God Loved the World This Way

God loved the world this way: she created it. We’re never told why. We’re never told for what purpose. Maybe it was just a joyful act of creation; the kind of thing an artist does. But, for whatever reason that she made a world, she made a world, and she made it good. And she gave it as a gift to itself.

And then we broke it. And God saw that the world was broken and came into the world as one of us: a little baby born in a manger in a backwater province of a powerful empire. He grew in wisdom and in stature and became a prophet to a dispossessed people. He taught and he healed and he performed wonders. And his people—some of his people—hailed him as a king.

And so we took the God who had come to show us a better way, and we hung him on a cross. We crucified him. We do it every day. “For whatever you do to the least of these,” he said, “you do it to me.”

And I know it’s a little weird to start off an Easter sermon this way. But you don’t get Easter without Good Friday. And you don’t comprehend the power of Easter without understanding the condition we were in.

Every person sleeping in a park, or under an overpass, or out in the woods, because they have no home to go to… is Christ, crucified.

Everyone who goes to bed hungry because they don’t have enough food to eat… is Christ, crucified.

Every refugee who is told that our country is full, every immigrant who is told to go back where they came from, every person who is called a terrorist just because of their faith… is Christ, crucified.

Every lesbian or gay or bisexual youth who is thrown out of their house because of their sexual orientation, every transgender person who is told they’re not really who they identify as, every genderqueer person who experiences violence… is Christ, crucified.

Every sick person who cannot find care, every prisoner who walks through the prison gate, every child who is bullied… is Christ, crucified.

And, yes, there are moments when we are Christ, hanging on that cross. And there are far more times when we are Judas, selling him out. And there are far, far, far more times when we are Peter, saying, “I do not even know the man!”

And this is where we are on Sunday morning, when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, go to the tomb that someone has laid their friend and teacher in. 

Every gospel tells this story a little differently. In Mark, it’s Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body with spices. In Luke, it’s Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and some other unnamed women going to the tomb to do the same. In John, it’s Mary Magdalene by herself, who just happens to go to the tomb.

And in Matthew, it’s Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, going to the tomb. Matthew doesn’t tell us why they went or what they were thinking or whether they were talking to each other along the way.

But… if you’ve ever been to the grave of a friend—especially a friend who died suddenly, especially a friend who you feel a little bit of survivor’s guilt over, especially a friend who you were cruel to just before they died—then I suspect you know why they were going. They were going to say, “I let you down… I wish things were different.”

God loved the world this way. When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the tomb, there was an earthquake, and an angel of the Lord rolled the stone away from the tomb. And the angel said to the women,

Do not be afraid! I know that you’re here looking for Jesus, who was crucified, but he’s not here. He’s been raised. See, there’s the spot where he should be and he’s not there. Go tell his disciples that he has been raised from the dead, and tell them to go to Galilee, and tell them that he’ll meet them there.

Matthew 28:5-7

And the women ran away from the tomb with great joy. Their friend and teacher was alive! And the women ran away from the tomb with great fear. Their friend and teacher—who had been betrayed, who had been denied, who had been crucified—was alive!

And I can understand that joy. And I can understand that fear.

We are good mainline protestant Christians. We don’t talk about judgment a lot. But…

If Christ returned today—if the heavens split open right now and the Son of Man came in all his glory and all the angels with him—I wonder how he would see me. And I suspect he would see me surrounded by the bodies of the Christs I have crucified. I suspect he would see me surrounded by the disappointed faces of the Christs I have denied.

And if he followed human justice—if he demanded retribution and the satisfaction of his honor—then he would be justified in sending me into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And I wonder if Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had the same thought. We let you down… we wish things were different, but they’re not… do what you have to do.

But as they run from the tomb in joy and fear, Jesus—who had been betrayed, who had been denied, who had been crucified—appears to them. And he says, “Greetings! Do not be afraid. Go tell the others to meet me in Galilee.”

This is the good news of the gospel: you are forgiven.

There’s nothing you did to earn that. You are not forgiven because you did enough good deeds, or because you’ve lived a good enough life, or because you repented just right, or because you said the sinner’s prayer, or because you signed the little blank in the back of some tract.

You are forgiven—I am forgiven—because God loves the world this way. In spite of all the things we’ve done and all of the things we’ve left undone, God meets us on the road and says, “Do not be afraid.”

In spite of all the things we’ve said and all of the things we’ve left unsaid, God meets us on the journey and says, “Go get your friends and meet me further up the road.”

In spite of all the things we’ve thought and all of the things we’ve left unthought, God meets us on the road and says, “I’m not finished with you, yet. There is still so much more to be done!”

God sees us in all our brokenness and says, “Let me heal you. Let me make you whole. And while I’m doing that, let’s go out together and find some more broken people and heal them.”

That is the gospel, in all its fullness. You are forgiven. God’s not done with you, yet. And if you weren’t afraid before… well…

We have been forgiven. Our slates have been wiped clean. Our debts have been paid. We have been created anew. Not just once, on a Sunday morning, a couple thousand years ago, but every Sunday and every day and several times every day. God keeps coming to us saying, “Do not be afraid. You are forgiven. I’m not done with you yet.”

And the central question of Christian ethics—the central question of Christian life—is, “What are you going to do with that?”

Because there are people sleeping in parks, and under overpasses, and out in the woods, because they have no home to go to…

And there are people who go to bed hungry because they don’t have enough food to eat…

And there are refugees being told that our country is full, and immigrants being told to go back where they came from, and people being called terrorists just because of their faith…

And there are lesbian and gay and bisexual youth who are being thrown out of their houses because of their sexual orientations, and transgender people being told that they’re not really who they identify as, and genderqueer people facing unimaginable violence…

And there are people who are sick and cannot find care, and prisoners walking through the prison gates, and children being bullied…

And so many others. So, so, so many others. All of us, in fact. Every last one of us.

We all need good news; we all need Christ. We all need you to be good news. We all need you to be Christ. We need you to be the hands of Christ, reaching out to help in any way that we need and in any way that you can. We need you to be the feet of Christ, walking alongside us on our journeys through this world. We need you to the mouth of Christ, reminding us again and again that we are the precious children of the God who is love; reminding us that we are loved and worthy of love.

God loved the world this way: she created it. We’re never told why. We’re never told for what purpose. Maybe it was just a joyful act of creation; the kind of thing an artist does. But, for whatever reason that she made a world, she made a world, and she made it good. And she gave it as a gift to itself.

And then we broke it. And God saw that the world was broken and came into the world as one of us: a little baby born in a manger in a backwater province of a powerful empire. He grew in wisdom and in stature and became a prophet to a dispossessed people. He taught and he healed and he performed wonders. And his people—some of his people—hailed him as a king.

And so we took the God who had come to show us a better way, and we hung him on a cross. We crucified him. We do it every day.

And, every time—Every. Single. Time.—God gets up. God looks at us in our brokenness and our guilt and says, “Do not be afraid. Go get your friends and meet me further up the road. I’m not finished with you, yet. There is still so much more to be done!”

God loves the world this way: she creates you. She makes you anew… again and again… an instrument of her peace and love and pardon, of her union and truth and faith, of her hope and light and joy.

So do not be afraid. Go and tell the world that Christ is risen; he is risen indeed! And carry him into the world, being the love of Christ for each other and for everyone you meet.

Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia! Amen.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

When I was in middle school, I competed in the Optimist Club Oratorical Contest. I don’t remember what any of the official topics were, but I remember that my very first speech for that contest was about how people don’t listen to kids or respect the rights of kids… and about how people really should listen to kids and really should respect the rights of kids.

And, of course, when I gave the speech at some ungodly morning hour—because Optimists meet for breakfast—the adults who were listening and judging… laughed. Because the idea of listening to kids and respecting the rights of kids is funny.

Now, I’m forty. I know, to some of you, that means I’m still a kid. And, to some of you, that means I’m positively ancient. But the truth is that I’m neither of those things. Statistically, I’m just a little more than halfway on my journey through this world.

And I get it. I really do. I get how easy it is to hear young people crying out for stronger gun control laws, or universal healthcare, or student debt forgiveness, or radical action against climate change, or a thousand other things… I get how easy it is to hear young people crying out for revolution, and laugh, and say, “They just don’t know how the world works.”

And I know how easy it is to look at the world, and how it is, and how it works, and say, “This is the world, and this is how it is, and this is how it works, and the best I can do is find a comfortable place for me and mine in this imperfect world… because we’re never going to make it perfect.”

I get it.

But I also remember. I remember what it was like to listen to someone who looked a lot like I look now, and hear them say, “You just don’t know how the world works.” And I remember what it was like to think, “You just don’t see how broken the world is; you just don’t see how the world could be.”

And I think there’s a little bit of that in our reading today. You see…

After Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey… 

After the crowds spread palm branches and cloaks on the road…

After they shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven…”

After all of the pomp and circumstance of the triumphal entry…

Jesus goes to the temple, the house of God, the center of everything.

And he destroys it.

This is a weird moment. Jesus enters the outer courts of the temple and sees the people buying and selling, and the people changing money from the coins of one land to the currency of another… and he wigs out. 

He chases out the people who are buying and selling. He flips the tables of the money-changers. He hurls the seats of the people selling sacrificial doves. He throws a tantrum.

And it’s disturbing, because those people aren’t breaking the rules.

It is the week before Passover. You know the story. Once upon a time, the people of Israel lived in slavery in Egypt. God saw their suffering and sent a prophet to free them, and to lead them out of Egypt and into the land that was promised to their ancestor Abraham.

And every year since, the people of Israel gathered to remember the story and make a sacrifice. Every year since, the people of Israel gathered to say, “You are our God, who led us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; and we shall have no other gods before you.”

And, while they were together at the temple, they paid the temple tax.

It can be hard for us to understand, but Passover at the temple was a logistical nightmare. People flooded into Jerusalem from all over. And it was hard to travel with an animal that was going to be sacrificed—a lamb or a goat, one year old, without blemish—so there were people there to sell sacrificial animals.

And not everyone had local currency that they could use to pay the temple tax. So there were people there who could exchange it.

Now, of course, there were people who were taking advantage of the situation. There were merchants who preyed on their customers. There were money-changers who charged exorbitant rates. There were problems, sure. But, probably, most of the people in the outer court of the temple were trying to make a living by providing a necessary service.

And here comes this guy… who had just ridden into town on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey… to chase them out and flip their tables and hurl their seats and throw a tantrum.

And I need to be clear about this. Jesus walks into the outer court of the temple and, basically, throws out the offering plates and tears up the direct debit forms and destroys the economic engine of the temple, the house of God, the center of everything. The temple isn’t a business, but it is a business… and Jesus is tearing it down.

And in this moment, he breaks the economic status quo, and the political normal, and the religious status quo. Maybe only for a little bit… maybe only for a few hours or a few days… but still.

Hosanna?

After Jesus destroys the temple…

After Jesus chases out the people who are buying and selling…

After he flips the tables and hurls the seats…

After the din and chaos of a holy tantrum…

The blind and the lame come to the temple, and to Jesus… and he heals them.

The chief priests and the scribes see what is happening… and they hear the children—the children—cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

And they—the chief priests and the scribes—get angry.

“Do you hear what those kids are saying? Do you, Jesus, mister rides in on a donkey and overthrows the temple, hear those kids praising you?”

“Yeah. You didn’t see that coming?”

You see, Jesus keeps committing these prophetic acts. 

Zechariah once said, “Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” So Jesus did. He said to the people of Jerusalem, “Here is your king.”

And Isaiah once said, “Thus says the LORD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples, and I shall gather more to them, besides.’” So Jesus enforces the rule. He says to the people of Jerusalem, “This temple will be a house of prayer for everyone, or it will be nothing.”

And the people in power—the chief priests and the scribes—find that threatening enough. And I get that. He is disrupting the nice comfortable way things are. But what really gets them—what really makes them mad—is that the kids saw him and that they liked it. 

He is corrupting the youth. He is showing them that the way the world is isn’t the way that the world has to be. He is demonstrating that the way the world works isn’t set in stone. He is teaching them that things could be different than the way they are now.

He is dangerous.

After Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey… 

After Jesus destroys the temple…

After he performs signs and wonders…

After he preaches and tells parables…

After he shares dinner with his friends and says prayers in a garden…

After a friend kisses him; after a traitor kisses him…

He will be hung on a cross and laid in a tomb.

Because that’s the way the world works. Because that’s the way the chief priests and the scribes and the Roman authorities make it work.

But now, those children know better. They know that the world doesn’t have to work this way. They know that things could be different. And they know when to cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

And that matters. It mattered then. It matters today.

It matters because those kids who are crying out for stronger gun control laws are the ones who are living with gun violence in their schools.

It matters because the young people who are crying out for universal healthcare are the ones who wonder whether they will ever be able to afford even the most basic medical care.

It matters because the people my age who are crying out for student debt forgiveness are the ones who expect to be paying off student loans until we retire or beyond.

It matters because the teenagers crying out for radical action against climate change are the one who will have to figure out how to live with higher sea levels and less predictable weather and worse snowfalls and more dangerous hurricanes, and more consistent droughts, and more polluted air and water.

It matters because the kids who are crying out for revolution are the ones who have to live with the results of not having a revolution.

And I’m forty. I’m just a little more than halfway on my journey through this world.

And I get it. I understand how easy it is to hear young people crying out for revolution, and to laugh, and to say, “They just don’t know how the world works.”

But is possible that those young people—and all of the oppressed and marginalized people who get told, again and again, that they don’t know how the world works—know the secret that we should all know: the world doesn’t have to work that way.

We are Christians.

We are a people who wait breathlessly for Palm Sunday, when a new king will ride into the world on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

We are a people who wait anxiously for Palm Sunday, when a new high priest will destroy the dirty and dangerous engine of this world.

We are a people who wait hopefully for a cosmic Palm Sunday, when Christ himself will make a new heaven and a new earth, free from the sins that plague this one.

We are a people who offer ourselves lovingly to Christ, so that he might use us to start building that new world.

And part of that work it listening to those who call for the world to work differently, who call for more love and more generosity and more grace. 

Part of that work is catching ourselves when we think, “But the world doesn’t work that way,” and asking, “How could the world work differently?” 

Part of that work is standing shoulder to shoulder with the revolutionaries, looking at the one who is riding in on a donkey and overturning tables in the temple, and shouting, “Hosanna!”

You see, we are Christians. We are not about what the world is. We are about what God calls the world to be. We are about the Kingdom of Heaven.

Amen.

The All Night Oil Shop

Once upon a time, when I was young, I was a terrible Boy Scout.

I had been a Cub Scout. I had worked my way through the ranks. I was a bobcat, and a tiger, and a wolf, and a bear, and a webelos. It wasn’t too difficult. The Cub Scout motto is, “Do Your Best.” And if there’s one thing I can do, it’s my best… even when my best isn’t that good.

But then I became a Boy Scout.

Now, the way I remember is that when I became a Boy Scout, I got the first rank for just showing up. After that, I was supposed to earn merit badges. My friends and peers earned merit badges. They became Tenderfoots and First Class Scouts and whatever. Some of them even became Eagle Scouts. And that’s pretty impressive.

I don’t think I earned a single merit badge. It turns out that merit badges aren’t a big motivator for me. And, anyway, the only one I really wanted was the archery one. So, after I fell further and further behind my peers, I stopped being a Boy Scout.

The Boy Scout motto is, “Be Prepared.” And I was not. I rarely am.

Today’s reading is another parable. And if you listen to preachers and read commentaries, it’s about being prepared.

You see, the kingdom of heaven will be like this.

There will be a wedding, and there will be bridesmaids. Some of them will have their stuff together. When it’s time to go meet the groom for the wedding banquet, they’ll grab their lamps and some extra oil. They will be prepared. And some of them will not have their stuff together. When it’s time to go meet the groom for the wedding banquet, they’ll grab their lamps and nothing else. They will not be prepared.

Well, the groom will be late. All of the bridesmaids will fall asleep. But, around midnight, the groom will finally show up. And someone will see him in the distance and shout for the bridesmaids to come and meet him.

The bridesmaids who have their stuff together will trim their lamps. They will be ready to go to the wedding banquet.

And the bridesmaids who do not have their stuff together will trim their lamps and realize that they don’t have enough oil. They will turn to their neighbors who have oil and say, “Hey, we don’t have enough oil and our lamps are going out. Can you give us some of yours?”

And the bridesmaids who have their stuff together will reply, “No. If we give you some of our oil, there won’t be enough for us. Go to the all night oil shopand buy some.”

So the bridesmaids who don’t have their stuff together will do just that. And while they’re gone, the groom will arrive, and gather the people who are ready, and go to the wedding banquet, and close the door.

Later, the bridesmaids who do not have their stuff together will return from the all night oil shop. They’ll knock of the door and shout, “We’re here. Open up!” And the groom will reply, “I don’t know you.”

Yeah. The kingdom of heaven will be like that. The people who have more than enough will not share. The groom will not let people who are late enter. There will be no grace.

So, have your stuff together. Grab some extra oil on your way out and keep awake. You don’t know when that groom is going to show up and take you to the wedding banquet. And you don’t want to be standing in front of a closed door in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So be prepared!

The problem is that I’m not prepared. I don’t have my stuff together. I don’t know how much oil I have. I’m just trying my best. And I’ll bet that a lot of us are in that same situation… and least some of the time… even the Eagle Scouts.

And on top of it, no one knows when Jesus will show up. No one knows the day or the hour. And I’m not sure that an extra flask of oil is going to be enough.

What’s someone who’s just trying his best to do?

God loved the world this way. God looked at the world and saw suffering and sin. God put glory aside and became one of us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave. And when we buried God in the ground, God got up. And we have faith that God will return and finish the work that God started.1Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Kindle ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015. p. 46.

Sometimes, in some churches, we say it this way: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.

But Christ has been going-to-come-again for a long time. The groom is very late. And here we are with our little lamps, trying our best to be the light of the world and doing our best to keep those lamps trimmed and burning. But, sometimes, the oil runs out.

And it is easy, in the midst of trouble, to get distracted. It is easy, in the middle of the Lenten wilderness, to focus on the wrong thing.

It is easy, when we think that we have just enough oil in our lamp, to look at our neighbor who doesn’t have enough, and say, “I can’t share. I won’t have enough.”

It is easy, when we think that we don’t have enough oil in our lamp, and no one will share with us, to say, “Christ is late. I have time and more than enough time. I can leave, and go to the all night oil shop, and get some more. I’ll be back before Christ returns.”

It is easy to say, “I will take a break from grace… and try to do this on my own.” It is easy to say, “I will take a break from grace… and try to get preparedfor Christ to come back.”

But here’s the thing: there is not one of us—there is not one of us—who can guarantee that we have enough oil to make it through the long dark night until Christ returns. We all see our lamps run dry from time to time. It happens to the people in the pews. It happens to pastors. It may have happened to you now and again. I know it has happened to me now and again.

There are times when our faith runs low. It happens.

And if we have our stuff together, we can fool ourselves into thinking that if we just hold onto the little bit that we have left, we’ll be okay. And if we have our stuff together, we can even look at our neighbor who doesn’t have enough and think, “Thank God I’m not like them. Thank God I’m prepared. Thank God I can do this on my own.”

And if we don’t have our stuff together… well… we can think that we just need to walk away. Maybe we can find an all night oil shop.

Now, I need to be careful here.

Sometimes, we need to walk away from our congregation or from the church. It is true. I have been there, and I will not criticize anyone for saying, “I need a little time away.” And I will not stop praying that anyone who walks away for a season will come back… or find another faith community that meets their needs.

But I also believe that when our faith is low, we can find support in this church, in this congregation, in this community.

There will be times when you cannot sing the hymns. There will be times when the tunes seem monotonous and the words ring hollow. And in those times, you can rely on the melodies of your neighbors. We can sing the hymns for you.

There will be times when you cannot pray the prayers. There will be times when the words are buried too deep in your soul and it feels like no one is listening. And in those times, you can rely on the words of your neighbors. We can pray for you.

Literally. We can sing in your stead. We can pray on your behalf. We can add oil to your lamp until the flame burns bright again.

And then, when your neighbor cannot sing—when the tunes seem monotonous and the words ring hollow—you can sing for them

And when your neighbor cannot pray—when the words are buried too deep in their soul and it feels like no one is listening—you can pray for them.

Literally… in their stead… on their behalf. You can add oil to their lamp until the flame burns bright again.

In your long dark night of the soul, we can gather around you with our little lamps and cast a little light. And, as the seasons pass, we will all have the chance to do that for each other. That is the joy of a community of faith… that we—not each of us on our own, but all of us together—can keep our lamps trimmed and burning.

Because, it turns out, we are the all night oil shop. And that means that none of us have to wander off. We can all be present when the groom comes: when Christ returns, and fills our lamps with oil, and lights the whole world.

Thanks be to God.

Footnotes   [ + ]

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   [ + ]

A Simple Truth

A simple truth: someone else having enough does not hurt me.

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa, the smart and justice-oriented daughter of the title family accuses her hapless and dimwitted dad, Homer, or being jealous of Apu, the proprietor of the local Kwik-E-Mart, for… reasons.

And Homer replies, “I’m not jealous, I’m envious. Jealousy is when you worry someone will take what you have. Envy is wanting what someone else has. What I feel is envy.”

And Lisa checks a dictionary and is astonished to discover that Homer—again, hapless and dimwitted—is right.

You will probably never need to know the difference between jealousy and envy. But that difference makes me wonder if there’s a word… not for when you’re worried that someone will take what you have, that’s jealousy… and not for when you want what someone else has, that’s envy… but for when you just don’t want someone else to have what they have.

I looked. I couldn’t find one. Even in German.

But, let’s admit it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all had that feeling sometimes, when we’ve looked at what someone else has and wanted it taken away from them.

In today’s reading, we don’t get any flourishes. We just get a parable. There’s no miracle. There’s no tricky question. There’s no dire prediction. There’s just a story. 

The kingdom of heaven is like this landowner.

You see, there was a landowner who had a vineyard. Early in the morning, he went out to hire some workers, and he agreed to pay them the normal daily wage. So they went to the vineyard and they began working.

Around nine in the morning, he went out again and saw some people standing around, so he hired them. And they went to the vineyard and they began working.

Around noon, he went out again and the same thing happened. And around three in the afternoon he went out again and the same thing happened.

And around five in the afternoon, he went out again and saw some people standing around, so he asked, “Why are you standing around?”

And those people replied, “No one has hired us.”

So the landowner hired them. And they went to the vineyard and they began working.

Eventually, evening rolled around and the workers lined up to get paid. The 5pm workers were first, then the 3pm workers, then the noon workers, then the 9am workers, and, finally, the early morning workers, who had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.

Now, if you were paying close attention, then you know that the early morning workers were the only ones who the landowner went out to hire. He went out at 9am and noon and 3pm and 5pm, but nothing in the story tells us that he intended to hire workers. He went out at those times and he saw people standing idle, who needed to work, so that they could make money, so that they could support their families; and so he hired them and put them to work.

And if you caught that little detail, then you have a hint about what’s coming.

The landowner paid the 5pm workers, the last of the people who he hired, the normal daily wage. And at the back of the line, the early morning workers, who had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat, got excited. They turned to each other and said, If he’s paying a day’s wage to the people who only worked for an hour, imagine how much we’re going to get!”

But when those early morning workers got to the front of the line, the landowner gave them… the normal daily wage. They got exactly what they were promised. And they grumbled. They said, “The people who you hired last only worked for an hour, but you have made them equal to us.”

And I don’t think they said that because they were afraid that the landowner was going to take something from them. The landowner had just paid them everything that they were promised. He wasn’t about to take anything away. They were not jealous.

And I don’t think they said that because they wanted what the other workers had. The other workers had nothing more than what those early morning workers had. They were not envious.

I think that they looked at what the landowner had given them, and they looked at what the landowner had given to the 5pm workers, and they thought, “That landowner has made us equal. He treats everyone the same. He gives everyone what they need.”

And then they thought, “But those people shouldn’t have what we have. They shouldn’t be equal to us. We don’t want them to have what we have.”

And they justified that feeling to themselves, “It’s the landowner’s vineyard and the landowner’s money, but we have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. It’s unfair that he should treat us equally. It’s unfair that we should both have what we need. So he should give us more, or he should take away what he has given to them.”

And, in the end, what they were saying was, “They should not be equal to us. We should be privileged. We are entitled to that.”

There is a saying that goes something like this (there are a few different versions): When you are used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

Here’s what it means. 

Imagine that there is an exclusive club that you like to go to. You are so used to being let in and seeing other people kept out that you are astonished and offended when you are told to wait outside with the rabble who are normally denied entry. You might feel like something is being taken away; and something is: access to the club. You might feel like you’re being hurt… because you’re being treated like everyone else.

Now, imagine that same exclusive club. You are so used to being let in and seeing other people kept out that you are astonished and offended when the doors are thrown open and everyone is allowed in. You might feel like something is being taken away; and something is: exclusivity. You might feel like you’re being hurt… because you’re being treated like everyone else.

And if you want to see that in action, listen to people with power—people who often look like me—talk about people without it. 

Listen to the people who complain about people on welfare owning smart phones or buying junk food. Listen to the men complaining about there being too many movies with women in the lead. Listen to the people complaining about how there are too many people around who don’t look like us.

It sounds a lot like they’re saying, “It’s unfair that we should be treated equally. They should not be equal to us. We should be privileged. We are entitled to that.”

But the simple truth is that what was unfair was that we were ever treated unequally. What is unfair is that there are people going hungry while others have food to spare. What is unfair is that there are people who are not represented in popular culture while others win all the awards. What is unfair is that people are red-lined out of neighborhoods while others live in comfort.

And the simple truth is that someone else having enough does not hurt me.

And the kingdom of heaven is like this… landowner.

You see, there was a landowner who had a vineyard. And early in the morning, he went out to hire some workers. And he did.

But as he went on about is day, he kept seeing people who needed work. He kept seeing people who were standing idle in the marketplace because no one would hire them. And he was moved to compassion. So he hired them.

Eventually, evening rolled around and the workers lined up to get paid. And the landowner paid each worker the normal daily wage. And the workers who the landowner had hired in the early morning grumbled. For they had borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. And they said, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”

And the landowner said to them, “So? You agreed to work for the normal daily wage and that’s what you received. That is what belongs to you, take it and go. But I am generous and I choose to give these others what they need, as well. Why should you grumble? Someone else having enough does not hurt you.”

And the story doesn’t tell us what those early morning workers did. Maybe they had an epiphany, and took what they had been given, and left in joy. Or maybe they took what they had been given and left grumbling under their breath.

But either way, those early morning workers—and the 9am workers and the noon workers and the 3pm workers and the 5pm workers—had experienced the generosity of the kingdom of God. And it is a generous kingdom, where everyone has enough.

This is the second week of Lent. And, as I’ve said, Lent is traditionally a time of repentance and fasting.

And yes, when we choose to fast, there is a sense of discipline and self-denial. But there is also a reminder: that we can do with less… and that because we can do with less, others can have more. We who have have more than we need can give up a little extravagance so that others can have what they need.

For the kingdom of heaven is like this. It is a vineyard where everyone who needs work can work. It is a vineyard where no matter when you arrive today, you will be given enough for today. And no matter when you arrive tomorrow, you will be given enough for tomorrow. And where all of us, no matter whether we arrive in the early morning or the late afternoon, will have enough and more than enough.

Thanks be to God.

Kyrie Eleison

Welcome to Lent.

Lent is a strange season. Last week, I told you that it is traditionally a time of fasting and repentance. It is a time to think about who we are and who God wants us to be and how we get from the former to the latter. It is a time of contemplation…

…a time to contemplate our mortality with ashes on our heads and the whispered words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

…a time to contemplate our transgressions with prayer and self-denial and the words of a voice calling us to reorient our lives, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”

…a time to contemplate how utterly reliant we are on divine grace, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

It is a time to slow down, to think about the things we have done and left undone, and ask God to forgive us.

And that doesn’t quite fit into our modern lives. It doesn’t quite mesh with our modern sensibilities. We don’t usually think of ourselves as people who need forgiveness. I’ve talked about this before: other peoplemight need to be forgiven—they might even need us to forgive them—but we are good people who occasionally do bad things, and usually for good reasons.

But the truth is that if the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—is what I have done for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… or, worse, if the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—includes the things that I have failed to dofor the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… well, then I am desperate for mercy.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

In today’s reading, Peter asks a question. It’s a question you’ve probably asked. It’s a question we’ve all asked. If someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? How many chances should I give them? How many do-overs and mulligans and I-promise-this-time-will-be-differents do they get?

And Peter suggests he will be generous: “If someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? As many as seven times?”

And that does sound like a lot. We live in a world of three strikes laws and zero-tolerance policies. Seven times sounds like a lot.

But Jesus tells Peter to go past even that. There are some variations in the ancient texts of Matthew here. Maybe Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Maybe Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times… four hundred ninety times.” But, either way, that’s more than a lot.

And I remember once, when I was a kid, sitting on the steps to a chancel in a church, listening to the children’s sermon, being told that Jesus offered these numbers because he knew that we wouldn’t keep track.

You see, if we were supposed to forgive someone seven times, we might count. And when someone sinned against us the eighth time, we might say, “You have sinned against me eight times, and I have forgiven you seven times, and now I’m done. You are cut off.”

But if we have to forgive someone seventy times—or seventy times seven times—we would lose count. We would have to ask ourselves if we had forgiven them enough. And we would err on the side of forgiveness.

And there’s something there. But there’s also more.

You see, in Jesus’ world, seven was a number of perfection. It’s the number that it takes to get something right. So forgiving someone seven times is good; and forgiving someone seventy-seven times is better; and forgiving someone seventy times seven times is even better. How many times should you forgive someone? Until they get it right. Until you get it right.

After Jesus answers Peter, he tells a parable. He underlines his point.

Once upon a time, there was a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. The first slave who came before the king owed the king ten thousand talents. That is a huge amount of money. Imagine the amount you would make in, say, 150,000 years. It’s about that much.

The king asked for his money and the slave didn’t have enough. So the king ordered that the slave and his family and all that he had should be paid in order to settle the debt.

And the slave pled, “Lord, have mercy.” And the king, who had already lent him ten thousand talents, had pity on him. The king, who had already lent him ten thousand talents, released him from slavery and wiped the debt clean.

Now, that slave went out and found another slave who owed him 100 denarii. that’s a big amount of money. Imagine the amount you would make in a little more than three months. It’s about that much. Not as much as the first slave had owed the king… but nothing to sneeze at.

And the first slave demanded his money, but the second slave didn’t have enough.

And second slave pled, “Friend, have mercy.” But the first slave, who had lent him 100 denarii, had no mercy. The first slave, who had lent him 100 denarii, had him thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

And when the king heard about this, he took the first slave and said, “Are you kidding me?! You begged for mercy and I—I, who had already lent you ten thousand talents—gave it to you. But you couldn’t do the same for your friend and neighbor?”

And the king had the slave thrown into prison to be tortured until he could pay the debt… that he would never be able to pay.

Now, this is not an image of God that I like. This is not a picture of Jesus that I like. This is not an image of love.

This is an image of God that says, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you… because it will be done unto you.”

But here’s the thing: one of the things that we need to be forgiven for is how bad we are at forgiveness.

One of the things that we need to be forgiven for is how bad we are at forgiveness. Click To Tweet

Let me say that again: one of the things that we need to be forgiven for is how bad we are at forgiveness.

It the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—is what I have done for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… or, worse, if the test of my morality—if the standard of justice—includes the things that I have failed to do for the least among us, the most marginalized and oppressed… then I am desperate for mercy.

I am the slave kneeling before the king pleading, “Lord have mercy.”

And it is a matter of my faith that God has responded to my pleas be releasing me from my slavery to sin. It is a matter of my faith that God has responded to my pleas by wiping my debts clean. And no matter how many times I wander off to find where demons dwell, every time I turn back to God and cry, “Lord have mercy,” she does.

God responds to our pleas by forgiving us… again and again and again… even when our debt is 100 denarii or ten thousand talents or our very souls.

God responds to our pleas by forgiving us… again and again and again… even when our debt is 100 denarii or ten thousand talents or our very souls. Click To Tweet

And yet we who are forgiven hold onto our grudges. We take pride in our punishments. We live in a world of three strikes laws and zero-tolerance policies. I am still angry at people who I haven’t seen in twenty years. I am still angry at people who I have never met.

And there is a place for anger. And there is a place for recognizing our own wounds.

But…

We are all, every one of us, on the receiving end of mercy. We are all, every one of us, on the receiving end of more mercy than we can imagine and more mercy than we will ever be asked to give out. And, knowing that, how can I deny to someone else a portion of the grace that I have received?

If someone sins against me, how many times should I forgive them? Until my forgiveness changes me. Until I become what God has called me to be.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Hard, Troublesome, Dangerous Love

There are some things you need to know. Maybe some things you just forgot.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked a little bit about numbers. I talked a little bit about the numbers that I obsess over. I talked a little bit about how I keep track of our attendance and membership and giving. And I talked a little bit about how I feel better about myself when those numbers are higher.

That wasn’t the core message of the sermon, but still… I know that there are people in this sanctuary who dream of being a big church, with lots of young families, and full Sunday School classrooms, and maybe even two services. And there are days when I am one of them.

Last week, I talked a little bit about being noticed. I talked a little bit about people seeing our generosity and asking, “Who are these people? Who do they think they are? Where are they getting this stuff?” I talked a little bit about hearing people ask those questions, and telling them the answers, and asking them to get in on it, too.

That wasn’t the core message of the sermon, but still… I know that there are people in this sanctuary who dream of being a noticeable church, with people coming from miles around to check us out, and folks talking about how amazing we are, and maybe even being a little bit famous. And there are days when I am one of them.

We are part of a culture that dreams big. We celebrate celebrity. We trust millionaires to make education policy or healthcare policy or whatever. We trust famous people to tell us the truth.

And even if we go through our daily lives mostly content, we all have those moments when we want to be on the red carpet, or in front of the big crowd, or on the cover of some magazine.

And even as a church, we have those moments when we look at megachurches and celebrity pastors and think, “Wouldn’t it be nice?”

In the second part of today’s reading, Jesus gets a moment.

He has taken Peter and James and John up a high mountain. And, in front of these three friends, he is changed. His face shines like the sun. His clothes become a dazzling white.

And then, appearing in front of them all: Moses and Elijah.

Moses, who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Moses, who went up the mountain and spoke to God face to face. Moses, who brought the law to the people. Moses, who led the people to the promised land.

Elijah, who raised a widow’s son. Elijah, who called fire down from heaven. Elijah, who prophesied to—and sometimes against—the king. Elijah, who did not die, but was taken into heaven by a whirlwind.

Moses and Elijah… the law and the prophets. And Jesus is talking with them.

And then, the pièce de résistance, a bright cloud rolls in and a voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!

Peter and James and John see Jesus… conversing with the law and the prophets… endorsed by God. And they are afraid. It’s overwhelming.

Something you need to know. Maybe something you just forgot.

Several weeks ago, I mentioned that one traditional criticism of Christianity is that our God doesn’t act like a God. Ancient pagans complained about it. Modern atheists complain about it.

This Jesus person doesn’t roll into the world with glory and honor. He doesn’t show up with the weapons of war. He doesn’t slaughter his adversaries in front of him. He doesn’t take the throne and demand worship and throw the unfaithful into a lake of fire.

He sometimes says that he’ll get around to that sort of thing eventually. But he just seems to do it.

He is… they complain… weak.

And they’re not wrong. Six days before he took Peter and James and John up the mountain to witness the transfiguration, he was in Caesarea Philippi. And he kept telling his disciples that he had to suffer; that he would be tortured and killed and raised again.

And he told them, “If you want to follow me, you need to deny yourself and take up your cross. If you try to save your life, you will lose it. And if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.”

Sure, someday there will be glory. But, for now…

…there will be times when we suffer.

…there will be times, as we share the love of Christ with the world, when the world will push back.

…there will be times, when we say that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here, when our friends and neighbors in Christ will call us heretics.

…there will be times when it will be hard.

And, I’ll be honest with you, if we live our lives in a way that is always easy—where people always like us, and are always comfortable with us, and always applaud and celebrate us—then we are not following Christ.

If it was always easy to follow Christ—if people always liked us, or were always comfortable with us, or always applauded and celebrated us—then we wouldn’t be following Christ. Christ does not call us to easy. Christ calls us to love. And, sometimes, love is hard. Sometimes, love gets you in trouble. Sometimes, love is downright dangerous.

And hard, troublesome, dangerous love is exactlywhat Jesus calls us to. Hard, troublesome, dangerous love is exactly what Jesus does.

Jesus—the son of God, the beloved with whom God is well pleased, the one to whom we should listen—loves the world in this way:

He puts his glory aside. He hides his honor. He puts down the weapons of war and lets his adversaries come at him. He steps down off the throne and asks us to love one another, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love the stranger, to love our enemies. He seeks out the unfaithful and redeems them.

He seeks out the unfaithful and redeems us. Again and again and again. And he asks us to do the same for each other.

And, I’ll be honest with you, it is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we dream the dreams of this world.

It is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we prioritize being big, or having lots of young families, or having full Sunday School rooms, or getting to a place where we need to have two services.

It is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we prioritize being seen, and having people come from miles around, and getting people to talk about us, and maybe even getting a little bit famous.

It is hard to do that—maybe even impossible to do that—when we prioritize anything else.

Because when we prioritize the success of this world, fear creeps in…

…what if loving that person makes our members uncomfortable?

…what if loving that family makes other people talk and spread rumors?

…what if loving those people gets a member to walk out, or a donor to stop giving?

It is hard to love with the hard, troublesome, dangerous love of Christ—it is, maybe, impossible to love with the hard, troublesome, dangerous love of Christ—when we put anything else before that love.

Now, don’t worry, that doesn’t mean that I’m not looking at the numbers. That doesn’t mean that I’m not working on things like membership and engagement and giving.

But it does mean this: our focus—our unwavering focus as individuals Christians and as a congregation—is on love. It is on love for people who are part of this congregation and for people who are not. It is on love for people who are Christians and for people who are not. It is on love for people who like us and for people who do not.

It is on love when that love is easy and bright and wonderful… and it is on love when that love looks like a cross and is hard to bear.

For when we love—when we pick up our cross, and give up our lives, and love—we see Christ in all his glory: radiant and dazzling. When we love, fear flees. When we love, God provides.

Thanks be to God!

A True Story

A true story:

Sendhil Mullainathan is a professor of economics at Harvard, and Eldar Shafir is a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton. A few years ago, they decided to work together to study a subject that doesn’t get a lot of attention: scarcity. 

They wanted to know what happens to our brains and our behavior when we don’t have enough money or food or time or whatever. And they wanted to know how we could help people who don’t have enough money or food or time or whatever.

One day, they told an economist colleague of theirs that they were studying scarcity. And he replied, “There’s already a science that studies scarcity. You might have heard of it. It’s called economics.”

And that colleague was right. Economics is the study of how we manage limited resources. You only have so much money: do you buy a new coat, or enjoy a night out on the town? The government only has so much money: does it spend it on cancer research, or on highway safety? Those questions, and so many more like them, are economic questions. 1Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Kindle Edition, (New York: Times Books, 2013), 10-11.

And economics, and economists, are incredibly powerful. Most of our big political debates revolve around not having enough. Will we spend our limited money on tax cuts? On a giant wall along the southern border? On big infrastructure projects like high speed rail? On grand social programs like a federal jobs guarantee? We only have so much. What will we use it for?

And that makes it sound like we live in a world where there is not enough. That makes it sound like scarcity is the organizing principle of our society. We can’t help everyone. We have to make some tough choices. We have to be adults about this.

And I am pretty convinced that that’s a big lie.

In today’s reading, Jesus has been rejected. And he’s gone out to a deserted place to be alone.

You see, he was visiting his home town, he was teaching in the synagogue there, and the people were astounded by him. They said, “Who is this guy? Who does he think he is? Is this not the son of that carpenter guy? It this not the son of Mary? It this not the brother of James? C’mon. Where is he getting this stuff?”

And they were offended by him. And he left. And he went out to a deserted place to be alone.

But the crowds heard about this. They knew where he was. They followed him from the towns. And they brought sick people with them.

And Jesus had compassion on them, and healed the sick among them, and night fell.

And the disciples decided to be adults about this. They came to Jesus and said, “It’s getting late. We should send these people back to the towns so that they can get some food.”

And Jesus replied, “Don’t you have food?”

And the disciples looked at what they had and knew that it wasn’t enough. And they said to him, “We have five loaves and a couple of fish.”

And Jesus replied, “That’ll work.”

And he took the bread and the fish. He blessed it. He handed it to the disciples. They passed it around. Everyone ate and was filled. And they collected twelve baskets—twelve baskets!—of leftovers.

They fed five thousand men, plus women and children, with five loaves and a couple of fish.

That sounds like a miracle. It is a miracle.

We could not feed five thousand men, plus women and children, with five loaves and a couple of fish. We certainly would not have twelve baskets of leftovers if we tried. We would be sending people away hungry and empty handed. Jesus feeds all of these people and it is definitely a miracle.

But we have more. We have more than five loaves. We have more than a couple of fish. We have more.

And we have a little voice in the back of our heads—and a whole lot of big voices in our public discourse—saying, “We can’t help everyone. We have to make some tough choices. We have to be adults about this.”

After they fed the people, Jesus sent the disciples away in a boat. He dismissed the crowds. He went up to the mountain to pray. And when morning came, the boat was out at sea. So he decided to walk to it.

When the disciples saw him coming… they freaked out. They thought it was a ghost, a spirit, a threat. And they cried out in fear.

So Jesus said to them, “Take heart. It’s me, Jesus. Do not be afraid.” Which is exactly the kind of thing a ghost would say.

So Peter says to this… thing… walking on the water, “If you’re really Jesus, command me to get out of the boat and walk to you on the water.”

So Jesus does. And Peter climbs out of the boat. And he steps onto the water. And he starts walking towards Jesus. And it is a miracle.

And then the wind picks up. And Peter gets scared. And I am sure that there was a voice in the back of his head saying, “You cannot be doing this. This cannot work. This is not how the world works.”

And Peter starts to sink.

A true story:

Gary Anderson is a professor of ancient Christianity and Judaism at Notre Dame. His wife was once in charge of an adult swimming class. And that class included people who had had near-drowning experiences when they were younger. They were afraid of the water, and they would tense up when they were in it.

And if you swim, then you know a simple truth: in order to float, you have to relax. If you listen to the little voice in the back of your head that says, “You can’t do this,” then you will tense up. If you tense up, you will sink. If you sink, you will panic. If you panic, you will thrash about. If you thrash about, you will drown.

To float, you have to trust the water.2Anderson, Gary A. Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition, Kindle Edition (New Haven: Yale University, 2013), 108.

I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Faith is trust.

Having faith in Christ means trusting Christ. The Christ who was born in a manger, to a dispossessed people, in a backwater province of a great empire… and who healed the sick in a crowd… and who fed five thousand men, plus women and children, with five loaves and a couple of fish… and who walked on water… who went to the cross… and who got up again.

Having faith in God means trusting God. The God who created the whole world… and who feeds the birds of the air, even though they neither sow nor reap… and who clothes the lilies of the field, even they neither toil nor spin… and who came to be one of us.

Faith is trust.

And, I know, it’s a hard trust. 

I would like to believe that if I were on a boat, and I saw Jesus walking towards me on the water, and he told me to step onto the water and walk towards him, I would do it. But I also know that I know—without a doubt—that I cannot walk water. And I would sink faster than Peter.

I would like to believe that if I were standing with Christ in front of a crowd, and I only had five loaves and a couple of fish, and Christ asked me to feed the crowd, I would do it. But I also know that I know—without a doubt—that five loaves and a couple of fish cannot feed five thousand men, plus women and children. And Christ would have to perform a miracle to feed those people.

You see, I have that little voice in the back of my head that says, “You cannot be doing this. This cannot work. This is not how the world works.”

And I hear the big voices in our public discourse that say, “We can’t help everyone. We have to make some tough choices. We have to be adults about this.”

But here’s the thing: I don’t need to have that kind of faith.

I have never had to walk on water. Walking on water is like everything I learned in trig class… it has never come up.

And I have never had to feed a crowd with five loaves and a couple of fish. Doing that is like everything I put on the study guide for The Scarlet Letter… it has never come up.

I am called to do much simpler things. You are called to do much simpler things. 

A true story:

In 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. The island was devastated and people were hungry. So chef José Andrés started feeding doctors and nurses at a hospital, because no one was feeding them, and they were hungry.

But then calls started coming in. The whole island was hungry. So the chef and his crew started commandeering kitchens in restaurants and schools and a basketball arena (because sports stadiums are giant kitchens with entertainment). And they bought food. And people donated food. And people volunteered. And they served 150,000 meals a day.

We are not called to walk on water, or feed a crowd with five loaves and a couple of fish. We are called to do much simpler things: to share from our abundance, to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And the truth is, in this world that God has made, you can do this, sharing works, it is how the world works. The truth is, in this world that God has made, we can help everyone. That is the choice we have to make. That is being an adult.

And, yeah, if we do that, there are going to be people who say, “Who are these people? Who do they think they are? Where are they getting this stuff?”

And then we can tell them. And they can join in, too. Thanks be to God!

Footnotes   [ + ]

Mustard and Yeast

The Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

A mustard seed is a very small seed. It’s not necessarily the smallest seed in the whole world, but it’s small. And in Jesus’ time and Jesus’ land, it grew wild. It’s not the kind of plant that someone would plant in a well-kept garden, where you want your crops all laid out in nice clean rows.

But a man took a mustard seed and planted it in his garden, and it grew. It grew so big that it became a shrub. And it grew so great that it became a tree. And the birds of the air came and made nests in its branches.

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

A woman had some yeast. She took it and hid it in some flour. A lot of flour. Like, a lot of flour. Three whole measures; that’s something like 8 dry gallons or 130 cups of flour. And the yeast worked its way through the flour and all of the dough rose.

You see, the Kingdom of Heaven starts small and gets everywhere and grows large.

And don’t we love that image?

You all know that before I came here to be your pastor, I was a fundraiser. 

At the end of every year, I would prepare a report for my Board of Directors. I would tell them how much we raised and which funds and projects it went to. I would tell them what the average and median gift sizes were. I would tell them how many donors we had, and how many of them were new, and how many we lost, and how their giving had changed.

And sometimes that report was pretty positive. And sometimes it was pretty negative.

And at the start of every year, my Board of Directors would give me a number: the amount of money I needed to raise. 

And I would know that that number meant that we needed this many donors, and this many new donors, and this average gift size… which meant that we needed this many donors to increase their giving by this much… so I needed to send this many letters and make this many calls and schedule this many events… and so on.

My life was ruled by numbers.

And, I’ll be honest with you, I still keep track of the numbers. I look at our attendance every week, and I feel a little bit better about myself when that number is higher. I look at giving, and I feel a little bit better about myself when that number is higher. I look at the number of baptisms and confirmations and new members, and I feel a little bit better about myself when those numbers are higher.

And I know that we have some other people who look at those numbers, who feel better when those numbers are higher.

Numbers mean something. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Bigger numbers are better numbers. 

And it’s nice to think that the Kingdom of Heaven starts small and gets everywhere and grows large… because that means that we might start small and get everywhere and grow large.

But the Kingdom of Heaven is also like this:

A farmer sowed some good seed, some wheat, in a field. And while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds in the same field. So when the wheat came up and bore grain, the weeds came up, too. The people who managed the field came to the farmer and asked if they should pull up the weeds. And the farmer said, “No. If you pull up the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat as well. When the time for harvest comes, we will pull up the weeds first and burn them. Then we’ll gather up the wheat and put it in the barn.”

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

The Son of Man has planted good seed in the world: the children of the Kingdom. And the devil has planted bad seed in the world: the children of the evil one. At the end of the age, the angels will come and collect all of the causes of sin in the world and all of the evildoers, and throw them all in the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And then the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom!

And, as usual, I need to be careful here.

Last week, I told you that, as Christians, we need to be able to judge things and behaviors and systems and institutions. When we can, we need to be able to say, “This is good; and this is bad.” And, more often, we need to be able to say, “This is good; and this is better,” or “This is bad; and this is worse.”

But I also told you that, as Christians, we can never judge people. We are not qualified to look at a person and say, “They are good,” or “They are bad.”

And I told you the good news of our faith: that Christ, who judges with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion, withholds judgment for the sake of redemption. 

I told you that Christ, whose vision is clear, can see the divine spark, the image of God, in us—even if it is as small as a mustard seed, even if it is mixed into three measures of flour—and tend it, and grow it. 

And I cannot believe in the Christ I know—in the Christ who has saved a wretch like me, of all people—and also believe that there are children of the evil one who are destined for the furnace of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But it is also true that Christ does not leave things the way they are.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

It is a garden with a mustard tree with birds nesting in its branches. And that garden is different from a garden where there is no mustard tree.

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

It is yeast that has been hidden in three measures—130 cups—of flour, and it works its way through the dough, and all of the dough rises. And that dough is different from dough where there is no yeast.

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:

It is someone who has sowed good seed, and who cares for the grain that comes up, and does not even pull up the weeds for fear of harming the grain. It is someone who, when the harvest comes, carefully pulls up the weeds and throws them away, and takes what is good. And that person is different from anyone we know.

Or the Kingdom of Heaven is like this: It is a world without sin and without the causes of sin. Which is to say, it is glorious and unimaginable and utterly different from the world we live in.

“Growth for the sake of growth,” said Edward Abbey, “is a cancerous madness.”

And while there are a lot of things that Abbey said that I disagree with, he is right about this. Growth for the sake of growth is pointless. Growth for the sake of growth is dangerous. Growth for the sake of growth is poisonous.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not growing in us and Christ is not working in us to leave us the way that we are.

The Kingdom of Heaven is growing in us and Christ is working in us—as individuals, as a congregation, as a denomination, as a community, and as a world—to take that divine spark, that image of God, even if it is as small as a mustard seed, even if it is mixed into three measures of flour, and grow it.

The Kingdom of Heaven is growing in us and Christ is working in us to transform us.

And, I know, that can be scary. It would be nice to believe that we could just stay the same, only righteous. It would be nice to believe that we could stay exactly as we are, only holy. But we can’t.

You see, God loves us like this:

The world is a field and we are seed that God has planted. And all around us are weeds and nematodes. And God loves us so much that she tends us constantly. And God loves us so much that we she will not pull up a weed or apply nematicides for the fear of hurting us.

And as we grow towards the kingdom, reaching for the light, God tends us and cares for us.

And, someday, we will be grown, bearing the fruits of the spirit. And, when the last of us is ready, God will pull away the weeds, and wipe away the tears, and take us into the kingdom that she has prepared for us since the foundation of the world. And then we will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Not as who we are now, but as who we are in the fullness of the grace of God.

Hallelujah.

Judgment

I majored in philosophy. 

Now, before you judge, I majored in philosophy during the philosophy boom of the late 90s, when there was a major philosopher shortage and all of the big philosophy firms were hiring. I had no idea that the philosophy market would collapse right before I graduated.

Either that, or I majored in philosophy because I was in my late teens, and I like big questions, and it was interesting (and maybe even a little romantic).

But regardless of the reason, I majored in philosophy.

And one of the things that philosophers like to do is pretend that people are rational. We imagine that people make decisions based on evidence and logic. And we’re not alone. A lot of people imagine the same thing. Science, economics, law, and other fields are all based on the idea that people are reasonable.

And that’s just not true.

There is a lot of evidence that people aren’t reasonable. But the way that I learned about human irrationality was this: I learned about the fundamental attribution error.

It’s a neat little trick that our brains—that our psychologies—play on us. And it works like this.

When do something bad, I think about all of the extenuating circumstances that drove me to that choice. speed because I’m going with the flow of traffic, and I’m late for something very important, and the speed limit is clearly set to low for this road, and everyone should understand that.

But when you do something bad, I don’t think about extenuating circumstances. I attribute your behavior to your character. I make assumptions about the kind of person you are. Youspeed because you’re a reckless driver with no respect for the other people on the road.

And we all do this. I do it. You do it. That person who cut you off in traffic or didn’t hold a door or responded too curtly to an email does it. We all tell ourselves, “I am a good person who does bad things for good reasons… and other people are jerks.”

We’ve spent a few weeks in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

A couple of weeks ago, when we had our first reading from this sermon, I told you that it isn’t really a sermon. It’s possible—and maybe even probably—that Jesus never said these exact things in this exact order.

But Jesus was a teacher and a preacher. And while there was probably no one who remembered a whole sermon of his, people remembered bits and pieces. People remembered the themes and ideas and phrases and images that Jesus used again and again. And when Matthew was writing his gospel, he put Jesus on a mountain, like Moses on Sinai, and had him say these bits and pieces in this order.

And you can tell that Matthew took a bunch of things that Jesus said and just sort of cobbled them together because of this passage.

It starts with Jesus telling his disciples—and with Matthew telling us—not to judge.

“Do not judge,” he says, “so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get… if you want to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye, you had better make sure there’s not a log in your own eye, first.”

And there’s something beautiful there. Don’t poke around in other people’s eyes when you can’t see clearly. Get the muck out of your own eyes before you try to help your neighbor with the stuff in theirs. Don’t judge people; get yourself together so that you can help people.

But then Matthew has Jesus turn around and say this:

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”

So Jesus starts by telling us not to judge, and then turns around and tells us to know what is holy and what is valuable… and who the dogs and swine are… and that sounds pretty judgmental to me.

And, I know, it’s Jesus saying this.

Jesus, who is God-become-one-of-us. Jesus, who knows our hearts. Jesus, who we meet in everyone who has need. Jesus, who feeds us at his table.

Jesus, who will come in glory and put some of us on his right and some of us on his left.

Jesus, who will send some of us into the kingdom that God has prepared for us since the foundation of the world, and who will leave some of us in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Jesus, who will judge with perfect knowledge… and perfect love… and perfect compassion.

There’s a tension here. And we need to face it honestly.

And it begins with this: I do not judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion. I don’t know all the facts, I don’t love as I should, I can’t walk a mile in your shoes.

I’m not qualified to judge. I’m not qualified to call someone a dog or a pig. And neither are you.

There’s a tension here. And we need to face it honestly. And it begins with that humility.

And then it goes here: it is one thing to judge a thing, or a behavior, or a system, or an institution; it is an entirely different thing to judge a person.

And this is where it get hard.

As Christians, we have to be able to look at things and behaviors and systems and institutions and say, “This is good; and this is bad.”

As your pastor, I need to be able to look at an immigration system that rips children from parents, and places those children with families they don’t know… and say that it is wrong.

I need to be able to look at a system of mass incarceration that holds more than 21% of the world’s prisoners, where race is a major determining factor in whether you end up in jail, where money is a major determining fact in whether you stay there, and where it’s incredibly hard to get our of the system once you’re in it… and say that it is wrong.

I need to be able to look at the food we gather for the Referral Center, and the warm clothes we gather around Christmas, and all of the other ways that we help people in this community and beyond, both as individuals and as a church… and say that they are good.

And, I will admit, there are very few times when we can look at something and know for sure that it is wholly good or wholly evil. We rarely get to choose between good and evil. Most of the time, we have to choose between good and better, or between bad and worse. And it’s hard to know which is which.

Well-meaning people, acting in good faith, trying to do the best we can, can disagree about things.

But it is still true: it is one thing to judge a thing, or a behavior, or a system, or an institution; it is an entirely different thing to judge a person.

And that’s where the fundamental attribution error comes in. Because so often, when we look at ourselves and see that we’ve done something we’re not proud of, we say, “I am a good person who did a bad thing.” And sometimes we even add, “For a good reason.”

And so often, when we look at other people and see that they’ve done something we’re not proud of, we say, “That is a bad person. He is a dog. She is swine. I cannot give them what is holy. I cannot give them what is valuable. If I do, they will trample it under foot and maul me. They are a bad person.”

And, let’s be honest, there are whole industries—on television and radio and the internet—who will tell you who the bad people are. There are systems and institutions who will tell you who you should say that about. And it can feel so good to judge people that way.

But we are not Christ. We do not judge with perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect compassion.

As Christians, we have to be able to look at things and behaviors and systems and institutions and say, “This is good, and this is bad, this is just, and this is unjust; this is merciful, and this is unmerciful; this is compassionate, and this is not compassionate.” Seeing those differences is one of the first steps towards making this world a place of greater justice and mercy and compassion.

And, at the same time, as Christians, we never look at people and say, “They are good, and they are bad.”

Because here’s the thing: Christ, who judges with perfect knowledge and love and compassion, withholds judgment for the sake of redemption.

In perfect knowledge and perfect love and perfect knowledge, with no log in his own eye, Christ sees the divine spark, the image of God, in us, in we who are sinners, and redeems us. That is the promise of our faith.

And if Christ has done that for us, how can we refuse to do that for others? How can we, who are not qualified to judge, look at someone and say, “They are good, and they are bad”?

The answer is easy: we can’t. And the truth is that holy things—holy things like grace—are holy even when dogs have them. And the truth is that dogs like me probably need them more.

I know that’s a tall order. I know how easy it is to judge people. I know how easy it is to say, “I am a good person who does bad things for good reasons… and other people are jerks.” I do it. You do it. We all do it.

But I also believe that we can meet that tall order. By the grace of God, we can do to others as we would have them do to us. We can judge others as we would have them judge us: with love and compassion; with mercy and grace.

We can take those holy things and give them to everyone… even the dogs like them… even the dogs like us.

We can build our houses, we can build our homes, we can build our lives, on the solid foundation fo the grace  of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

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