A Searching and Fearless Moral Inventory

For Lent this year, a group of us is reading Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday. I’ve read it before, of course. But one of the joys of having a book group for Lent is that I get to re-read it… carefully… with and eye toward talking about it.

And one of the things that Held Evans does really well is describe why she—who has struggled with her conservative evangelical upbringing and with the wider church for years—is still a part of the Christian church.

She writes this:

At its best, the church functions much like a recovery group, a safe place where a bunch of struggling, imperfect people come together to speak difficult truths to one another. Sometimes the truth is we have sinned as individuals. Sometimes the truth is we have sinned corporately, as a people. Sometimes the truth is we’re hurting because of another person’s sin or as a result of forces beyond our control. Sometimes the truth is we’re just hurting, and we’re not even sure why. 1Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Kindle ed. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015. pp. 67-68.

Yeah. That sounds about right.

This is the third Sunday of Lent. If the church, at its best, is a recovery group for struggling and imperfect people—if church is a recovery group for sinners—then one of the things that we do during Lent is make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

If the church, at its best, is a recovery group for struggling and imperfect people—if church is a recovery group for sinners—then one of the things that we do during Lent is admit that we are broken people in desperate need of help.

If the church, at its best, is a recovery group for struggling and imperfect people—if church is a recovery group for sinners—then one of the things that we do during Lent is confess. And we have things to confess.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, we get another parable.

The kingdom of heaven is like this.

There was a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son. When the time for the banquet had come, he sent his slaves out to gather those who had been invited. But those who had been invited would not come.

So the king sent more slaves to entreat those who had been invited to come, “Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But those who had been invited would not come. They made light of it… they went on with their lives… they seized the slaves who had been sent to them and killed them.

So the king gathered his troops. And he sent them to those who had been invited. And the king’s armies killed the murderers and burned their city to the ground.

And then the king send his slaves out into the streets to gather everyone they could find and invite them to the banquet. And they did. They gathered everyone they could find, the good and the bad, and they filled the banquet hall.

And then… well… the king walked through the hall and spotted a man who had just been invited to a wedding banquet on the spur of the moment, and who was not dressed appropriately. And the king had him bound hand and foot… and thrown into the outer darkness… where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

For many are called. But few are chosen.

The kingdom of heaven is like that.

There is a lot going on in that parable. I could write sermons for a whole season on that parable. But what I’ve been thinking about this week—as I contemplate this searching and fearless moral inventory of Lent—is this: who in this parable am I?

Because I would like to believe that I am one of those people who is just minding his own business, maybe hearing about a city down the way that had just been burned to the ground, when someone runs up and invites me to a wedding banquet. 

And I would like to believe that I am prepared for just this sort of thing, and that I can just rip off my street clothes to reveal the tuxedo that I am wearing at all times. And that I am ready to walk into the kingdom of heaven.

I would like to believe that. But this is Lent. And the truth is that I am a sinner.

I have sinned against God and my neighbor. I have sinned in what I have thought and left unthought, in what I have said and left unsaid, and in what I have done and left undone. I have not loved God with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself.

I have heard God’s invitation to the kingdom of heaven and I have ignored it. I have heard God entreat me to enter the kingdom of heaven and I have gone on with my life. I have even followed the invitation and set foot in the kingdom of heaven and found my self ill-prepared and inappropriately dressed.

And, I am sorry to tell you this, but I am sure that if we each made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, we would discover the same thing. We would discover it as individuals, as a church, and as a community.

And if you want to make that inventory, just watch the news.

A little more than a week ago, an Australian man went to the Al Noor Mosque, and a little later to the Linwood Islamic Center, in Christchurch, New Zealand. And he shot people. As I wrote this sermon on Monday, somewhere around 50 people were dead and more were missing or hospitalized. People from a half a dozen countries. Children as young as 3 years old.

And I want to be painfully clear about this. This was an attack rooted in white supremacy. 

This was an attack rooted in the same toxic and hateful ideology as the massacres at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; the Islamic Cultural Center in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada; and the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas.

And while it might be nice to believe that white supremacy is only at play when some mass murderer leaves us a manifesto, it is the same toxic and hateful ideology that has led to the deaths of Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and Lacquan McDonald, among others. It is the same toxic and hateful ideology that creates and sustains the school-to-prison pipeline for Black and Latinx youth.

It is the same toxic and hateful ideology that is found in a million systems and behaviors and assumptions—many of which are invisible to us—that ensure that power and wealth are concentrated among people who look like me, and serve people who look like me.

And it is not the only toxic and hateful and violent ideology out there. I could just as easily preach on Islamaphobia, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ageism, classism, or a thousand other ideologies that make some of us say about others of us, “They should not be equal to us. We should be privileged. We are entitled to that.”

But the truth is that, most of the time, these ideologies don’t make us say that. I am sure that none of us would say that. And I am sure that, certainly, none of us would say that about our friends and neighbors of other races, ethnicities, cultures, socio-economic statuses, sexual orientations, gender identities, faiths, creeds, family statuses, ages, or abilities. 

We have a plaque in the hallway and a statement on our website that says so.

But… sometimes… maybe even often… when we see the violence of these ideologies… when we see the things that are thought and left unthought, said and left unsaid, done and left undone… we stand aside.

Sometimes… maybe even often… we hear the voice of God calling us to do something about the violence being done in the name of these ideologies, and we ignore it. And we go on about our days. And if it keeps nagging us, we push it down.

I know I do. I know I do not speak up. I know I do not speak out. And I know that I benefit from that. Thinking nothing, saying nothing, and doing nothing is safe and easy… and not at all what God has called me to.

Thinking nothing, saying nothing, and doing nothing is safe and easy… and not at all what God has called us to.

This is the third Sunday of Lent. If the church, at its best, is a recovery group for struggling and imperfect people—if church is a recovery group for sinners—then one of the things that we do during Lent is make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

If the church, at its best, is a recovery group for struggling and imperfect people—if church is a recovery group for sinners—then one of the things that we do during Lent is confess.

And I confess… I have sinned against God and my neighbor. I have sinned in what I have thought, in what I have said, and in what I have done. But, mostly, I have sinned in what I have left unthought, in what I have left unsaid, and in what I have left undone. I have not loved God with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself.

I have not stood up against the voices of hatred and intolerance. I have not stood up for the oppressed and the marginalized. I have not done these things when the stakes have been big… and I have not done these things when the stakes have been small. I have turned a blind eye… I have walked away… I have gotten on with my life.

I have taken the path that is easy and comfortable, that doesn’t hurt me at all, and that leaves others in their suffering.

But I also know two things.

First, that this is a church. It is a place where broken people can tell their truths. It is a recovery group for sinners like me. Where we can make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves; and then turn ourselves over to God’s care; and humbly ask her to wash our sins away, to forgive our debts, to heal us and to make us whole.

Second, that I am called to more than the path that is easy and comfortable. I have been invited to a wedding banquet. And somewhere under all this sin—under the fear, and the drive to seek the approval of others, and the yearning for the comforts of this world—is the clothing that God has made for my soul. And it is as splendid as any tuxedo.

You see, my name is Chris and I am a sinner. But I do not have to stay that way. Thanks be to God.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

Pin It on Pinterest