But there are other sins that also require repentance, a seeking of forgiveness—sins that are bigger than any individual, more systemic, and therefore harder to address—sins that too many people take for granted as “just the way things are.” Racism is a sin like that. Heterosexism is that kind of sin. Xenophobia and Islamophobia can be institutional sins. And as we’ve seen with sexual harassment and abuse, though such sins are usually committed by an individual, it takes a whole culture that winks at it for it to continue to exist.
And in order to address those kinds of sins, we’re going to need more than just individual repentance and forgiveness—we’re going to need a kind of collective repentance that seeks the forgiveness of all those we’ve allowed to be hurt because we refused to say no to the system that allowed those injustices to endure. It’s going to take a new world, a new reign on earth—it’s going to require someone capable of lifting up every valley, of making every mountain low—someone capable of baptizing with the Holy Spirit.
By Derek Penwell
Early on in my ministry, I was convinced that every sermon should have grace at its heart. I still believe that, but now I think of grace in a different way. I had thought that grace means not only a light at the end of a sometimes dark tunnel but that grace is the light that makes everything in the tunnel shine, which is to say, I had thought that grace is a gift that always makes you feel better.
Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that the grace I believed in was a grace that affirmed my own middle-class, white existence. It meant that my faith didn’t require much of me—at least as far as everybody else was concerned. It was a grace that allowed me to focus on myself and the happiness of those closest to me, without ever prompting me to think too heavily about the non-middle class, white existence of others.
Grace, I thought for many years was my ticket to the party. The fact that I didn’t deserve that ticket was the practical limit of my understanding of grace. Other people were just going to have to claim their own ticket. I’d help as much as I could. But when it came down to it, you have your salvation, and I have mine.
But then I started reading the bible more thoroughly, and I saw a theme emerging: God actually cares about the people who weren’t born with all the advantages I enjoy. And no, I don’t mean God cares for everybody, so of course God cares for the disadvantaged. I mean, as I began to read scripture, it became increasingly clear that God holds a special place in God’s heart for those who are abused by everyone else: the poor, the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the weak, the outcast, the prisoner, the sick and despairing. God cares about them all in really intense ways; so much so, for example, that injustice is one of the primary reasons given for God’s anger with God’s people (e.g., Isaiah 1:15–17, Amos 2:6–7).
I remember being in a preaching class one time, when one of the African American students preached on a text from the prophet Amos. It came off to me as judgmental. “You’re not doing this or this. Moreover, you should have done this and this. As a consequence, God’s really mad.” And I remember saying something along the lines of, “Well, that’s fine and all. But where’s the grace in that sermon?”
All these years later, I think I have an idea about where to find grace in that student’s sermon. I think it goes without saying that there are people who show up in church who don’t have the slightest idea why they’re even there … except that they need to hear about a God who holds the hand of the anxious, who bears up those too weak to stand, who loves those who think themselves unlovable, who forgives the unforgivable. So yes, we need to comfort and console the frightened and grieving. We need a God of grace.
But there are also people who need to hear about a God who is furious with a world in which terrified refugees are turned away, a God whose indignation burns hot against those who would mistreat women and minorities, a God unafraid of the rulers of this world who abuse the poor, who lead cheers of hatred against Muslims and the undocumented.
There are all kinds of people who would love to hear about a God who raises an arm against injustice, who will not tolerate bigotry, who refuses to sit by while the work of the laborers is monetized in ways that only benefit the people in charge, who are desperate for a word from a God who is incensed with a world in which African America parents lie awake at night in fear of what might happen to their children on the way home from school.
If you happen to be one of the people kicked to the curb by the folks in charge, God’s outrage may just be what grace sounds like.
Yet, O Lord, you are our God; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
In other words, “You’ve always been the light in our world; shine for us now . . . now that everything seems so bleak and futile, and we only realistically are able to expect more of the same. Tear open the heavens, and come down, O Lord—down here where we are, where disease and violence take precious babies from the loving arms of their parents, where fire and gunshots destroy, where politicians take from the poor and dispossessed and give to the rich and powerful, and where we sit—our eyes searching for you in the Advent darkness, waiting for you to come down and take us by the hand once more, and shine a little light into our starless world."
So, maybe the idea of the Son of Man coming in glory has less to do with an apocalyptic blockbuster at some point way off in the future; maybe the glory of the Son of Man has more to do with God’s determination in Jesus to live among us, and know the lives we live. The incarnation—God becoming human—is the most profound act of empathy—God, literally, committing to live a life in our skin.
And if God does that for us, shouldn’t our lives be an attempt to imitate that empathy for others, to see not just ourselves in the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner . . . but the face of Jesus himself?
We welcome Rev. Mary Ann Lewis and Rev. Chuck Lewis to the pulpit for a special Celebration Sunday. Together they remind us of the importance of giving what we have to service, and the call to live and serve with abundance.
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The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned—Jesus is all around us. Our job isn’t to figure out how to impress him when he comes at some future awe-inspiring apocalypse. According to St. Benedict, according to our Gospel for this morning, our job is to wait at the door and welcome him right now in the sometimes dark moment we live in.
By Derek Penwell
When I get up on Sunday morning to deliver a sermon, everyone (I hope) understands that I’m an imperfect messenger. Preachers understand that somehow we have to preach better than we are. In that sense, then, the pulpit acts as a promontory from which a flawed emissary stands and points toward a destination on the horizon.
The tension in preaching comes from the realization that the preacher has rarely ever arrived at the destination toward which she points, but that she must continue to point nevertheless. The vocation of preaching, therefore, is a constant battle between conviction and humility. I’m pretty sure I know where we need to go, but there’s always the possibility that I may be wrong. To the extent that preachers fail to maintain that healthy tension, problems arise. If you’re too confident, you’ll never be open to course correction. If you’re too humble, you’ll never point in any particular direction consistently enough to give people a sense of where to go.
This tension is especially important when it comes to preaching privilege from the pulpit. I struggle with whether I can ever be an effective advocate for justice, all the while knowing that somehow I’m not doing what I’ve been called to do if I don’t try.
Here’s the problem I face each time I have to deal with issues of justice: I’m a straight, cis-gender, middle class white guy. From an American cultural perspective, I won the genetic lottery . . . just by being born. I am uncomfortably aware of my deficiencies when it comes to the prospect of preaching about the inequities of our social systems with authenticity. That is to say, preaching about the need to feed the hungry, protect the widow and the orphan, welcome the foreigner, embrace the differences of race and ethnicity is always something I do from the comfortable perch of my privilege, knowing that if everything continues to go the way it almost always has, I will invariably enjoy a certain amount of insulation from the the very situations on behalf of which I’m called upon to advocate.
So, why should anyone listen to anything I have to say on the issue of injustice—since, by and large, people very much like me are the ones who helped create and who continue to help sustain the systems that produced that injustice? To put it more simply, regardless of the message, I must continually come to terms with the fact that I am an imperfect messenger on issues of justice.
On the other hand, I’m also aware that if people like me don’t speak up about privilege, don’t question the power arrangements that often have injustice—as, if not a central organizing principle, then an uncanny amount of correlation—it will be almost impossible to undo those power arrangements.
Then again, even saying that I think I’m a part of the solution of deconstructing these systems of power risks being patronizing: “Y’all can’t do this without me.” The lack of humility about which I spoke a moment ago.
But if I never dare to speak the truth about my privilege and about the unjust systems that oppress others (but which implicitly benefit me) because doing so seems hypocritical, I become a silent accomplice. I become an enabler of such a system. See above: The lack of confidence.
Here’s where a really smart preacher might draw things together in a way that successfully navigates the inherent pitfalls of speaking from the pulpit about privilege. But I’m not that smart. I don’t have an algorithm that helps me to weigh all the factors, sustain the tension, and unfailingly make the right choices. I have only my good intentions, which probably aren’t enough. But most of the time, they’re all I’ve got.
And so I wrestle. I try to do the right thing, knowing that I may never know if I’m doing it correctly. My real hope lies in the belief that my intense desire to negotiate the problems of privilege from the pulpit is itself a faltering step in the right direction. But there’s always the possibility that I may be wrong.
What if we committed ourselves to a vision of the world in which the forgotten and cast aside are remembered and brought back into the fold.
A world in which those who’ve been downsized, those without healthcare, those who’ve graduated from college but have a difficult time seeing a future that holds a place for them . . . are no longer afterthoughts in our political life, but children of God on whose behalf we need to find our voices.
A world in which the color of one’s skin or the country of one’s birth or the gender of one’s love interests aren’t the characteristics by which people are excluded, but are the very things we lift up and celebrate as God’s gifts to us.
This isn’t optional behavior to get sorted out after we get the right bumper-stickers; it’s the very purpose of the life to which Jesus calls us.
The practical nature of love, as Jesus conceives it in this passage, is the thing that holds all the rest of it together. 'On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.' In other words, none of the other commandments make any sense if love fails to provide a vision of what God intends for the world.
None of the rest of it matters if we stand idly by while white supremacists march, spreading their message of hatred and fear; or if we watch silently as a ten-year-old girl with cerebral palsy seeking treatment gets stalked by immigration authorities; or if upon hearing all the #MeToo stories of women being sexually harassed and assaulted we don’t reflect on our own complicity and seek to change the culture that for too long has passively looked the other way.
In observance of Stewardship Month at DBCC, Jason Matthews shares just what this community has meant to him.
It’s too easy to want to be in control—to want a veto on who gets through the doors and who has to stand on the outside looking in. It’s nice to be the gatekeepers.
Unfortunately, though, if Jesus is to be believed, we who’ve been in charge for so long haven’t done a very good job at keeping the gates. We’ve too often spurned the gifts brought to us by those who didn’t measure up to our qualifications, wanting to make sure that they meet our exacting standards before God could ever love them. It’s not right.
Servants are still sent to the vineyard. And these servants still cry out against the violent and the unjust caretakers. There are still servants around who proclaim that God isn’t ok with the ways the people in power continue to look out for their own interests ahead of the well-being of the vineyard.
Because here’s the thing: people are still being neglected in the vineyard at the hands of those in charge, those who’ve been entrusted to protect the vulnerable and the powerless, to care for the widow and the orphan, to welcome the stranger, to bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted, and to make certain that no one takes advantage of those who’re always the targets of wicked: children, the elderly, the poor, the sick, and those on the margins.
By Derek Penwell
I believe because I have to believe. I have to believe because life doesn’t make any sense to me otherwise. To say I believe, however, leaves open the question of the object of my belief. That is to say, what do I believe? I believe that God is behind all of this in some way that makes sense to God, even if it escapes me.
I know I’m supposed to have it all together, to have it systematized in some way that will hold up to scrutiny. Yet, I’m secretly afraid, I suppose, that if I interrogate my reasons for belief too vigorously, those reasons will remain just enough beyond my reach to make me wonder, in times of darkness, whether they make sense, or even ought to be considered reasons at all.
Even so, let me venture into the fray with a few things that do make sense to me. These are neither systematic nor exhaustive, merely suggestive:
I believe that the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels has only a passing acquaintance with the Jesus we encounter in popular Christianity.
I believe that much of popular Christianity (mesmerized as it is by the atomic individual) is designed to distract middle-class white Christians from the fact that they drive Mercedes Benzes, inflict violence on people who happen to be born under different flags, and ignore the cry for justice from the margins.
I believe that Christianity operates more often than not as a mechanism for affirming what people already believe—before they ever encounter the subversive Jesus of the Gospels.
I believe that the ministry of the Jesus who died abandoned and alone is a terrible model for what most people think of as "church growth."
I believe that heaven is God’s jurisdiction; my responsibilities require me to be present and to work here and now.
I believe that if what you believe doesn’t make somebody mad, you’re not doing it right. Jesus wasn’t killed because he was nice.
I believe that in a world concerned only with saying yes, being taught to say no is the most loving thing that can happen to us.
I believe the church needs to quit clinging to its life as if its life were an end in itself, and needs to start getting comfortable with the notion that the church belongs to God—and God always gets what God wants.
I believe that Christian belief is only intelligible, only interesting, if it is embodied in a community of people committed to living and, if necessary, dying like Jesus.
It’s not much, but it helps me hang on.
Jesus says, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going to enter the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
Interesting that Jesus once again lets in the folks whom the people in power have constructed so many institutional barriers to keep out. The blind, the lame, the tax collectors, the prostitutes. Jesus restores access to God, and in the process restores justice.
The problem, though, is that Jesus shouldn’t have to restore justice. Justice should already be present. God has left people in charge, stewards whose responsibility it is to see that justice gets done. The religious leaders aren’t just supposed to talk the talk about justice; they’re supposed to walk the walk of justice. And they’ve failed miserably.
Jesus calls his followers to play by a different set of rules—not one that surrenders, but one that requires great imagination and courage to shine a bright light on an oppressive system that thinks violence and resignation are the only possible options, to subvert an arrangement that only understands domination and submission, to challenge the human habit of thinking in binaries.
But if I trusted that people love me enough to tell me the truth—even though that’s sometimes hard to hear—that would be something to be a part of, wouldn’t it?
Wouldn’t we all love to be part of a community where trust was the defining characteristic—where I could be who I really am, without fear that my honesty about myself would be thrown back in my face, without fear that someone was hatching a plan to shame me or run me out?
What would it be like to be part of a community where each sheep is important enough to God (and to the rest of the flock) not to be left behind?
By Derek Penwell
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the Dreamers (DACA—Deferred Action for Child Arrivals), and the response to them by some in the government. The push to remove foreign born children who were brought to this country as children on the part of politicians who claim to be Christian strikes me as profoundly problematic.
Let’s say you’re walking down the street and you see a man unconscious in the middle of a busy intersection. He looks lost and helpless, unable to move out of the path of oncoming traffic. What do you do?
Well, you have a few options:
- You could initiate an especially aggressive background check to make sure he’s a man worth saving, and then, as a condition of his safe rescue, require him to sign a statement swearing his intentions toward you are innocent.
- You could await confirmation of his country of origin, in order to ensure that you don’t save the wrong kind of person.
- You could seek to ascertain his religious affiliation, promising to help him if his religious commitments align with ones you find acceptable.
- You could decry the general state of lawlessness that produces situations in which people are abandoned in less than safe conditions, vowing to write a strongly worded letter to somebody in authority, or to vote for someone who speaks about these kinds of situations with the requisite forcefulness.
- You could feel sorry for him, but remember all the other responsibilities you have that would prevent you from taking action to save him.
- You could argue that there are many more people in dangerous situations that you’ve already walked past, and that if you help this one guy, it would be tantamount to turning your back on the imperiled people who (let’s be honest) you’ve already turned your back on.
- You could argue that helping this man in trouble would set a bad precedent, only incentivizing the kind of lax oversight that allowed him to be abandoned in the middle of a busy intersection in the first place.
- You could go on cable T.V. or Twitter to convince the world that with all the other things we have on our plate, saving stranded people is a distraction we can’t afford.
Or, you could get him out of harm’s way, and then worry about getting the other stuff sorted out—trusting that the system in place for screening imperiled people, which has an almost flawless track record for getting it right, will do its job.
Of course, if you happen to follow Jesus, you’ve already bumped into a similar scenario in Luke 10—the Good Samaritan. Part of the biting commentary implicit in the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the religious leaders in the story—which is to say, the people who, as a function of their faith, have the biggest responsibility to set aside their own fears to help the abandoned stranger—are the ones quickest to ignore the man lying exposed in the street.
So, here’s my question as I reflect on the current DACA crisis: How it is that some Christians can so unselfconsciously bear to reenact the parable of the Good Samaritan, having apparently learned all the wrong lessons from it?
Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan coming to the aid of a stranger in answer to the question: Who is my neighbor? The final answer to that questions turns out not to be the religious leaders who ignore the abandoned man’s plight, but the despised Samaritan. I imagine Jesus didn’t get a lot of amens after telling that story. Too radical. Insufficiently censorious of a person everyone knew didn’t have any rightful claim to God’s favor.
The reason Jesus’ story was so scandalous when it was told was because it contrasted the self-serving neglect of the religious elite with the compassion of a Samaritan—a group of religious rivals to whom Jesus’ listeners would have reflexively felt superior.
A few things emerge from this parable that seem especially appropriate to remember as we decide how to treat Dreamers fighting for the only home many of them have ever known:
- No matter your religious credentials, the test of your faith is not your doctrinal purity, but how you treat others—especially those who are most vulnerable.
- Regardless of the nature of your fear, the primary responsibility of those who follow Jesus (especially leaders) is to care for the powerless.
- Christians don’t get to assume as a result of their faith commitments that they possess some kind of superiority to foreigners.
- In short, when in doubt, embrace your fears and help anyway.
Because Paul’s not interested in making people into better individuals. Paul’s not seeking to bolster anyone’s self-image.
No, what Paul is about, what worship is about is making us into a community of people committed to living like Jesus. And living like Jesus isn’t me, just as I am, with a little bit more niceness. Living like Jesus isn’t a matter of fine-tuning my otherwise pleasant demeanor. Living like Jesus isn’t a strategy; it’s a complete reorientation to reality in the world God desires to create—a world where dreamers don’t have to fear that they’ll wake up to find that the people in the only home they’ve ever known don’t want them anymore, a world where trans people aren’t singled out for ridicule and persecution by their own government, a world where women are masters of their own bodies—not subject to the capricious edicts of males.
You see, worship involves conflict with the way the powers and principalities attempt to rule this world, which too often centers on keeping the powers and principalities in charge, and everyone else scrambling to hold it together.
Worship is about reimagining the world the way God does—a place of peace and justice where no one has to go to bed at night fearing a knock on the door, the collection agent on the other end of the line, the bully at the end of the hall, or the sheriff and his 'tent city.'
And once you eat this meal, no one can ever again be expendable. Once you sit at this table, there are no more untouchables.
No more hating people, just because society tells us it’s ok to hate them. No more ignoring people different from us, just because we have laws that allow us to do that. No more being silent when the voices of hatred and fear are raised against our friends and neighbors. No more looking the other way because we’re not affected . . . because we are affected, just as long as any of our human family are affected.