Monks of St. Gregory's Abbey, Three Rivers. Photo by J. Barrett Lee.

Taking It With You: Living the Oblate Life

In my previous post, Wibbly-Wobbly Timey-Wimey Stuff, I wrote about my first experience visiting a Benedictine monastery: St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers.

Today, I would like to write more about my ongoing experience with the monastery and how it continues to affect my life today.

During my first visit to St. Gregory’s, I discovered a new (to me) conception of time as a spiral, instead of a line. Life, according to this vision, is less about success and more about fidelity to the daily round of prayer and work (Ora et Labora) that takes place at work and in the home.

Within the monastic rhythm of life, I discovered a deep peace that I had never experienced before. My primary question to myself as I left the abbey after that first visit was, How do I take something of this experience with me into the rest of my life?

Obviously, as one who is already bound by marriage vows and responsibilities toward children, becoming a monk was out of the question for me. But I refused to believe that the stable heartbeat of the Spirit is available only to those who live in a monastery. Every monk and nun I have ever met would tell me that the monastic life is only one path to holiness within the larger Christian way. Any person, in any station of life, who lives with an open heart to God can take part in the blessed peace “that passeth all understanding” (Phil 4:7). For some, the Benedictine monastic tradition is a helpful tool for achieving spiritual growth in their life outside the cloister. I have come to believe that I am one such person.

But how does one do that?

As I looked around the abbey grounds during my first visit, I saw a word that I had not encountered before: Oblate.

I asked one of the monks, Br. Abraham, what it meant. He told me, “An oblate is someone who would be a monk, but is prevented from doing so by some other life commitment (like marriage).” Intrigued, I went into the monastery library and looked up everything I could find on the subject. Benedictine oblates are people “in the world” (i.e. outside a monastery) who live according to the Rule of St. Benedict in a way that is adapted to their particular station in life. They affiliate with a particular monastery that becomes their home abbey for life. They support the work of the monks with their prayers and finances. They visit as often as they are able.

One author writes that oblates are “the arms of the monastery into the world.” By embodying the spirit of the Rule in their lives, oblates are able to demonstrate the gentle power of Benedictine spirituality to those who never have (or perhaps never will) visit a monastery. Br. Benet Tvedten OSB humorously describes oblation as “how to be a monastic and not leave your day job.”

Well-known Benedictine oblates include authors Walker Percy and Kathleen Norris, famous actor Sir Alec Guinness (who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars), and social activist Dorothy Day.

Someone asked me today what benefits come with being an oblate. Does one receive special privileges at the abbey? None that I know of. Does one receive a plaque to hang on the wall? No. Does oblature certify one to work in a particular career? No. Why then would a person go through the trouble of becoming a Benedictine oblate?

I cannot answer this question for everyone. I can only speak for myself.

And all I can say is that this is the life I want to live.

I have found through St. Benedict a way of life that is grounded and balanced, built on moderation and flexibility. People like me, who throw themselves into new things with gleeful abandon (and subsequently beat themselves up when they are unable to attain the heights to which they had aspired), need someone like St. Benedict to come along and remind us, “Easy does it,” and “Slow and steady wins the race.” Growth is about progress, not perfection.

St. Benedict sums up his Rule by declaring that it is written for “beginners” who are “who are hastening to the heavenly homeland” and want to “show that we have attained some degree of virtue and the rudiments of the religious life” (RB 73). In other words, Benedictine spirituality is for regular people on the journey, not superheroes who want assurances that they have already arrived. I heard a story about a monk who, when asked what one does in a monastery, replied, “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up.”

That kind of patience and perseverance have been noticeably lacking in my life up to this point, but I believe I began to experience them when I first visited the monastery. Since then, I have tried to get back every month or so. I try to carve out a week each year for a longer retreat in relative silence. When I leave, I make every effort to take the monastery with me and apply what I have learned there in my life at work and at home. The effort is incomplete and faltering. Like the monk said, “I fall down and I get up, I fall down and I get up, I fall down and I get up.” But I keep going, which I guess is the point of the whole thing.

The great benefit I can see to being a Benedictine oblate is that I get to live the life of a Benedictine oblate. I find peace in it, even when life is chaotic and the feeling of “inner peace” is absent.

After reading several books on oblature, speaking with others who are taking the journey, and trying little by little to incorporate the practices into my daily routine, I came to the decision that this is the kind of life I want to live, whether I am clothed as an oblate or not. According to St. Benedict, a person ought “not to wish to be called holy before one is holy; but first to be holy, that one may be truly so called” (RB 4).

Having official standing as an oblate is not essential in itself, but living the oblate life with the support and accountability of more experienced members of a monastic community would certainly be conducive to doing it well.

Larger monasteries, like St. Meinrad Archabbey and St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, have sizable oblate programs with chapters meeting all over the world. I have gotten to know people from several other fine monastic communities in the United States, especially the ecumenical Benedictines of Holy Wisdom Monastery (home to this country’s only Presbyterian nun) and the Order of St. Helena, a Benedictine-inspired order of women in the Episcopal Church. In addition to these, there are numerous “dispersed” (non-residential) Benedictine communities of lay brothers and sisters all over the world. All of these are wonderful communities and I feel privileged to call their members friends, but St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers is home to me.

My particular relationship is with these brothers, in this place, living the Rule in this way. In seeking oblation, there was no question in my mind that St. Gregory’s should have the right of first refusal.

St. Gregory’s is small, with only seven monks, including one novice. They prefer to keep their oblate program limited to those who have demonstrated a sustained commitment to Benedictine spirituality in relationship with this community over a period of several years. With that in mind, I didn’t want to rush things. I spoke with the abbot about my interest and continue to keep him apprised of my progress. While remaining hopeful that the day may come, I have made my peace with patience. In the meantime, the main thing for me has been to continue to live the life.

A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting the abbey with a friend from Grand Haven, who informed me that the date of his clothing as an oblate novice has been set for this November. I know that he has been working toward this diligently for several years and was delighted for him. I told my friend that I would certainly be there to support him on the big day.

Besides, I thought to myself, I’ve never been to a clothing ceremony of an oblate novice before; this could be helpful to me as I prepare to possibly take this step myself one day, if and when Father Abbot thinks I’m ready.

This was great news.

And then, last week, I got an email from the abbot, asking if I would like to be clothed as an oblate novice on the same day as my friend. I nearly fell over when I read the message. Naturally, I said Yes. Abbot Andrew asked if I wanted to take a saint’s name at my clothing.

On Saturday, November 19, I will be clothed as an oblate novice and given the oblate name Odo (after St. Odo of Cluny… more on him later) during 8am Mass at St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers.

I appreciate your prayers on that day, for my novitiate and for St. Gregory’s extended community of monks, oblates, and confraters.



Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey Stuff: Benedictine Monasticism and the Sanctification of Time

In early 2014, I realized something needed to change in my life.

I was regularly working twelve to fourteen hours a day, sometimes going a month without taking a single day off. I had a moment of clarity while sitting in my office at 2 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. At first, I felt proud of myself for being such a hard worker, but then I thought, “Wait a minute, this is insane. Who does this?”

After returning from my second trip to the emergency room with stress-related illness, I decided that I needed to find a better sense of balance in my life. I thought, “Who understands balance and rhythm? Monks! I wonder if there’s a monastery somewhere near me?”

A Google search revealed that I lived a mere forty-minute drive away from St. Gregory’s Abbey, an Episcopal Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan. Without even calling home to check with my wife, I called and booked a week-long retreat in April.

That week changed my life. Sitting in the abbey church, I felt quiet on the inside for the first time ever. I had long felt an attraction to contemplative Christian spirituality, but had never given myself permission to stop long enough to try it.

The first insight I gleaned from the Benedictines is a different conception of time than I had previously held. To quote the British sci-fi series Doctor Who:

“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.”

I had presumed that time is a line, progressing inexorably from Point A to Point B. As one who exists on this timeline, my goal was success: asserting my powers of will to make the timeline go in the direction I wanted.

What I learned from the monks is that time is actually a circle, or perhaps a spiral. Making the daily rounds of the Divine Office and the Mass, we keep going around and around, returning to the same point in the liturgy again and again. It wouldn’t be all that far-off to say that the Eucharist itself is a form of “time-travel”, wherein the Church in finds herself gathered around the table with Christ and his Apostles at the Last Supper. Saints and angels from all of time and space gather with us in the Paschal mystery. Likewise, the hours of the Divine Office are often called “the sanctification of time.”

The goal of history in this circular vision of time is not success, but faithfulness. We return to the same points again and again. We cannot go forward without going around. This is very much in-tune with the circular rhythms of the natural world. Day follows night as the planet rotates. We pass through the lunar and seasonal phases as we go around the sun, year after year. The monks mark the passage of time with prayer, pausing to feel the earth twisting and turning beneath their feet. They return to the hours of the Office and the Mass in order to renew their conscious contact with the Source of motion. It is their faithfulness to this daily rhythm that makes them monks.

Between the hours, the earth continues rotating and revolving. There are periods of work and rest: guests need attending to, meals need to be prepared and eaten, dishes need to be washed, buildings need repair, books need to be written and read, library shelves need to be dusted, leaves need to be raked, snow needs to be shoveled, but the spiral rhythm remains constant. A symphony is just a jumbled mess of noise without the pauses and rests between the notes.

This is the first insight I learned from my time with the monks at St. Gregory’s. It has changed the way I approach my life at work and at home. Time is not a line, but a spiral. The goal is not success, but faithfulness. One can only move forward by going around.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to step away from this computer screen and go recite one of the Hours.


There are no words

Came across this video on Facebook, shared by the Society for Eastern Rite Anglicanism (SERA).

This is Psalm 51 (50 in the Septuagint), chanted in Aramaic, which is the language that Jesus Christ himself spoke. Words are inadequate to describe the power of this moment. My hair stood on end, I gasped twice, I got chills in my spine, and had tears in my eyes.

Best to let the video speak for itself:


Have mercy upon me O God, according to thy great mercy, according to the multitude of thy compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash Me thoroughly from my iniquities and cleanse me from my sins…

This was recorded at the Chaldean Catholic Church of St. Simon in Tblisi, Georgia. Vatican Radio has published a story on the meeting.

Click here to read the full article.

Pope Francis offered a prayer for peace. Here is the translation of that prayer, excerpted from the original article:

Lord Jesus, we adore your cross which frees us from sin, the origin of every division and evil; we proclaim your resurrection, which ransoms man from the slavery of failure and death; we await your coming in glory, which will bring to fulfilment your kingdom of justice, joy and peace.

Lord Jesus, by your glorious passion, conquer the hardness of our hearts, imprisoned by hatred and selfishness; by the power of your resurrection, save the victims of injustice and maltreatment from their suffering; by the fidelity of your coming, confound the culture of death and make the triumph of life shine forth.

Lord Jesus, unite to your cross the sufferings of the many innocent victims: the children, the elderly, and the persecuted Christians; envelop in paschal light those who are deeply wounded: abused persons, deprived of freedom and dignity; let those who live in uncertainty experience the enduring constancy of your kingdom: the exiles, refugees, and those who have lost the joy of living.

Lord Jesus, cast forth the shadow of your cross over peoples at war; may they learn the way of reconciliation, dialogue and forgiveness; let the peoples so wearied by bombing experience the joy of your resurrection: raise up Iraq and Syria from devastation; reunite your dispersed children under your gentle kingship: sustain Christians in the Diaspora and grant them the unity of faith and love.

O Virgin Mary, Queen of peace, you who stood at the foot of the cross, obtain from your Son pardon for our sins; you who never doubted the victory of his resurrection, sustain our faith and our hope; you who are enthroned as Queen in glory, teach us the royal road of service and the glory of love.


To Give or Not To Give? (Helping Those Who Should Be Able to Helpful Themselves)

I responded to the following question on social media recently. I see it as a reformulation of that perennial question: “How should we, as middle-class Christians, respond to the needs of the poor in our immediate vicinity?” This question is especially pertinent when it seems like those asking for help should be able to do more for themselves.

I have a long-time friend who is homeless and has been that way as long as I have known him. He is in his early 50s but claims that since he is an orphan, everyone should take care of him. He references James 1:27 for support, particularly its statement “to visit orphans and widows in their distress.” He basically uses this to defend his ongoing refusal to work.

I replied by saying that that passage talks about people who are helpless (hence the phrase “in their distress”), and also that there is a biblical mandate to work (Gen. 3:19, 2 Thessalonians 3:10). Recently, though, I thought of another passage:

“32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. 35 In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20).

Since Paul spoke those words to elders, do you think his example of working hard was meant only for church leaders?

Here is how I responded, with a mix of theology and practical advice as one who has done ministry with people in the margins for a while:

To begin with, I would like to move your discussion with this man “up one level” from the impass where it currently sits: He quotes one passage of Scripture and you quote another. Thus, the biblical “ping-pong ball” goes back and forth all day and nothing is accomplished. Eventually, he will wear you down and you will either cave in to his demands (and feel taken advantage of) or lose your temper and kick him out (and feel terrible about yourself). Nobody wins in this scenario.

FYI: I will be speaking in “two’s” for most of this post. I tend to think this is how Christian faith works best: as a “both/and” rather than an “either/or”.

Let’s begin by looking at our core beliefs and commitments as Christians. First: we believe this man is made in God’s image, part of the Body of Christ, and a Temple of the Holy Spirit… as are we all. As a person in need, he is also the presence of Christ to us, as Jesus says in Matthew 25. Our first task is ever and always to love him (Christ-in-him) with the love (of Christ) that is in us. So really, the question becomes: “How does Christ want to love Christ through me, today?” Anything else we do is secondary to (and in service of) this primary goal.

That being said, you cannot save him (he already has a Savior… and it’s not you). There are two big temptations we face, as middle-class Christians in this culture: First, the temptation to look the other way and pretend the poor are not our problem. Second, the temptation to be the “hero” who swoops in to save the day at the last minute. Again, our job is to be Christ to Christ, but not to be anyone’s Savior.

In order to walk this fine line, we have to kill two things within us: our pity and our judgment. To kill pity but not judgment is to grow cold and hard-hearted in the face of suffering. To kill judgment but not pity is to be a doormat and an enabler. Both mistakes lead quickly to ministry burn-out. We absolutely must learn to look past these reactions.

Jesus said, “Give to all who ask of you” but he did not say, “Give them what they ask for.” Likewise, St. Francis of Assisi said, “Let no one depart from before your eyes without having found grace with you.”

Our ministry can never be “hands off” (i.e. “not my problem”). There are times when each of us needs a “hand out” (mercy) or a “hand up” (empowerment). But my main paradigm for doing ministry with people in the margins is always “hand in hand”. One of my slogans is that ministry in the margins is always “ministry with…” not “ministry to…”. Everyone comes to the Church with both needs and gifts. That includes us, the ministers/members of the Church. There is no dividing wall between patron/client, giver/receiver. Every volunteer and leader, even every priest and pastor, has a need somewhere inside of us that we are trying to fill in our ministry. We benefit from the work we do. One of the biggest challenges for middle-class Christians is to let those we serve expose our neediness and vulnerability. Real faith and courage is what allows us to see that in ourselves and not run away frightened by it. Likewise, every needy person at our door has God-given dignity and a gift for ministry they can offer us. We help each other by being Christ to each other. Our greatest wealth is when we call forth the power of these gifts in each other. The greatest poverty is when we can no longer see the ‘Imago Dei’ in ourselves or our neighbors.

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks: To help or not to help this man?

The Church on earth, as we well know, has limited resources. We cannot “save” the poor, but neither can we turn our backs on them. What helps me most in this work is to take St. Paul’s advice when it comes to giving in 2 Corinthians 9:7 – “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Have a plan laid out ahead of time what you individually or your parish corporately can give. Food? Clothes? Rides? A bed? Cash assistance up to a certain amount? Other? Draw boundaries and STICK TO THEM. The Gospel demands that you must give, but give wisely, according to your ability. Your boundaries are what enable you to do ministry in a sustainable way and not get burnt-out or resentful. This is where you get to be creative. Have a plan. Get to know the non-profit and social-services sector in your area. Have a list of phone numbers and addresses where you can refer people. If you can, I highly advise accompanying people to appointments (if they want you to)… you will learn SO much about what life in poverty is really like. Also, service providers are much more likely to do their jobs well if they know someone is watching. From time to time, it may become necessary to be an advocate for a vulnerable person who is being cheated by the system (which happens far more often, in my experience, than poor people trying to cheat the system).

Don’t take it personally when a needy person tries to manipulate you, lie to you, or otherwise cheat the system. For them, it’s a matter of survival and they are doing what (they think) they need to do. You might very well be doing the same thing in their situation. When they do lie or manipulate, think of it as game. If I give a panhandler a buck or two, I’m paying for the story (even though I know it isn’t true). I know my boundaries and keep them, never giving beyond what I can.

Help where you can, say No where you can’t, but remember to stay in relationship.

Over time, as the relationship develops, most needy people will find some way to give back in some way. There is a homeless man in my current parish who has received lots of help over the years. He never seems to get any better, but keeps peddling the same stories and receiving the same help over and over again. However, when the city Fire Marshal showed up with a long list to bring our building up to code, this guy showed up with borrowed tools and did all of the labor. Last June, as our parish relocated out of its building, this guy was the first volunteer to show up every morning and stay all day, helping to move heavy boxes and the sanctuary furniture to our new location. He gave to the church in the only way he was able. Our church is the only one he can go to and know that he will be greeted, hugged, and welcomed as he is.

When it comes to the needy person at your church, I am inclined to say Yes, he is an orphan. He feels all alone, with no one to care about him. He has a plethora of physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

Here are some questions to consider, as you move forward:

  • What help are you and your church able to sustainably give in order to demonstrate Christ-in-you?
  • How are you on the lookout for Christ-in-him?
  • What are his real needs that fester below the surface?
  • What are the gifts that he can bring to the life of the church?
  • What are your needs, vulnerabilities, and/or insecurities that this person draws out in you?
  • How can you continue to stay in relationship with this person?

‘God Helps’: Finding Good News in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

Recording of today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo

“Our ‘wounded-ness’ is the part of us that God loves with that same maternal care that holds Lazarus to her bosom.”

Click here to read the biblical text (it is also read out loud at the beginning of the sermon)


Bible Study: The Addict in Abraham’s Bosom

We had an amazing time during Bible study today.

The setting is the Rickman House, a single-room occupancy (SRO) subsidized apartment complex for adults who live with mental illness in Kalamazoo, Mich. The Rickman is often many residents’ last stop before (or first step after) being homeless. The names of participants have been changed and comments have been paraphrased.

There were two participants in today’s study, in addition to myself.

One participant, let’s call him Tom, is a socially awkward man in his late thirties who likes to dress in leather. He self-medicates his mental illness with alcohol and other substances. On Sundays, he sits on the steps of the Roman Catholic cathedral, but doesn’t go in, afraid that he doesn’t have enough faith. He says, “I just need a break from this place (i.e. the Rickman) sometimes.” He was raised in an evangelical Christian household but now isn’t quite sure what to make of faith. He says, “I believe, but I don’t believe… y’know?”

Our passage is Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, recorded in Luke 16:19-31

Click here to read it with us

I’ve been wrestling with this passage all week as I prepare to preach on it this Sunday. As is often the case, participants in this Bible study hardly ever attend church (if at all). I lead this study using techniques I learned from Bob Ekblad, one of my seminary professors and author of Reading the Bible with the Damned.

Looking at the text, we read, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”

Looking for equivalent images in contemporary society, we decide to imagine this rich man as a business man in a three piece suit who eats lobster and filet mignon at a swanky downtown restaurant.

Continuing to read: “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”

They decide that Lazarus was probably like a homeless panhandler in the city. They notice that Lazarus was sick, like so many of them who live with mental illness at the Rickman. Thinking specifically about the sores, they recognize that there are many “sore spots” in their own lives and minds: painful wounds that refuse to heal after so many years. Without access to proper medical care, Lazarus reaches out for some kind of temporary relief from the pain, even if it comes from a dog’s tongue.

“He’s self-medicating,” says Tom, noticing the similarity with his own tendency to ease the pain of his emotional “sores” with drugs. It may not be good or healthy (like letting wild dogs lick open sores), “but that’s the only thing that quiets my emotions,” he says. Like so many other people who are substance-dependent, Tom assumes that his addiction is due to his own moral failing. He thinks he shouldn’t call himself a Christian if he is still using. He sometimes worries that he will go to hell if he dies in his current condition.

I decide to test this assumption by looking carefully at the biblical text.

In the next sentence, the text reads, “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”

I ask, “Does it say that, when Lazarus died, the demons came up and dragged him down into hell?”

Looking puzzled, he says, “No, it says angels came and took him to heaven. They were compassionate. They showed him mercy.”

I note that Abraham was an important figure in biblical history. He is the founder of three world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So, to be with him is to be in a place of great honor.

I ask a very important question: “What did Lazarus have to do in order to earn his place of comfort and honor in Abraham’s bosom? Does the text say that he repented of his sins? Did he accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior? Did he join the church and put a big, fat check in the offering plate?”

“No, definitely not,” Tom says in reference to the last question.

“What did Lazarus have to do, then?” I ask.

“Nothing,” Tom says, “he was just poor and in pain, and God showed him mercy.”

I suggest that God wants to do the same thing for him.

There are two linguistic details that want I clarify for the group from the text. The first is the name of the homeless man: Lazarus. In Hebrew, that name is Eleazar, which literally means “God helps.”

“This is not a coincidence,” I say, “It’s very intentional and important to the meaning of this text. When Lazarus is dying, what does God do?”

“God helps him,” they say.

Does that mean God ignores Lazarus?

“No,” they reply, “God helps.”

Does God judge or criticize Lazarus for letting the dogs lick his sores?

“No, God helps.”

Does God shout, “Go get a job, you lazy bum”?

“No, God helps.”

The text says that angels picked Lazarus up and took him “to be with Abraham.” The original Greek text of this phrase literally translates as “Abraham’s bosom”. I compare it to the image of a mother holding a crying child close to her chest for comfort and love.

“Yeah,” Tom says, “my girlfriend used to do that for me, before she died.”

I suggest that maybe God wants to be his girlfriend and care for him in the same way, holding him close in God’s arms.

“I don’t know,” he says, “I’m not really into guys that way.”

I point out that God is not exclusively male; there are several feminine images for God in the Bible. Jesus described himself as a mother hen gathering her chicks. Deuteronomy describes Yahweh as a mother eagle, teaching her young to fly. And then there is Sophia (“Wisdom”), a feminine image for God in the book of Proverbs. She is a beautiful woman who stands in the door of her house and invites us in to share a feast. “I never knew that,” Tom says as he smiles and nods his head.

Before I leave, we pray that God will help Tom experience God’s care and compassion for himself, even in the midst of his struggle with illness and addiction.


The Principle of Exclusivity

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo

Click here to read the biblical passage

Sermon outline:

  1. Principle of Exclusivity
    1. Exclusive resort/interview
      1. “We have something that no one else has”
    2. haves/have-nots, insiders/outsiders
      1. Who are the haves/insiders in 21st century North America?
        1. Who gets to sit at the “cool kids” table in our culture? Wealthy, beautiful
      2. Who are the have-nots?


  1. Paul – What is he urging Christians to do in this passage? Pray
    1. For whom? “Kings and all who are in high positions”
    2. What culture is Paul writing in? Roman Empire
      1. Who is king? Caesar
        1. Is Caesar an insider or an outsider to Roman culture? Insider
      2. Who is Paul writing to? Christians
        1. Are they insiders or outsiders to Roman culture? Outsiders
        2. It was illegal to be a Christian
  • The Romans thought we were a threat to national security, terrorists, trying to overthrow the government, undermine society
  1. We were excluded, discriminated against, persecuted, hunted, killed by patriots
  1. Caesar is the ultimate insider of the Roman Empire
    1. Excludes the Christian outsiders – discrimination, persecution, murder
    2. Is Caesar a Christian? No, pagan
    3. As a pagan, is he an insider or an outsider to the Christian Church? Outsider
  2. So, how does Paul invite Christian-insiders to treat powerful pagan-outsiders to the Church in this passage? Fight fire with fire? Exclude the excluders? No, pray for them
    1. Because this reflects the heart of God for outsiders
      1. “This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
        1. Who does God desire to be saved? Everyone
      2. “For there is one God”
        1. How many? One for Christians and another for Caesar? No, one
  • “There is also one mediator between God and humankind”
    1. How many? One for Christians and another for Caesar? No, one
  1. This mediator, Paul says, is “Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all”
    1. For whom? All


  1. God’s deep desire is for all outsiders to become insiders, to know that they are loved, they belong in God’s family
    1. This is what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about – welcoming outsiders as insiders
    2. Our world system operates on the Principle of Exclusion, but the kingdom of heaven operates on the Principle of Inclusion
    3. This world system builds walls between people, but God wants to tear those walls down
      1. Ephesians 2 – “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God”
    4. Are we doing this, Church? Do we believe it?
      1. Do we believe it for ourselves?
        1. Every one of us harbors a secret fear that, if others saw us as we really are, they could never love us
          1. So we put up walls around us and hide behind them.
          2. We even think we can do this with God. So, we put on our Sunday best and show up to church, pretending that everything’s okay. But we’re not okay.
        2. God sees that, and guess what? God loves and accepts us anyway, not in spite of our faults, but with That’s grace.
        3. Trusting in God’s grace gives us the power to tear down the walls within ourselves and admit, “It’s okay to not be okay, because I am loved. Even if I can’t love myself right now, I am loved by One whose love for me is far greater than my ability to mess myself up.”
        4. I think a lot of us need to be reminded of that, from time to time
        5. Paul says it: God’s desire is for you. God wants you here.
        6. God loves you. Full stop. And you are constitutionally incapable of out-sinning God’s love. I hope you believe that for yourself, today.
      2. Do we believe this (trust God’s grace) for others?
        1. Do we build walls between our neighbors and ourselves or do we tear them down?
        2. Do we operate on the world’s Principle of Exclusion or God’s Principle of Inclusion?
        3. When we look at our neighbors, God asks us:
          1. “Do you see my child, who…”
            1. Is poor, is homeless, is sick, is a refugee, is an immigrant, speaks another language, has a skin color that is different from yours, is LGBTQ, is Muslim, is addicted to drugs/alcohol, is disabled, lives with a mental illness?
          2. Do we see God’s children?
          3. Do we look at them and hear God’s heartbeat for them in St. Paul’s words: “This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”?
        4. This, God’s desire, is the heartbeat of the Gospel
          1. God writes no one off
          2. Excludes no one, not even the excluders
          3. Not even Caesar, the pagan emperor and hater of Christians
          4. There is a place for him at the table of Christ, which means there is also a place here for you
            1. St. Paul writes, earlier in 1 Timothy: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”
          5. This was the founding principle of Paul’s ministry, which is how he is able to say: “For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle”
            1. God’s unconditional and all-inclusive love
            2. This is the reason Paul and the early Church practiced their ministry of reconciliation, even in the face of bitter persecution
            3. This is also the reason we Christians are called to practice our ministry in the world today: not to exclude but to include, not to build walls but to tear them down, to speak the word of truth to those don’t know the deep and abiding truth that they are loved.

No Sheep Left Behind

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read the biblical text.

[NOTE: This sermon is being preached as a dialogue with the congregation. Wherever you see questions asked, feel free to answer them in your own way. I must give credit to my beloved seminary professor, Bob Ekblad, who taught me this method and trained me to use it with this very passage of Scripture.]

Have you ever lost something that was precious to you?

What was it like when you found it?

In today’s reading, Jesus tells two stories about something that got lost: a sheep and a coin. Both stories repeat the same theme, so we’re going to focus on the first one about the lost sheep.

The stage for these stories is set with a scene from Jesus’ life. In this scene, there are two groups of people interacting with Jesus. Can you identify them in the text?

The first group is the tax collectors and sinners. These are the people who were regarded as delinquents and outcasts from society. They were not generally welcome in the religious community. Tax collectors were “bottom-feeders”. They worked for the occupying Roman government to exact tolls on goods and services from fellow Jews. Not only that, they would also commonly overcharge people on their taxes and keeping the extra for themselves. Most people regarded tax collectors as traitors and cheats. They were the lowest of the low.

In today’s terms, what categories of people can you think of who occupy a similar place in our society?

Try replacing the words “tax collectors and sinners” in the text with the categories you just thought of.

The second group is the Pharisees and scribes. These are the people who were very educated, respected, and religious. Again, what categories of people can you think of who occupy that kind of space in today’s society?

Try replacing “Pharisees and scribes” with those words and see how it sounds:

“Now all the _____ and _____ were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the _____ and the _____ were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

The Pharisees and scribes were offended that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. Eating dinner with someone, in that culture, was a sign of total acceptance of that person. Why do you think the Pharisees and scribes were so offended by that?

Jesus responds to their complaining by tell them this story:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

According to the words in this text, what does the lost sheep have to do in order to be found by the shepherd?

Does it say that the lost sheep finally got its act together and found its own way back to the sheepfold? Does it say that the lost sheep had to cry out sincerely, all day and all night, until the shepherd took pity and reluctantly let it back inside? Does the text say any of those things?

Next question: How does the shepherd react when the sheep is finally found? Was he angry? Did he beat or scold the lost sheep? Did he leave it alone to die in the wilderness because it was such a bad sheep?

                Let’s look again at the text:

“When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”

He rejoices. The shepherd comes looking for the lost sheep, finds it, carries it home on his shoulders, and rejoices.

According to Jesus, this is an image of the way God relates to us. Sadly, this image looks very different from the image of God that many people encounter in Christian churches today. Many people come to church and end up hearing some kind of “turn or burn” theology that threatens eternal punishment for those who do not conform to a particular interpretation of Christian beliefs and morals.

The word Gospel is supposed to mean “good news” but that kind of gospel is neither good nor news. The gospel that Jesus preaches and embodies, on the other hand, is good news.

It is good news for the “lost sheep” of this world, those who exist outside traditional religious institutions, because it presents them with the image of a God who loves them, who is searching for them, who will not stop until he finds them, and who takes them in his arms rejoicing. Tax collectors and sinners are naturally attracted to this kind of God, just as they were naturally attracted to Jesus while he walked on this earth.

This gospel is also good news for the “sheep in the fold”. It reminds us that the God we worship is not some harsh, demanding bookkeeper who looks over our shoulder all day, just waiting for us to make a mistake so he can punish us forever.

The good news is that the shepherd is out searching for all one hundred sheep, not just the few who obviously wandered away. And God’s attitude toward every sheep is the same, when he finds it:

“He lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.”

In the very last sentence of this story, Jesus mentions the word Repent. Some might think this is a prerequisite for receiving grace, but I don’t think Jesus meant it that way.

The word Repent, in Greek, is Metanoia. It literally means “To think differently.”

I think Jesus is inviting all of us, lost sheep and sheep in the fold alike, to think differently about God and the way God relates to us in the world. For this shepherd, there are no outsiders, no one who isn’t worth traveling over hill and dale to find in the wilderness.

God is seeking us, all of us, and will not stop until each of us is found. And when we are found, Jesus the Good Shepherd lays us on his shoulders and carries us home rejoicing.

This is the Gospel. It is good news that is both good and news. It is a Gospel worth believing in because the God of this Gospel believes in us. Thanks be to God.