An Inconvenient Truth

Matthew 18.21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordained him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payments to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same salve, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have mad mercy on your fellow slave, and I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I don’t know what it is about weddings, but people really let themselves go when they gather to celebrate two individuals joining together. Maybe it’s the beauty of a ceremony focused on love, or perhaps it’s the atmosphere of family members and friends rejoicing together, or maybe its just the abundance of free alcohol, but weddings are a rare moment where people appear to be the truest selves.

If you were here last week you’ll know that I wasn’t. While Michael was bringing the Word I was flying back from Maine where I had just presided over a wedding ceremony for one of my best friends. And I want you all to know that I missed you. I missed being here in this place worshiping together, I missed the choir, I missed seeing all of your beautiful faces.

That’s not to say that I had a bad time at the wedding. On the contrary, I had a great time. People were so over-the-top with their compliments about the wedding sermon and ceremony, perhaps because of the libations, or maybe because many of the people in attendance had bad experiences of weddings in the past and I offered something different. I don’t know what it was, but people seemed to like it.

Now, I want to share with you all that I made a few mistakes at the wedding. During the prayer before the dinner at the reception I made an offhand comment about how people needn’t hide their wine glasses behind their backs when they talk to me because, after all, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine. I even prayed about how we should celebrate together and learn to party like Jesus.

If only I hadn’t used those last three words. Because, throughout the rest of the evening, a slew of people who were really enjoying themselves would wander over, slap me with a high five and scream, “Party like Jesus!”

Another mistake: I never quite know what to do when the bride and groom kiss for the first time. I mean, I’m right up there next to them and that moment is a favorite for photographers. So, right before I said, “You may kiss the bride” I took a step back and bowed my head so as not to appear too creepy in any photographs. However, what I didn’t anticipate was how my baldhead would appear like a shining beacon in the photos that are now all over Facebook.

But all in all, it was a remarkable celebration and I count myself blessed to have been part of it.

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During the reception, while I was milling about and striking up conversations with people, there was a youngish man who approached me and outstretched his hand. He made a few kind comments about the ceremony and as if he felt guilty due to my presence he said, “You know, I haven’t been to church in a long time.” I hear that kind of thing all the time and I never know how to respond so I just don’t.

And then he continued, “But,” he said, “If church was like that ceremony I’d be there every Sunday.”

I should’ve said “Thanks” and politely walked away. But instead I opened my big mouth: “Church shouldn’t be like that every week.”

“Why not?” he asked.

            “Because, if church was like that every week, we wouldn’t need it.”

I’m not sure what has happened over the last few decades in the church, at least in the United Methodist Church, but there was a time when one could expect to hear just about the same sort of message every Sunday: we are sinners.

But no more. Instead of confronting that rather inconvenient truth, we want to make believe that the church is full of saints. We’d rather hear about grace than sin, we want to talk about mercy and not sacrifice, we want to be built up and not broken down.

We want our Sunday services to look more like celebratory wedding ceremonies than the confrontational and convicting services of the past.

It’s as if, because we want to appear so perfect on the outside, we have forgotten who we really are on the inside.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive someone in the church who has sinned against me? Seven times?” And Jesus said, “You’ve got to forgive seventy-seven times.”

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Notice the context of Peter’s question, because it’s important. Forgiveness is often used in this overwhelming sense of totality. If someone gossips about me at work, should I forgive them? If someone cuts me off on the highway should I forgive them? But Peter doesn’t ask about anyone sinning against him, he asks about people who sin against him in the church.

Forgiving someone from the church is very different than just forgiving an individual from the community or even someone on the other side of the world. Frankly, its easier to forgive someone you’ll never see again than it is to forgive someone you’re going to see every Sunday for the rest of your life.

And notice the fact that Peter assumes he will be the one in a position to forgive. Which is to say, Peter assumes he will be the one who has the power to forgive.

Peter was a sinner, just like the rest of us. And, just like the rest of us, his chief sin was being blind to the fact that he was a sinner.

The inconvenient truth of our sinful and broken identities is that we expect the world, and others, to be perfect. Peter listens to Jesus and wants to know how many times he should forgive another person. A man goes to a wedding and wishes that church services could be filled with joy and happiness every single week. We want to know how many times we have to forgive someone because we are so convinced that others will sin against us and we forget that we sin against others as well.

Jesus’ response to Peter probes and prods us to ask ourselves, “How can we be at peace with one another?” But more than that, even more than forgiving one another seventy-seven times, Jesus’ words are all about how God has first forgiven us.

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The man at the wedding just stared at me while people were gyrating on the dance floor. He thought about my comment for what seemed like a mini-eternity and then finally said, “Well, I think more people would go to church if it were like that every week.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “but the church isn’t in the business of growing for the sake of growing. The church is about telling the truth. And sometimes, offering and receiving the truth hurts.

I don’t like preaching about forgiveness because I’m so bad at it. I don’t like having to stand it this place and talk to people like you about it, because in doing so it’s like I’m holding up a mirror and realizing, all over again, that I’m a sinner.

Maybe you’re like me and you hold grudges, or you get frustrated with people, or sometimes you just can’t imagine forgiving someone for what they’ve done.

Maybe you’re like me and you want to put conditions on forgiveness.

Maybe you’re like me and sometimes the golden rule of, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” turns into “do unto others as they have done unto you.”

Offering forgiveness isn’t easy.

            Receiving it might be even worse.

Jesus doesn’t leave Peter and the disciples with the seventy-seven times of forgiveness. He goes on to tell them a story.

A king forgives the debt of one of his slaves, who then berates a fellow slave for a much smaller debt. When the king receives word of what happened, he confronts the first slave about his inability to be merciful and orders him to be tortured. And then Jesus ends with this: “so it will be with you if you do not forgive your brother and your sister.

Jesus’ story, this parable meant to shed light on the virtues of forgiveness, is purposely intense. It is meant to be shocking. There is no way a slave could ever owe a king so much money, there’s no way the slave would ever be able to pay it back, nor would a king ever forgive such an outrageous debt.

But that’s what forgiveness is really like. It feels impossible and out of touch with reality.

Someone can do something that seems so small to others, but to us it can feel like a debt that is unachievable. We can be so fueled with anger over what people have done to us that we might want them to be tortured for what they’ve done.

Jesus’ response to Peter, to be honest, is pretty irresponsible. I mean, how logical is it to grant unlimited forgiveness? What kind of community can be sustained where individuals will be forgiven over and over and over and over?

But Jesus’ parable isn’t about us! It’s about God.

God is the one who first forgives our debt that we can never repay. Our sin, who we really are on the inside, our prejudices and our judgments and our mistakes, the things that are only known to us are such that we should never be forgiven. If we took the time to lay out all of our sins on the altar, if we listened to one another confess who we really are, we might not be able to look at one another ever again.

My friends, hear this inconvenient truth: You and I, we’re sinners. We’re broken. Some of us more than others, but all of us are sinners.

            That’s not something that’s easy to hear: I know it. I don’t like holding the mirror up to who I really am either.

Jesus knew that those who chose to follow him would wrong one another, that the disciples then and now would sin against each other, that there would be conflict. Therefore Jesus doesn’t offer a way to eliminate or avoid conflict, instead Jesus tells Peter and us what to do with it: We must remember who we really are.

If we are to be peacemakers capable of forgiving one another, we have to remember that God first forgave us.

If we are to take seriously Jesus’ command to forgive over and over again, we can only do so when we remember how God first forgave us.

If we are to be the church, then we have to know and believe that church is going to be messy sometimes. We’re going to hear and receive things in this place that will be hard to hear and receive.

The church cannot be a never-ending wedding feast.

Earlier in the service each of you were given an index card and you were asked to write down the name of someone from whom you need forgiveness.

I think it would’ve been all to easy to write down someone’s name you need to forgive and say, “when you leave church today, call them or text them and let them know they are forgiven.” But that would be too easy.

What’s harder is to look at the name of the person you wrote down and think about how, today, you can get in touch with them and ask them to forgive you. I promise it’s going to be hard to do, and it might actually make the situation worse than it is right now. When you have to ask someone for forgiveness you’re forced to recognize that you’re not as perfect as you think you appear to be.

This isn’t going to fix everything; it’s not going to make all the problems in your life disappear. And for that I am sorry. But we have no business, at all, talking about forgiving someone else unless we are willing to ask someone to forgive us for what we’ve done. Amen.

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What Are You Doing Here?

1 Kings 19.9-18

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.

I wrote a B- sermon this week on the palpable silence of 1 Kings 19. In praying over the text I felt God nudging me to write about the need for the absence of sound in our lives in order to really hear what God has to say. I had stories picked out about times in my life where I was particularly silent and how transformative they were for me.

The whole worship service, in fact, was planned around the topic of silence, about the need to listen more than speak. And last night, after returning home from the wonderful Ice Cream Social that we had, I turned on the news and realized that my sermon had to go; that I need to start over, because the Lord was speaking and it was time for me to listen.

A few months ago, the overwhelming majority of the City Council in Charlottesville, VA voted to remove a confederate statue of General Robert E. Lee. Lee is somewhat of a beloved figure here in the state of Virginia; people love him without really knowing much about him. And so when the city decided to remove a statue in his honor, people went ballistic. On one side there were people who were thrilled that the city was finally willing to be bold enough to take steps in a new direction, willing to ask themselves hard questions, and willing to publically declare where they were. And on the other side, there were people who were outraged that a man of great respect and honor in history was going to be torn down as if he never really mattered.

And then people stopped talking about it. Weeks and months passed until this weekend when the fever pitch of outrage began to resonate in new and frightening ways.

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Groups from all over the country met in Charlottesville this weekend to protest the removal of the statue, to stand in affirmation of the City Council’s decision, and some with hope to hold the peace.

When I turned the news on last night I saw what I thought was the National Guard entering Charlottesville to keep the peace, but in fact what I saw was armed militia’s from across the country, bearing arms and other weapons in order to name and claim there side.

I saw what I thought were clergy standing tall in protest but then I saw them pushed and spit on and berated by the throbbing crowds. I saw what I thought was a group of young people marching to protect the lives of the protestors, but in fact it was a group of neo-Nazis carrying torches and chanting anti-Semitic rhetoric.

The news then broke to a reporter meeting with different individuals, and she asked them all the same question: “What are you doing here?”

The first man was about my age wearing an army helmet with a rifle hung lazily over his shoulder. He was staring directly into the camera while the reporter asked her question and he responded without hesitation: “I am here to stand up for my freedom. People keep trying to destroy my white heritage and my white church. I am here to stand for free market economics. I am here to destroy the Jews.”

“What are you doing here?”

The next man was older with a long scraggly beard hanging below his neckline. Every thing he said came out as a shout and because it was on the radio they had to bleep out every time he shouted the N-word. He was clearly angry, but his anger was unintelligible.

“What are you doing here?”

The next man was young and was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, but before he was able to answer the reporter’s question, angry protestors were pushing forward to him in order to prevent him from speaking.

“What are you doing here?”

Yesterday afternoon a young white man got into his car and drove it into a car of protestors in favor of removing the statue; one of the bystanders was murdered and dozens were injured.

“What are you doing here?”

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Before Elijah’s encounter with the Lord, Queen Jezebel sent a messenger to the prophet telling him that she intended to kill him that very day. Elijah ran for his life and he journeyed into the wilderness. Prior to the cave, Elijah collapsed under a shrub and prayed for God to take his life because he felt worthless, but God sent an angelic messenger who cared for him until sending him on his way. And that’s where our story begins.

Elijah came to a cave and spent the night. In the morning the voice of the Lord spoke to him and said, “What are you doing here Elijah?” The prophet responded with, “Lord, I’ve been a good prophet. I’ve told the people what they were supposed to do, I even struck down the false prophets, but now I’m all alone and people are trying to kill me.”

God, evidently disappointed with Elijah’s answer, commanded the prophet to stand on the mountain. First, there was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind. Next there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was the sound of sheer silence.

When Elijah heard the silence, he went to the mouth of the cave and the Lord asked him again, “What are you doing here Elijah?”

Elijah was a prophet, but he was also a revolutionary. Sometimes the two go hand in hand. He was a defender of the Lord and an enemy of corrupt leaders within his own community. He even killed false prophets. His revolutionary credentials are what make him so important in the New Testament where people were constantly wondering if Jesus was the new Elijah.

What made Elijah revolutionary was his commitment to a world where widows, orphans, and strangers were protected against terrible economic situations and a world out of control. Elijah was like the person more concerned with whether or not the people at Rising Hope have something to eat than what President Trump recently tweeted. Elijah was like the man at the hospital arguing with the intake nurse that someone had waited too long before being treated. Elijah was like couple that did not hesitate to become a foster family for those in need.

And yet Elijah fled. Most of us would’ve done the same. When we feel overwhelmed by the world, by the responsibilities, by the commitments, we run. We flee from helping those who cannot help themselves. We run from the hectic nature of this world to vacation destinations and terrible reality shows. We flee from breaking news reports about the possibility of nuclear geopolitical tensions in a stiff drink or the bottom of a bottle.

It is there, in the caves of our own making, we wait for a word from the Lord. Like Elijah, we wait for God to tell us exactly what to do, or we wait for God to fix all of those external problems, or we wait and hide because we’re not sure if God’s even out there any more.

And that’s when God shows up not with an answer, not with a solution, but with a question, “What are you doing here?”

Being in the presence of God, whether mundane or majestic, is all about being inspired and transformed. Who we were fades into something new and wonderful because God is the one changing, morphing, and moving us.

But Elijah was the same after the experience of silence as he was in the cave; his response to the divine question was the same. He was not changed. The earthquake, wind, fire, all of them were distractions. God was not in any of them. They are a reminder that when we are desperate we are tempted to look for God in all the wrong places, when God is the one looking for us!

We look for God in the big bombastic language of a preacher promising prosperity, or in the raise at work that we think will finally make us financially comfortable, or we look for God in the broken relationships that will never be what they once were.

God’s question to the prophet is important because Elijah’s answer was wrong. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “O God, I’ve done everything that I can and now I’m the only one left.” Elijah was not alone. There were still thousands of individuals who remained faithful to the covenant. And then God commanded Elijah to “go” because there was still work to do.

And this my friends is grace: Despite Elijah’s fears and failures, his inability to remember the God who called him to be a prophet in the first place, God did not give up on him. God still had work for him to do.

But Elijah could not hear the call to go, until he experienced the sheer silence. For it was in the sheer silence he remembered who he was, and whose he was.

I like to think that we live in a better world than the one we inherited. I like to look at the history books of the past to see how far we’ve come. I am grateful that our church has people in in who do not look like, I am grateful that there are no longer water fountains that say “Colored” and “White.” I am grateful that our children sit in classrooms full of people from all over the world with every shade of skin pigmentation.

But when I turned on the news last night, I realized that maybe we haven’t really come that far at all. Maybe we’ve congratulated ourselves too much for being progressive, because friends there is still work for us to do.

God in scripture is a God for the margins. God, again and again, stands with those who are persecuted and martyred and belittled. And throughout the bible, God implores all of the prophets to be mindful of those who are without, those who are suffering, and those who are forced to the margins of life.

We can distract ourselves from the suffering of the people around us, we can go to the right grocery store and the right shopping center in order to avoid the differences of our community, but we worship a God who was born into the suffering of the world, who was born to parents who do not look like anyone in this room.

There are and will be times in our lives that are so overwhelming that we can lose perspective. Like the powerful prophet, we can be pushed too far from our identity and we can retreat into caves of denial.

We can tell ourselves that what happened in Charlottesville will never happen here, but it does every day in some small way, shape, or form.

            We can tell ourselves that the angry white folk in Charlottesville are fringe racists, but they are here in this community too, they are our parents and brothers and sisters and neighbors. They are mumbling in their cars whenever they pass a black man on the street, and they spit words of hate at black women in parking lots.

            We can tell ourselves that we’re in a better world than the one we inherited, but Charlottesville is but one sign that we’ve still got work to do.

We’ve got work to do because our God is not done with us yet. God is working through people like you and me to make the Kingdom come on earth. God is interrupting our lives whenever we gather in this place for worship, with moments of silence to really confront who we are and whose we are.

God is asking us the same question that the reporter asked the protestors, the same question that Elijah heard in the cave, and how we answer the question defines who we are and whose we are.

“What are you doing here?” Amen.

Devotional – John 14.18

Devotional:

John 14.18

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

Weekly Devotional Image

I stood by the bell tower in my robe and I casually greeted everyone as they walked into the building for worship. Just inside the doors were greeters, ushers, and handful of other church members eagerly waiting to address those entering with greetings and salutations. I talked with individuals and families under the bell tower and when one particular woman stepped forward she was greeted by the small crowd with, “Happy Mother’s Day!” and she immediately grimaced; she is not a mother, and will never be one.

On Monday I spoke with a member of the church about a number of matters pertaining to the local community and right before we said goodbye she apologized for not being in church the day before. I asked if everything was okay, or if there was a specific reason she avoided church to which she responded, “I never come to church on Mother’s Day. It just hits too close to home.” She is not a mother, and will never be one.

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Mother’s Day is a strange Sunday in the liturgical life of the church. There is nothing in scripture about the need to have a specific day focused on the glorification of those who are mothers, but in many churches that is exactly what it becomes. And it happens to such a degree that while trying to be grateful for mothers, we often ostracize a sizable community within our churches who can’t be, don’t want to be, or never will be, mothers.

To so emphasize and value the roles of the presumed normative domestic situation does a disservice to the truth of what the church is called to be: the new family.

Jesus, near the end of his earthly life, promised to not leave his friends orphaned. In a sense Jesus’ promise is a prediction of his own death and resurrection, but it also speaks to the future existence of the community of faith. Just as Jesus’ friends were not abandoned after the cross, so too have we not been abandoned in our communities of faith.

Through the sacraments of baptism and communion we are grafted into a community whereby the common identifiers and labels of mother and father are no longer limited by their biological connections. Instead we become brother and sister and mother and father to the entire community that gathers together to encounter the living God.

Being a mother is a remarkable responsibility and should be lauded on a regular basis, but it is not the most important identity that one can have. Following Jesus Christ as a disciple implies a willingness to be maternal toward all people regardless of whether or not we are biological mothers.

In the community of faith we are called to open our eyes to the realities of those around us so that, rather than discomforting someone on their way in or ostracizing someone to the point that they don’t even come, we remember that God will not leave us orphaned, not even in church.

Best Day Ever

John 14.1-7

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.

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Dear Teagan Leigh…

We are the stories we tell. Stories make up the very fabric of our existence here on earth. As you grow older your parents and grandparents and teachers will tell you tales and fables in order to teach you lessons about the world around you. When you mature enough you will be told stories about the past in order to avoid the mistakes of those who came before you. And when you get old like me, you’ll start telling stories in order to comprehend the events of life and in attempts to derive meaning out of the mundane.

We are taught by stories, we are convicted by stories, and we are entertained by stories.

Teagan, when your parents got married, I stood in front of them and their friends and their families and I told them about the importance of stories. After listening to them describe their love and commitment to and for one another in the months leading up to that moment, I knew that their stories were coming together in that holy space as I pronounced them husband and wife.

I told the story of how when your Dad, Tucker, was 4 years old he went shopping with your great grandmother. The whole trip was planned around your Dad finding something for his mom for Mother’s Day. He was given complete and total freedom to pick out whatever he wanted from the store, and sure enough he found the perfect Mother’s Day gift. They went home and wrapped it and then you’re grandmother, Lisa, opened her gift to discover that your 4 year old father, out of all the items he could’ve pick in that store, chose for her a broom and a dust pan… Your grandmother mustered up all the strength she could to accept her gift with pride, though she couldn’t help herself from asking, “Tucker, why the broom and the dust pan?” To which your father replied, “Momma, they’re green, just like your eyes!”

Teagan, I also told a story about your mother, Jess. When your Mom was about 5 years old, she started playing tee ball. She practiced and practiced and then the first real game finally arrived. When your mother got up to the plate for that first at-bat, she swung as hard as she could and she started running. By the time she rounded second base she was beaming with pride thinking about how she was about to score her very first run, and when she was closing in on third base, her coach yelled, “Home Jess! Go home!” but instead of rounding third, your mother ran straight into the dugout and, if her friends and parents hadn’t been there, she would have literally kept running all the way back to her house.

I told those stories at your parents’ wedding because we are the stories we tell. You’re mother is a remarkably loving friend who takes people at their word. Her trust for others is such that she would go to great lengths for the people in her life, even if it meant running all the way home. And your Dad is easily one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met in my life; he will tell you exactly how he feels rather than waste anyone’s time and he knows how to make the best out of any situation, even if he bought your grandmother a broom.

At your parents wedding, I stood before them, their friends, and the rest of your amazing family and told stories. I told those stories to show how your mother and father were about to have their stories join together and you, sweet precious Teagan Leigh, are one of the wonderful results of that union.

And frankly, I would like to take a little credit for your existence. Had I not been there to marry your parents together, had I not joined them in holy matrimony, you wouldn’t be here this morning for your baptism. So, you’re welcome.

I’m just kidding, but there is someone else we need to talk about, someone else whose story makes possible your story. And you might think that I’m going to start talking about Jesus… nope (or at least not yet). We need to talk about your grandfather Marshall.

At your parents’ wedding, your grandfather stood up at the reception and gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard. To be honest, I was a little disappointed when I was listening to it because I realized that no one would remember what I said during the ceremony, but everyone would remember what your grandfather said. And, if I may be so bold, I can condense his 45-minute speech into one phrase: Best Day Ever.

Your grandfather Marshall went on and on about all the memories he had of your Dad and your Mom and how every day was the best day ever, all the way up to the wedding day, and that throughout their marriage they would continue to experience the best day ever.

It was perfect.

What made it perfect was how faithful it was. Because marriage, the joining together of two people is based on an assurance of commitment, what we like to call a covenant. Your parents covenanted to love and cherish and remain with one another recognizing that life will change, that circumstances would move them into strange and unknown places, and yet they believed in the power of God to hold them together in spite of the great mystery we call marriage.

Which brings me to Jesus…

Teagan, your parents are crazy. In their marriage they looked into the abyss of the unknown and jumped right in, and they’re doing it again today in your baptism. Bringing you forth to be baptized is one of the craziest and most faithful things that you parents will ever do, because in doing so they are recognizing that you don’t belong to them.

            You belong to God.

Teagan, there is this profoundly awesome moment in the gospel of John when Jesus was talking to his disciples about what it would mean to follow him. Jesus went on and on in attempts to strengthen his friends and provide for them a glimpse of the kingdom of God on earth and Thomas responded by saying, “Lord how will we know the way?”

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Thomas’ question is all of our questions. Throughout your life Teagan you will encounter this question in its many forms: Who should I sit next to at lunch? What should I get my mom for Mother’s Day? What school should I attend? Who should I marry? What kind of family should I raise? What kind of job should I pursue? What kind of church should I attend? How will I know when it’s the right time to retire? All of these questions are predicated on the assumption that we do not know where we’re going and we need all the help we can get.

Thomas wanted to know how to get where Jesus was going, he wanted an answer to his question, he wanted to know the way. And Jesus responded like this, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Teagan, there are many ways that you can live your life, you can find a great number of answers to your many questions. But Jesus is THE way, and THE truth, and THE life. And unlike many of the means by which the world will try to entice you with a great number of choices, attempts at making you the author of your own story, Jesus is the one who acts upon your behalf.

There might come a day when you’ll look back and regret the choice that your parents made for you. You might wonder if you would’ve made the same choice for yourself had they waited until you were old enough to make it. Your experience of the baptized life might be such that you’ll even be mad at me for being the one who doused you in water. But this thing we call baptism doesn’t really have anything to do with you, or your parents, or even me. Instead it has everything to do with God revealing THE way through THE Son.

In your baptism, something you won’t remember outside of stories and photographs, God is the one acting on your behalf. It is the Spirit that moves through the water and calls you forth into a new life, it is God who has worked in and through the waters of so many who have been grafted into the church, it is Jesus who makes possible the kind of radical transformation that takes place in the water.

When your parents got married, they stood before the altar of the Lord and asked for God’s help to navigate the difficult and challenging covenant of marriage. And in your baptism they will do much the same, and we will all join them in their covenant. The people of God’s church, and not just the people of St. John’s but all Christians everywhere, are making the promise to raise you in the faith, to support you when you falter, to congratulate you when you succeed, and to call you out when you wander from THE way.

In a sense, we are making the public proclamation that you are a gift to us from God.

For many of us Teagan, this is the best day ever. When we look up to see you at the font surrounded by such love it will give those of us who have followed THE way a great deal of hope. In the water that will cover your head we will be reminded of THE truth of what Jesus came to do for the world through THE life of God offered on the cross and resurrected from the grave. And Teagan, I hope that one day you will look back at this day, the day of your baptism, as the best day ever.

But even that would be a disservice to the living God who breathed the breath of life into you, the living God who called your mother and father to live in holy matrimony all of their days, and the living God who revealed THE way and THE truth and THE life in his Son. For to follow Jesus on THE way as THE way is to know that every day is the best day ever. Because every day is another opportunity to encounter the incredible grace of God in the laughter of a friend, in the tear of a spous e, in the smile of a stranger. Every day offers us a chance to live into THE truth that God is the author of our stories. Every day presents an occasion to give thanks for THE life that reorients all of our lives.

Teagan Leigh, you are a gift. You are a gift to your mother and father and to your family. You are a gift to the church. You are a reminder of what God’s grace actually looks like. So today we give thanks to God for you, for making this the best day ever, and for THE truth that even greater days are yet to come. Amen.

What Things?

Luke 24.13-19

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

 

We only know what we know. Though, perhaps a better way to put it is this: we only know what we have been told.

On my first Sunday as the pastor here I stood up in the pulpit and I said that we are the stories we tell. The narratives we tell ourselves and our friends and our families reorient our lives in a way that we often can’t see unless in retrospect. This can be a good thing when our lives are determined by the great narrative of God with God’s people, but it can also become problematic when the only story we tell is our own.

As children we learn by stories. We teach our young about George Washington chopping down his cherry tree as a way to teach the virtue of telling the truth. We tell stories about Jesus teaching his disciples to treat one another the way they wish to be treated in order to instill a sense of the so-called “golden rule.” And perhaps the story we tell the most, the lesson we hope to share on a habitual basis, is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

The “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” story is made manifest in a number of ways from literally not judging a written book by it’s cover page to not judging people because of their clothing. We tell that story over and over again to our children.

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And here’s the great irony: we judge books by their covers all the time.

We are told to love the street beggar, but we only see them for their shabby clothing, putrid smell, and most of the time we just walk straight past them.

We are told to love the wealthy, but we only see them for their perfectly pressed shirts, their obscene jewelry, and we assume they have no sense of how the world actually works.

We are told to love people from the South, but we limit our understanding of them to Confederate Flags, Country music, and repressed racism.

We are told to love people from the North, but we only see them for their entitlement, their inability to empathize, and we label them Yankees.

We are told to love the Democrat, but we only see them for their bleeding hearts, tax heavy foolishness, and their thirst for total power.

We are told to love the Republican, but we only see them for their love of guns, dismantling of Government programs, and white superiority.

We are told to love the Muslim, but we only see them for their headscarves, for their Sharia Law that the news channels are forever warning us about, and we blame them for all the problems in the Middle East.

We are told to love the Jew, but we see them as consumed by the pursuit of wealth, always digging up issues from the past, and we assume they are up to more than they let on.

We are told to love the Atheist, but we only see them for their over-reliance on science, their negative attitudes toward religion, and we assume they are going to hell.

We might not fall into all of those generalizations, but each and every one of us are sinners who are guilty of judging books based on their covers. Or, to put it another way, we only know the stories we are told.

            It’s like something keeps us from recognizing Jesus in one another.

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We barely know anything about the disciples who made their way to Emmaus on the first Easter. One of them has a name, Cleopas, but other than that all we know is that they are walking and talking when Jesus shows up. Regardless of their past decisions, or even their faithfulness to the newly risen Christ, their proximity to the Lord on the road has cemented them in the identity and narrative of Christianity forever.

While they were walking and talking, Jesus came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you all talking about?” They stood still looking sad.

            What a telling sentence; from the mere question of a stranger they were stopped dead in their tracks as the reality of what had taken place set in all over again. And then Cleopas realized something strange: how could this man, so close to the city, not know what we have been talking about? Everyone’s been talking about it. And so he asks Jesus, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” And Jesus replied, “What things?”

            What a remarkably important question. What had taken place in Jerusalem? What had they seen? What had they heard? What’s the story?

How would we answer the question? Imagine, if you can, walking downtown one afternoon, and a stranger walked up and asked us to tell them about Jesus. What would we say?

Would we tell the truth of Jesus’ horrific death on the cross? Would we add our own editorial reflections in order to cast doubt on what we really think? Do we so believe the story that we could tell it?

How we answer Jesus’ question constitutes the very fabric of our lives.

I announced last week that I’ll be leaving St. John’s at the end of June for a new appointment, and in the wake of that announcement I realized I could probably be a little more probing, and perhaps even controversial, from the pulpit since I’m on the way out. Rather than surface level faith stuff, we, and by we I mean me, we can talk about things we would otherwise ignore.

Since I arrived in Staunton four years ago there has been a debate about our local high school. It started long before I got here, and it will be here far after I leave. And it doesn’t have to do with student-teacher dynamics, or accreditation, or any number of other important educational precepts. The controversy is all about the name: Robert E. Lee High School.

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Some, of course, want the name to change: They say it’s a relic of the past, it encourages prejudice among the student body, it’s offensive, it’s archaic, it’s racist, etc.

Some, of course, want the name to stay the same: They say it has a profound history with the community that can’t just be washed away, Lee represents a class of gentlemen almost forgotten to the sands of time, we should be proud of the name. It’s important, it’s patriotic, it’s powerful, etc.

And this fight goes on and on and on.

And here’s the thing: the name of the school is offensive and it does hurt people, just like the Confederate flag does. They see the name and it brings forth all sorts of animosity and resentment and fear and pain. Yet, at the very same time, the name is just a name and changing the name of the high school will change very little. It’s as if we believe that by removing the name we will remove all the prejudice and racism and judgment from an entire community.

It doesn’t work like that.

The name Robert E. Lee will forever evoke positive and negative responses from this community; some will support it and some will oppose it. But the problem is far bigger than a name.

And what do we even really know about Robert E. Lee other than the fact that he was a general for the confederacy during the Civil War? We go on and on about what he represents both positively and negatively, but do we really know who he was? Or are we prevented from seeing the Jesus in him too?

A long time ago, in fact, within a year of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox concluding the Civil War, there was a fashionable church in Richmond, VA filled with white folk on a Communion Sunday. Battered and worn, the South was in quite a state after the war, but these people knew well enough that they should be in church. And on that Sunday, an unwanted black man walked into the church right in the middle of the worship service and made his way down the center aisle with all eyes following him and the preacher stupefied in the pulpit. The black man walked down the aisle under the weight of the prejudice and judgment of the church and he knelt down at the Altar and opened up his hands.

Can you imagine the whispered comments between the pews? Can you hear the hushed hateful words in the house of the Lord?

The congregation sat there completely shocked by what they had witnessed and the buzz of anticipation began to ring.

Sensing the room’s pulse, a distinguished member of the church stood up and walked toward the altar. Some leaned toward friends and spouses with whispers of gratitude for the church member handling the situation, and others sighed with relief knowing that he would take care of the awful interruption. But, when the church member arrived at the Altar, he knelt down beside his black brother, wrapped his arms around him, and began to pray. Within second, the entire congregation stood up, as if transfixed by the Spirit, walked to the front and followed his example.

That church member was Robert E. Lee.

Is that story enough to justify keeping the name of our high school? Or does the history of the South, and the continued prejudice toward people of color necessitate a change of name regardless of what Lee did in that church building? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that unless we are willing to open our eyes to the Jesus in one another, unless we are willing to kneel at the Altar with people different from us, unless we are willing to answer Jesus’ question, nothing will ever change.

We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.

“Are you the only one in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?” “What things?”

They talked on the road on their way to Emmaus, they told the mysterious man what they had seen and what they had heard, and the more they walked the more Jesus interpreted for them the scriptures. And when night came, Jesus continued to walk but the two men invited him to stay in the city. So they gathered around a table and Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it, offered it to his friends and their eyes were opened.

Jesus opened their eyes to the truth of the one they were with. Through the simple and ordinary event of breaking bread the profound and extraordinary reality of the resurrection was made manifest before them.

On the roads of life our eyes are often prevented from recognizing the Jesus within the other. Instead we make the continued assumptions and judgments and ignore them. But when we encounter the other, and take time to sit around a common table, when we let the story of Christ reshapes our lives, when we kneel at the altar beside those who are different from us, Jesus opens our eyes. Amen.

The Elephant In The Room

Romans 5.1-11

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

 

Sometimes I’ll be running at the gym, or walking the dog, or just sitting in my office when an idea will pop into my head. The idea starts like seed and then it germinates throughout my mind into sermon topics and bible studies and blog posts. The idea grows and grows and before it disappears into the gray matter of my brain I make sure to write it down.

And, (would you believe it?) an idea is coming to me right now! But I don’t have any paper up here so I need you all to write this stuff down (seriously).

Okay, we are justified by faith, God’s faith in us. That’s what we talked about last week. And because we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus. And, I mean, not only that, but we are bold to boast of God’s grace in our worst moments, because we know that our suffering leads to endurance, and endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope.

Yeah, that’s good.

We arrive at hope because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit. And we know that God loves us because while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. Right? Like, how often will someone die for a righteous person? Though, I guess for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love to us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us!

Still with me?

Okay, and its even more than that, now that we have been justified by Christ’s blood we will be saved from the wrath of God. Through Jesus’ death we were reconciled back to God, and through Jesus’ life we will be saved! This is worth boasting about!

Did you get all of that?

Let me try to simplify in case I lost any of you: We are justified by God’s faith in us. Suffering leads to endurance, endurance to character, and character to hope. We arrive at this hope because we know God loves us. And we know God loves us because Christ died for us while we were yet sinners…

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Paul is hard to take from the pulpit. Give me one of the stories of Jesus’ healings, or any of the parables; they preach themselves. Sometimes I even think it would be better to just read the scripture and not preach anything at all. But with Paul it takes on a new and strange and difficult dimension. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, writes in a form of rhetoric almost lost to the sands of time. In our current age of 140 character tweets from our President, frenetic television shows, and fast-paced YouTube videos, we no longer have the minds, nor the time to hear Paul’s theology.

A theology that was probably dictated to someone else to write down while Paul was thinking it up.

You can almost hear that in the reading can’t you? It’s like he remembered something from a few sentences back and wants to clarify it.

The Epistle to the Romans is not a perfectly crafted sermon meant for pulpit proclamation. Instead, it’s practical theology dictated from the greatest missionary the world has ever known.

Paul begins this section by addressing suffering; it’s the part of the passage that is most often mentioned. And he’s not just talking about some esoteric understanding of suffering. Paul is talking from experience! At the time of this letter, Paul was not a young, pre-maturely balding, healthy pastor standing in a pulpit telling his worn and suffering congregation to keep their chins up. No, this is entirely different. Paul suffered for the gospel, was arrested and persecuted, and yet he continued on. That’s why he can say that suffering leads to hope. For Paul it’s not a false and empty promise, it’s what he has experienced.

And then we come to the section about dying for others.

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Dying for others, for one’s country, for our families, these stories captivate our hearts and our emotions. The thought of all the firefighters courageously rushing into the World Trade Center buildings on September 11th, or the countless volunteers who went to the other side of the world to fight in World War II, or just hearing about a mother who sacrifices herself to save her children, these stories really pull our heart strings.

But here, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, this is even more radical than any of those stories. We have to try to put aside the emotional waves of grief and reverence for the stories of modern sacrifice for one’s friends, family, or country. Paul does not say that Jesus died for his friends or his family or even his country.

            Christ died for the ungodly!

Paul says that Christ died for us while we were his enemies!

Talk about an elephant in the room… While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We hear it in Romans, we hear it every time we come to the table for communion, but do we believe it?

We don’t like talking about sin, we good Christian folk. We want to hear about love, peace, joy, hope, and happiness.

Only the converted, those whose lives have been truly captivated by Christ, think of themselves as sinners. Others won’t have anything to do with it. That, my friends, is why we so seldom read from Paul’s letters in worship; we don’t like the idea of ourselves as sinners, as ungodly.

“Preacher, can’t you just give us a little more grace and love from the pulpit? Nobody wants to come to church to hear about sins!” And yet, we enjoy reading in the gossip columns and watching TMZ to learn about other people’s sins, but that’s their problem.

We don’t like admitting our shortcomings, our faults, and our helplessness. We reject that gospel and substitute our own, one we talked about a couple weeks ago. We’d rather believe the American gospel: God helps those who help themselves. Actually, Paul tells us quite the opposite: When we could not help ourselves, when we were stuck in the shadow of sin, Christ died for us.

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In our current age of tweets, twenty-minute TV shows, and traffic filled websites, we want everything compartmentalized as much as possible. Instead of reading a newspaper we want a short and brief email every morning that tells us only what we need to know. Instead of buying the latest hit book and spending an afternoon in our favorite chair, we read a summary online so we can talk about it with our friends. And instead of coming to church for an hour a week to experience the presence of God, people read the sermon online and check off the box on the Christian list of to-dos.

We, whether we admit it or not, are consumed by a desire to compress as much as possible into something as small as possible. Paul completely rejects this desire and notion that we can limit the gospel to any particular sentence or paragraph. The Gospel, the Good News, is nothing less than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Son of Man, and Son of God.

But, if we cannot resist the temptation, if we have to have something small, something we can keep with us at all times to know what the gospel is, this might work: While we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.

            This is crazy stuff people! Our Lord and Savior, the one in the stained glass window behind me, he died for the ungodly!

Who is the ungodliest person you can think of right now? I know some of you will immediately think of the members of ISIS who are terrorizing regions under their control. Others of you will immediately think of the leaders in North Korea who are trying their best to develop nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Some of you might think of Donald Trump and the seemingly endless Executive Orders streaming out of the Oval Office these days. Some of you might even be thinking about the person sitting in the pew next to you.

If it’s too hard to think of someone ungodly, just think about one person you’re angry with right now…

Jesus died for that person. Whoever you’re thinking of, whoever that completely backwards and horrible and disappointing person is that’s bouncing around in your mind right now, Jesus died for them.

That’s the real elephant in the room. Jesus died precisely for the sort of person that would crucify him and mock him while they were doing it. People like us.

These things we call faith and discipleship are not very religious in the sense of being pretty and easy to handle. They are not something we can carry around in our pockets during the week only to show up when we need them. The cross of Christ is far too offensive to be religious.

The cross and the death of Christ shatter our expectations given to us by the world. They, in all their strangeness, reorient us back toward the radical nature of God’s love. The offensive and scandalous cross is our paradoxical hope and joy. Because in and through the cross, God did something that none of us would do.

            As the old hymn goes, the immortal God hath died for me.

God’s love in Christ is so comprehensive and so bewildering that it is able to wash away even the greatest of sins.

We started this sermon with a dictation, an imaginative way to reimagine the writing of Paul’s letter to the Romans. If you wrote down anything I hope you wrote this: While we were yet sinners God died for the ungodly, for us.

Now I want you to write down the name of the person you thought of just a moment ago, the person who you’re angry with. Write his or her name at the top as if you meant to send this letter to them.

Now you know that I’m going to ask you to send it. And I know that you probably won’t. You won’t for the same reason I wouldn’t; it’s offensive and it’s uncomfortable. We won’t send this affirmation of God’s unnerving love to someone else because it would force us into an area we’d rather avoid; we don’t want to come off as too evangelistic, or too churchy. We don’t want to admit our sin.

Can you imagine the shock on the person’s face if they received your dictated letter from the adapted words of the apostle Paul? Can you picture how bewildered they would be by something Christians say all the time? Can you imagine how it would change the way you look at them for the rest of your days?

While we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. In our weakness we reject the challenge to confront our sins and we reject the forgiving nature of God’s love for the world. We forget that Christ died for our shame and our sin and our sadness. We forget that Christ died for our disappointment and our degenerate derelictions and our deficiencies. We forget that Christ died for us and for the people whose names’ are at the top of our letters.

And yet Christ still died for us! What wondrous love in this that that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul! To God and to the Lamb who is the great I am, we shall sing! And when from death we’re free, and through eternity, we shall sing.

For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Amen.

Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin

Matthew 7.1-5

Do not judge, 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. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to you neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye.

 

We announced this sermon series a couple months back, and ever since then a number of you have expressed your excitement about the possibility of confronting these Christianisms. Whether you were in the middle of suffering and someone said, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or a friend tried to explain how your struggles were given to you by the Lord because “everything happens for a reason” or any number of situations, these dumb things that Christians say are things all of us have heard.

However, some of you have also expressed your concern about today’s statement, the last one in the series, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

It sounds so right doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with it?

We can all agree that Christians say a lot of dumb things, but this is a good thing to say, right?

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In my experience, when people say “love the sinner, hate the sin” they are usually referring to homosexuality. For many, it is a kind and Christian way to say, “I love my gay friends, but I hate that they’re gay.” In this post-truth, post-liberal, post-whatever period, it is a way for some of us to cover our true feelings while appearing congenial toward those whom we disagree with about sexuality.

Though recently, when I’ve heard people say it they are now using it with regard to the realm of politics. It is amazing how quickly the Christian cover-all for conversations about homosexuality has shifted to conversations about who, or who isn’t, running the country. “Well, I know she voted for that traitor Hillary Clinton, but I love her anyway.” Or “Donald Trump is ruining our country, but I love him anyway.” “I love my brother, but he can be a bleeding liberal.” “I love my sister, but she’s so conservative she’s off the political spectrum.”

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It sounds good, but it’s pretty hard to hate another’s sin, without harming the sinner.

What is sin? We don’t talk about it anymore. Pastors like me would rather talk about God’s loving nature, than God’s judgment. We would rather tell people like you to love your neighbors, than to tell you to tell your neighbor they’re sinners. We would rather skip over the hard and strange passages about condemnation than truly proclaim that God’s scripture is still speaking to us today.

But for a long time, and I mean a LONG time, sin was THE thing that pastors talked about; sinners in the hands of an angry God, fire and brim stone, and repent or burn forever.

We’re afraid of sin. And not sin as a behavior; we’re afraid to talk about it because it makes us, and our congregations, uncomfortable. I hear again and again that people don’t want to leave church feeling miserable about their lives and their behavior, so preachers like me water down the gospel and we avoid even mentioning sin.

In fact, I had a professor in seminary who taught us to preach ten sermons about grace for every one sermon about sin. We preachers, and you Christians, can’t handle the topic of sin like we once could.

But what is it?

In both Hebrew and Greek the words for sin basically means “to wander from the path” or “to miss the mark.” Sin is any action, thought, or behavior that divides us from God. Sin can be any choice, or lack of choice, that results in failing to do something we know we should.

And here’s the thing: We all do it. All of us sin. From the guy standing before you in a white robe, to the decades long Sunday School teacher, to the child drawing on his bulletin, to the person in the pew across the aisle, to you. We are all sinners.

We think, say, and do things we should not. And we fail to think, say, and do things we should.

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Love the sinner. Of course we are supposed to love the sinner. Jesus did it all the time. Most of his ministry was about loving sinners. The problem is that Jesus does not call his disciples to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

This is an important difference. The difference being the starting point. If we say we are going to love sinners, we will view other people more like sinners and less like neighbors. It automatically puts us into a place of judgment where we are the righteous, and they are not.

Loving sinners also furthers the problematic identity problem where by we understand and identify others by their mistakes. We label people by their sins. Regardless of when the sin occurred, and even regardless of frequency, we still call people things like cheaters, adulterers, and liars.

Or, to put it another way: Instead of seeing our neighbors as our neighbors, we judge them and identify them by which political candidate’s name was on a sign in their front yard.

A while back one of my friends was starting a new job fresh out of college. He was understandably nervous when he entered the office building for the first time and made his way to a cubicle near the corner of the room. He quietly unloaded his boxes of pertinent materials onto his desk and set up pictures of his family and friends while other employees walked idly by.

There were signs that someone had used the cubicle before him: an accidental scratch across the desk, a piece of discarded paper in the trashcan, and finger smudges on the computer monitor. But other than that, the cubicle was empty.

He worked his first full day under the weight of focus, though a few people came by to introduce themselves. And when it was time to go home he packed his bag and opened the top drawer to grab his pen when he noticed a post-it note near the back. Without thinking much about it, he grabbed it and read three big words: DO NOT TRUST. And underneath those words were the names of five people from the office.

Can you imagine? No matter how hard he tried to forget the note, no matter how hard he tried to trust the people in spite of what he read, his entire perspective had been reshaped by those three words.

The same happens when we view others as sinners first, and neighbors second. We should always try to love them, but we can love them even more if we see them first as our brothers and sisters and less as sinners in our midst.

Jesus says, “Why do you look for the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” We’re good at seeing the sin in others. That’s what Facebook is for! So we can vent about the sinners in our midst and all the problems they’re causing for the rest of us!

Jesus used this expression because he knew that the disciples would struggle with the tendency to judge others. So instead of loving the sinner, perhaps it’s better to say “I am a sinner, and I ‘m trying love my neighbor.”

But we still have to face the end, “hate the sin.”

Jesus spent a lot of time with sinners: drunks, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, traitors, and countless others who sinned against the Lord. Jesus routinely gathered with them to do what we will do in a few minutes, he broke bread with them. Jesus gave him the most precious gift he had to offer, his time. And then he told them to follow him.

But Jesus never, not even once, said to any of them, “I love you, but I hate your sin.”

Jesus, instead, offered forgiveness.

He encountered all kinds of people who were defined by their choices, and he saw them for who they were in spite of their sins. His love was such that it knew no bounds. It was enough.

            But we are not like Jesus. We fail to love the other as brother and the stranger as sister. We have logs in our eyes and say things like, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

love

There was a man who died, and upon his death he arrived at the pearly gates in heaven. He looked all around and soaked up the sights of the fluffy clouds and he was so excited to see people just on the other side of the gate that he had missed for so long. He wanted to run straight to them but there was a line leading up to St. Peter. So the man got in line and waited patiently for his turn.

He knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but as he got closer he couldn’t help eavesdropping on the conversations between St. Peter and the soon to be residents of heaven. “Oh you did so much for that soup kitchen!” “You’re the one who read scripture out loud in church every week, very good, very good.” And so on. But when the man’s turn came, St. Peter looked down in the Book of Life and then said, “Yeah you were a believer, but you skipped the ‘not being a jerk about it’ part.”

Saying, and living by, “love the sinner, hate the sin” makes us jerks. It means the log in our eye is so large that we are unable from seeing others as brothers and sisters. It means that our own sinfulness blinds us from truly loving.

There is sin in this world. People will make the wrong choice, they will choose evil. We will make sinful decisions; we will avoid doing the things we know we should do. But instead of rallying together and focusing on all the sins and problems of other people, instead of flocking to the Internet and like-minded dinner parties to declare the sins of the other, we all need to take a good hard look in the mirror. We need to recognize the log in our own eyes before we dare point out the speck in another.

Because Jesus, looks right into our hearts and says “I love you, log and all.”

God in Christ knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of, God knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, God sees our self-righteousness and indignation and says, “I love you, log and all.”

God sees the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, God knows the ways we lie to our spouses and our children, God witnesses the depth of our depravity and says, “I love you, log and all.”

God was there with us in the voting booth, God hears the sighs we utter in response to someone on the other side of the political aisle, God knows how we really feel and says, “I love you, log and all.”

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” We say it. We read it. We might even live by it. But we should just stop with the word “love.”

Love.

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Not Hallmark love. Not Valentine’s Day love. But love like Jesus. That might be good enough. Because loving like Jesus does not mean turning away from the sinners in our midst. It means walking up to a crowd of people who are about to do something terrible and saying, “Who among you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone!”

It means encountering the beauty of the Lord and responding with the truest words we can ever say: “Have mercy on me Lord, a sinner.”

It means being humble enough to seek out those whom we have wronged and asking for their forgiveness.

It means caring for those on the margins regardless of the decisions they’ve made or the sins they’ve committed.

It means reaching out to the people who we disagree with most not to change their mind, but to offer them the same thing Jesus offer us, time.

So the next time we say “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Let’s just stop with love. Amen.