A few weeks ago, my partner and I ventured to Chicago to see Corook, one of our favorite musical artists; you may know them from Tik Tok – their biggest song so far is called, “If I Were a Fish” and it is an absolute gem of a song. While they are most assuredly not what the world would call a ‘Christian’ artist, in the most beautiful way I would define Corook as a Christ-like artist who displayed the very presence of Jesus to a crowd far-too-often rejected by His followers in this world.
The superfans that we are, my partner and I were first inside the small venue, but it didn’t matter because Corook’s fanbase is really chill and relaxed and there were zero chances of a fight breaking out for a better view. We made our way to the stage where, as we waited for the show to start, we talked with the folks around us about our favorite Corook songs and where we all were from, and pretty quickly we dove into life stories and what drew us to Corook’s music. A couple and their small daughter came near our little group, so we made space at the very front so the 8-year-old could have a clear view of the performance.
As the time drew near for the show to start, I looked out at the ever-growing crowd and saw folks of all genders and sexualities and races and abilities, all talking with one another, laughing and smiling and welcoming others who neared them; this group of strangers had quickly become a community. These folks who have far-too-often been pushed to the margins of our contemporary society had a space to come together as one body, to sing and dance and love and unconditionally accept, even as the world outside those venue doors continues to seek ways legislate these people out of existence.
As the show started, this spontaneous community of love expressed their joy of music with support and appreciation of the opening act Morgen, singing and dancing along with the budding artist and her music.
When Corook took the stage, they took a moment to acknowledge us – the crowd – and Corook expressed their appreciation for our appreciation of them and their music. And then we all rocked out to “IDK God,” “Snakes,” “Emergency Contact,” and, of course, with kazoos in hand, “If I Were a Fish.”
And as Corook played their set, I sat in the corner next to the stage having this profound realization that I was in the presence of God’s beloved community. In this music-filled space were folks who had far-too-often felt excluded from community, folks who had been denied equality and access to participation, folks who wanted nothing more than to be loved for who they were, and here in this space they were surrounded by all that they had ever wanted from the world: love. acceptance. belonging. fitting in, not pointed out. being in joy.
For the entirety of that concert, all who attended were welcomed and appreciated, all were loved and valued, all were accepted just as they were. There was love, not just for the musicians, but for one another, and space was made to ensure that everyone could be: could be present, could be themselves, could be loved and loving. This was the beloved community.
Harvard Philosophy professor Josiah Royce came up with the idea of beloved community, a space where folks who are dedicated to loyalty and truth can find belonging; a stable space that embraces all of humanity in all its forms. And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expanded on this idea, “…the end is the creation of a beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this kind of understanding and goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which brings about miracles.”
The beloved community was in that very room and I was witness to it – I was INCLUDED in it! In that space, I, who for so many years had opposed the LGBTQIA2+ community, was once again welcomed and included in spite of my past beliefs. In that space I was welcomed in just as Jesus has welcomed me in: with love and acceptance and reconciliation. In that space belonging and inclusion were at the forefront and I was offered all of it.
Corook, who is part of this community of the marginalized, used their talents to create space for God’s beloved community to exist and flourish, no matter how brief. Corook used what God had given them to serve their siblings in ways that most of us cannot; Corook opened wide the doors of that venue and welcomed those who many in this world would deem to be the ‘least of these’. From my perspective, looking out at that community which I was invited into, I realized this was more than a concert; Corook’s performance was a service of love for God’s beloved community. At that show, Corook was Christ-like: welcoming the stranger, ensuring love and acceptance, establishing – though ever-so-briefly – God’s beloved community.
Thanks be to God for Corook and Morgen.
Thanks be to God for the beloved community.
Thanks be to God for finding belonging in the most unlikeliest of spaces. —–
I heard that you have been exploring Matthew’s witness and interpretation of my time spent with creation, and I am thrilled that you have been, in a way, walking with me this year. I hope that Matthew’s words have been helpful to you and your journey through life and that my words he has recorded have been uplifting and beneficial to each of you personally as well as to your community as a whole.
I’m writing to you to expand upon the words Matthew has recorded in the eighteenth chapter, because this stuff here in Matthew’s gospel is paramount to the community’s survival, not just your community’s survival, but the entire Christian community’s survival. For millennia the church has prayed as I taught: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” but y’all (and I mean all y’all in Benton Harbor and beyond, to Berrien County, to Michigan, and to the ends of the earth) y’all haven’t always lived forgiveness and, as my return is imminent, it’s urgent that all of you start doing this forgiveness thing right and you start doing it right away.
The best way that I can describe what forgiveness is, is by reminding you of what God’s forgiveness is. While you all were first created in the image and likeness of God , that image became stained really quickly because Adam and Eve chose their self over their Creator , they chose to disobey God’s word, they chose to believe a lie, they chose someone and something else instead of choosing and trusting and relying on God. That choice made long ago has been a constant across time and even today humanity continues to struggle to find themselves in relationship with God.
God has always been, is always, and will always be present and active in your lives, but that choice of evil blinds you all from that reality. You forget the words God has spoken to Jeremiah, “the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” ; the words spoken to Isaiah, “Fear not, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God” ; the words spoken to Zephaniah, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” And you forget the words I have spoken to you, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” God and I have not turned our backs on you – we are here for you because we love you, and we really want to be in relationship with you. And we can only do that if we remove the blinders from your eyes together – you, me, God, and the Spirit…we can only be in relationship with you if we span that chasm that has grown between us, and we do that by offering up forgiveness and love.
We offer forgiveness of all those things that have caused that chasm to grow and expand between us and you. Forgiveness of those big sins that you all try your best to avoid, and most of you do a good job of not murdering or stealing, of lying or cheating on your partners, of making idols and honoring your parents – you do a really good job of avoiding those sins. But at the heart of these big commandments, somehow humans still murder one another by bullying and judging; you still steal by allowing large corporations to walk on employees and natural resources; you still lie – they’re ‘little white lies’ as your pastor’s mom would say – and those aren’t as bad, right? At the heart of these big commandments, at the heart of all of our commandments is this: love God and love your neighbor, but more often than not, you don’t do that.
We love you all so much that we can do nothing but offer you forgiveness because we know you can do better, you can be better, we know that you, in fact, can love God and neighbor if you merely try. And we forgive because we hold out hope that you will seek our forgiveness, and you will try to walk with us, and you will try to love. And we forgive because we want you to know forgiveness so you can give it to each other; as we forgive, we hope and trust that you will also forgive.
My dearest disciples, it’s absolutely vital for your community’s survival that you forgive one another, not just once or twice or even three times…not even just seven times…you should offer up forgiveness seventy-seven times – you should go beyond the limits of human understanding about forgiveness and you should keep going in that direction. Just as my and my Parents’ forgiveness reconciles us to you, forgiveness between you all will reconcile yourselves one to another.
I know it’s difficult to forgive – trust me! Even beyond my divine forgiveness, I know it’s difficult to forgive on a human level because I have been with you all…remember, I hung out with twelve dudes, fishermen and tax collectors and book keepers and fanatical zealots bent on toppling the Roman government. These men needed a whole lot of forgiveness! Thomas never believed anything anyone said – he rarely took me at my word but I would absolutely forgive him again and again because I knew his past and how hurt he had been from being built up and let down so many times. And I forgave him and loved him because he’s my beloved, he’s my Parent’s beloved.
Bartholemew would step on the back of my sandal all the time…all…the…time. And yes, that was super annoying, and yes, I went through an inordinate number of sandals, but I forgave him because he himself hadn’t worn sandals before because he was so poor and couldn’t get the feel for walking in them. And I forgave him and loved him because he’s my beloved, he’s my Parent’s beloved.
Peter – the one I trusted with the keys to the kingdom – Peter waffled as a disciple on a near daily basis. He trusted me to walk on water, and then he didn’t. He claimed me and denied me in the same breath. He wanted to forgive, but only up to a point. But I forgave him because I knew he really did want to walk with me, he was just torn between heaven and earth. And I forgave him and loved him because he’s my beloved, he’s my Parent’s beloved.
Judas. When Judas identified me in the garden of Gethsemane and I was taken into custody, I found myself utterly betrayed by my close friend. Though he couldn’t imagine it possible, I forgave him because I knew he was in a tight spot, and he chose evil and violence over goodness and mercy. And I forgave him and loved him because he’s my beloved, he’s my Parent’s beloved.
As much as I love and forgive them, I do the same for you. All those times you’ve been on the giving end of a crass joke…all those times you’ve cheated to get ahead…all those times you’ve walked away from my children in need to fulfill your own desires, I have been there, forgiving and forgiving and forgiving and I will keep forgiving because I love you because you’re my beloved and you’re my Parent’s beloved.
And I hope you can do the same for one another. Forgiveness heals brokenness. Forgiveness redeems the lost. Forgiveness welcomes the denied. Forgiveness is living out my life in your world for one another. Forgiveness, my friends, is love. So do as I and your Creator have done: love and forgive, forgive, and love. Listen to the Advocate whom I have sent to you as she speaks to you and guides you towards forgiveness. Listen as she encourages you all to seek out those cavernous relationships to begin mending them. Listen as she gives you all the words you need to talk with one another. Listen as she guides you to love and to forgive.
You all need one another’s love and forgiveness. You have strained relationships that you want to mend, but you’re not sure how to do that, and so you put it off…listen, just start with love and forgiveness. Text them or write them or send them smoke signals, saying, “Hey, I love you, and I’m sorry that our relationship is in the dumps.” And ask for forgiveness for what you’ve done and seek forgiveness for what they’ve done, and get on with it. Those relationships are far too valuable and meaningful and necessary for you to let them slip into the void. Love and forgive, my children…forgive and love.
And as difficult as that love and forgiveness is to give to one another, you all know your own thing that seems to be beyond all love and forgiveness. Violations of body, of mind, of soul that have left scars too deep to heal. Tragedies fallen upon families, causing chasms beyond bridges’ spans. Natural disasters and mere coincidence where no one is to blame and no one can forgive or seek forgiveness. Hear me on this: you can not do this love and forgiveness without me. And you can’t do this love and forgiveness without others. To find forgiveness and love in the midst of violence and tragedy is only by a miracle that we can only do together.
Listen to this, as well: just as I love and forgive, we know that your choices have consequences and you must go through them. The same goes for you in your own relationships with one another. If one of you injures or harms another, most certainly seek love and forgiveness, but know that you must also face the consequences of your actions. Punishments for crimes can benefit love and forgiveness, but those punishments must be loving and humane and equal. And if you’re the one who’s been injured, my dear loves, be patient with yourselves and with one another. I never want you all to hurt one another, and I’m saddened when it does happen, and I experience all the pain and hurt you experience. While I am ready to love and forgive when true repentance is made, the truth is that for you all forgiveness doesn’t come easily, and it doesn’t come lightly, and it doesn’t always come. But walk with me, learn my forgiveness and love, and someday, maybe someday, you can share it with others.
It’s hard to forgive one another. It’s harder to forgive those who wound you deeply. It’s harder, even still, for you to forgive yourselves. When you miss the mark in your own life, you all-too-quickly beat yourself up; love and forgive yourself. When you let your friends down but they readily love and forgive you, love and forgive yourself. When you have denied your true self to please others, love and forgive yourself and be yourself. Children, this life you live is difficult – it’s hard enough as it is – don’t make it harder by being hard on yourselves. Just as I love and forgive you, love and forgive yourself.
I close this letter with the same message I closed that lesson with in Matthew: in all your love and forgiveness, make sure it all comes from your heart. Be honest and true about your love and forgiveness because it will only work its miracles if you do it with all your heart. You know the danger of half-hearted apologies and acts of love, and you know how easily those are discarded and forgotten. Just as you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, love one another with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Let your love and forgiveness be honest, true, and whole-hearted. My beloveds, as I love and forgive, do the same for one another, and do the same for yourselves.
* I delivered this letter as my sermon for First Presbyterian Church of Benton Harbor on September 10, 2023.
One of the downfalls to being a Christian is that we’re not always told how difficult the walk with Christ will be. We’re not given the nitty-gritty details about how we’re going to suffer – not so much in that persecution/martyr sense – but in the little things of life: avoiding excesses, loving the unlovable, speaking truth in all circumstances, putting Jesus first. If, as people showed interest in this walk with Jesus, we told them about all this suffering they will face, they would more than likely walk away because it doesn’t sound all that fun. Most people come to God because they’re suffering already – the last thing they need to know is that they’ll have more of it! While it’s not always fun, I would gladly say that in the end, the walk with Christ is worth the small sufferings we must endure.
We endure these sufferings because we’re called to live in a different world and time; we’re called to live in the reality of God’s reign on earth that is both now and not yet, a life oriented toward God’s future. Paul writes in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” – a call for a new way of thinking and living that, though we may indeed suffer a little (or a lot), we will find peace and reward in the midst of that new living.
I’ve learned that one of the greatest demands of this call to non-conformity and one of the greatest sources of suffering lies in the example Christ gave us for living in this world: that of self-sacrifice. The transformed life toward non-conformity is sacrificing the entirety of our life – body and mind and spirit – as an expression of devotion to God. This self-sacrifice isn’t done out of compulsion nor for appearances; more than likely, self-sacrifice is done in spite of these things. The world mocks self-sacrifice because when it’s done right, you don’t get ahead…you don’t win…you don’t succeed materially; you quite literally live in worldly suffering. Self-sacrifice is an active choice to live the transformed, renewed life that goes against the ways and workings of the world.
It is in living this self-sacrificing, non-conforming, transformed life that we can, as Paul says, “discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). In this discernment we assess and evaluate our lives and the things in it to determine God’s will for us, for our next step, for our direction in and through this world. We discern where we’ll work and how that expresses our call to vocation. We discern where we’ll live and how that expresses our call to evangelism. We discern where we’ll attend church and how that expresses our call to fellowship, relationship, and discipleship. But we also discern little things as transformed non-conformists: am I to give to this organization? Is consuming this media an expression of Godly living? Can I drink a glass of wine? Discernment is ultimately asking what is most pleasing (good/acceptable/perfect) to God and how we can live that out in our daily lives as we love God and neighbor.
“I was much more afraid in Montgomery when I had a gun in my house. When I decided that I couldn’t keep a gun, I came face-to-face with the question of death and I dealt with it. From that point on, I no longer needed a gun nor have I been afraid. Had we become distracted by the question of my safety we would have lost the moral offensive and sunk to the level of our oppressors.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Since my parents visited me and my spouse in Missouri in 2020 I had been praying and reading to discern the will of God in my life concerning the firearms that I own. Why? All I can really say is that the Spirit moved me in that direction and called me to question why I wanted/needed those weapons in my life and in my home. Through this discernment process I found that what would be most pleasing to God was that I remove these weapons from my life. I recognize that this doesn’t conform to the ways I have lived my life, nor does it agree with our extended family’s ways of living; and truthfully it’s been a very difficult discernment process for me to come to terms with this calling, but God’s call to self-sacrifice – to being transformed – is often uncomfortable, disagreeable, and difficult to bear.
Growing up I learned from my dad and grandpa that our family hunted out of necessity. While certainly not dirt poor, we acknowledged that in our poverty, hunting was a way to find food to sustain our family’s life and well-being. For many years the meat we hunted supplemented the food we bought and I found pride and satisfaction in that. As I have been reflecting on my life as a gun owner and hunter I have realized that my use of firearms has not been for sustaining our family, rather, my use of firearms has been solely for sport disguised as family preservation. The countless prairie dogs and birds I killed were never placed in our freezer, they were killed for summer fun. The deer and elk I killed were never needed nor necessary kills for feeding our family as we always had enough. As much as I’ve tried to deny it and argue against it, my hunting has been purely for sport, an affront to my family heritage of hunting and a spit in the face of God for dishonoring creation. God has shown me this lie that I have been telling myself and the wrongs that I have committed against God’s beloved creation. I am hurt that I have deceived myself for so long, ashamed that I defended my actions, and saddened of the destruction and death I have caused.
The first school shooting I remember was at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999; within 45 minutes the perpetrators murdered twelve fellow students and one teacher before taking their own lives. That wasn’t the first time a shooting occurred at a school and it certainly hasn’t been the last, and the uptick in mass shootings in public places has become a near constant in my American experience. All-too-often I have witnessed news reports of some individual expressing their feelings with a firearm in their hands. The loss of life I have witnessed and the fact that our society allows it to continue is an affront to our Creator who demands from us more than mere thoughts and prayers.
Over the course of my lifetime I have lived in the shadows of wars and in rumors of wars: the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, the arms race with China, the 1980’s Iran skirmish, the 1990’s Gulf War, the 2000’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and most recently the saber-rattling between the United States and Russia. Violence and war on the global stage has been a near-constant for my entire life. In my travels to Kosovo, Mexico, and Budapest I have witnessed firsthand the destruction and death which firearms have waged on God’s creation. I have listened to stories of families evicted with AK-47’s pointed at children. I have stood at the foot of a mass grave where an entire village was executed by firearms. I ran my fingers across walls riddled with bullet holes. I saw tears shed as families recounted the systematic ethnic genocide they endured. I have been living in a world of violence carried out by firearms. Certainly this could have happened with rocks or knives, but the reality is that it has happened with firearms. The human heart is prone to evil and causes this violence, but when armed with readily-accessible weapons of death, evil is able to cause more evil.
As I’ve been learning to wholeheartedly walk in the Way of Christ I have wrestled with what it truly means to live into his words spoken from the mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44). How can I love my enemies…how can I love those who would seek to harm me or my family…how can I live out this calling from God in my life? Certainly I can face the violence that will come at me with violence – I can use my firearms to protect me, my family, and our property – but am I called to that? Can I truthfully love my neighbor if I carry a weapon for protection?
I have been praying and seeking counsel on how I personally can best respond to the violence that will come my way. My American culture tells me to get a handgun and keep it at my bedside; but is this what’s best for me? I certainly have the right to bear arms and stand my ground, but do I have the right to take another life to preserve my own? Does my life, or my spouse’s life, carry more weight and worth than those who may cause us harm? Can I love my neighbors, my enemies, my persecutors while pointing a gun at them?
The Reign and Way of Christ started with vulnerability: as an infant in a manger. Christ certainly could have come bearing sword and shield but he came to us as an infant refugee instead. Jesus chose non-violence as a way of life, not idly sitting by and allowing violence to happen, but refusing to use violence to get rid of violence. In his life he insisted that he would rather die than kill. He would rather love his enemy than harm them. A life of love has no room for killing; a life of love lays down its ‘rights’; a life of love seeks another way. I can discover and learn non-violent ways to protect my life and the life of those around me while preserving the life of the one who seeks to harm me, and if I die in the midst of this, then I die.
Walking in the Way of Christ has called me to live a transformed life, a life of non-conformity, a life that will make me and those around me uncomfortable, uneasy, unwilling to accept. Walking in the Way of Christ has called me to live a life of sacrifice. I am sacrificing my known way of life – safety behind a firearm – for the unknown of life with no firearms. I am sacrificing my family’s heritage and tradition for the unknown. I am sacrificing relationships for the unknown. But I have discerned that the will of God for me is to lay down my arms because this would please my Creator the most and God’s approval is what would please me the most.
I inherited two firearms: a 20 gauge shotgun and a 30-30 rifle. As these are ‘heirloom’ guns and have meaning for our family I humbly returned them to my dad. While I have treasured these gifts and am beyond honored that he chose them for me, I have been called to live without them in my life. Three other firearms I owned I had disarmed and donated to RawTools – an organization based in Colorado Springs and Philadelphia which lives out Isaiah 2:4 by turning weapons into gardening tools. This organization not only physically reshapes weapons of violence, but they provide outreach to communities across a country steeped in gun violence, teaching non-violence, conflict resolution, and perspectives of peace.
The walk with Christ is difficult and challenging…it forces us to live a life that most others would reject…it forces us to choose between Christ and conformity. I choose the self-sacrificing, non-conforming life because I have hope that it will help realize God’s dream for this world. I choose the self-sacrificing, non-conforming life because I trust that God will sustain me when I’m hungry, will protect me when I’m in danger, will bring peace when there is violence. I choose to lay down my arms and take up the cross because this is the most pleasing, most good, most acceptable, most perfect way I can live my life for the reign of Christ in this world. This is God’s calling on my life.
My mother is a saint.
Sainthood requires, among other things, that the person show Christian virtues, like charity and diligence, kindness and patience, moderation and humility. I think we can all testify to the fact that my mom showed these virtues. But more than mere show, she lived them in her daily life. She gave of herself so others could thrive. She cared for the least among us. She succeeded in teaching unteachable subjects to students who were told they’d never get it. She lived her life in the shadows and gave of herself away from the limelight.
My mother is a saint.
Sainthood requires, among other things, that the person have a reputation for holiness. Holy things are regarded as sacred or able to convey a sense of the divine; a reputation for holiness then, means the person lives in such a sacred way that their very being, their very existence communicates God. My mom’s life was such that we all saw Christ – we all knew God was present when she was around because she welcomed the stranger and showed hospitality, she gave love when she didn’t receive it, she ensured all were treated equally.
My mother is a saint.
Sainthood requires, among other things, that the person perform a miracle; my mom was a miracle worker. She fed three hungry men on mere scraps of food, turning a little food into an extravagant feast. She healed scraped knees and bonked heads with a gentle kiss. She cured broken hearts with big hugs and a listening ear. She touched and mended souls. She clothed those around her with compassion. She made a home with plenty of room for all who needed rest. She spent time with and loved those imprisoned in their minds and bodies.
My mother is a saint who knew the broadness of God’s love and the lengths God would go to share that love. My mom knew how deep God’s love could travel and how high that love would reach. My mom would want nothing more than for us to experience that same love – that love that she lived for, that same love that she shared with each of us. My mother is a saint – may each of us be likewise.
This past Saturday evening I met my partner at the hospital where she works as a chaplain so we could eat dinner together, because there’s nothing better than a hot date in the deep recesses of a medical facility. As I was entering the building, a nurse, exiting with a patient, looked at me for an uncomfortable amount of time, then said, “I like your shirt!” I quickly looked down to recall which shirt I was wearing then replied to her, “Thanks!” and COVID-safe-smiled as best I could with my eyes.
This shirt is a deep blue with black, white, and yellow words: “Fight poverty, not the poor.” This statement is one of the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign, a grassroots organization working towards a moral revival in America. First enacted in 1968 by Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Poor People’s Campaign at that time demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans from all backgrounds. The modern campaign, spearheaded by Reverends Liz Theoharis and William Barber III, presses forward to make this work a reality. For over fifty years, facing seemingly insurmountable injustices, activists have worked diligently to ensure equity, equality, inclusion, and fair wages. When I wear that shirt I feel like I am a part of this historic, important organism; my wearing that cloth is a small act of solidarity and when it’s acknowledged I feel like I’m doing God’s work.
That’s the first part.
The second is this: I was recently on a brief trip to Wal-Mart to pick up some loose ends for dinner. At the register I was approached by an older gentleman with he following story: “Hey, I was wondering if you could help me out. My wife and I are parked out front and we’re running on fumes – could you help us with some money to get some gas for our car? We’d really appreciate it…”
Time paused, but in the blink of an eye my mind kept working and I reviewed all the information I had: disheveled man, older, possibly unable to work, needing money for a specific thing, obviously in need. I should have stopped my analysis there, but I didn’t; I started questioning the man’s request: why is he seeking money for gas at the grocery store…what if he uses the money for drugs or alcohol…how many others has he gotten money from since he’s been here? In that split second I assumed the worst and talked myself out of helping him, justifying my impending response: I don’t have cash with me…someone else will help them…what if he wants more than what I give…will my generosity truly help him?
I responded in the most loving way possible, with that same COVID-safe-smile glowing from my eyes, “Sorry, I don’t have any cash…only a credit card.” I lied – I had my debit card. I denied assistance. I ignored this man’s plight because my brain, for whatever reason, couldn’t stop overthinking the situation. I couldn’t just open my damn hand and give freely as it was given to me. Not only was I a liar, but in my wearing that shirt I am a hypocrite as well. I am the one who is fighting against the poor. I am the one who is sustaining poverty. I am the oppressor.
This week’s gospel lesson comes from the twelfth chapter of John, verses 1-8. Jesus has been in and around the village of Bethany, southeast of Jerusalem; it is here that his beloved friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live, and where the latter is resurrected. After this miraculous encounter, Jesus and company left town for a few days because of the growing plot to have our Lord killed, returning after some time spent in the wilderness region. The gospel of John reads:
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Mary’s perfume of spikenard originated in the Himalayan mountains and it’s sticker price of a year’s wages is justified – any object traveling that distance in those times would rightly be otherworldly expensive. And Mary, at the feet of Jesus, takes the stance of a servant, looking to wash and tend to the feet that have carried her friend countless miles. And Mary, in an act of love and devotion, pours out this perfume on Jesus’ feet to express her feelings for the man who has resurrected her brother…for the man who has invited her into ministry…for the man who saw her and loved her.
Judas feigns indignation about Mary’s love offering: “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (CEB). Judas’ remark is meant to illicit some hurrahs from the onlookers, to express what he thinks the people want to hear – he’s talking the talk and calls out others to start walking the walk. The gospel writer makes a side remark, though, telling us that Judas didn’t actually care for the poor – he was pilfering money from the common funds and selling the perfume would give him more money to steal.
Judas’ hypocrisy, like mine in the grocery store, is glaringly apparent and, as much as I want to claim that I live a Jesus life the truth is that, more often than not, I live a Judas life. I will adamantly say all the right things and can preach a decent sermon about the sinfulness of selfishness. I can point out the places, programs, and people in my city that ignore the poor among us…I can complain about the local churches fighting to push out the poor that walk our streets…I can complain about how so many people ignore the woman on the corner that I ignore as well. I work to highlight just how bad poverty is and about how many things are paid for instead of solving the plight of the poor but at the end of the day I’m more concerned with my bottom line and not the emptiness in the bottom of my neighbor’s stomach. I’m living a Judas life dressed to look like Jesus.
Jesus’ rebuke of Judas’ comment is a rebuke for each of us who ignore the poor among us. His rebuke is for each of us who can’t see the individuals impoverished in our neighborhoods but send money to fund millionaire evangelists. His rebuke is for each of us who tell our poor neighbors to get a second or third job as we drive to our second or third vacation home. His rebuke is for each of us who dream of seeing Jesus someday while ignoring his image and likeness in the person across from us.
I can’t solve the poverty crisis in our country, but I shouldn’t let that stop me from working to end it. I can’t feed every person who asks for food, but I can certainly feed one or two. I can’t give all of my money to those in need, but I can certainly open up my hand. God, forgive me for ignoring your beloved. Forgive me for lying, for overthinking, for worrying. Help me to realize that the gifts you have given me are but gifts to be given. Help me to worry less about the wrong others might do with these gifts and let me find hope in the right they might do with them. Make me an agent to fight the systems, institutions, and thoughts that sustain poverty in this nation, and guide me to give and love as freely as Mary. May it be so.
This week’s gospel lesson from the fifteenth chapter of Luke about the prodigal son is a familiar story to both Christians and non-Christians alike. While the idiom is usually reserved for a long-gone person returning, the Bible story itself is one of amazing grace: a son selfishly goes off on his own to live a prodigal life – one of wasteful extravagance – and he winds up in destitution and poverty, eventually returning to his father’s household so he could work as a hired hand. But the father’s grace – his unmerited favor – is poured out on his prodigal son, who is welcomed back, reconciled and restored to his former life of love and acceptance. The son would assuredly sing out with joy the first verse of Newton’s hymn, “Amazing grace – how sweet the sound! – that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found…was blind, but now I see!”
This prodigal son story is one of three used by Jesus to convey the inviting, welcoming, never-giving-up-on-us love of God. These tales of the great generosity of God is brought about because the Pharisees and scribes “were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow [Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them.” These Jewish leaders are appalled that a rabbi would be in the presence of sinners and, more than that, this Jesus welcomes them and spends time with them! Hearing their disgust, Jesus shares three stories: one of a lost sheep, one of a lost coin, and one of a lost son. All three serve to demonstrate the lengths and depths to which God would go for God’s beloved creations, lengths which far exceed those which the Pharisees and scribes would permit. While these religious leaders uphold the letter of the law and grumble amongst themselves when it’s bent, Jesus shares with them the vastness of the spirit of the law and the amazingness of God’s grace.
I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with some great comment on this passage… staring at this screen trying to write some riveting, new insight that would really make this passage come alive for each of us. But perhaps that’s not what God is calling from this passage. What if God allows this passage to come up so frequently in the Church and in the world because we need to be reminded – again and again – that we are to reconcile broken relationships? What if God keeps bringing the prodigal son home so we can witness – again and again – the overwhelming love that God has for every single person who has wandered from God? What if God wants us to read this passage during lent to give us hope, to remind us of promise, to break through our stubbornness and guide us to be just as reconciling, welcoming, forgiving, and loving?
If this passage does anything for me this week it’s this: it reminds me that I, too was just as wretched as this son, but I am saved. It reminds me that I, too, was once lost but am found. It reminds me that I, too, was once blind but now see. It reminds me that I should be as loving and gracious as the son’s father…I should be as welcoming and excited when I see people seeking their Father…I should be generous and encouraging when I witness people coming Home.
Friends, I pray we’ll never forget the amazing grace that God has for each of us. I pray we’ll find ways to reconcile with our Heavenly Father who sees us and is filled with compassion. I pray we can see Abba Father running after us, throwing his arms around us, and kissing us with great affection. I pray that we can hear our Creator’s voice whisper in our ear: “My beloved, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” May each of us live in the Amazing Grace of our Father.
A large part of the curriculum for my first course in theology (taught by the ever-inspiring Dr. Cynthia Rigby) was theological vocabulary, and the process is just as you may recall from elementary school. We were given words each week which we had to define using dictionaries, lectures, and discussions; every few weeks there would be a short quiz where we were to prove our understanding of this new language we were discovering. We learned little words we thought we knew: Faith. Heresy. Grace. Vocation. Sin. Theology. We learned big words and phrases: Epistemology. Hermeneutics. Predestination. Homoousias/Homoiousios. Fides quaerens intellectum.
It’s understandable in the context in which I grew up, where salvific-evangelism and weekly reports of how many so-and-so had saved was king, but I sure wish they’d have just called it confession. I wish they called it for what it was: an act of acknowledging and articulating one’s sin. Their altar calls rarely (if ever) allowed space or time for repentance; these moments in arenas and stadiums are momentarily life-changing, but what about tomorrow? What about when those who went forward to confess their sins had to go home and face the causes of their sins? What about those who confessed on Sunday morning then went about their life Sunday afternoon?
In our new testament scriptures, this word translated ‘repent’ comes from the Greek word μετάνοια (metanoia), and it essentially has two components to it: “sorrow for sin and turning from sinfulness to righteousness” The Heidelberg Catechism – one of the documents the PC(USA) uses to help us understand our faith – tells us that in repentance there is “the dying-away of the old self, and the rising-to-life of the new.” Going further, the catechism tells us that the dying-away of the old self persuades us “to be genuinely sorry for sin and more and more to hate and run away from it” and that, in rising-to-life of the new we have a “wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a love and delight to live according to the will of God by doing every kind of good work.”
This is far beyond simply confessing of one’s sins; repentance is the confession of sin and the movement away from it, it’s admission and advancement. When, in the Lukan narrative, Christ tells those in his presence that they must repent, he’s not telling them to merely come forward, admit their sins, and then go on sinning again; no, he’s telling them to admit their sins and work to sin no more. He’s telling them that the mercy of God has afforded them this moment for repentance, for declaring one’s sins and a commitment to move away from them.
When we follow Christ’s call to repentance we take a long, hard look at our own life and the ways and means by which we have violated God’s will. We reflect on those deeds, thoughts, and words which have caused distance between us and our Creator. We admit where we have sinned, where we have failed, where we have done wrong and, in understanding repentance, we don’t stop there; we don’t admit our sins and then go on sinning – no, we confess where and how we have sinned and we work to remove ourselves from them. Repentance calls us to confession and change, to acknowledgement and advancement.
This repentance stuff isn’t just a personal-sin thing…it’s a Christian-community thing. We live in community and sometimes (quite often) we also sin in community. When we follow Christ’s call to repentance, we look at our Christian community’s complicity in slavery, not merely admitting complicity, but also making movements to ensure the end to slavery in all its forms.
We hold difficult conversations about systemic and institutional racism; we read books that don’t whitewash history but ones which plunge us into the blood and tears drawn by slave owners. We make conscious efforts and take deliberate actions to ensure equal and equitable opportunities for all people, not just in our Christian community but in our global community, calling out racism when we see it – even at the risk of our own security and safety.
When we follow Christ’s call to repentance, we confess the ways in which we have been hurtful, harmful, and hateful toward our LGBTQIA+ neighbors and siblings in Christ. But beyond confession we work to understand, love, encourage, and advance their rights and liberties. We meet to learn and understand language and the importance of word choice. We ensure our own companies – and those we support – refuse discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice. We listen to and honor the stories of coming out, of being invited in, of finding community, relationship, acceptance, and love. We follow Christ’s commands to “do to others as you would have them do to you” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
When we follow Christ’s call to repentance, we confess the ways in which we have ridiculed and refused, denied and derided, ignored and insulted those experiencing homelessness, those widows and orphans among us, those unjustly jailed and imprisoned, those who are beyond our income, our intelligence, our imagination. But beyond confession we stand against economic injustices which prevent financial proliferation and prosperity. We defund the ways and means of war, using the money instead to fund shelters and food banks, early childhood education and subsidized healthcare. We seek humane ways to enact justice, fair ways to shape reconciliation, and arrange for restoration. We give food and drink, shelter and clothing, health and healing as freely as it has been given to us.
In repentance we not only confess our sins, we not only work to move away from them, but we live with “wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a love and delight to live according to the will of God by doing every kind of good work.” Repentance isn’t some gloomy, dreary, downer – it’s a call to life abundant, life resplendent! Repentance gives us the opportunity to not only be renewed and restored, but to live into it. Through repentance we’re given a new life and a new way of living. Because of repentance we are able to invite others to join us in this joyful, delightful life.
Friends, Christ calls us to repent and he gives us opportunity upon opportunity to do so. But there will come a day…there will come a day when He will judge us. Christ will judge the ways in which we did or didn’t feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and welcome the stranger. Christ will judge the ways in which we did or didn’t clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. Repent, my friends. Move away from the death of sin – “more and more…hate and run away” from the old, dead life and run towards the life-giving, joy-filled life found through repentance with Christ. May it be so.
much love. sheth.
The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms s.v. “confession”, Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 63. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms s.v. “metanoia”, Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 197.  “The Heidelberg Catechism” Question 89 (4.089) from The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Part I: Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 2016), 59. ibid. Luke 6:31 Mark 12:31 Luke 6:38  “The Heidelberg Catechism” Question 90 (4.090) from The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Part I: Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 2016), 59.  “The Heidelberg Catechism” Question 89 (4.089), 59.
Missouri State Representative Brian Seitz (R)has introduced HB 2810 which would criminalize “trafficking abortion-inducing devices or drugs” as well as any attempt to prescribe, administer, or dispense any means or substance to perform or induce an abortion. In toto, women’s healthcare and the work of physicians, pharmacists, and chemists would be criminalized. In an attempt to be pro-life, this bill is anything but.
While outlawing a woman’s choice to access medications and medically-sound treatments is bad enough, Rep. Seitz’s bill would, in part, make it a class A felony if “The abortion was performed or induced or was attempted to be performed or induced on a woman who has an ectopic pregnancy” and if “The abortion was performed or induced or was attempted to be performed or induced on a woman who is a victim of trafficking.”
Medical consensus maintains that an ectopic embryo is not viable. While the embryo may grow outside the uterus, it ultimately dies due to insufficient hormone and nutritional supply. Left to grow without the use of Rep. Seitz’s proposed-criminal medical treatments, the pregnancy will rupture, causing abdominal hemorrhaging – often fatal to the woman. Criminalizing medical treatments and medications used for aborting unviable ectopic pregnancies will lead to death. The language in this section of Rep. Seitz’s bill is not pro-life.
Human life is valuable and beautiful, a miraculous gift from a generous Creator, but there is nothing in Rep. Seitz’s proposed bill which is loving nor life-giving. Criminalizing medically-proven, life-saving treatments is not pro-life. Denying a girl or woman access to her own healthcare for her own body is not pro-life. Refusing care and love for the life that is so as to protect the life that may be is not pro-life. Make no mistake: Rep. Seitz’s bill is not pro-life.
Instant oatmeal. Instant mashed potatoes. Instant rice. Instant pots. Instant gratification. Our world lives in the here and now and we demand what we want when we want it here and now. We don’t have time to wait. Waiting is laughable. When we can have anything we want whenever we want it, waiting is a joke, isn’t it? When millions of dollars are won and lost in milliseconds, waiting is a risk, isn’t it? When seconds count in CPR, waiting is deadly, isn’t it? Waiting is anti-capitalism…waiting is un-American…waiting is so difficult that we would rather forgo the end just to get what we can have right now.
Like most of us, I’m not big on waiting. As a child knowing a big event was coming up – church camp, Christmas, my birthday – I would be sleepless for nights prior; my excitement kept me awake and I could hardly wait. In the weeks leading up to my marriage proposal it took everything within me to stay on schedule and follow through with the planned day – I didn’t want to wait any longer to be engaged and married. As my partner works the remainder of her residency we work towards the next chapter of our life together, waiting for God to guide us to where and what we would do next. Waiting in good times is hard, but waiting in difficulties gnaws at my spirit and I often wonder how much more I can take; more often than not I end up yelling at God for delaying, for taking so long, for making me wait: “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!” (Psalm 27:7)
Through the daily news I hear stories from Ukraine, stories of citizens – old and young – fleeing and fighting, fearful and faithful, all stretched to their limits as they live through the unprovoked, illegal Russian invasion, occupation, and war. I can’t imagine what decisions the Ukrainians have had to make – and continue to make – on an individual level for mere survival. How long they have waited! How long would I be able to wait, stretched to the limits until I couldn’t possibly wait anymore?
Since Europeans first set foot in the Americas, men and women who didn’t look like them were enslaved and traded, abused, murdered and tossed aside like garbage. For nearly five hundred years human beings on both sides of the Atlantic have treated other human beings as ‘less than’ – a mindset and practice which still occurs to this day. Racist and supremacist attitudes and behaviors are entrenched in our cultures, institutions, and personal beliefs, forcing people of color to continue to wait for equity and equality, to wait for desegregation and integration, to wait for acceptance and love. How long they have waited! How long would I be able to wait, stretched to the limits until I couldn’t possibly wait anymore?
Here in the second week of Lent, as many of us pray, fast, and seek justice for our neighbors we have to admit that we’re already over it. We’re tired of waiting for Easter…we’re tired of waiting for ordinary time – for ordinary life – both in the church and in the world. We’ve been patiently waiting and diligently working but dang it, we’re over it. The Psalmist’s words this week ring in our Lenten hearts: “Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!” (Ps. 27:9) My translation: “Enough already, God!”
Like the psalmist, we too stand before God demanding satisfaction and gratification right now. No more waiting! How long, O Lord, will we be able to wait, stretched to the limits until we can’t possibly wait anymore? How much longer must we face war and violence, invading forces and enemies which seek to kill us? How much longer must we be seen as less than…be chased down and beaten down, murdered in our streets and homes because we don’t have the skin color of the ones in power? How much longer must we live under old relationships in the shadows of emotions from our abusers? How much longer must we be alone, left and abandoned, burdened with the realities of life? How much longer…
I wish I had an answer to this. I wish I had a time frame that I could tell you about to alleviate the anxiety…but I don’t. I wish I had an answer to how much longer because I, too, am waiting. So I read on through this psalm to it’s final two verses. The Psalmist concludes their prayer with these words: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 27:13-14)
The one thing we don’t want to do any longer is the one thing we’re most encouraged to do: wait. The answer our question of how much longer is but a command: wait. The Hebrew word used here for wait is קַוֵּ֗ה (qavah) which principally means to wait or look eagerly for and we get that, we live and push against that all day, everyday. But look at this definition from Ernest Klein, who says “the original meaning probably was ‘to twist, stretch’, whence ‘to be stretched, be strained’, whence ‘to await tensely.’”
The psalmist reminds us that the things of this world will assuredly cause us to be stretched to our limits, pulled to the point of breaking…we will be waiting in tension for God to answer us, to respond to our prayers, our complaints, our demands. We will be waiting in tensions of war and violence. We will be stretched thin as we wait to be recognized and valued. We will be waiting, strained, as our emotions remember…as our spirits remain alone.
And the psalmist reminds us that on either side of us, tensions await: “Wait for the Lord…wait for the Lord!” You’re going to be stretched…you’re going to be strained! But notice what the psalmist places in the midst of that tension and strain, of that stretching us thin: “be strong, and let your heart take courage.” The psalmist encourages us to be bold and alert, for our hearts to be firm, resolute, and courageous in the midst of the strain and stretching.
It’s hard. Most everything we experience and go through in this world is hard…it’s difficult…it challenges us and pulls us from all sides. This world is prone to stretching us to our breaking point. This world is apt to strain us to exhaustion. I know it because I’ve lived it…because I’m living it right now. But I believe.
I believe that we shall all see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
I believe that God will hide us in his shelter in the day of trouble;
that God will hide us under the cover of his tent;
that God will set us high on a rock.
I believe and I wait, I wait and I believe.
The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? I believe! I believe! I believe! I wait and I believe and I give thanks to God. Amen.
As we move into the Christian season of Lent we begin with Jesus in the wilderness at the start of his ministry and the gospel writer Luke brings us into this wilderness story in chapter three. Jesus, now an adult, has sought out John the baptizer who is working near the Jordan river. As the crowds receive John’s baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 3) Jesus joins the people, standing with fishermen and shopkeepers, children and widows all waiting their turn (Why was Jesus baptized?). The baptism itself, according to Luke, is rather uneventful; it is Jesus’ prayers afterward which opens the heavens and the Spirit descends “in bodily form like a dove” (v. 22) accompanied by a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22). After this, the thirty-year-old Messiah is led to the wilderness, “where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (4:2).
This temptation story is rather familiar to us: Jesus heads out to the wilderness to pray and fast, and it is there that he and the devil have an embattled exchange of and will and words for forty days. Luke shares with us three temptations presented to Jesus by the devil: gratification, power, and selfishness. I think we can all agree that these are core desires for any human, and for Jesus I’m sure they were overwhelmingly attractive to his humanity.
Who doesn’t want to be fed at the very onset of hunger? More. Now. Faster. Immediately.
Who, after working long and hard, doesn’t want success? Power. Fame. Glory. Image.
Who, living in this world, wouldn’t put oneself first? Me. Mine. Win at all costs. Forget them.
Jesus denied himself and these temptations presented by the devil, and chose to live out his vocation as peacemaker, love bearer, God-with-us Messiah. Knowing the full story of who Jesus is and what he did we shrug our shoulders and say, Of course he did – he’s Jesus. We readily acknowledge Jesus’ God-ness but all-too-often forget his human-ness. While he vanquished the devil in the wilderness, is it not possible that these temptations continued to follow him as he traveled throughout Galilee?
As “he began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone” (Luke 4:15), was Jesus not tempted by his immediate successes? On the Sabbath, as he read from the prophet Isaiah before the Pharisees and Scribes, proclaiming his Godly anointing (Luke 4:18-19), was Jesus not tempted by his fame and glory, prophesied centuries earlier? As he stood there in Nazareth (Luke 4:22-30) with the power to win the people over and make them follow him, was Jesus not tempted to win them over at all costs…to force them to follow…to vanquish all naysayers for personal success?
In these temptations of Jesus I find deep connection with my Lord because, truthfully, this is where I find me and my life most often. These temptations Jesus faced daily are temptations that I face daily: I want things now…I want fame and power…I want to put me first and to walk all over my friends and enemies alike to get what I want. I want to choose these temptations because they would feed my feeble ego, my need-for-now, my human self-worth. Fame? Instant gratification? Self-success? Sign me up!
It’s easy to understand these temptations because they’re what make the world around me work. Products are pushed on me because I need them now, because I can get them now; pretty much anything I could ever want is a mere two days away. The ability to be famous and popular is just one social media post away – if I keep dumping content something will eventually stick and the world will know me. The stories of the self-made success are all around me, and the three step programs to be a self-made success are just a credit card purchase away. I can readily have anything and everything that I could ever want if I so choose…I just have to say yes to the temptations around me.
But in these temptations of Jesus I also find connection with my Lord because I find a model of overcoming temptation. Throughout his ministry Jesus’ humanity faced these temptations on a daily basis, wrestling with himself – the God and the man – each vying for priority, importance, and significance. But God won – God always wins. Despite his immediate successes, each day Jesus chose God. Despite his unprecedented popularity, each day Jesus chose God. Despite his ability to choose human-self, each day Jesus chose God. Jesus chose to follow the One who chose him, to follow the One who called him by name, to follow the One who knows him as Beloved. God chose Jesus, and Jesus chose God right back.
And the beauty of it all – the beauty of God and God’s love for us, friends, is that God chose us. In the life of Jesus lived on earth among us, in the death of Jesus on the cross for and as us, in the resurrection of Jesus promising our own resurrection, God chose us every step of the way. In and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God chose us – would you choose God right back? In the face of temptation, would you say yes to God? Would you choose the treasures of heaven over the here-and-now treasures of earth? Would you choose criticism, disapproval, and disregard over fame, power, ‘shares and likes’? Would you choose to live a life of love for your neighbor and their well-being over your self and your desires? God has said yes to you – will you say yes to God?
As we begin our journey into Lent, I pray that each of us can choose God over temptation… choose love over hate…choose peace over war. May we cling to these words from 1 Peter 5:8-11 (The Message translation):
Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you napping. Keep your guard up. You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world. So keep a firm grip on the faith. The suffering won’t last forever. It won’t be long before this generous God who has great plans for us in Christ—eternal and glorious plans they are!—will have you put together and on your feet for good. He gets the last word; yes, he does!
God loves you and chooses you every day…dare you return the choice?