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.


Carving the Grand Canyon

Sermon from North Presbyterian Church

Click here to read the biblical text

Today’s Epistle, St. Paul’s letter to Philemon, is one of the smallest books of the Bible. In it, we hear Paul asking a big favor from his friend Philemon.

The back story is this: Philemon was a wealthy convert to Christianity who was personally mentored by Paul. As was common in those days, he owned slaves. One slave, named Onesimus, escaped from his master and went to live in another city, where he too came into contact with St. Paul and converted to Christianity. Onesimus was zealous in his faith and active in the ministry of the Church, especially as Paul himself was in prison.

This development put Paul in a predicament. On the one hand, he had a fugitive slave in his company. Roman imperial law clearly dictated that such a person should be returned to his master to face whatever punishment the master deemed appropriate. Because Christians were frequently accused of trying to overthrow the government and undermine the established social order, Paul was keen to demonstrate to the authorities that the Church posed no threat to society and was composed of decent, law-abiding citizens, even though religious conviction prevented them from bowing down in worship to Caesar.

On the other hand, Paul was a firm believer that baptism was ‘the great equalizer’ of humankind. Distinctions of race, class, and gender meant nothing to Paul once a person was baptized into the Church. As he himself famously wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). If this was true, as Paul believed it was, then Philemon no longer had any rightful claim of ownership over Onesimus.

This was Paul’s dilemma: “Do I obey the law and return Onesimus to his master, thereby implying that the Christian faith endorses the institution of slavery, or do I allow Onesimus to remain with me as a free man, thereby undermining Roman law and lending credence to the rumors that the Christian Church is out to overthrow society?”

In the end, after what must have been an intense period of prayer and reflection, in obedience to the letter of the law, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. However, instead of sending him back empty-handed, Paul also sent the brief note that we read today.

In it, Paul acknowledges and obeys the authority of civil law, even as he acknowledges its deficiencies. Thinking as a pastor, Paul goes beyond Roman law, appealing to a higher authority in the heart of Philemon.

Paul says, “I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love… I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”

He goes on to explain, “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother”.

Because both men are now baptized Christians, the nature of their relationship has changed. They are no longer simply master and slave under the hierarchy of Roman law, but brother and brother in the household of God.

The rulers of this world exert their will on their subjects from without, by the power of force. Christ, on the other hand, enacts his will from within, by the power of love. God works the divine will into our lives through gentle persuasion over time.

This seems odd to us, who are accustomed to the willful way of the world, where it is often said that “might makes right.” We may be tempted to ask, “How can good triumph over evil unless it wields the power of the sword?”

We might as well ask, “How can the gentleness of water overcome the firmness of solid rock?” It might seem impossible, but the Grand Canyon stands as a permanent testimony to the contrary. Given time and persistence, water is able to round off the sharp edges and smooth out the rough places. Bit by bit, the rock gives way to the will of the river and a thing of unsurpassable beauty is created. It is no different when God’s grace works in human hearts.

Jesus put this gentle grace to work most fully on Good Friday, when he gave himself over to the will of the powers of the world. They unleashed the full force of their rage and violence upon the body of Christ. And even though he could have easily beaten them all with legions of angels, he chose instead to pray for his executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

In a supreme act of mercy, Jesus absorbed their violence into himself and died. When he rose again on the third day, his resurrection revealed to his Church, once and for all, that the power of his love is greater than the world’s love of power. Thus, the river of grace continues washing over the hard rock of sin and wears it away until all that is left is beauty.

St. Paul understood this. He understood that Philemon and Onesimus, as baptized members of the Body of Christ, share together in the life of the Triune God. They sit in communion with each other around the table of Christ, where there are no more masters and slaves, but only brothers and sisters.

Understanding this truth, Paul appealed to Philemon’s conscience on the basis of love. He worked by gentleness, rather than force. Rather than legislating gospel norms by fiat, he planted a seed in Philemon’s heart and ours, by extension.

We do not know how effective Paul’s appeal was in this particular situation (the text of the New Testament does not tell us), but we do know the effect his words had on subsequent generations of Christians.

Christian abolitionists, working to eradicate the institution of slavery in 19th century America, found in this piece of Scripture the spiritual principle on which their ministry would be based: that masters and slaves become brothers and sisters in Christ. Over a millennium and a half after it was first planted, St. Paul’s seed finally bore fruit in the hearts of these workers for justice.

As the Church in the world today, it is critical that we bear this truth in mind. I have been deeply troubled as I listen to the violent rhetoric of political campaigns on both sides of the aisle in this election year. Opponents are quick to hurl accusations of treason at one another, calling for revolution. One pastor I know has lamented that so many Americans seem to be “voting with their middle finger” this year.

Even more troubling to me is how this extreme style of rhetoric has wormed its way into our collective psyche, so that even our private conversations and relationships in our congregations, neighborhoods, and homes take on this “all or nothing” character that seeks to eliminate the competition, rather than negotiate and compromise for the greater good of the whole. I cringe every time I see a post on the internet begin with words like, “This may not be politically correct, but I’m going to speak my mind and say what no one else has the guts to say!” Such talk has the appearance of bravado, but is actually nothing more than a thin veil over the ugly face of fear, ignorance, and hate.

As Christians, this is not how we are called to live together in the world. The kingdom of God does not come to earth by the power of the sword. Jesus Christ showed us the way: God’s kingdom comes by the power of mercy, healing, reconciliation, and hospitality that unites people of different races, genders, and social classes in one family. The coming of God’s kingdom starts small, appears weak, and grows slowly. As Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32).

This way of working for transformation seems like foolishness to the powers of this world. The world relies on force to exert its will on human beings, but God’s will works gradually and gently, by the power of mercy, transforming hearts from the inside out.

Scripture assures us that right will win out over wrong in the end, but it will not happen all at once. In the meantime, we are called to be patient, to bear with one another in love, to make good use of the tools of mercy, kindness, healing, and hospitality, even for our enemies. This is not mere political correctness; it is the Gospel upon which we place our hope.

It may be small, it may seem weak, it may even lead to our own crucifixion, but Christ’s resurrection is our token that the Gospel will be victorious before the end. May the gentle waters of grace continually wash over us, rounding off our sharp edges and smoothing out our roughness, until our hardness of heart gives way and all that is left is beauty.

By Manfredo Ferrari - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Power of Humility

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read the biblical text.

A friend once told me, “You have to be careful what you pray for.”

If you pray for patience, God will make you wait for it. If you pray for a deeper understanding of God’s love, God will bring someone into your life who is difficult to love. And if you pray for humility, God will put you in a situation that you find humiliating.

Humility is probably the hardest thing to pray for and the hardest lesson to learn in the spiritual life. Those who have humility often don’t realize they have it. Truly humble people are more likely to be conscious of the many ways in which they fail to be humble.

Conversely, those who claim to have humility are often gravely mistaken. I don’t think there is anyone, other than Christ himself, who can rightly say, “I’m so humble!” Believing that you have humility is the first and greatest sign that you don’t have it. That’s what makes humility such a tricky virtue to cultivate.

St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of western monasticism, describes the virtue of humility using the image of Jacob’s ladder in the biblical book of Genesis. In the original vision, Jacob saw a ladder stretched between heaven and earth, on which angels were “descending and ascending”. St. Benedict took this image as a lesson in humility. He had this to say about it:

“…if we want to reach the highest summit of humility, if we desire to attain speedily that exaltation in heaven to which we climb by the humility of this present life, then by our ascending actions we must set up that ladder on which Jacob in a dream saw “angels descending and ascending” (Gen. 28:12). Without a doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts God will raise it to heaven. We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our divine vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend.” (RB 7)

St. Benedict goes on from there to devote an entire chapter of his Rule for monasteries to the subject of humility. He outlines twelve steps along this metaphorical “ladder to heaven”. Time does not permit me to outline each of them here, but I leave you to look it up for yourself in the Rule of St. Benedict.

The subject of humility is an important one for all of us who live in a world and try to function in an economy that is built upon self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. We are told that if we don’t toot our own horns, no one else will. The key to success, we are told, is to ascend by ascending, even stepping over others along the way, if we feel it is necessary. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” we say, “and you’ve got to do unto others before they do unto you.”

Under such brutal values, it is the poor, the sick, the children, the elderly, and the different who get trampled upon. Those who adopt this blasphemous morality as their own cannot see any value in Christ’s teaching on humility. Humility, according to secular existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, is “the morality of the weak.” Not surprisingly, Nietzsche is the same philosopher who famously declared, “God is dead.” The barbarous world we live in seems to have no place for the virtue of humility.

So, why is it then that Jesus, in today’s gospel, commends the virtue of humility so highly?

Christ says to his fellow guests at the party, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor… But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place.”

At first glance, this comes across as a lesson in strategic etiquette, but a deeper look reveals a powerful truth that God has hidden in human hearts. The guest who takes the lowest place at the banquet draws out the natural compassion of the host. The host recognizes the injustice of the situation and acts quickly to rectify it. In doing so, the host reflects the image of Israel’s God, YHWH, who saw the oppression of the Israelites under Pharaoh’s genocidal tyranny. God then acted, through the hand of Moses, to liberate the Hebrews from slavery and escort them to the seat of honor that was prepared for them in the promised land of their ancestors. Like the host at the party, God saw the injustice of the situation and acted quickly to rectify it.

In the same way, we who act with justice and mercy toward the poor are also bearing witness to the imago Dei, the image and likeness of God, which has been planted in our hearts from eternity. This is why Jesus commands the host of the party, “[W]hen you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed”.

In just a few short days, on September 4, Pope Francis will canonize the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta at a mass in Vatican City, officially recognizing her as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Like the host of the party in Jesus’ teaching, Mother Teresa took notice of the unjust suffering of her fellow human beings and acted quickly to set them in a place of honor. She cared for the poorest of the poor in one of the most challenging environments on earth. In her life, our elder sister in the faith embodied the instruction of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Like the guest at the party in Jesus’ story, she willingly took to the lowest place on earth, and so she is now being exalted in the Church. Her life has inspired the hearts of people the world over. Despite the brainwashing of this brutally selfish global culture, we cannot deny the odor of sanctity that comes from such humble compassion. We look at her and realize that Nietzsche was wrong: humility is not weak; it is the most powerful spiritual tool on earth.

As with all saints, Mother Teresa’s sanctity does not spring from her own heroism. She is holy because her humility echoes the humility we find in Christ himself. St. Paul writes of this humility in his letter to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

    did not regard equality with God

    as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,

    being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

    he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—

    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

    and gave him the name

    that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

    every knee should bend,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

    that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.

The humility of Mother Teresa is the humility of Christ. And in Christ, we discover that this humility is far from weak; indeed, it has the power to save the world. May our lives, like Mother Teresa’s, reflect the gentle power of Christ’s humility and compassion. May we, like the host of the party, act quickly to rectify injustice when we see it. May we, like the guests at the party, be willing to take the lowest in place in service to our world. May we resist the egotistical powers of this world that worship money, power, and violence as tools for self-aggrandizement. May we place our faith and hope in the humility of Christ, who died to save us and rose victorious over death. And may we, with Mother Teresa and all the saints, find in this humility the path to our own resurrection. Amen.

Public Domain,

It’s Okay to be Uncomfortable

Click here to read the biblical text.

People have no idea what it’s like inside my head.

They look at my body, of course. It’s plain to see there’s something wrong with me. When I was a little girl, my parents were worried sick about me. They asked me all the time, “Why don’t you just stand up straight?” They consulted physicians, who looked me over from head to toe, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. As far as the doctors could tell, there was nothing medically wrong with me.

But without a clear diagnosis to work from, everyone assumed the problem was me. People would say things like, “Don’t slouch! Stop messing around and stand up straight! We know you can do it; the doctor said so! You’re just faking this illness for attention! Come on, just stand up straight already. You’re just not trying hard enough!”

But those were just the voices of other people. Even worse, SO much worse, were the voices I heard inside my own head: “You piece of garbage! You’re worthless! You’re hopeless! You deserve this! You should do the whole world a favor and just kill yourself right now!” They were SO LOUD and they never stopped, day or night. No matter what I did, even covering my ears with my hands, I couldn’t make them stop or get any quieter. Most days, I couldn’t even leave my house. All day long, I just sat in a corner with my head leaned up against the wall, singing to myself, just to have something other than the voices to listen to. It felt like a dead weight inside my chest, like someone had tied a heavy, invisible stone around my neck.

Once a week, on the Sabbath, my parents would force me to get up and leave the house. I felt so bad for them. Their hair had turned grey and their faces wrinkled with worry. They both had dark circles under their eyes from so many late nights when the voices wouldn’t let me get to sleep. I was almost twenty years old at this point. Any other “normal” daughter would have been married off by now, with a husband and children of her own to care for, but not me. They were getting on in years. Sometimes, I could hear them talking at night, worrying about what would become of me when they were gone. We had no other family. I would probably end up living on the street, where I certainly wouldn’t last long. Perhaps some of the neighbors would be kind enough to help me out from time to time?

The Sabbath was the one time each week when I would get out of the house, to go to synagogue. To be perfectly honest, I hated it. Since we were women, tradition said my mother and I had to stand at the edge while my father covered his head and went to the middle to pray with the men. I liked listening to the sound of their singing, but being around the other villagers was unbearable. Some people were kind: they would greet my mother and ask how I was doing this week. Others would look down at me with disgust, but most just politely ignored us. Just like I did at home, I would mostly crouch in the corner, leaning my head against the wall, and trying to make myself turn invisible.

One Sabbath, a traveling rabbi named Jesus visited our synagogue. People were saying lots of interesting things about him: that he was some kind of prophet, like the ones we read about in the Torah. As was customary, our rabbi invited him to preach and lead services that day. More people than usual came out to hear him. The synagogue was crowded, so I had an especially hard time finding a space against the wall were I could be.

As the congregation was gathering for worship, Jesus and I crossed paths at the synagogue door. I knew better than to speak to a man who wasn’t a member of my family, but I glanced up as he passed by, and we very briefly made eye contact. He gave me a smile and I quickly looked down again.

After the prayers, Jesus began to preach. One of the readings that morning was from the book of Isaiah (I heard somebody say that was Jesus’ favorite book to preach on). The reading said:

“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday… if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth”.

Jesus’ sermon was all about the Sabbath. He said there were two reasons why it was so important. First of all, it was the day God rested after creating the heavens and the earth, so we too should rest from our labors on that day. But the second reason, he said, was because God freed our people from slavery in Egypt. Pharaoh worked our people to the bone, making us build his palaces and pyramids. We were nothing more than animals to him, but God saw our suffering and liberated us by the hand of Moses. We are human beings, made in God’s image and likeness. Because of that, each and every one of us has God-given dignity and should be treated as such. Keeping the Sabbath, Jesus said, helps us to remember that dignity. That one day a week, when we Jews rest from our work and gather together to study the Torah and pray, should remind us to treat each other with kindness and compassion on the other six days of the week. The best way to keep the Sabbath, he said, is to help our fellow human beings live lives with the full and free dignity that God intends for them.

Then he paused in his sermon for a moment. He looked up and said, “There was a woman I saw on my way to synagogue this morning. Where is she?” The people started looking around at each other and shrugging their shoulders. Which woman was he talking about? He said, “She’s bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.” Everybody knew he was talking about me.

I was terrified. My only goal in life was to pretend to be invisible, but now everyone was staring at me because of Jesus. Then he did something I’d never seen any rabbi do before: he called me over to the center of the synagogue. Didn’t he know that was against the rules? Only men were allowed in that part of the room. But Jesus didn’t seem to care about that. He wanted me to stand up next to him, as best as I could, at the front of the service.

I could tell the leaders of the synagogue were uneasy about this. They were looking back and forth at each other with angry eyes. People were shifting back and forth uncomfortably. Jesus ignored them and turned directly to me. He said to me, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” As he said this, he laid his hands gently on my head.

And suddenly, the most amazing thing happened: It got quiet. I mean, really, actually QUIET. And not just quiet in the room… for the first time since I could remember, I was quiet on the inside.

The voices had stopped. I could hear myself breathing and the pounding of my heart in my chest. The pain of that dead weight, the imaginary stone tied around my neck, was gone. When Jesus lifted his hands off my head, I felt lighter, like I could float right up to the ceiling. Almost without thinking, I leaned back and… and… and stood up straight.

There was an audible gasp from the congregation. Looking around at everyone in the room, I realized for the first time that I am actually quite tall. In fact, Jesus himself was actually a couple of inches shorter than I am. I didn’t expect that. He just looked up at me and smiled again.

I don’t know what possessed me in that moment, but I felt like I should do something. I’d spent my whole life in that synagogue, listening to the men chant and pray from the very spot where I was standing. Sometimes, I would sing their songs to myself at home, just to drown out the voices.

But now, with the voices gone, I could feel that song rising up within me again, like a kettle boiling over. But this time, it was a hymn of praise, not a plea of desperation. I began to chant:

“Barukh atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh haOlam.”

          “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe.”

That was when the synagogue leaders really lost their temper. Not only was this visiting rabbi interrupting their service, but now he even had me, a woman, leading God’s praises in the place that was traditionally reserved only for men. Needless to say, I didn’t get to finish my hymn.

They jumped up and shouted, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

But Jesus didn’t miss a beat. He wasn’t having any of their pious nonsense. He shouted right back at them, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

Let me tell you, that shut them up real quick! After a moment of stunned silence, the crowd erupted into thunderous applause.

What Jesus did that day was not just for me; it was for everyone who lives with oppression and degradation of their God-given dignity. Jesus showed me that day that my life matters. Yes, even mine, which seemed to be so wasted and useless for so long.

Of course, every life matters to God, but God seems to have a special concern for those whose lives are degraded. It’s not that our lives matter more; it’s that we’ve been told so often that our lives matter less. That’s an error in judgment that God is eager to correct.

Our ancestors were made to believe that their lives mattered less than Egyptian lives because they were nothing more than Hebrew slaves, so God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Hebrew lives matter!”

In my case, I believed that my life mattered less because I was a woman and because I lived with a chronic illness, so Jesus came to tell me, “Your life matters!”

This is God’s message to all who are poor and oppressed in this world. Wherever and whenever the God-given dignity of human life is threatened by the powers-that-be of this world, God intervenes with this message to the powerful: “These lives matter!”

Black lives matter. Women’s lives matter. Gay lives matter. Trans lives matter. Mentally ill lives matter. Disabled lives matter. Immigrant and refugee lives matter. It’s not that other lives don’t matter to God, but others haven’t been subjected to humiliation and violence in the same way that some of us have. We already know that those lives matter; we need to hear and know that our lives matter too.

It might be that hearing this makes you uncomfortable, just like Jesus healing me in the middle of a synagogue on the Sabbath made our leaders uncomfortable. I want you to know that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. Stay with that discomfort for a while. Don’t be too quick to speak up. Don’t interrupt my song of praise, even if it sounds angry and defiant. This is the song that Jesus gave me when he set me free and made me able to stand up straight for the first time in my life.

This is my song of freedom, I’m singing it for the whole world.

And believe it or not, I’m singing for you too.


By ESO/H. Drass et al. ( [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Discovering Fire

Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest and brilliant scientist, once said:

“The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.”

I begin with Fr. Teilhard’s words this morning because they remind me of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

At first glance, these words of Jesus seem very apocalyptic and destructive. It’s understandable that some people might interpret them in this way. After all, fire can be very destructive. However, it can also be creative.

Fire, in a contained explosion, ignites the engines of automobiles and rockets. Electricity is a kind of fire that powers most of the technology we take for granted. For our ancient human ancestors, fire was used to cook food and refine metal.

On a much larger scale, the fire of the sun gives light and heat to the earth, making life possible.

Finally, the very atoms of our bodies were formed by nuclear fusion in the fiery furnaces of distant stars. These stars later exploded in brilliant supernovae, spreading their elements across the galaxy until they coalesced again in the substance of this planet.

So yes, fire carries within itself the power to destroy, but it also has the power to create. This is the kind of fire that Fr. Teilhard is talking about when he says that humankind “shall have discovered fire” for a second time when we “harness for God the energies of love.” It is also the kind of fire that Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel.

Ever since the earliest days of the Church in the book of Acts, fire has been a prominent, recurring symbol of the Holy Spirit. God dwells within human hearts like a kind of fire, a divine energy that animates faith, hope, and love in the same way that the fire of an explosion propels a rocket into space. The fire of the Spirit has survived multiple, almost constant, attempts to snuff it out over the centuries. But persecution, manipulation, arguments, and sin have all failed to contain this explosion. The Jewish prophet Jeremiah described his inner experience of the Holy Spirit like this: “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jer. 20:9)

The divine fire is unquenchable, it seems. It’s burning goes back 13.7 billion years, all the way to the moment of the Big Bang, when God ignited a spark that grew into the universe we know today. Like an Olympic torch, this same fire has been passed from star to star, galaxy to galaxy, sun to planet, and hearth to heart.

That same fire burns in you today. To be sure, human selfishness, ignorance, and sin have tried repeatedly to smother it in ash. At times, its light had grown so dim to our eyes, we thought it had died out completely. But all such attempts to quench this fire have been in vain. The fire that Christ kindled in his work of redemption is identical with the fire that exploded forth at creation. This fire burns in you today, God’s free gift to all that exists, and it unites your spirit with the creative energy of the cosmos in the Holy Spirit.

This is a powerful truth that takes root in our Christian hearts as we make regular use of the means of grace, especially Scripture and Sacrament. We need to stay connected to these things because they act like firewood in our souls. This is the fuel that Christ uses to bring the divine flame back to life in us when we have almost succeeded in stomping it out with our selfishness and cynicism.

All of this sounds rather nice. It would be all too easy to say that there is a bit of God’s fire in each of us and Jesus comes along to help us keep it going. But here’s the catch: in order to rekindle the divine fire in us, Jesus has to stir up our smoldering ashes. He digs deep down beneath the surface and turns everything upside-down so that the fire can find its way back to the surface again.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is intentionally stirring up the ashes in his listeners when he says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

This is a far cry from “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” At Christmastime, we hail the baby Jesus as the “Prince of Peace” who proclaims “Goodwill to all.” At first glance, it seems like Jesus is contradicting himself in this passage, but he isn’t.

In order to rekindle the fire of divine love within us, Christ first has to clear away the ash. In many cases, the “ash” is a faulty way of thinking about and relating to one another.

We human beings have a tendency to divide ourselves into camps of various sorts, for various reasons. We are divided along lines such as race, class, gender, language, politics, nationality, and religion. We are trained from birth to identify with one or more of these categories and understand how those in the opposing categories are enemies. One group is “us” and the other is “them.” Our groups fight with one another to gain supremacy, especially in terms of power and money.

Jesus, as the Prince of Peace, wants all God’s children to live in harmony with one another; he wants us to recognize the common spiritual fire that has bound us together from the beginning of time.

But before this recognition can happen, Christ has to shine the light of truth on our idolatries and ideologies that lead us to ground our sense of identity in one or more of these categories and set ourselves up against those who are different from us.

This is the kind of “division” that Jesus brings to the world: he divides our True Self from our small ego. He teaches us how to detach from ultimate identification with some aspect of our circumstance or personality.

This division process is painful. It looks like treason from the perspective of those who continue to identify with these categories. This is why Jesus says, “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.”

Jesus caused quite a scandal in his day because his band of apostles included Levi, a tax collector who collaborated with the occupying Roman government against his own Jewish people, and Simon, a zealot who had dedicated his life to fighting the Roman occupation of Judea with acts of terror and violence (in many ways, he was like an Al Qaida or ISIS fighter). By all rights, these two men should have hated each other. But somehow, in the company of Jesus, these two men found the strength to transcend the categories that divide them.

This pattern repeated itself time and again among Jesus’ disciples. Not only did he reconcile members of opposing in-groups within Judaism, he also welcomed entire villages of Samaritans as those who believed in him. Not only that, but the early Church went so far as to include Gentiles as well as Jews in its membership. This was unheard of at the time.

It was so scandalous, the early Christians were forcefully exiled from the synagogues where they had previously worshiped. Christ’s all-inclusive message of peace, which transcends lines of race and nationality by the power of the Holy Spirit, sounded like treason and heresy to the powers that be. The peace of Christ became divisive, not because Jesus willed it, but because people were too wedded to their narrow ideological categories. Given the choice, the enemies of Christ would rather possess one small corner of a world divided than live together in a universe united.

It seems to me that little has changed in the two millennia between Jesus’ earthly ministry and ours. We continue to live in a world/country/state/city/church/family that is bitterly divided against itself along petty and selfish lines. We are taught to fear those who are different from us and hate those who are our enemies.

As Christians, we cannot afford to play these silly, destructive games. Through Christ, we have come to experience the great fire from the foundation of the universe, the Holy Spirit that pervades all creation.

Christ calls us today to live with this awareness of the great sacred fire, even though the majority of people around us doesn’t see or understand it. Our actions of grace and mercy may look like treason or heresy to those around us. We may find ourselves at odds with the members of our own family, but Christ calls us to a higher allegiance. It may be my patriotic duty as an American to cheer as bombs fall on the strongholds of ISIS, but it is my spiritual duty as a Christian to mourn the death of my enemies, brothers and sisters who were created in the image of God, just like me.

It seems ironic that our unity in Christ should put us at odds with our other allegiances in the world, but this is how it has been from the beginning. It is yet another paradox of the Christian faith that we are called to let stand. We cannot hope to understand or resolve the problem by human effort alone, but only as all of us come to recognize and honor the sacred fire that was kindled by Christ: the Holy Spirit that dwells in each of us.

Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From God, For All

This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read the biblical passage.

Let me tell you something about my brother: he’s a jerk. I mean, really. A world class jerk.

Everything in life has just been handed to him. He was always dad’s favorite: the eldest son, good looking, charming, and everything else you could want a son to be. Dad doted on him. He always bragged about him to his friends: “My son this… my son that…”

Well, what about me? Ain’t I his son, too? I’ve played second fiddle to my brother for my whole life. Both of us followed in Dad’s footsteps, taking over the family business. I work just as hard as he does, but he gets all the credit. He gets to be in charge and call all the shots.

But in these past few years, as Dad has gotten older and sicker, has my brother even lifted a finger to help take care of him? No. Not even once. That was my job.

I checked in on Dad every day. My wife went over to help Mom with the cooking and cleaning so she could be with Dad. And then, when the end came and Dad finally passed away, I was the one sitting by his bedside, holding his hand and saying prayers. My brother was off tending to the business. I had to send one of my kids to tell him that Dad had died.

At the funeral, he made a good show of grief and all the neighbors came by to comfort him. They talked about how proud my Dad was… of him. I got the obligatory handshakes and clichés like, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

But that’s not even the worst of it. After the funeral, when Dad’s estate was being settled, all of the inheritance went to him. Nothing was left for me or my family. Just him. Where was he when Dad got sick? Where was he when Dad died? Both of us run the family business, so why I didn’t I get at least a portion of the inheritance?

It was humiliating. I would be dependent on my jerk of an older brother for the rest of my life, without a nickel to my own name. I would live like a beggar, even though I work for a living.

I went to the village rabbi with this issue, but he wasn’t any help at all. He just quoted this rabbi and that rabbi, saying that oldest sons were entitled to the largest share of the family estate. It’s like they didn’t even care about what was right, only what was legal, according to the dictates of the Torah.

I had just about given up hope when I heard that this traveling rabbi named Jesus was coming to town. I thought to myself, “Aha! This guy can help me! This rabbi Jesus has a reputation for speaking his mind and telling it like it is. He stands up for the common people and fights for what is right.” Surely, I thought, he would be able to knock some sense into my brother and make him give me what’s coming to me.

So, Jesus came to town and it was amazing. He was healing people left and right. I saw things I had never seen before in my life. My brother was there. Jesus was preaching to the crowd about the justice and mercy of God. He said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

And I thought to myself, Yes! This is it! This is my golden opportunity! So I stood up and shouted, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.”

And then Jesus just stopped. He looked at me, looked over at my brother, and then back at me again. I just stood there, like I was frozen. All of a sudden, I felt kind of small. You know what I mean?

And then Jesus said to me, “Mister, what makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?” Turning to the crowd, he said, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”

And then he told us a story. It was about a rich man who owned a lot of property. For a minute, this made me really excited again because people like me knew all about these rich jerks. They made their money, not by hard work and sacrifice, but by exploiting the poverty of their fellow farmers who were down on their luck.

You see, if a farmer had a bad year, he would take out a loan from one of these big business moguls. As collateral, he would put up the only things he had to his name: his land and his body. If the next year was a good year, then everything was fine. But if it was another bad year for the harvest, the farmer would have to take out another loan. Eventually, the poor farmer would get so deep in debt, he could never hope to pay it off. The creditors would foreclose on the loan and the farmer would lose his land. If he was lucky, he could go back and work the land as a tenant, but all the profits would go to the creditor. If he was unlucky, the farmer and his family would become slaves. Either way, the end result was that the rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer. The whole system was exploitative.

So, I was glad that Jesus started by talking about these rich jerks and how they took advantage of poor, working folk like me. I hoped my brother was listening.

And then Jesus continued:

The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’

“Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’

“That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”

After that, Jesus went on to say some other things, but to be honest, I kind of tuned him out. Something about that story stuck with me. Actually, it made me uncomfortable (somebody told me later that Jesus has that effect on people a lot). I had a sneaking suspicion that Jesus wasn’t talking about my brother; he was talking about me.

It wasn’t so much what he said that bothered me; it was what he didn’t say. Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines on this, but it occurred to me that the rich farmer in the story never gave thanks to God for the big harvest he had just hauled in. He seemed to assume that this abundance of crops came from his own hand, as if he himself, and not God, had made the rain to fall and the sun to shine that year.

It reminded me of a passage from the Torah that we used to hear in synagogue services every year:

Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

The second thing that occurred to me from Jesus’ story is that the rich farmer seemed to want to hoard all of this wealth for himself and not share it with others. Didn’t he know that other people in his community, especially the families of those poor farmers he was exploiting, would probably go hungry that year? Didn’t he realize that God sends the rain and the sunshine on everyone so that so that all of us can enjoy the fruits of the earth together?

This reminded me of another passage of scripture we used to hear in synagogue: God spoke to our ancestor Abraham and said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

God blesses us, not so that we can be rich and comfortable, but so that we can be a blessing to other people in need. This is what we should be thinking about, as God’s chosen people.

And then it hit me: I was like that rich farmer in the story. The rich farmer was me, not my brother. I came to see Jesus that day, not to bear witness to what God was doing in our community, but to get something for myself. I thought it was my responsibility to make my brother do what I wanted him to do.

Not only that, I didn’t really care about what happened to my brother or his family; I just wanted to have what was owed to me. I kind of forgot that he’s my brother. We’re part of the same family, so a blessing for one of us is really a blessing for both of us. And my rotten, selfish attitude was only making it less likely that I would benefit from this mutual blessing in the future.

I’ve got to say, I didn’t get what I came for when I met Jesus that day, but I did get something. His words reminded me of what is most important in life: that we are family. My brother and I are sons of the same Father, and that means something. And you know, if you think about it, all of us human beings are kind of like brothers and sisters. We are the children of God, our Father in heaven. And the blessings that God pours out upon the earth are meant to be shared by all, not just a few of us. I’m grateful to Jesus for showing me that.

Ever since that day, things have been a little bit different between my brother and me. Not dramatically different, but a little bit. I eventually let drop the whole thing about splitting the inheritance. To be fair to my brother, he’s been okay about the whole thing too. When we fell on some hard times with the family business, my brother dipped into his inheritance to help the whole family out, so that we wouldn’t have to go one of those loan sharks. We wouldn’t have made it through if it hadn’t been for him.

Don’t get me wrong: he can still be a jerk sometimes, but he’s my brother after all.

I went to Jesus that day because I wanted to be proven right. Instead, Jesus showed me how wrong I’d been. More than that, he showed me that there is more to life than what I can get out of it. He showed me that I am loved, that I am part of a family, God’s family that reaches around the entire earth. And God’s desire is that all the children of this family would share generously in the abundant blessings that have been poured out for all.