritual history and celebrates the bright light of summer and everything that the coming of the light represents to us symbolically and religiously. But the key player in this drama, the force that keeps the ritual alive and grounds it, the preset cue that welcomes the worshiper is the darkness. Now, if the concert started at 10:30 in the morning, I'm sure that, you know, maybe even hundreds of people would attend. But at 4:30 in the morning, thousands attend because you cannot experience the beauty of a sunrise except from the position of darkness.
Let me give you another example. It also happened in a church. Many years ago, my wife Bonnie Mohan, and I had been dating something around a month. She was living in the Bronx, not far from Fordham University, where she went to school. She had recently graduated, and one night she was just giving me a tour around campus to show me all her old haunts. It was late at night because probably we had been out at a bar or something like that. The point is that we get up to the chapel for the school, which is a great big Catholic chapel church building. And of course, it's like two o'clock in the morning. So the place is completely shut down. It's completely dark. But for some reason, Bonnie, who I can guarantee you never darkened the door of this chapel one time her entire four years of college, reached out to the door and pulled, and someone had forgot to lock the church.
And so we went inside together and it was absolutely dark in there, but for some reason we filed in and sat somewhere in the middle of the church and just stared up into darkness. And we sat there next to each other in silence, holding hands. And I'd say we sat there at, you know, something like two o'clock in the morning for about 30 minutes in total silence. And in that darkness, in that space, a connection happened between us, a deepening connection that could not have happened, I really believe, if the lights had been on, because if the lights had been on, we've been looking all around and people would've been able to see us and know that we weren't supposed to be in there. The darkness kept us safe, and it kept us together, and it let us reflect. And as we kind of came out of that meditation together, I turned to Bonnie. And for the very first time in our relationship, I said, “I love you.” And that I love you happened in the dark. And I believe it only could have happened in the dark. The dark let it be revealed.
The reason I'm telling you stories about the dark is because today is the first Sunday of the Christian year, the first Sunday of Advent, and Advent is the season before Christmas. Christmas, as you all know, is the season of the sunrise, and that means that advent must be the dark before the sunrise happens. But that's a tough sell nowadays. In holiday time, I really hate to sound like that old curmudgeon, but I was driving around right after Halloween, I think it was the week after Halloween, and people already had their Christmas lights up and their Christmas decorations up. And I'm like, goodness gracious. Some people still have like skeletons on their lawn and other people have Christmas lights up. It's a bit of a juxtaposition. And there's nothing wrong with that! There's nothing wrong with the beautiful sparkle lights except that, you know, this Christmas creep from late December and early January into early December and late November and now early November, it prevents us from giving Advent and from giving darkness it's due.
You know, we like the idea of hopping from one high point to another high point, to another high point without ever stopping or pausing to catch our breath in between. That is our culture. Go, go, go, go, go, go, go. Focus on the positive. Stay positive. Hashtag blessed all the time, Instagram, social media, everything's beautiful, everything's perfect. Everybody is living their best life now. And now is always, and everything is always bright and shiny and perfect. Market it baby! And it's all baloney and we all know it. You can't live like that. And any culture that would ask us to live like that all the time, not acknowledging the fact that the bright light requires sometimes a little bit of rest, it's just asking us to behave in a way that's manic. Darkness brings balance.
We cannot live in the dark forever. But when we resist venturing into the darkness of our traditions in our spiritual lives, we alienate most of the people we think we're trying to protect when we keep the bright lights on all the time: the people who are living through the darker times of life. Now, as a minister, I know many, many people who have had something happen at Christmas, for instance, the loss of a loved one on or around the Christmas season. And they come to loathe holidays that they once loved. Why? Why should that have to happen? Because the bright lights of Christmas and the holiday cheer don't make any room for the grief that they are going to always have to carry at that time of the year. Because it comes around annually. We need to make a little bit more room for darkness in our lives.
I've been beating around the bush a little bit here. But you know, this is true of all of us to a certain extent. We're a little bit afraid of the dark because you know, when the lights are out, you can't see what's coming physically or spiritually. When the lights are on, you can see what's coming. You can react, you can respond. But when it's dark, you don't exactly know what's coming for you. And that makes darkness frightening for many of us. And it doesn't help when Jesus says on the first Sunday of Advent that when he arrives in our lives, he is going to come like a thief in the night. Well, that doesn't sound very appealing. Why would Jesus want to do that? You would think that Jesus wouldn't want to associate himself with such an image, a thief in the night. Can you imagine how Jesus' PR department and his branding consultants must have been pulling their hair out when he let that one fly? A thief in the night? Come on.
When a thief came in the night in Jesus’ day, the thief didn't announce themselves. They snuck in while you were asleep and while you weren't paying attention. And in those days, people didn't have like flat screen TVs hanging on the wall and all that kind of stuff. You didn't have a whole lot of stuff. Maybe if there was something to steal in your house, it was hidden away somewhere like inside a couch cushion or something like that, your savings, a few coins, a little bit of silver. And so you would wake up in the morning and you might not even know that your treasure had been taken away because someone had snuck in and gotten it away from you. Advent is a season that asks us to pay attention, and it asks us to take our treasures out of their secreted, hiding places to check on them. What are the treasures that you have in your life? What are the gifts you hold in the darkness? You go and you pull them out of their hiding places, and you hold them in your hands and you think about them, meditate on them, tell them that you love them. Maybe stay up all night, waiting, watching, praying. You keep your eyes on the window for a little bit of light that's going to come in. It can happen when you least expect it.
Jesus can show up. Your treasures may be needed. Keep them close. Stay awake. Don’t lose heart. So this advent, let's not be afraid of the dark. Let's use the dark to watch for the coming of the light.
In August of 2013 I went on a vacation that changed my life. It was a road trip out West with my then girlfriend now wife, Bonnie, and Bonnie’s mother, and Bonnie’s sister, and Maura, Catherine, and Niamh, Bonnie’s cousins. I had never spent any significant time with any of Bonnie’s relatives, and now I was about to spend 10 days in a minivan with her and five of her closest female relatives. The joke from the Mohan women was that if this vacation didn’t scare me off, nothing would. I mean they laughed when they said it, so maybe it was a joke, but I knew this trip was also a test of sorts, and I was a little nervous. And so were they, and so was Bonnie. What would we discover about one another?
The road trip started in Yosemite National Park, and we did a lot of hiking. On the third day Bonnie and I hiked from the valley floor up to Glacier Point. We thought we’d have enough time and energy to hike up and back down, but by the time we got up to the point, we knew it was probably going to be dark by the time we got back to camp, and we were tired and hungry. You can drive up to Glacier Point so we asked some normal looking people who looked like they might have room in their SUVs for us if they’d mind if we hitched a ride down with them, and they all practically fell over themselves trying to get away from us as fast as possible. So, we call down to Bonnie’s family to drive up (which was a long ride) and get us. But while we were on the phone, some German tourists pulled over for us, with just enough room in their little rental car, and they said they heard we needed a ride, and they offered us a ride down the mountain. They were three wonderful guys and I really appreciated the ride. They were even going out of their way a little bit to get us back to our camp.
When we got back I insisted that our German heroes get out for a bit and join us. I appreciated their kindness and I wanted to offer them something, but it was our last day of camping, and I wasn’t sure that we had much, I was also really tired. And this is the moment that I’ll never forget from that trip. Bonnie’s family treated our new German friends like hometown heroes. And we didn’t have much in the way of food, but they offered them our last few cans of beer and we broke out the cooler full of snacks and feasted them as best we could. I didn’t need to do anything but sit by the river with my new friends, and the beer and food and welcome was brought by the rest of the less tired family. I’ll never forget it, because it was the first time I felt like Bonnie’s family was MY family, and I was so, so grateful that I was a part of this family that knew how to show love and gratitude to strangers with whatever was at hand.
I was lying in my bedroll that night, trying to think about why it was that such a simple meal, such simple gratitude, moved me so much. Was it just because I’m a minister and a Christian and Jesus was someone who also valued meals and who sat and ate with strangers and served the table? That must have been a part of it, but there was something more. I let my mind wander, and I found myself thinking of Thanksgiving dinners as a kid.
I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving, in general. It is the greatest American holiday. It was invented by Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War. Lincoln saw Thanksgiving as an antidote to the forces that were tearing the country apart. How do we face the horrors and the grief of this war? With a meal, with our family, with Thanksgiving for the blessings we have received, and maybe that will help sustain a hope in our hearts that this national division that separates us from our neighbors is not permanent and may one day know peace again. Maybe Lincoln knew that a young, vibrant, changing democracy like the United States would always need a holiday like this. In some ways, on a national level, Thanksgiving is even better than Christmas, because EVERYBODY in our country celebrates it. North, south, east, and west, black white, and brown, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist, republican, and democrat, expats gone for decades, and immigrants who have just arrived, we all celebrate Thanksgiving. In our reading from Deuteronomy, another source text and origin story for Thanksgiving, when you had your harvest feast of Thanksgiving, you made sure that even the aliens in your land were invited to celebrate too. NO ONE was supposed to be left out.
There is a deep spiritual truth here. If you are truly blessed, and if you are truly grateful for that blessing, you’re going to have at least little something for everyone. No one can be left out! Your Thanksgiving should be more than a private pious moment, it should be a celebration that benefits even the strangers you barely know yet.
I learned that as a kid at my family’s Thanksgiving table. When we celebrated, the whole family got together, the food was always plentiful, and there was almost always somebody else at the table. For instance, my grandfather had a neighbor for many years. His wife and he never had children and had no close family. When his wife died, my mother started to invite him to Thanksgiving dinner. She wasn’t particularly close to the man, she just knew he needed a place to be, and so she invited him, and he came and celebrated with us for many Thanksgiving meals. And he wasn’t the only one. If we knew someone might need a place, they got an invitation.
And so that reason I was so deeply moved by my new family’s hospitality to three foreign strangers who visited our camp was because of the lessons I had learned at my family’s Thanksgiving table. This is how you prepare for the whole nation’s holiest day. You stuff the turkey, you bake the pie, you have the whole family over, you hold hands together around the table and say grace and give thanks to God, AND don’t forget to invite a stranger or anyone else who might need a place to sit.
And, of course, this is also my best vision for what a church should be—not a private prayer chapel, not a cavernous holy space where you can get lost in the alcoves. Those are wonderful things too, but church at it’s best is a community of people who have woven their lives together with gratitude and love and fellowship and faith in such a deep and meaningful way that when strangers and new friends pass through our community, there is something for them to grab a hold of, there may even be a safety net of love that can catch them and hold them in their time of need. This is my point. A church that knows the true meaning of Thanksgiving is not just a collection of individuals who feel grateful, it is a community that believes holiness is made complete when we invite a new friend to join us.
What lasts? Really lasts? In a world where things are constantly changing, and where disaster seems to always be right around the corner, and where there is endless turnover in trends, and truths, and regimes, and borders, what really lasts? What do you think? Maybe nothing truly lasts. Maybe eventually everything is gobbled up by the inexorable woodchipper of time. Maybe everything is eventually lost. Maybe, but I don’t think so. And I don’t think Jesus thought so either. Jesus, I think, wants us to know that the things we typically think are going to last aren’t the things that are really going to last. Jesus doesn’t want us relying on the wrong things—things that eventually rust, or get eaten by moths, or get knocked down. He wants us to experience the things that really do last.
Take the Temple in Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day it was the center of religious, political, and economic power. That seems like a place that ought to last! And it was huge too. It covered 35 acres. A NYC block covers five acres. Imagine 7 city blocks, and it’s 14 stories tall at its highest point. That seems like something that should last, doesn’t it? And did I mention it was made entirely out of stone? There’s this one stone in the Western Wall that we think is the largest stone ever used in construction in human history. You might be able to squeeze that stone into our sanctuary if you took out a couple of walls, but the problem is that it’s so heavy that nobody alive today has any idea how to move it. That seems like something that should last! And by the time Jesus came along the Temple was already like 600 years old. Doesn’t that seem like something that’s just going to be there forever?
But while everyone else is admiring the architecture and the stonework and the views, Jesus reminds them that even this Temple—this ancient, stone seat of power and the center of their world—will not last forever. And he was tragically proved right. About four decades later the unthinkable happened—the Temple was utterly destroyed by a Roman army during the sack of Jerusalem.
Now, this might feel disappointing to you if you were hoping that Jesus’ mysterious words in our scripture reading this morning were about the Apocalypse—some vague notions of the end of the world cobbled together with little pieces of the Bible taken out of their original contexts. I hate to disappoint, but Jesus was not talking about some event in our future. He was talking about an event in his future, now far in our past.
But he was also making a larger point, wasn’t he? Even the Temple will one day be gone. If it hadn’t happened in the year 70, it would have happened eventually. Wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, pandemics, comets and asteroids—eventually something is going to take us out. Scientists tell us that the whole Earth will be gone in five billion years and the sun in 10 billion. And some billions of years after that the entire universe may just stretch itself out into an empty, cold, lightless infinity. So, what really and truly lasts?
When confronted with the possibility of the apocalypse or an apocalypse (little apocalypses are happening all the time—a divorce, a job loss, a cancer diagnosis, a natural disaster) when we face these possibilities, one response is the fear response. The fear response says, I should try to placate the power in charge of apocalypses so that apocalyptic things don’t happen to me. I will believe in God, so that God will protect me from all the trials and tribulations of the world. This perspective finds it’s “highest” expression in the entirely made-up “doctrine” of the Rapture—in which obscure biblical verses are strung together to suggest that at the beginning of the looming end of the world all the good, believing Christians will be whisked away to Heaven and the ungodly along with all the other religions of the world will have to suffer the plagues and wars of the end of times all alone. I mean hadn’t you heard? Bad things never happen to good people! That just wouldn’t be fair!
Jesus puts it simply for his followers (not for his non-followers, he said this to his FOLLOWERS): You will be arrested, persecuted, imprisoned, tried, and hated. You will experience division, betrayal, and the loss of family and friends. And some of you will even be executed. And then Jesus says something very strange. He says, “But not a hair of your head will perish.” That’s a very strange thing to say to someone you’ve just predicted may very well be put to death.
Well, they’re going to kill you. Yeah, they’re definitely going to do that. But don’t worry about your hair. Your hair is going to look great the whole time. No, I think it’s almost like a riddle. You may suffer. You may die. But not even one hair of your head will be lost. Because, beloved, whatever trail or tribulation you may pass through (and you can be certain that you’re going to pass through some) Jesus wants you and me to be the things that truly last. Jesus wants us to endure. And when we endure, he says we gain our souls.
In the turmoil of the world and in the trials of our lives, it is our authenticity, our forthrightness, the expression of our character, our truth, and our selves that matter most. Life is hard. But you have a destiny—God’s plan for you. This destiny, these plans, are built into your life, they are a part of you, they are you. Now, when tragedy strikes in your life, as it probably has before and certainly will again, the person who God made you to be doesn’t suddenly go away. In fact, sometimes it’s in the walk through the valley of the shadow of death that we discover more deeply who it is that God made us to be and we can express more fully what it is that God gave each and every one of us to express. Do you believe that? Do you believe that you have a destiny, that God has a plan? Do you believe that there is something inside of you that God created in you and that your life—its joys and its sorrows—is just God’s way of giving YOU every opportunity to come out as fully as possible?
If you don’t quite believe it, let me suggest a prayer you can pray starting today. Pray, “God, I believe that I am here for a reason.” It’s a very short prayer. It’s like a breath prayer, you can pray it all day long on repeat, if you want. But even if you just pray it a few times a day, take the time to pray that prayer. I am here for a reason. When you pay attention to your life and when you walk out into the world with that prayer in your heart, you might begin to see your opportunities a little differently. We have a couple pairs of prayer partners in our congregation this month. Prayer partners, why don’t you discuss this together. What am I here for? We need to live this question out as the question of our lives, at all times. We need to believe that whatever we face, when we are living faithfully to who God intends us to be, the expression of those gifts will outlast stone and outshine the sun.
Do you believe that? Can you believe that an act of simple generosity or human kindness or music making or falling in love will last longer and matter more than all the stars in the sky? Do you believe that something will last? Do you believe that you’re a part of it?
God, I believe I am here for a reason. Amen.
“Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy. And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest.” How many of you recognize that? Those are the opening lines of one of the most popular and celebrated children’s books of all time, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. You’re familiar with it, right?
And this book has many fans. Many fans. You may be one of them, yeah? So, it is with some trepidation that I confess to you all that I am not a fan of The Giving Tree. I think its story sends us all the wrong messages about giving. And this morning we’re going to talk about those messages in order to help us understand the meaning of Jesus’ parable from our scripture reading this morning, which I’m calling The Parable of the Ungiving Tree.
Now the reason we’re talking about all this this Sunday is because we’re nearing the end of our church’s Stewardship Season, which this year we’ve themed “Cultivating Community.” Next Sunday is Consecration Sunday, so we’re asking you over the next week to really think about what you can give to this community in 2023, we’re asking you to write it down on your pledge card, and we’re asking you to bring it to church next Sunday for a blessing. If you’re not here on Sunday, you can mail us your card or just pledge online, but we want all your pledges in by Sunday, so this is the week to decide if and how and why you are going to give to our community.
Giving is always good, right? The Giving Tree starts out OK, as you heard. The tree loves the boy, and the boy loves the tree. The boy climbs the tree, swings in the tree, plays with the tree, sleeps in the tree, hugs the tree. And the tree is happy.
But as the boy grows things take a turn. The boy is distracted by his expanding life and the tree is left all alone. When the boy finally returns to the tree he doesn’t want to play anymore. He wants money. So the tree offers her apples to the boy so he can sell them and make money. He takes all her apples and leaves her all alone again.
Much later, the boy returns and now he wants a family. So the tree offers all her branches so the boy can build a house. And he takes them all. The boy returns again as an older man and wants to go on a voyage, so the tree offers her trunk so he can make a boat out of it.
Now this tree, once full of leaves and apples and swinging branches and life and joy, has been reduced to a stump. And the boy returns one last time as an old man, looking for a place to rest. And the stump that was once his beloved tree offers him a seat on top of her. And the final image of the book is an old man sitting on a stump, staring off into the blank emptiness of the page. And the text next to it reads, “And the tree was happy.” Really?
So, I have to ask, what kind of love is this exactly? Is this supposed to be a model for our relationship to nature? We can just take and take and take? Strip mine the mountains, pollute the atmosphere, overfish the oceans, and clear cut the forests. And when we’ve killed our happy planet, we’ll just what—sit content on the stumps of the earth? Where’s the Lorax when you need him? Somebody needs to speak for the trees!
But this is the fundamental flaw of The Giving Tree—the Giving Tree has no needs other than wanting to give. And that’s a dangerous fantasy. There is no such thing as a tree or a friend or a wife or a husband or a planet or a church or anything else that only wants to give you what you want and does everything to make you happy without needing anything in return. Does NOT exist.
What about parenthood? Maybe parenthood feels like this sometimes. But if Bonnie is ever an old stump of a woman, exhausted from giving her all to her family, and then her grown son comes along because he wants something instead of showing up to care for her, I will know that I have failed to teach my son some pretty important lessons about love and respect and honor. Even your mother needs something in return.
I Love You Forever is my favorite children’s book about mothers and sons. The mother gives so much care and love to her son, but at the end of the book when she’s old and sick her son returns the care she gave to him to her. Then he goes home and he rocks and he sings to his baby daughter just like he had been rocked and sung to when he was growing up. Because part of growing up is learning to give back and to pay it forward—messages painfully absent at the stump end of The Giving Tree.
And so some people say that it’s true that no person, no planet even, can love you like this. No, earthly mother can love you like this, but your heavenly father can. Doesn’t God give us everything? And doesn’t God love us no matter what? And didn’t Jesus dies for our sins? Well, yes and no.
The boy in this story gets everything he asks for, but it costs him nothing. And that’s not how God works. God’s grace is not cheap. Cheap grace is the kind of grace that gives and gives and gives without ever asking anything of us in return. But the grace of the Gospel is transformational grace—grace that demands—from within our own hearts and souls—that we change, that we sacrifice, that we confess, that we forgive, that we reconcile, that we care for one another, that we care for the least of these. The boy in The Giving Tree he grows, but he never grows up. Even when he’s an old man the book it just calls him “the boy.” He doesn’t change. The tree gives the boy everything he wants without requiring him to grow up, to give back, or to pay it forward.
Just imagine how healthy it would have been for this bratty man-child to have heard that tree say, “NO.” Imagine what might have happened then in that discomfort.
And so we come to Jesus’ Parable of the Ungiving Tree. The boy shows up at the tree wanting some figs instead of apples this time. And the tree says, “NO! NO FIGS FOR YOU!” And the boy storms off. He comes back the next year and still no figs. And the next year same thing! He’s indignant! “This tree of mine that I have neglected except to come and demand figs of it when I am suddenly in the mood for figs is not meeting my needs! CHOP IT DOWN!”
If we’re being honest, we all have this boy inside of us to some extent. This boy has ruined marriages and friendships, caused us to yell at millions of perfectly polite customer service representatives just trying to do their jobs, and to do even crazier things—I recently got furiously mad at a new diaper pail Bonnie bought because I didn’t think it was designed well enough. That’s right. I didn’t think a pail was designed well enough for me to throw my baby’s poop in. This boy inside of us, he thinks he’s hot stuff, but really, he’s a ridiculous child.
Luckily for us, this is where Jesus shows us his alternative to demanding that the world suit our needs. When the boy who owns the vineyard tells his worker working in the vineyard to cut down the tree, this worker, this gardener begs for more time. Let me care for this tree. Let me fertilize it. Let me give it what it needs so that it can produce figs for everyone.
The part of us that wants figs and wants them now is always a little louder. That’s why he owns the vineyard. But all of us have this other voice in us as well. And though it may be quieter, and less powerful, Jesus tells us that the gardener’s way is our true destiny as Christians. Because Christians don’t give up. We don’t lose hope. We don’t make demands—we give ourselves over to God’s will and we act for God’s Realm. We don’t think only of ourselves. We dedicate ourselves to serving others. We get our hands dirty. We don’t just consume the figs. We cultivate the figs.
As you consider your pledge for 2023 over this final week of stewardship season, don’t think of it as trying to cover what you have consumed. Think of it as empowering our church to grow and to thrive beyond your personal needs. Give because your neighbors have needs. Give because this church has needs.
Because there’s s no such thing as the giving tree. You can’t be one. And neither can your church. If you’re going to be a part of this church, you should know that there’s a chance that one day you’re going to need figs, and you’re going to show up to church looking for figs, and there won’t be any figs. There are three possible responses: 1. You can hope it was just a bad day and come looking for figs some other time. 2. You can move on to another church and hope that that church is a true giving tree and that it has all the resources that it needs to always meet your need for figs. 3. With the hunger for figs in your mouth, you can join Jesus at the roots of this tree, with your hands in the dirt, and you can cultivate your community.
Every good story has a hero and a villain, right? Dorothy vs. The Wicked Witch of the West. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader. Cinderella vs. her stepmother and step sisters. The best stories have good guys and bad guys. So, in Jesus’ story this morning, who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy? What do you think?
Two people go to pray in the temple. One of them stands there in the place of honor and says, Oh man, aren't I a great guy? I do everything right. I tithe, I fast. Woo, I'm glad I'm not like those people who don't. It was a Pharisee. And another is a tax collector, and he stands off to the side—apart from everyone else—beating his breast; he doesn't look up. He looks down and he says, Have mercy on me, a sinner. And the text tells us that one goes down to his house, justified—the tax collector—and the other one, the Pharisee, does not.
Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Was the Pharisee (boo, hiss) a good guy? Our Bibles tell us the Pharisees were always after Jesus and Jesus was always arguing with them. We know that the Pharisees are no good. And our Bibles tell us that Jesus hung out with tax collectors, he visited their homes and sat down to eat with them, and that two, maybe more, of Jesus’ disciples were tax collectors. So, it’s obvious right. We know that the Pharisee is the bad guy and the tax collector is the good guy, right?
Unfortunately, things are almost never that simple when Jesus gives a parable. Today, we think that the Pharisees are no good and the tax collectors are faithful, but that was not what anyone who would have heard Jesus actually telling this parable would have thought. To them the Pharisees were the good guys and the tax collectors were the absolute lowest of the low. Now not everyone would have agreed with everything the Pharisees did and said, but they were known to be faithful, righteous, pious. Today they’d be the people who go to church, the people who stand up for good morals and speak out against corruption, they’d be on the board of the local soup kitchen, they’d be the president of the rotary club, or the longest serving member of the school board or the PTA, maybe the head of the local Democratic or Republican club—upstanding citizens in every way. And tax collectors were universally despised both as traitors to their people for collecting taxes for an occupying empire (the Romans) and as singularly corrupt individuals who abused their collection powers to take more than was required from poor people in order to line their own pockets. Imagine today a spy who reveals information that endangers our troops or agents or telemarketer conman who prayers on the elderly, or a thief at a non-profit who invents children on paper in order to steal COVID relief funds to buy themselves a new car.
So, for Jesus, this was not a story about a bad man who thinks highly of himself (the Pharisee) and a good man who is humble (the tax collector). And think about it. We don’t need that story, do we? Nobody really needs to learn that lesson. Instead it’s the story of how a notoriously bad man (the tax collector) is justified or saved, while the unquestionably good man is not.
And, so, this becomes a parable for us and for our times because it is a parable about what we think about our own righteousness, of our own points of view, and what we think about our neighbors. Because there are a lot of people in the world today who know they are on God’s side, they know that they are right, and they despise the people who believe, act, and behave differently than them. It’s all over the place in our culture right now, isn’t it. Now listen to the parable. The parable is not about the dangers of thinking you’re good and being wrong. It’s not about the dangers of thinking you’re right and being wrong. It’s not about the dangers of judging others and being wrong. It’s about the dangers of being actually good and actually right.
And, Beloved, it pains me to preach it! Because, believe me, I know I’m a good person! You don’t become the Sr. Minister of Glen Ridge Congregational Church by being a lousy person. I’ve worked hard my whole life to understand and to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to put it into action in my life, and dedicate myself to it. And I can’t read or hear the news without hearing about something or somebody that I really don’t approve of—crime, politics, crime masquerading as politics, social disagreements about policing, about race, about guns, about abortion, even religion—isn’t is a minister’s job to know that I’m right about this stuff? And you know what? The Pharisee was right too! And he knew it! Everyone knew it! Heck, even the tax collector knew it! But being right didn’t do the Pharisee any good. And it won’t do any of us any good either. Beloved, I’m no tax collector. I’m no traitor, I’m no thief. I’m honest, I’m faithful, I’m generous. And I’ve worked so hard to get there. I’m the Pharisee. I’m the good guy and I know it. And that’s the problem.
I know, I know. This is starting sound like another one of Pastor Jeff’s crazy Jesus sermons. The reason that my sermons about Jesus are a little hard to swallow is because the Gospel is hard. The Gospel is not hard because it asks us to be good. The Gospel is hard because of how it asks us to be good.
Now, what does all this mean? Am I not allowed to have an opinion about what’s right and what’s wrong? You’re allowed to have an opinion about right and wrong, of course. So, you’re saying we’re just not allowed to be certain—absolutely certain, convicted—that we’re right. No. You’re allowed to be sure, to be certain that you’re right. It does open us all up to a certain level of risk because none of us is always right, but you’re allowed to know that you’re right on an issue. You’re allowed to be good. You’re allowed to be right.
Here's the rub, good people. A good person also needs to be the kind of good person who doesn’t stand alone, like the Pharisee in our reading, who doesn’t pray alone, who doesn’t fall into the trap of thinking that believing, even that living out, the right thing makes us better than other people.
A good person must follow Jesus. And what I mean by that is that a good person is someone who, like Jesus, is willing to sit down and eat and drink with the sinners and the tax collectors of the world. Christians are not called to be better than the world. We are called to love the world, to serve the world, to be in relationship with all of God’s people and all of our neighbors. No good person should ever be “alone” in the Temple, holding themselves up above others. And no person (good or bad, and let God be the judge of that!) should ever be forced to pray at the margins of the Temple or to live at the margins of our human kindness. Being good should not make me think that I am better than anyone else. Being good should connect me to everyone else—especially to the lost, the suffering, and the oppressed. Love your neighbors as you love yourselves.
Which brings me to my concluding point this morning. As I was reading the scripture this week and preparing for this sermon, I couldn't help but notice the separation that these two individuals experienced, siloed from one another, the Pharisee praying alone, the tax collector off at the margins by himself. And I couldn't help but think what would've happened if they had just connected to one another, found one another, and maybe even prayed together. Couldn't that have been the beginning of transformation for the good guy and the bad guy? Couldn't that have made everything a little bit better?
Here at Glen Ridge Congregational Church we are really focusing in on how to connect to one another inside the walls of the church and how to connect to our wider community. And in the spirit of that, I want to invite you all to a little program. I'm starting called the Prayer Partners Program. The basic outline is very simple. I want you all to be brave enough to pray with one another. It's simple. You're going to get a prayer partner for the month. Every week of that month, you're going call your prayer partner or you're going meet them in person. You're going to chat for 15 minutes about what's going on in your life—the good, the bad, the ugly—and then you're going to bow your heads and you're just going to pray for one another. And then at the end of the month, if you want to do it again, you'll get a different prayer partner. And so, we are going to connect to one another in a way that is transformational and that prepares us to connect to people in a way that is transformational beyond the walls of our church.
I hope that you'll join me in praying together and in letting your goodness connect you to all of God's people.
I have always believed in the sacred. You know, the sacred—the space or the time or the symbols or the rituals that God is somehow always touching, always a part of. But I’ve also, as my Christian faith has matured, come to believe in the ordinary as well as the sacred. And my belief in the ordinary has freed me to encounter the sacred in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before.
Emile Durkheim’s, who published The Sacred and the Profane in 1912, believed, mostly correctly I think, that the distinction between the sacred and the profane is the defining characteristic of the phenomenon of human religion. For him this was the origin of all religion, it was the thing that all religions have in common, and it’s fairly obvious, the idea is that there are some things that are sacred and there are other things that are definitely not sacred—ordinary or profane things that need to be separated from the sacred things. And when you think about it, this division between the sacred and the profane has a profound impact on the way we see and interpret the whole world around us.
This split between the sacred and the profane is maybe the original dualism. Dualism is our culture’s working theory that all of reality is composed of opposing, irreducible, and irreconcilable elements or natures. Dualism is the intentional pulling apart of things that, I believe, were never meant to be fully separated, and then, once they are separated, our dualistic culture places one of them OVER AND AGAINST the other. And so, we have masculinity over and against femininity. Heterosexuality over and against homosexuality. Whiteness over and against blackness. God over and against humans. Humans over and against nature. Mind over and against body. Reason over and against emotion. Spirituality over and against sexuality. Christianity over and against secularity.
But as my Christian faith has grown, I’ve encountered in Jesus a gift for finding the sacred in very unusual places—low, unacceptable, dirty, unclean, immoral, unexpected, common places—in the socially abandoned widow, in the fungus known as yeast or leaven, in children, in the tiniest seeds of the unremarkable mustard weed, by the well where the women lingered, among the sick and the dead, in the company of a corrupt tax collector, in the Samaritans, in the Syro-Phoenicians, even in the Romans, in the meek, the mourning, and the poor. And Jesus called some other things profane that it was not popular, not even safe to call profane—the Temple, attitudes about the Sabbath, certain interpretations of the Law, the hypocritical intolerance of the pious, the religious and political authorities of his day.
Let’s look more closely at the first example and the example from our reading this morning—the widow. Some of you know that one of my early job titles in ministry was being Chaplain to New York City restaurant workers. Walking down the street one evening, almost 20 years ago, I ran into a group of workers outside their restaurant who were protesting. I asked them what was going on and they told me about stolen tips, unpaid overtime, racial discrimination in promotions, sexual harassment on the job, and the federal lawsuit they had filed. I told them I was a seminary student and would love to learn more.
They told me that they might have to stop protesting soon due to some legal shenanigans being conducted by their employer’s lawyers. They said to me, “If you could hold prayer vigils outside the restaurant for anyone who wanted to come, it would be a way to maneuver around any legal blockades the lawyers are inventing.” Of course, I agreed, and our weekly sacred prayer vigils (which lasted for 2 years) became deeply entangled in the profane secularity of NYC sidewalks, and labor disputes, and litigations.
I remember the first sermon I preached out on a New York City sidewalk in front of a restaurant surrounded by restaurant workers and their allies. It wasn’t good. Not necessarily because of what I said or how I planned the service but because of my attitude. There was some part of me that felt I had to MAKE this whole thing holy, sacred, spiritual. That was the only way it could be acceptable. I didn’t want it to just be a protest. I had to elevate it.
But then look at Jesus and our parable this morning. A widow fighting for justice, and perhaps not afraid to be annoying and obnoxious in her pursuit of that goal, is obviously not only someone that Jesus admires on her own terms, but someone Jesus considers to be a fitting example for all of us on how to engage in a sacred activity—prayer. Is Jesus saying to us that it’s not sacred prayer that elevates the profane protest, but the profane protest that can teach us something about the sacred?
I began to see that I didn’t have to MAKE any restaurant workers’ protest sacred, instead it was my job to bear witness to the sacred that was already there in that protest and to cultivate it—to let everyone know that their noise and their anger and their desire for justice and compensation was a secular and a sacred pursuit. For me, restaurant workers showed me how to take the sacred to the secular—in the sense that they showed me that it was there all along, wrapped up, struggling, shaped and shaping. Not separate, not over and against, but “in the middle of our humanity and in the midst of our human living.” That is where the sacred can be found in it’s truest form—at the heart of the ordinary thing that God has chosen.
As followers of Jesus, and as a Church, this, I believe, should be what defines us. Jesus’ religion is not about guarding the sacred from the secular. It’s not about protecting the inside of the church from the world outside the church. It’s not about insulating ourselves from the neighborhood or from the unchurched hordes surrounding us on all sides. Jesus’ religion is about carrying the good news out into the world to offer it to everybody. Jesus’ religion teaches us that the sacred is dead without the energy of real life, real work, real art, and real people. Jesus’ religion is the religion where an ordinary, poor and outcast widow, fighting for justice (and totally outmatched, but refusing to give up) is the sacred symbol that points to God and God’s Kingdom better than all the steeples, and stained glass, and Sunday sermons in the world.
Beloved, our job as Christians is to see with Jesus’ eyes. We do not to separate ourselves from our neighbors or from God. We do not try to protect holy God from this profane world. Our job is to join ourselves without ceasing to this world, to the people in it, and to the dirty work of the righteous causes that fill it. And when we do that, we are also crossing the boundary into the sacred. We give ourselves to God, and God redeems us all.
Beloved, lately, I'm finding democracy to be a bit of a contradiction. Democracy, which I believe in deeply as the best basis for politics and governance is only possible because of people, because of all of you. All of us People make democracy possible. And then those very same people ruin democracy, Fake news, conspiracy theories, ex extreme political views normalized in social media streams lately, I've been wondering if democracy for the people by the people can actually survive. The people you see. And I know you know this is true. People are stubborn, they're rude, they're loud, they're opinionated, they're prejudiced, they're selfish, un thoughtful, unkind people have large carbon footprints. And it is a proven fact that the less expertise people have in a subject, the more confident they are that they are right on a topic. And the less they are able to recognize that they are mistaken, people are poorly designed. No offense, <laugh>. I'm saying all this this morning because I know that many of you are feeling exactly how I've been feeling lately, that people are just the worst. People are going to ruin the present and they're going to destroy the future. Maybe I'd be better off without you people. Well, not you people, but you know everybody else. If there were no other people, I wouldn't have to worry about the climate or the midterms or the next session of the Supreme Court or nuclear war in Europe or anything.
You've all been telling me how worried you are, how angry you feel, how threatened you feel, how hopeless you are that things are ever going to get better, and how much you hate the people whose opinions and policies and votes have gotten us into all this trouble. Well, it's right to feel despair for a little while, but ultimately we Christians must turn ourselves towards hope. And yes, our reasons for despair are serious and they feel overwhelming. But our reasons for hope and God and for hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ are far greater. And what choice do we really have? Beloved, welcome to reality. We can't get rid of other people. Other people are not just basis for democracy. They're the basis for the whole world and civilization that we live in. Hopelessness for the potential in other people is maybe the very biggest threat to our future together. So let's get into the text this morning. We're gonna go backwards because we need to start with Jesus's despair. Jesus says this morning, We're not 10 made clean. So where are the other nine? Did none of them give glory to God except this foreigner? And do you hear the hurt and the despair and the pain and the worry and the fed upness in Jesus' voice with other lousy people?
Jesus was constantly disappointed by people, right? His own disciples did not understand him. His family, when he began his ministry, they started to call him crazy. When he went back to his hometown to announce that he was going to start going around and announcing, proclaiming the kingdom of God, his own hometown crowd tried to kill him. And remember where Jesus is heading to, He, he's being assaulted by the authorities. People are trying to grind him down with every good deed that he does, people come to him for healing. And then some of those very same people criticize him for healing. And Jesus is predicting where all this is going to go. He is predicting the kind of trouble that he is going to get himself into. He is predicting that he is going to die on the cross. Betrayed, abandoned, executed, did. Jesus had a lot of reasons to feel hopeless and to give up on people. But he doesn't give up. He doesn't stop healing people when they come to him and yell at him, Hey, heal us too. He doesn't stop preaching the very message that all those people are criticizing him for preaching. He doesn't stop teaching. He doesn't stop reaching out, and he doesn't stop setting himself up for massive disappointment.
Why not? How was he able to do it?
Moving backward through the text. Now we come to these 10 men who have a skin disease. Now that is a recent update in the translation, the nr s v updated edition going all the way back to the King James version of the Bible. You probably have traditionally heard this passage known as the passage of the 10 lepers. Now, the reason that it's been updated to say skin disease is that all biblical scholars and medical specialists and historians agree that leprosy the true leprosy Hansen's disease, the disease we know today did not exist in first century Palestine. Where Jesus was doing his ministry, it's a mistranslation. They saw in the text skin diseases that were causing people to stay away from one another. And it seemed like, well, it must be the worst skin disease you can think of. And so they called it leprosy, but it didn't exist then.
And the problem with this translation is that we have come to believe that the reason that these 10 men held themselves away from, from the rest of the people and didn't come close to Jesus is because they were under some sort of reasonable medical quarantine. But they weren't. The skin diseases that they had were not necessarily contagious at all. It could have been a patch of really bad acne. It could have been psoriasis. It could have been a little melanoma. It could have been something that you have or have had or are dealing with in your life right now. There was nothing medically wrong with them that forced them to be on the outside of society. It was a social ostracization. Having something wrong with your skin was something that made you ritually impure. It just meant that you were not able to be around other people because you could transmit this sort of ritual profanity to other people.
It was basically a social disease. You couldn't come near other people simply because you had some sort of mark on your skin that made you unacceptable for the temple. And that meant unacceptable for all of life. For all of people who were connected to the temple. It was a very difficult way to live. So it wasn't quarantine, it was exile. They had been pushed out. And yet having experienced the very absolute worst of society's unfairness and unkindness to others, they call out. They haven't given up. They're not yet totally hopeless. They believe that it's worth it to call across the distance of their ostracization and to ask for healing. Why? Why?
And I think the answer is very, very simple. It is simply because the pain of being outside of society, the pain of being outside of your community is a pain that is worse than death. We think other people are the problem. But really, what would our lives be without other people? Our lives would have very little meaning, very little joy, very little comfort. We would have no love, no relationships, no friends, no books, no movies, no culture whatsoever, no ability to participate in this world. Not to mention you'd have to do everything for yourself. You'd have to grow your own food. You'd have to build your own house. You'd have to sew your own clothes. You'd have to take out your own appendix. We cannot survive without other people. And the only thing that insulates all of us from this understanding, the thing that allows us to wallow in our despair and to fantasize about a world without all those idiots filling it up is our own privilege. That's it. People at the margins, people forced into exile understand better than we do about the absolute necessity to belonging to a people, to being on the inside.
The 10 men with a skin disease. They had no choice. They weren't not allowed to participate. They were thrown out. But we, we have a choice. Will I take the hard path to participation in this world and with people and hope for the future? Or will I remain on the comfortable path of voluntary withdrawal and despair? That's the choice that we have before us. That's the choice that I struggle with every day that I turn on the news. For these 10 men, there is only one choice. And so from a distance they call out. And from a distance, God responds. So beloved, let us remember what Paul teaches us. That there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from God's love and healing. There is no distance that God cannot overcome. There is no pain that God cannot heal. There is no sin that God cannot forgive. That is true for me. That is true for you. And oh, oh woo. That is true for every other person in this world, no matter who they are, what they believe in or how they behave. That's the part that's hard to accept. I liked it when it was about me.
We like to hear that God loves us no matter what. It's a lot harder to hear that God loves our enemies no matter what, and that God expects the same from me. It makes us feel less special. And it reminds us of the sometimes uncomfortable truth that all people are created by God equally. So this brings me back to my despair about democracy. I think lately I've been thinking that democracy is only working when 50.01% of the people in a democracy vote for or support the right thing or the right person. And I think 99.9% of the time, I think that that is usually means that the right one is the same one that I'm voting for or supporting. And I guess that's understandable at a time when we are so equally divided, our tension is focused on the unsure outcomes of our democratic processes. But it is the outcomes that are maybe not the point of democracy. Is it the outcomes that are the most important part of our democracy? Did the founders of this country say that we were going to be a democracy because the people would always make the right choice and that they would never be wrong?
No, that's not what they said. When our country was founded, it was not the outcomes of democracy that were the most important. It was the foundations of democracy. And what are those foundations? The foundations of democracy are that all people are created equal and that the individual person created and endowed with rights by God has infinite priceless value. We are a democracy because the individual right to hold an opinion, we must believe is more important than holding and acting upon the right opinion. Well, that makes perfect sense to me as a Christian, but as a person who cares deeply about truth and justice and progress, I admit it's sometimes hard to swallow.
But beloved, this is the gospel basis of our hope that nothing can separate us from God, no distance, that all of us have infinite worth, even thank God when we are wrong. And that the truth is that we don't have any choice. We need other people to survive without other people. By definition, we have stopped surviving. So let's open our hearts to God, open our hearts to our neighbors, open our hearts to hope and reach out across the distance we have put between ourselves and others. It's okay to worry and feel despair for a little while, but the gospel demands that we move towards hope and call out to one another.
I was visiting a church once that was dealing with a number of simultaneous setbacks and a lot of blame about what had happened and conflict about how to move forward. The minister was an eloquent and dedicated leader. And he was doing his best to press on. And on worship that Sunday he prayed a beautiful version of a prayer that’s not uncommon in churches everywhere. He prayed something like this:
“Yes, Lord, increase our faith! Increase my faith so I can serve you better! Increase the faith of Christians everywhere because we’re nothing without you! Increase the faith of this lost and sinful nation because we’ve left the narrow path of your righteous way! Increase our faith that we might be just a little more worthy of your Gospel! Amen.”
I felt a little bad for my colleague because I’m a minister too and I know how us ministers can think. We get all worked up and worried about the faith. We get to thinking that it’s our job to increase the faith of the congregation, to increase the faith of the Church, or the nation, or the world even. We all do it, us ministers. I do it from time-to-time. If only we just had some more of the good stuff! It’s an understandable mistake. You may not be a minister, but I bet you probably do it too.
I want to be a better person, a better Christian. I want to live a cleaner life. I want to do right by the people I love. If only I had a little more faith. Or If only I had a little more money, then I could be generous with people the way I want to be. If only I had a little more talent, then I could’ve been somebody. If only I had a little more time, then I’d sign up to volunteer, I’d get involved in all the places, in all the causes that need me. If only, if only, if only. How many times have you said to yourself, “If only I had a little more, then—watch out world—you’d really see something! But I don’t, so I can’t and I won’t.”
Whatever you think you’re missing, they’re all variations on this theme, “If I had more, I could do more and I could be more.” When times are tough and life gets hard, we blame the problems we face on the lack of some key ingredient that is preventing us from tackling the problem. And if we internalize that missing ingredient, if what’s missing is inside of us, we start to telling ourselves that any effort we might make would be a big waste of time because I am not made that way. Now the problem isn’t the problem anymore. The problem is that something is missing. Do we feel better? Not really. Now we toss and turn all night thinking about what’s missing. We lie there in the dark, our minds racing, and sometimes we start to pray: “God, do you hear what I’m saying? You want me to make something of myself? You want me to serve you and this world, well, I’m going to need you pony up, Lord. Increase my faith!”
Beloved, the desire to pray for more faith is just a spiritual distraction. When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, he rebuked them! “Increase your faith?! Increase your faith?! Don’t you realize that with just a mustard seed of faith you could uproot a mulberry tree—a tree with roots as deep as its branches are high—and you could make that tree walk all the way down the shore, and you could make that tree plant itself, not in the soil of the earth, but in the salt waters of the sea.” Jesus is telling us again, as he so often does, that a little can go a really long way—further than you can possibly imagine. And the Kingdom of God that Jesus has come to proclaim is not the Kingdom of the big, the proud, and the powerful. It is the kingdom of the poor, the humble, and the meek.
Beloved, please hear this before you ever again doubt that you have enough faith to be a good Christian. The Kingdom of God is not the kingdom of somebody’s great faith. It’s the kingdom of the tiniest, littlest, barely worth mentioning bit of faith that changed the whole world—it’s the light shining in the darkness, it’s a baby born in a born, it’s the mustard seed weed that just got lucky and happened to land in the right spot to grow and grow and grow.
So, we don’t pray for more faith. Because asking is the wrong way to get it. Faith is not being doled out by the angels from on high to anybody who asks for it. That’s not the way faith works. Let’s look at the second half of scripture reading this morning. Jesus asks his disciples (and all of us):
Don’t you treat your servants and slaves like garbage? Don’t you expect them to scrape and serve? Don’t you expect them to do it for nothing? And yet you have the audacity to serve God Almighty as if you were owed something for merely doing the right thing. Faith is not transactional. It is not a way of getting ahead. It is not a way to earn favor or avoid disaster. It is not done to earn eternal salvation or your ticket to heaven. Your faith is your commitment, your reliability, your loyalty to the command to serve God and your neighbors.
Faith and commitment are not something you can spend. And they’re not something you can be given. Faith is like a seed. It grows if you plant it. It’s like a muscle. It grows when you use it. It doesn’t matter how much faith you have. What matters is what you DO with the faith you’ve got.
All around the world, the church is reeling. Up north, down south, the coasts, and middle America, progressive and conservative, mainline and evangelical, everyone is reporting the same thing coming back from COVID—fewer people in worship, fewer visitors, less money, old volunteers retiring and not enough new blood to replace them. Too little, too little, too little, too little. If only, if only, if only, if only. But this, Beloved, Glen Ridge Congregational Church, this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ: A little goes a long way! Don’t waste your time wishing for more. What are we going to do with what we’ve got? Are we going to let ourselves tell ourselves a story of scarcity and loss and circumstances beyond our control? Or do we instead believe what Jesus promised us? That all it takes is a mustard seed of faith to make some wild things happen—things nobody’s ever seen before. What are we going to do with the faith we’ve got?
Beloved, you have everything you need! What are you going to do with what you’ve got?
Once, in college, I willingly attended a conference called Business Ethics for Christians. The general thrust of this event was to try and convince us Christian young people that as we left college and entered the business world, we had a responsibility to God to be the most upstanding and shining examples imaginable of honesty, diligence, and industry in our respective fields. We had to make Jesus look good out there!
The lecturer spoke about ten standard, yawn-inducing business principles and after each he provided a short quote from scripture to show us that these were, in fact, Christian principles and they represented how followers of Jesus should behave on the job. Unfortunately, our scripture reading from this morning did not make his list! Now that would have been an interesting lecture! Because (just in case you didn’t believe your ears and your eyes this morning) in our reading Jesus praises a swindler. Instead of praising the rich man who succeeded in business (we must assume) through the application of virtue and hard work, Jesus praises the poor man—a poor man who falls right into the worst stereotypes about poor people. This manager is a lazy, incompetent, selfish, liar. And Jesus holds this poor, broken swindler up! He holds him up while he’s in the act of defrauding his master for his own personal gain and points to him as an example of moral clarity for all of us to follow and learn from. Now, how can that be?
Also in my college years, I worked for a brief time in sales at an outdoor kiosk at Park Street Station on the Boston Red Line right across the street from the church where I heard that lecture on Christian business ethics. There was a man named Sam who sat on an old milk crate at the entrance to the station and sold the Boston Globe and the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to the business people commuting in and out of the city. Sam was a little grizzled, he had a very small limp—barely noticeable, and he had a pretty brisk trade selling these papers. When he’d run out of papers for the day, Sam would take off his clean sweatshirt and he’d replace it with this tattered old thing. He’d walk into the Boston Common and with each step toward the park his limp would get more and more pronounced. In the park he’d beg from the tourists and stuff their bills into the pouch full of the wads of money he’d made that day selling his papers.
Riding home from work on the subway one day, a man, presumably homeless, asked me for a dollar. I just turned my head away. He went down the car and I saw someone give him a five-dollar bill. It was Sam.
Now, I was friendly with Sam. People called him the mayor of Park Street Station, so it was hard not to be friendly with him. But every time he’d wave goodbye to me and head off to the Common, I judged him. I knew—for certain—that I was better person than Sam. But now look at us. The kid who sat through Business Ethics for Christians was being given a lesson in the Gospel of Jesus Christ from Sam the swindler. To put it in the language of Jesus from our scripture reading this morning: Sam was faithful with his dishonest wealth and I was faithless with my “honest” wealth.
Well, if you’re anything like me, you don’t plan on robbing or conning anyone and that’s not likely to change no matter what even Jesus says. So, what can these swindlers teach us about Jesus and what he’s actually asking of us non-embezzling types?
First, the parable of the dishonest manager teaches us that Jesus is skeptical of a world divided between a few rich people and the vast majority of poor people who work for them or are indebted to them or both. This reality is not compatible with the values Jesus preaches, teaches, or lives. It is not compatible with the Kingdom of God Jesus proclaims.
Second, Jesus is skeptical of the pious, the righteous, the devout, and the goody two-shoes of this world. He’s skeptical that the people who sit through lectures entitled Business Ethics for Christians and the people who think their goodness and rule-following makes them better than other people will actually, ever—despite talking a big game and loads of good intentions—that they will actually ever do anything for their themselves or for their neighbors that will address the broken and anti-Kingdom-of-God nature of our social-political-religious-economic structure. Because when you buy into this world, according to Jesus, when you benefit from the rules and norms of this world, you are not preparing yourself for the world yet to come, the Kingdom of God.
This is how the swindler becomes the unwitting hero of Jesus’ parable. The swindler (although acting without any lofty intentions) accidentally proclaims the Kingdom of God by forgiving the debts of his master’s debtors. And although the swindler is clearly acting purely out of a need for self-preservation, he still acts with respect to one of the great Biblical truths—that I am my brother’s keeper, that I cannot survive without a community, that we do not belong to ourselves alone, that we are one body of Christ, and we all belong to one another. As Jesus says in our reading this morning, “If you haven’t been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” The dishonest manager is faithless to his master’s wealth and to the rules that protect it, but he is faithful to his master’s debtors, and that, says Jesus, (although achieved accidentally) is the proper loyalty—not to money and to power and to the rules that enforce them, but to God and to people and to the good news.
We also learn again that for Jesus our intentions and our appearances and good social standing and other’s high opinions of us don’t matter. If you think very highly of yourself indeed, and intend to change the world for the better one day, and devote yourself to proper moral reasoning, and have years of theological training, but you don’t have a dollar to spare on the subway, you will never be the hero in one of Jesus’ parables. And if you intend nothing but a bit swindling to save your own be-hind, but in the process you forgive debts, show mercy, and make friends, then you may be closer to the Kingdom of God than all the Children of Light. That is how Jesus sees us. That is how Jesus sees the world.
Jesus’ parables always bring us good news and this one especially is good news for all of us. Have you failed? Have you lost? Have you squandered? Have you been caught? Are you a rascal? A swindler? A liar? A cheat? Do you think you’ll never be able to fix it? Are you afraid that you’ll never find forgiveness or peace? Jesus has a way out: love your neighbors, forgive your debtors, show mercy to those like yourself. Starting right now, right in the middle of the mess and the stress and the chaos, be faithful to other people and you will begin to discover the true riches of Jesus’ way.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations