The Cost of Grace

This sermon was delivered at Metropolitan Community Church of the Quad Cities in Davenport, Illinois on September 17, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35.

A little over a month ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a young man named James Alex Fields Jr drove a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of people, hitting a sedan, which hit a minivan, which pushed into the crowd, injuring nineteen people and killing one. The person who was killed was Heather Heyer, who was a paralegal and a waitress, and who stood in solidarity with people who needed someone who was relatively privileged to stand in solidarity with them.

If it had been any other day, James, like so many other misguided young white men who kill, would have been tagged as mentally ill or misguided or a bit of a loner. But this time the nation saw a pattern. James was misguided. James was a bit of a loner. James may have even been mentally ill. But James was also an unabashed white supremacist who chose to march with others like him while chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans. And who chose to drive into a crowd of people.

And a couple of days later, Heather’s father Mark stood in front of cameras and forgave James.

And I cannot imagine how he did that.

In today’s first reading, we see Joseph and his brothers. When Joseph was younger, he had some dreams. And he told his brothers those dreams. And his brothers were jealous because those dreams seemed to mean that Joseph was important. So they sold him into slavery and told their father that he had been killed. Y’know, like brothers do.

Joseph became a slave in Egypt. And because of his master’s wife, he became a prisoner in Egypt. And because of his skill at interpreting dreams, he became a chief administrator in Egypt.

And then there was a famine. Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food. Eventually, they met Joseph, who kept his identity secret. And, after some trickery and accusations and false imprisonments and threats, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and there was joy and celebration. And it turned out that Joseph really was important.

And then Joseph’s father, Jacob, died. And here are Joseph’s brothers, worried that Joseph might still be upset that they sold him into slavery all those years ago. So they go to him and they say, “Dad said — y’know, on his deathbed — that you should forgive us.”

And Joseph replies, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good… Have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

And I cannot imagine how he did that.

If there is anyone who has the right to hold a grudge, it’s Heather Heyer’s parents. Her death wasn’t an accident. It was at once purposeful and impersonal, the act of someone with a hateful ideology who wanted to hurt as many people as he could.

If there’s anyone who has the right to tell his brothers to pound sand, it’s Joseph. Whatever good had come out of his ordeal, he was enslaved and imprisoned and lost out on years of his life.

Forgiveness shouldn’t be this easy.

No, that’s not right. Forgiveness should be one of the easiest things in the world. Mark Heyer shouldn’t have to live with the burden of hating James Fields. Joseph shouldn’t have to live with the burden of a grudge against his brothers. No one should have to live with the ceaseless work of stoking the fires of our anger. Forgiveness should be one of the easiest things in the world.
Being forgiven shouldn’t be this easy. Grace shouldn’t be so cheap. And it can almost sound like Jesus says that.

There once was a man who was called before the king. Now, the man owed the king, like, two million dollars. And he did not have two million dollars. The king was going to make him sell everything he had to pay the debt. But the man fell on his knees and begged for mercy. And the king was moved. And the king was merciful. And the king forgave the debt. And the man walked out.

Before long, that man ran into a neighbor who owed him, like, ten bucks. And the man told his neighbor to pay up. But his neighbor didn’t have ten bucks and he — who owed so little — fell on his knees and begged for mercy. And the man wouldn’t have any of it and had his neighbor thrown into prison and other people saw all of this and told the king.

And the king… got mad. And the man was called before the king. And the king said, “I had mercy on you and forgave your debt, but you can’t forgive your neighbor?” And he sent the man to prison.”

And, for a moment, it almost sounds like Jesus is saying that being forgiven is hard. It almost sounds like Jesus is saying that grace comes at a cost. It almost sounds like Jesus is saying that being forgiven requires something.

Almost.

It’s easy for us to fall into that way of thinking. It’s easy for us to think that, in order to be forgiven, Joseph’s brothers have to fall on their knees and recount their wrongs and beg Joseph for mercy. It’s easy to think that, in order to be forgiven, James Fields has to fall on his knees and make his confession and beg Mark — and, even more, Heather’s spirit — for mercy.

It’s easy for us to think that, in order to be forgiven for all that we have done, we have to fall on our knees and break down in tears and beg God for mercy.

But the cost of grace is so much less… and so much more.

The man who had two million dollars forgiven wasn’t free just because he had his two million dollars forgiven. He wasn’t free until he could escape the cycle of borrowing and lending that had ensnared him. And I want to be clear here: he wasn’t in that cycle just because he had owed two million dollars; he was in that cycle also because he cared about the ten dollars he had lent out.
It was only in forgiving the debt of his neighbor that he could truly be free of the debt he owned. As long as he still cared so desperately and angrily about his neighbor’s debt, he was still trapped by his own.

Or, as St. Francis put it so elegantly, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

I don’t know if Joseph’s brothers ever let go of their jealousy and their hatred. I hope that they did. I hope that they could accept that they were forgiven and live the rest of their days in mercy.

I don’t know if James Fields will ever let go of his prejudice and hatred. I hope that he will. I hope that what he has done and what he now faces will change him. I hope that he will accept the forgiveness that has been offered to him. I hope that he will live the rest of his days as an instrument of mercy.

And I don’t know if I will ever let go of the thousand little slights that I hold onto. It seems like too much. It seems like too much to say that I will not be part of the systems of debt and shame and anger. It seems like too much to let go. But I pray that I will. I pray that reaching out for God’s grace will force me let go of the weights that hold me back: the people I hold down.

The cost of grace is so little. God offers it freely.

The cost of grace is so much. We have to give up all those things that make us think that we’re better. Or that we’re more important. Or that we have a right to throw our neighbor in prison or the power to sell our brother into slavery.

And I pray that you and I and all of us can pay that price. Then we will have a world of peace and love and pardon; of faith and hope and light and joy. Then we will live in the Kingdom of God.

Membership and Engagement

Recently, I’ve had a few conversations about church membership. The simple fact is that most mainline congregations are facing declining and aging memberships, and some of the congregations want to do something about it. And I always answer the same way:

I’m not concerned with membership; I’m concerned with engagement.

Membership in most mainline congregations is a formality. Someone who has been coming to worship for a while might take a membership class where they learn things about that congregation and its denomination. Then they stand in front of the congregation some Sunday morning and make some promises. And the members of the congregation who are there that morning make some promises. And the new member signs a book.

Now that person is a member. And the perk is that they can serve on committees and vote in the congregational meeting. And if they don’t show up for a few years and somebody bothers cleaning up the rolls, they’ll be taken off the membership list. Yay.

Engagement is a way of life. Each summer, at the church where I’m a member, we have Christmas in July. That Sunday morning, we collect diapers and toilet paper and feminine hygiene products for the food pantry. And this year, a young woman who is not a member and who occasionally comes to services reached out to her friends and said,

My church is doing this thing and I think it would be great if you got involved. If you want to give, but don’t want to come to services, let me know. I’ll get your donation and take it myself.

I don’t know if that young woman will ever stand in front of the congregation and make promises and sign a book. I don’t know if she will ever become a member. But she is engaged. She may even be more engaged – at least in this one thing – than some of our members.

We know for a fact that not all members are involved in the life of the congregation. We know that not everyone who is involved in the life of the congregation is a member. We know that someone who is engaged in the life of the community makes more of a difference than someone who is not, even if they aren’t a member, and even if the person who isn’t engaged has been a member for forty years.

And yet we spend so much time and energy worrying about membership when we should be focusing on engagement.

I’m not saying to ignore membership. Membership, probably, still matters. But if we focus on engagement – if we focus on getting people involved in our communities, without worrying about whether they take the formal step that improves our numbers in the yearbook – then membership, if it matters, will follow.

I’ve Been Offered the Exciting Opportunity to Pay NANOE to Work for Them

I’ve written about the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Executives before (here). They’re the organization that suggests that nonprofit organizations should pay their board members, and that the primary responsibility of those board members is to support a strong executive director.

Recently, I received an email from NANOE letting me know that I’ve been nominated to sit on their Board of Governors. Of course, this isn’t the same as their Board of Directors. No. The Board of Governors is a large group of people who are tasked to review a handful of documents that NANOE is preparing:

  • New Guidelines for Tomorrow’s Nonprofit (2nd Ed.)
  • Harnessing the Power of Differentiated Relationships
  • Evaluating Impact: Before, During, and After Growth

Naturally, members of the Board of Governors must be members of NANOE. That means paying $100 a year for the privilege of reviewing and providing feedback on these documents. That’s right, an organization that wants you to start paying your Board of Directors believes that I should pay them so that they can use my expertise.

Why, it’s almost as if NANOE is kind of a scam!

The Establishment: People Who Have Never Lived In Poverty Should Stop Telling Poor People What To Do

The answer, then, is not that poor people live differently, but instead, that we create a society and an economy where people who work full time can live in the community where they work.

No amount of cutting back on luxury spending or driving extra hours for Uber can change the fact that there is literally nowhere in the country where a minimum wage job can support a family, that good union jobs have been in decline for decades, or that housing costs have priced people out of their homes. Cutting coupons, commuting by bike, and enjoying outdoor activities can’t really fix that.

So, instead of telling poor people what they should do to work around a system that’s leaving more and more people behind every year, we need to consider how the system can bend and change to better fit the needs of all people.

On the Nashville Statement

On Tuesday, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released a statement on human sexuality in order to affirm that these anti-LGBTQA Christians are, in fact, anti-LGBTQA. Just in case anyone had forgotten.

Here’s the first paragraph of their preamble:

Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being. By and large the spirit of our age no longer discerns or delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life. Many deny that God created human beings for his glory, and that his good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. It is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, but is, rather, an expression of an individual’s autonomous preferences. The pathway to full and lasting joy through God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives that, sooner or later, ruin human life and dishonor God.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry wants people to know that the Nashville Statement does not represent Nashville. I want people to know that the Nashville Statement does not represent Christianity.

Yes, the people who wrote it are Christians and, like all Christians, are caught up in a web of sin and are wholly reliant on God’s grace. But they do not represent Christianity. Christianity is represented by love and compassion for all people. And, despite the statement of the founder of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the Nashville Statement is not rooted in the love and compassion that are at the heart of the gospel.

We Need to be Noticers

One of the things I’ve learned over my time in the nonprofit sector is that it takes a whole lot of people to make a difference in even one life. Even something as seemingly simple as getting a person who is homeless into temporary housing is a process that involves a lot of people pitching in. On large scale issues – like fighting white supremacy or changing housing policy – change is the result of the work of hundreds, or hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people.

And yet…

Even in the nonprofit sector, we celebrate rock stars. Even in the church, we pay the most attention to our celebrities. I can appreciate that. People can become symbols of something bigger than themselves, and there are reasons to pay attention to people doing big things.

But it’s also important to notice the other people. The people who aren’t rock stars. The people who aren’t celebrities. Even in the little corner of the world that is the nonprofit sector. Even in the little corder of the world that is the progressive church. There are people doing the hard work of making a difference every day. And, while they’re not in it for the kudos, they deserve to be acknowledged. They deserve to be thanked.

So take a minute this week to notice someone who might not usually get noticed and say ‘thank you’. It means a lot.

Customer Service Matters

A couple of weeks ago, I moved from an apartment into my first house. It wasn’t a long move – a couple of miles – but it was a big one. And, like all moves, there were things that went very well and things that went very badly.

Something that went very well was the physical move itself. The Two Men and a Truck crew was awesome. They got the move completed in less time than they had estimated and saved us a lot of money. Ten out of ten. Would recommend.

Something that went very badly was moving my internet service. We use CenturyLink. And they screwed up. They screwed up so badly that I didn’t have internet service for seven days. I posted the story of my experience with CenturyLink customer service on Facebook. You should read it.


Here’s the tl;dr: When I scheduled my move with CenturyLink, they should have sent me a new modem that was compatible with my new service; they didn’t. It took me about six hours over two days, talking to eleven people, to get a new modem sent to me. And another half an hour on the third day, talking to two more people, to get a paltry credit on my account.

Thankfully, the problem is resolved now. But it caused me to ask a question: what would good customer service have looked like in this situation? In other words, what can I learn from this?

The problem started with the initial phone call. That person should have sent me a new modem that was compatible with my new internet service. In fact, according to one of the tech support people, my order had a note saying that I needed a new modem. But no modem was sent and the person I ordered the service from told me I didn’t need a new modem. Since I leased my old modem from CenturyLink, this would have been a great opportunity for an automated process. CenturyLink’s system should have compared the modem they knew I had to the service they knew I was getting and flagged the order to make sure that the right equipment got to me.

But mistakes happen and flags are missed. Once the problem was discovered, the next place where it could have been solved was tech support (Person 5; P5 for short). P5 diagnosed the problem correctly: I needed a different modem. But he couldn’t solve the problem by sending a modem to me. The two tasks – diagnosing a technical problem and ordering equipment – were siloed in two different departments. If P5 had been empowered to solve the problem, the process would have ended much earlier and I would have been a disappointed – but not angry – customer.

The third point where customer experience could have been improved was at the end of the process during my conversation with customer service (P13). There are two different perspectives to any customer experience. On the one hand, P13 spoke to me for a few minutes during her normal job. To her, I was missing a few days of service, and it was only right that I not pay for the service that I didn’t have. On the other hand, I had talked to person after person over the course of hours and days. I had spent time, money, and energy on this single problem. To me, it was only right that I not pay for service and that restitution be made for what I had lost. Doing only what was fair from the company’s perspective led them with an angry customer instead of an annoyed one.

These two points come together in one last lesson. Every time I spoke to a new person, I had to explain the problem again. Often, I had to verify my account again, giving some combination of my name, address, last billed amount, last four digits of my social security number, and so on. For each CenturyLink representative, this was a problem that began with me explaining the problem and ended a few minutes later with them transferring me elsewhere. For me, it was a seamless experience of being denied a solution to my problem. It was bad enough that my final tech support representative (P9) wanted to start with the first diagnostic steps. A better experience would have included information being passed from one representative to the next, even through something as simple as notes in my file. It also would have included passing my calls and chats from one person to the next, instead of leaving it to the customer to contact the next representative in line.

One final point: while tech support seemed interested in figuring out the problem, customer service was interested in selling me something new. Every customer service person I spoke to verified my account and then let me know that they’d take a look and try to find anything that would be beneficial to me. Even P13 suggested that I could save money by bundling my internet with television service. Customer service representatives are probably judged by how many new sales they make. But that means they’re not really servicing customers. They’re selling. And when someone is encountering a problem – especially a problem caused by CenturyLink – that’s a huge failing.

Of course, CenturyLink is a telecommunications company. That means I don’t have very many alternatives. If I want to do things like post to this blog, I’m stuck being their customer (or a customer to a company that’s just as bad).

But I work in the nonprofit sector. I work in the church. I’m a fundraiser. And that means that the people I rely on – donors and volunteers – have a lot of choices. They could spent their time, talent, and treasure at any number of other organizations. And that means that it’s important that nonprofit organizations – not just mine, but every nonprofit organization – prioritize customer service.

So, let’s take some time to look at our customer service systems. Let’s think about what happens when we make a mistake. Let’s be better than CenturyLink. No, that bar is too low. Let’s be infinitely better than CenturyLink.

John Pavlovitz: I Am the Alt-Left, Mr. President

Heather marched on behalf of people she didn’t know, but valued greatly.
She spoke for people who are so often silenced by people like you.
She stood for those who are pushed to the margins of this life by people like you.
She declared the worth of all people, regardless of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation or their religious beliefs.
She lived this way; open-hearted, generously, sacrificially, humbly.
She died proclaiming that another life was as precious as her own; that every human being is intrinsically valuable, that every person is worth dying for.

And if that is the Alt-Left, Mr President—you can count me in.

Come Get Your Boy

Donald Trump isn’t a Republican issue or a rich people issue or a human issue. Donald Trump is a white people issue. Whenever Ben Carson says batshit crazy nonsense, Black people rise up, and let him know that he needs to STFU. Whenever Raven-Symone pops off, we put her cap back on. We even handled Rachel Dolezal for you. Yes, we also make jokes and come up with clever memes and hashtags, but at the core of all that is that we are letting these people know that they are embarrassing us as Black people. It is time, white people, for you to finally step up and recognize that you also (even more so) have a responsibility to your race. It is up to you to silence Donald Trump. Don’t just insult him and make fun of him. You have to connect it to your race. Recognize that he is embarrassing you as a white person. Simple snark won’t win here. You have to feel it. You have to use words like “as a white person” and “he is an embarrassment to my race.” Stop acting like Trump isn’t the pinnacle and the result of America’s history and tradition of white supremacy. And again, P.S.: Simply put, white people, come get your boy.

W. Kamau Bell

As a rule, I try not to write about things that are happening right now. This is especially true when there are big issues at play. I’m a slow thinker. I need time to let ideas percolate, to find the right words, to parse complicated ideas into simpler terms. And, of course, there are other people who are more gifted at saying the right thing in response to events quickly. I think both approaches are important. Someone to say something now, someone to keep talking after everyone has moved on to the next big thing.

But, right now, I need to say something: white people… we need to come get our boys.

This weekend, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. They did not wear hoods or masks. They marched with weapons. They marched with flags. They marched with salutes. They marched with banners and slogans. They marched in polo shirts carrying tiki torches.

As a friend of mine put it on Facebook: “So… I’m a white man in my 30’s. Today I’ve seen photos and videos of men who look just like me actively inciting violence against anyone who doesn’t look like they (we) do.”

Those of us who are white – and, especially, those of us who are white men and who are white Christians – need to take action here. We saw people who look like us television representing us in a way that is awash with hate and ugliness. Some of us saw people we know. Some of us saw friends and family members. And we need to do something about this.

We need to tell people that it is shameful to fly the flags of hatred. We need to tell people that it is shameful to give the salutes of genocide. We need to tell people that it is shameful to threaten the innocent and the oppressed and the marginalized. And not just in general terms. We need to tell our brothers and sisters and parents and children and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and colleagues and everyone.

These people who marched with the symbols of hate and oppression should feel ashamed. They should feel stigmatized. They should feel marginalized. They should repent of their ways or skulk back into the shadows.

We need to take responsibility for these people to look like us. And we need to do that every day. We need to come get our boys.

Christopher and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

Last week was a rough week for me:

I recently bought a new house and, after some storms, we discovered water in the basement. That led to the discovery of some broken and disturbed asbestos tile, which will need to be abated before we do any finishing work in the basement.

In an act of petty vandalism, someone threw a rock through my car window. Since the amount to replace the window was less than my deductible, insurance didn’t cover it.

I broke my glasses. I have an extra pair, so I can still see (or I wouldn’t be able to write this), and I was due for an eye exam anyway. Still, it sucks.

While it was a difficult week, I’m fully aware of how fortunate I’ve been through all of this. I have savings that can help with the cost of asbestos remediation. I have savings specifically for automotive expenses that can cover the cost of a new car window. And I have vision insurance that will cover an eye exam and most of the cost of a new pair of glasses.

In other words, I have savings and slack. I can absorb a few unexpected expenses as long as they’re not too big.

Many, many people do not have that ability. For these people, asbestos, even with water in the basement, would be something they have to live with. A broken car window would mean putting up a garbage bag (or something else) and getting on with life. Broken glasses would mean living with broken glasses or trading the ability to see with the ability to pay some other bill.

All of us have bad days or bad weeks. But bad days and bad weeks don’t have the same consequences for all of us. That’s an important thing to remember.