The Ten Commandments of Jesus: 3. Love Your Enemies

Scripture: Matthew 5:43-48

One day, Jesus was among the crowds teaching, and someone asked him a question.  “Teacher,” this man said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

The crowds nodded and the man who had asked the question paused for a moment to process this, and then he spoke up again: “And who is my neighbor?”  And Jesus launched into a story, the story of the Good Samaritan.[1]

On another day, Jesus was among the crowds teaching, and he taught them, “Love your enemies, and pray for those that persecute you.”  But this time there was no one who stood up and said, “But teacher, who is my enemy?”

Maybe they thought it was obvious.

But you see, I like to think I’m the kind of person who doesn’t have any enemies.

People may annoy me or make me angry sometimes, but to my knowledge, no one is actively persecuting me.  No one, as far as I know, is out to get me.  In fact, when I read the Psalms and try to pray them, sometimes all their talk of God destroying the Psalmist’s enemies makes me a little uncomfortable.  In general, I like to think that I’m pretty unobjectionable and easy-to-get-along-with, the kind of person who doesn’t make a worthwhile enemy.

The obvious enemy in Jesus’ day would have been the Roman Empire and the people who represented it: the soldiers and governors and tax collectors who oppressed the poor peasants of Judea and Galilee.  In those days the enemy was all around you, and the enemy wanted peace and prosperity at your expense.  They would stop at nothing to maintain order and power, putting down any attempts to revolt and making sure you weren’t entirely free.  We don’t have the Roman Empire to contend with now—in fact, if anyone is the Roman Empire, it’s probably us.  But we do have countries in this world with whom we are in conflict, who threaten our sense of peace and security sometimes, like Iran, maybe, and North Korea.  So maybe, if I had to pick an answer, I could say that they are my enemies.

But then, I don’t know.  Their governments may have their issues with my governments, but I certainly don’t have anything against the average citizen of Iran or North Korea.  Maybe if the conflict felt closer, if it was something I could see and feel as part of my everyday life, if I was Palestinian, for example, or if I were Israeli, then it would be different.  As it is, I don’t really feel like any of those places or their people is my enemy.

The other obvious enemy, less in Jesus’ day than in Matthew’s and Luke’s and that of the people they are writing for, is the people who are persecuting the early Christians.  These people would not have represented one particular government or group of people; they were the ones who chose to be the bad guys and do bad things to innocent people.  And so I think, what about Al Qaeda or ISIS?  Are they my enemy?  Yes, I would probably consider them that.  They are terrorists, and the idea that I might be supposed to love a terrorist chafes.  It seems wrong, almost, which loving your enemies is supposed to.

And yet, in my normal, everyday life, Al Qaeda and ISIS are more of an idea than a tangible reality.  I know I’m lucky for that.  I didn’t lose a loved one in 9-11 or fighting in the military against them.  But in a sense, even though those are some of the people in the world I would find it most objectionable to love, the idea of loving them is a pretty abstract thing.  Most of them don’t have faces, to me.  And in a way that makes it easier.  I can love them, in theory, from afar, while my government continues to send drones to attack their strongholds.  God forbid that love ever truly be tested.

I remember reading once—and I admit I can’t for the life of me remember where—about a counselor who worked in a refugee camp with people who were fleeing a war.  The people she met there had truly seen the horrors and brokenness of this world up close, and she was prepared for some pretty deep stuff.  But in the end, she discovered, the things people wanted to talk about weren’t the deep horrors and brokenness of this world.  They wanted to talk about so-and-so, who stole their boyfriend, and things like that.

So I can imagine that when Jesus told those crowds that day to love your enemies, for many of the people gathered there, it wasn’t the Roman Empire or its soldiers who immediately sprang to mind.  It was their average, everyday enemies.  The husband who beat them or the neighbor who made life hard for them or the sister Mom always liked best.

Maybe, most of the time, that’s really who my enemy is—not the person who abstractly represents the darkest evil to me, but the person it’s really easy to hate up close.

As I’ve already told you, I like to think I’m not the kind of person who has THAT kind of enemy.

But if I’m honest, there are a few who come to mind from over the years.  There was the sixth-grade boy at my bus stop when I was in fifth grade who bullied me so mercilessly every morning that finally my mother had to drive me to another bus stop.  Then there was the professor who came to class unprepared every day, who failed me on an assignment for misunderstanding the directions, and then acted like I was an idiot when I tried to talk to him about it.  And there was the coworker who criticized everything I did to the point of making me cry and who told everyone else that I wasn’t even trying.

To say that I loved any of those people would have been, at the least, an overstatement.

Then, of course, there are all the people here and there who simply seem to be trying to make my life harder on any particular day, like the driver trying to steal my right-of-way, or like the guy who snapped at me at Wegman’s the other day for trailing him too closely with my cart. (He was going really slow.)

When Jesus said to love your enemies, no one asked him to specify, and he didn’t get to tell a story.  But I imagine that if they did and if he had, the moral would have been that my enemy is whoever I am finding it hardest to love at any particular time.

“Love that person,” Jesus tells us.

But what does he mean by love?

Don’t get me wrong, I know what it means to love people, like my family, and my spouse, and my friends—albeit imperfectly.  I know that it means wanting what is good for them, and being there for them, possibly sacrificing for them, praying for God to help them, and appreciating them for all the things that are good about them, even if they are imperfect, too.  It’s just that surely love must mean something different when it comes to someone I actually…hate.

Maybe, in this case, love means staying out of the way.  Maybe love means not actively wishing for them to get fired, or run over.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Jesus is having any of that.  When he tells us to pray for the people who persecute us, he’s telling us to do the same thing we would do for a loved one, for them.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, as reminder, later died at the hand of the Nazis, once wrote that any sacrifice you would make for your beloved, you should be willing to make for your enemy.[2]

Could I really imagine that?  Could you?

One thing I’ll say about Jesus, he never sets the bar low.

I did get to practice this once, which is probably far less than I have had the opportunity.  My enemy, on this particular day, was a certain politician.  I won’t get into too many specifics here except to say it wasn’t Donald Trump.  Of course this politician had no idea who I was, and didn’t attack me personally.  I don’t even try to wrap up my sense of well-being too closely with the acts of politicians, but this guy happened to do something that made me really, really mad.  So mad I could feel the anger bubbling up inside of me.

I was so mad I couldn’t sit still, and I had to get up and move.  So I took a walk in the woods, the place I always went when I needed to process something or work something out for myself.  I walked, and I felt angry, and I remembered Jesus’ commandment.  Love your enemies.  Pray for them.

I realized this person was my enemy.  Not that I was planning to physically fight against him or take him down or sabotage his career, or do anything except maybe write a very pointed email, but it didn’t matter.  The way I felt, that day, he was my enemy.

Another thing Dietrich Bonhoeffer says is that the only enemies a Christian should have are those people who hate us, since we shouldn’t go around hating anyone.  All I can say is that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a better person than me.[3]

As I walked and worked to calm myself down, I tried to pray for him.  Only I realized I wasn’t really sure how.  The idea of praying that he would change and somehow come around to see things my way, the good way, seemed a little self-righteous, even if I was right.  I could not, at that point, muster any words to ask God to bless this person and bring him all sorts of good things in life, like reelection.

So what I did is simply try to remind myself that this was a person who probably loved his wife and children.  A person who, probably, was trying to do his best, as much as I felt that left to be desired.  I don’t know if that’s the kind of prayer Jesus meant, but it did calm me down a little.  And it did humble me a little.  Perhaps this person was not as bad as I had initially assumed, and perhaps also, I was not as good.

“Praying for our enemies,” one commentator wrote, “involves a serious attempt to see them from God’s point of view.”[4]  And this is a God who loves my enemy as much as my enemy’s enemy, that is to say, me.  A God who created us both in God’s image.

Which brings us to the why of it all—why Jesus commanded this impossible-seeming commandment.

Some might say that it is to change them: that they will see our ways and be won over.  There’s something very Taming of the Shrew about that—the idea that we might kill someone with kindness, and make them who we want them to be.  But again, the danger here is that of assuming that what my enemy needs to change into is something more like me.  Maybe sometimes that is the case.  I’m not a terrorist, so I think it would be a good thing if terrorists were more like me.  On the other hand, when it comes to sometimes-enemies like liberals and conversatives, atheists and fundamentalists, gun nuts and Brady campaigners, protestors and police—it must be relatively rare that I am so wholly on the side of good and my enemy is so wholly on the side of evil that what my enemy needs most is to be on my side.

Some might say it is to defeat them: that if our enemy doesn’t see the light, at least others will, and that justice will prevail.  It does indeed seem to work this way, sometimes.  As Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”  The nonviolence and love for enemy that he espoused were an important part of the success the civil rights movement of the 1960s had, although we do still have a long way to go.   In fact, proponents of nonviolent resistance—including Jesus—might say that it is the only way to really win.

And yet winning is not guaranteed, and not all people who have tried to love their enemy through nonviolent resistance have defeated them in this life.  “Love,” that same commentator wrote, “is not a weapon or a tool.”

Rather, we should love them because God loves them.  We should love them because God sends rain and sun on both the just and the unjust, rain for growth and abundance and sun for warmth and joy.  We should love them because God provides those things to us, because God has given us more grace than we deserve, and who are we to withhold that grace from others?

We should love them because it’s by doing so that we begin to reflect, a little more, the image of God.  We should love them because, by doing so, we experience a little bit more of what salvation means.

I don’t kid myself that this is an easy thing to do, that just because Jesus commanded it I can just say, “Well, all right then, I’ll love my enemies!”  Maybe love is comprised of a lot of biting my tongue, and a lot of swallowing my pride, and a lot of prayers for patience.  Maybe it’s praying prayers that I don’t yet mean, for someone’s well-being, in faith that someday I might.  And maybe it’s a lot of imagining that perhaps that person I’m inclined to hate is more like me than I’d ever care to admit.

Those things might not be perfect love, love the way God loves, but they are a start.

And meanwhile that grace by which God sends us sun and rain and family and food and community, that grace that is for all of us, is also the grace that softens our hearts and changes us.  Even us, with all our enemies.

[1] Luke 10:25-37

[2] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 148

[3] Cost of Discipleship, p. 147-148

[4] Interpretation: Matthew, p. 59

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The Ten Commandments of Jesus: 2. Do Unto Others

Scripture: Matthew 7:7-12

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; this is the law and the prophets.

Sometimes I sit down to start writing a sermon and I think, this is going to be a lot harder than I realized.

This is one of those times.

It’s the Golden Rule: it should be easy!  I memorized the Golden Rule in Sunday School growing up, as I’m sure many of you who attended Sunday School did.  The day we learned about it our teacher handed out rulers with the Golden Rule written on them.  Rulers, get it?  I think my parents probably still have that somewhere.  But that’s the thing: it’s a teaching so basic, so fundamental, as to hardly need any expounding upon.  And on the other hand it’s so general, so wide open, that any good deed in the world could potentially serve as an illustration.

Sometimes I like to dig into the text and the context and tell you why we’ve been understanding something seemingly simple wrong all this time, but no such luck.  Even Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, doesn’t give us a lot of context.  In Luke, the Golden Rule goes along with the stuff about loving your enemies, which is a little more helpful—do unto others even when they don’t do unto you, he seems to say.  In Matthew, even though we read a few of the verses that come before, the Golden Rule isn’t really explicitly connected to them.  Here even Jesus seems to acknowledge that it stands on its own, just like we memorized it in Sunday School.

And then there is its universality: it’s no secret that some form of this teaching exists in every major world religion, and probably a bunch of the minor ones, as well.  You might read in the Hindu Mahabharata: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to others.”  Or in the Analects of Confucius: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.”  Or from the Jain tradition: “A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated.” [1]  Some scholars would claim that Jesus was the first to phrase the commandment in the positive, though I don’t know if that’s true; others say it doesn’t really matter, because if you don’t want someone to not do something, you want them to do something, and vice versa.

There’s a great story from the Jewish tradition of a so-called heathen who came to the rabbi Shammai and asked him to help him convert.  “Make me a proselyte,” he said, “on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.”  Perhaps his request wasn’t so sincere after all.  In any case, rabbi Shammai wasn’t impressed and he shooed the man away with a stick.  Not so quickly discouraged, our would-be convert decided to try his luck with rabbi Hillel.  He came to the rabbi and repeated his request: “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.”  Rabbi Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.”[2]

In other words, this is a teaching or commandment of Jesus that transcends even Jesus.  And of course, a person doesn’t have to be religious at all to live by this rule.  It’s a commandment that is apparently so embedded in the human moral psyche, as to, again, need little expounding upon.

It’s one of those days where I feel like maybe I should just read the text again and we can all go home early.

But I’m not.  Because the thing about the Golden Rule is that it is really simple, but it’s maybe deceptively simple.  It’s easy to memorize, but, of course, a lot harder to live out.

Maybe that’s partly because it’s a rule so old and well-known that we feel free to reinterpret it.  When I went to my lectionary group this week and told my colleagues I was preaching on the Golden Rule, one of them said, jokingly, “Do unto others before they do unto you?”  That’s one option.  The most common misquote I found on the internet was one that I’m afraid might have actually been sincere: “Do unto others as they do unto you.”  Well, that’s certainly less morally demanding of us.  We can misquote this particular teaching to justify basic reciprocity, at best, and preemptive violence, at worst.

Even when we don’t mangle the quote, we can still miss its intention.  Does your alcoholic coworker want to go out for drinks?  Well, nobody likes to drink alone!  Do unto others, right?  Does a needy friend demand all of your time?  Somewhere, there’s a line between doing unto others and just getting sucked in.

But forget all that: I’ll assume that most of us here want to be faithful to Jesus’ original teaching and that we’re also capable of some nuance in applying it.  But then the thing is that maybe it’s easy to believe that we’re fulfilling the Golden Rule as long as we go through life not hurting other people and generally being nice and pleasant to them.  Isn’t it nice that that’s all Jesus asks of us?  That that’s what sums up everything else?  Be nice to people and don’t hurt them?

I mean, it’s a start.  The problem is that Jesus usually demands more of us than that.  And I think this commandment does, too.

If we take it to heart, I think what this commandment asks us to do is to go through life open to other people.

It doesn’t necessarily say to put others before ourselves; it doesn’t even say to love our neighbors as ourselves, although those two teachings of Jesus go hand in hand.  But it does demand that we cultivate a practice of empathy: that we notice the “others” around us, for one, and that we take the time to imagine ourselves in their shoes.

One time in college I went grocery shopping with a friend of mine, and he was buying something for a canned food drive that was going on at the time.  I stood with him in front of a shelf full of canned foods surveying the options, and he asked me, “What would you want to eat?”

And then he added, “Not just if you didn’t have a choice.”

You know, I hope before then I wouldn’t just have bought the cheapest thing on the shelf feeling comfortable that the recipient would be grateful for anything—but I’m not sure I’d ever explicitly asked myself that question before.  I think about that sometimes now.  I think about it once in a while when I’m at Safeway or Target getting something for our food basket or a health kit.  What would I buy for myself?  What would I actually like to receive?

But the truth is there are so many times when other people and what they need aren’t the first thing on my mind.  When I’m in too much of a hurry to notice the people around me on my walk home from church.  When I’m too preoccupied with something going on in my own life to really listen to a friend.  When my sense of justice is too offended by the guy who cut me off in traffic to let it go and think that he might be having a hard day, too.

Can I imagine myself as the person in need on the street corner?  Can I imagine myself feeling the same way that friend is?  Could I imagine myself also feeling frustrated and harried as I sat in traffic?

If I’m going to do unto others, I have to be able to imagine myself as “the other.”

There is another potential pitfall here, because maybe “the other” does not always want exactly the same thing as me. Some people want time to process after an argument, some people want to talk it out right away.  Some people want to be visited in the hospital when they’re sick, some people want to be left alone.  Some people want a surprise party for their 50th birthday, some people would just die.  Things get even more complicated when you factor in different cultural expectations: something we would absolutely want and expect someone else to do for us might end up being not only unappreciated but even offensive!  To imagine myself in someone else’s shoes doesn’t mean imagining that they are exactly like me.  It means making an effort to understand them as they are.

Of course, we don’t always have the time to figure that all out, especially when it comes to spontaneously helping a stranger. But it’s like John Wesley said: Christian perfection doesn’t mean having perfect knowledge and never making mistakes.  Perfection comes when, by God’s grace, everything we do is done out of love.  The rest, I think, can generally be worked out along the way, as long as we are open to re-learning and re-assessing our actions based on what we learn.

For example, there’s a story that was going around in the news not too long ago about a young woman from Detroit named Veronika Scott who got an assignment in a product design class she was taking “to create something that people really needed.”

She had recently noticed a homeless person sleeping in a playground right across the street from a shelter, and begun to realize that there may be certain reasons someone might not want to stay in a shelter, like maintaining a sense of independence.  Those people still need to survive and be warm.  So Veronika’s idea was to make a sleeping bag coat: a warm coat that folds out to become a sleeping bag and is one less thing for a person on the streets to carry around.  So far, a pretty good example of doing unto others, right?

But when Veronika took a finished coat back to the local shelter to try it out, one of the women yelled at her: “We don’t need coats,” she said, “we need jobs.”

Well, Veronika could have responded to that in a lot of ways: she could have gotten defensive about her good intentions.  She could have shrugged it off and assumed she knew what people needed.  But instead, she listened.  And as her burgeoning coat business took off, she started hiring women and men, from local shelters to work there and be trained to make coats.[3]

Maybe it’s not just “do unto others as you would have them do unto you…” Maybe it’s “do unto others as you would have them do unto you…if you knew what it was like to be them.”

And that’s slightly less simple than just an adage that’s easy to memorize in Sunday School, and it takes a little more awareness, and a little more listening, and a little more openness to the different experiences of the people around us.

So how would you do unto others as you would have them do unto you, when it comes to that needy friend?  That universally disliked coworker?  The panhandler you always pass on the street, or the people sleeping outside our church doors?  That neighbor who is fighting cancer?  The refugees whose pictures we see in the news?

Maybe there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer in any of these situations, but if our eyes are open to the people around us and we’re doing our best to be there, I’m pretty sure we’re on the right track.

One of the best examples I’ve seen recently of the Golden Rule lived out in everyday life comes right out of this church.  I’m sure there are many more, but this is one that struck me.  It was one Sunday this fall when the subject of our small group discussion for the day happened to be becoming aware of and doing something to meet the needs right around you.

Dan, who was relatively new at that point, mentioned that he had been noticing a woman in his apartment building who looked like she needed some help.  He didn’t specifically know what kind of help that might be—if I’m correct, he hadn’t spoken to her much beyond a few words in the elevator.  He said she was in a bathrobe, in the elevator, looking kind of generally like she wasn’t doing that well.

Dan left that discussion resolved to talk to her and see what he could do.

It turned out she was being evicted the next day.  Her apartment was a mess—not at all packed and ready to go, wherever she might be going.  So Dan invited her over for breakfast that next morning, and he called Jon and me to come over, and Oscar, who had also been in small group the day before, was there to help too, and together, we packed and moved Dan’s neighbor’s things.

It might not have been anything that changed the course of this woman’s future—she left that day to try to find a new apartment, and we don’t know where she ended up.  But I do think of all the times I’ve passed someone by who might need help, and the times I haven’t wanted to intrude, and I think about the fact that if Dan hadn’t had eyes open to see a literal neighbor in need and the resolve to do something about it, his neighbor would have had no one.  And that was a reminder and an inspiration to me—as well as a reminder of how God is at work among the people who gather together to be the church.

“In everything,” says Jesus, “in everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

It’s a pretty simple commandment to live by, if our eyes and our hearts are open.

[1] http://www.religioustolerance.org/reciproc2.htm

[2] Shabbath, 31a, quoted in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, p. 213-214

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/14/empowerment-plan_n_3749958.html

The Ten Commandments of Jesus: 1. Seek Forgiveness

Scripture: Matthew 5:21-26

I told you all at one point in the fall that some time ago, I found myself getting frustrated with some of the ways that being a good Christian and being a good pastor and being a good church were starting to feel really complicated.  I found myself really wanting to just get back to the basics.  What does it really mean, at the core, to follow Jesus?  If I call myself a follower of Jesus, what is my rule of life?

So I found myself going back to the Gospels and reading through them and keeping track of all the things that Jesus just straight-out, directly told us to do.  Not lessons from his parables, with all their holy ambiguity and the way they leave us something to chew on.  Not answers to the trick questions the scribes and lawyers asked, or anything else that was too contextual to be universal.  Not even what it meant to follow Jesus’ example, because let’s face it, the guy can heal people and multiply food, which are skills I have yet to master.

I don’t mean that Jesus’ parables and conversations and example aren’t important.  I really think they are.  Really, really.  Faith is more than a checklist—but sometimes I just want a checklist, so that’s what I went searching for.

And that’s how I came to the Ten Commandments of Jesus.  The first thing I have to say about the Ten Commandments of Jesus is that I made them up.  Not out of nowhere, clearly.  But Jesus didn’t have a set of teachings he called the Ten Commandments.  He probably would have been happy if people were good at following the old ones.

So in this series you might suspect that I’ve left some things out, and that’s true.  For example, I left out “thou shalt not lust,” a teaching that comes directly after the passage we just heard.  Jesus said it, directly, I just thought maybe that could be part of a different sermon series sometime.  You also won’t find any commandments to feed the hungry and visit the sick and clothe the naked, at least not directly.  Why?  Because that’s part of the parable of the sheep and the goats.  Pretty fundamental, but again, something for a different series.  I was pretty unscientific, really.  Most, but not all, of the teachings I chose come from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew or Luke’s parallel, the Sermon on the Plain.   If you have any questions about my completely subjective choices to include things or leave them out, then I’ll just refer you back to my source (the Bible) and you can decide for yourself.

But these are all things that Jesus said, and they are all things he expects his followers to do.  And so we come to commandment #1: Seek Forgiveness.

I remember the first time I was notably extended forgiveness.  I’m sure it wasn’t the first time.  I’m sure, for instance, my parents had forgiven me a lot by then.  But I was twelve, and I was in a combined sixth-grade class at my elementary school which was set up as two rooms with a divider, and sometimes we did stuff as two separate classes, and sometimes we did stuff together.  I liked my teacher, on my side of the divider, but my friends and I decided for no real reason that we didn’t like Mr. Young, the teacher on the other side.

One afternoon as buses were being called my friends and I sat around our little table on our side of the room making fun of Mr. Young.  We thought we were pretty cool and funny.  The divider was closed that afternoon, but not all the way.  It was just before it was time to go that Mr. Young’s face appeared in the doorway, and he said, “Girls, I’ve heard everything you’re saying, and I’m not happy about it.”

Imagine the feeling of a twelve-year-old goody-two-shoes as I heard those words, and the thoughts the came to mind: I did something bad.  I’m really in trouble now.  But that was all Mr. Young said, and then he was gone.

I was sure the year was ruined.  But I did know what I had to do, so I went home that afternoon and I wrote an apology letter, and I brought it in the next day for my friends to sign, and we left it on Mr. Young’s desk.  That afternoon we got a note back from him, and it simply read, “Girls, I got your note, and I forgive you.”

Twenty years later, I still remember that feeling of relief, and gratefulness, and unworthiness, of being forgiven.  I think that is what grace feels like.

When Jesus first comes on the scene, after his baptism and as he’s about to begin his ministry, do you know what his first words are?  Well, it’s different in each Gospel, but in Matthew (and it’s similar in Mark) they are Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.

This is a commandment that’s direct and universal, though it’s not necessarily clear what we need to repent of, or how.  Still, following Jesus begins with repentance, which I think is another way of saying that the Christian life begins with receiving grace.  Jesus wants us to turn to God and confess the ways that we have fallen short of being the faithful and loving people God created us to be, and accept the grace that God gives us to start over.

But.

Turning to God is all well and good if the sin I am confessing is a victimless, or anonymous, one, or maybe a sin of omission, like I know I should be giving more money away and spending less of it at Starbucks, or if I repent of my carbon footprint.  When we’ve done something to hurt someone, confessing our sin to God isn’t enough.  Jesus isn’t just talking about repentance in the abstract, he’s talking about working it out in real life, which he makes clear in today’s Scripture passage.

And he has high standards for what counts as “doing something to hurt someone.”  To illustrate, he takes a commandment—one of the original ten—that we’re all familiar with: “thou shalt not murder.”  It seems simple enough.  If we’re going for a checklist, then hopefully there at least is a box all of us can check off.  But to Jesus the literal meaning of this commandment doesn’t really get at the heart of things.  If we take the commandment seriously, it’s not just “don’t bump someone off.”  Live well together, says Jesus.  Don’t not murder but harbor thoughts of vengeance and contempt for someone.  Don’t not murder but still lash out in anger.  Don’t not murder but also insult someone and call them a fool, or something worse.  I’ve accidentally read enough internet comment sections to know that there is one way we are falling down on this commandment as a society.

I think some of us might want to object here that it’s fundamentally not as bad to be angry at someone as it is to actually murder them, and I agree, and I want to say that Jesus would even agree.   But he does want to hold us to a higher level.  Don’t just not kill each other—treat each other well.

But of course we don’t always treat each other well.  We do harbor anger towards each other and it does come out in our actions.  We do call each other names.  We resent each other’s successes.  We don’t help each other when we could.  We do a lot of other worse things to each other, sometimes.

But when we do, Jesus expects us to reconcile—and he expects reconciliation to be up to us.

“When you are offering your gift at the altar,” Jesus says, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

Surely the Temple isn’t the only place where we might acknowledge the need for reconciliation with someone we have wronged—but the setting does throw things into sharp relief: a person acting pious, fulfilling ritual religious obligations while not attending to the more basic moral ones.   The prophets have always told us that God has no use for our rituals when they’re not actually making us better people who treat each other justly.

I often find myself convicted of this passage because I come to church on Sundays not just to attend church but to lead it, and I am not always right with everyone in my life.  Sometimes Jon and I will have fought the night before and not worked it out yet.  Sometimes something a friend did or said is on my mind, and I haven’t totally forgiven them, and maybe vice versa.  Sometimes some old grudge will come back to me in the shower and I end up seething on the inside for no real good reason.  Sometimes I feel kind of like a hypocrite.

Luckily, as several commentaries pointed out, Jesus was probably being more rhetorical than literal when he said to leave your sacrifice on the altar and come back when you’ve worked it out.  After all, you’re not just going to abandon your two pigeons or your goat and walk back from the Temple in Jerusalem to your hometown in Galilee to talk it out with your neighbor.[1]

I don’t think those times we come to church angry or unreconciled are the times we need to stay away.  I think those are the times we should come to church ready to see ourselves for who we are, realize we’ve fallen short, see our actions thrown into sharp relief like that, receive God’s grace, and go home resolved to make things better.

Confession isn’t just what we do when we recite some words before communion once a month.  It’s also what we do when we stand face to face with someone we have wronged and look them in the eye and say I’m sorry.  But it’s not just the cheap grace of saying God, please forgive me.  It’s grace that takes doing the hard work of making it better.

You may know that the work of reconciliation is a key part of the 12 steps of AA and similar programs.  Step 8 is to make a list of all people you have harmed, and become willing to make amends with them all.  Step 9 is to make direct amends to such people wherever possible—except when to do so would injure them or others.

This sounds like a daunting task for any of us, addict or not.  How would you like to stand face to face with everyone you’ve ever wronged? How much easier would it be to just duck, and ignore it, and try to move on with our lives?

I read an account of one recovering alcoholic named Anna who went through this step nine and the surprising reactions she got from people.[2]  Some sponsors in AA recommend dividing your list into people you can make amends with now, and people who will take a little more emotional preparation.  So Anna began with some easy ones: some friends she had been mean to or hurt with gossip.

One friend heard her voice on the phone and said, “This isn’t one of those amends calls, is it?” and hung up.  The other never returned her voicemail, though a mutual friend told her he had received it, but he didn’t like to dredge up the past.

She moved on to some harder ones.  She told her college roommate that that dent in the roommate’s car Anna had pretended not to know anything about was actually the result of driving drunk.  She offered to mail a check, though the roommate declined.

She called up her ex-boyfriend and apologized for all the things she had done to ruin their relationship.  Instead of hanging up, he said he was glad to hear from her, that it helped him to piece things together, that he was glad she was sober, and then he apologized for the parts of their relationship that had been his fault, too.

She got together with an old friend with whom she had parted on bad terms with several years ago.  After she made amends to her friend, her friend told her she was also in a 12-step program and made amends back.

“In general,” Anna wrote, “it seemed like the people I thought weren’t going to be amenable to even meeting up welcomed me warmly. Those I thought would forgive me right away, meanwhile, were dismissive or indifferent. But one thing remained predictable: The amends that I was so terrified to make that I shook with terror or sobs at the thought were always the most rewarding of all.”

This strikes me as a good practice for all of us, even if we don’t have to be so formal about it.  I don’t think we all have to list everyone we’ve ever wronged, but it should be something we think about, in a not-unhealthy, non-obsessive way.  Because if we think about it, as we go, we can do something about it.  We can make amends.

We can’t control how people will respond, either.  Maybe some will have forgotten the slight completely.  Maybe some will have been waiting for that apology.  Maybe they will show us extraordinary grace.  Maybe, sometimes, they won’t want to hear it.

But God forgives, even when people don’t.  It’s cheap grace we’re going for if we’re not willing to make things right.  But it’s real grace we receive when we’ve done everything we can, whether or not it’s enough.

A final thought: I wonder if this is a commandment we also need to get more serious about as a society.  With individual and institutional racism being brought to national attention these days for the ongoing problem it is, maybe those of us who have long benefited from privileges that come along with white skin have to ask ourselves if we’ve been praying for cheap grace all along, for reconciliation without amends.  To move forward without doing the hard work of figuring out how to make things better.  Reconciliation can happen on the small stage of our everyday life and on the big one of our life together, and if you ask me, this first commandment encompasses both.

“Repent,” Jesus says, “for the kingdom of God is near.” “Go be reconciled,” he commands, for the Christian life begins with grace.

Whose forgiveness do you need to seek?

[1] cf. Interpretation: Matthew, p. 52; New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, p. 190

[2] https://www.thefix.com/content/making-amends-alcoholics-anonymous91408

The Quest for Jesus

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

Not long after Jesus’ birth, a star appeared in the sky in the east, and three men set off on a quest.

Actually, we don’t know if there were three; all we know is that they brought three gifts.  But in any case these people, dubbed kings, or magi, or wise men, these astrologers from a distant land, were studying the sky one night and they saw something noteworthy.  It was an unusual star rising in the east, and from their studies, they knew what it meant: the rising of a new king.

I don’t know how typical it was for men like these to travel vast distances to pay homage to the newborn crown prince of a land far away—probably not very.  But maybe those kings didn’t all get their own stars, either.  Somehow or another, they knew that this was big.  They didn’t know exactly where to find him, but they knew enough to go and get as close as they could.  They knew that this was news that warranted a response.

And so they put their star charts down, and left everything behind, and went to find a baby.  They found him in a house in Bethlehem with his mother, and they fell to their knees and they offered him the gifts they had brought, gifts that may have said something about who they believed him to be.  Gold, like you’d give to a king.  Frankincense, like you’d offer to a god.  Myrrh, like you’d use to prepare a body for burial.

That night, three (or so) men set out on a quest, and people having been searching for Jesus ever since.

As I outlined this sermon I went to my bookshelf in hope of finding a good story about someone searching for Jesus.  Here’s what I found as I surveyed the titles: Traveling Mercies.  Girl Meets God.  Reluctant Pilgrim. Searching for Sunday.  Searching for God Knows What.

As it turns out, all of my books are stories of people searching for Jesus.  (I don’t know if this is because that’s what people are writing or because that’s what I’m buying, or both.  In any case, it’s true: they are my favorite books.)

Some of the books on my shelf are stories of people whose journey takes them from one tradition to another, as they question the way they’ve been taught to know God and look for some alternative.  Some have walked the journey from unbelief to belief, spurred on by divine visions or the example of friends or a taste of communion bread.  One is by a gay man who traveled around the country meeting with people from different traditions trying to figure out if Jesus could really love him, too.  Some are simply the stories of people who were looking for meaning in something, and their search happened to lead them to Jesus.

If I had some Albert Schweitzer on my bookshelf, I might have also come across the iconic title The Quest of the Historical Jesus, one of the first major attempts to figure out who Jesus the historical person was, not just how the gospels or tradition or culture portray him.  Since then the search for the historical Jesus has continued with scholars and devotees who wonder what it might have been like to know Jesus, the man, as he walked on the earth in first-century Palestine.

There are a lot of different ways that we might search for Jesus: in the gospels.  In various traditions and different forms of prayer.  In intentional living.  In silence.  In service.  In meditation, or in the sunset.

The beauty of the search is that we might find him in any of these ways, because our search is for the God who comes looking for us.  The first act of Jesus’ life is meeting us where we are, and he keeps doing that.  But still, there is some searching to be done.  Jesus came to earth, but the wise men had to make the quest their own.

Maybe there are some people who have found Jesus without searching.  They were just minding their own business, and all of a sudden, there he was, in front of them.  You’re just wandering along and all of a sudden there’s the manger in front of you, or the cross.  But I think even then that’s rarely the end of the story.

I don’t know if I went searching for Jesus as much as I found him, or maybe he found me.  I grew up in church and Jesus was always there, first as an object of childhood devotion as I drew pictures of the stories I learned in Sunday School, then as someone to advertise on my cool WWJD bracelet; later as someone I met in the guys our youth group served hot dogs to outside of Metro stations, and later still as someone I fell in love with and wanted to follow, entirely.  Jesus has showed up in different ways and meant different things to me over the course of my life, but he has always been there without my having to travel very far.

But then there are days when I’m still looking, wondering if my current image and understanding of Jesus is the right one.  Is he Jesus, the political revolutionary?  Jesus, teacher of love and forgiveness?  Is he Jesus, the sacrifice of God?  Cosmic Jesus, the king of heaven, sitting on his throne as the saints sing to him in glory?  Who should I love more, anyway—the person Jesus or the risen Christ?  And there are the days I wonder whether the way I try to follow him is the right way, or if the kind of devotion I’m doing is the best one.  Is the risen Christ to be found in more silence, or more study?  In stricter discipline, or a freer relationship?  Might I finally find him in the mystics, or the monastics, or the social justice warriors?  What if I gave all my money away—would Jesus then be something I could grasp, and hold onto, instead of searching for?

Our wise men found who they were looking for and they did what they came to do and they went home, as God directed them, by another route, to throw Herod off their scent, and presumably life went back to normal.  But maybe that wasn’t the end of their quest, either.

It seems like the kind of thing where you might have this one experience, but then also spend the rest of your life trying to figure out what it all meant.  Did that baby really grew up to be who you thought he might be, and if he did, then should you be doing something more than gazing at the stars?  They found Jesus, but not completely.  We can imagine that their quest continued, in a different form, their whole lives long.

In the end, I think, if we were really to find him once and for all, like Mario finding his princess, if Jesus were really something to be grasped, it would probably turn out that we had the wrong guy.  The search is infuriating, sometimes, in its unendingness, and in the fact that it sometimes takes us one direction and then another; it’s also kind of what it means to live a life of faith.

After we graduated from college, two of my good friends packed up and went on the Camino de Santiago, walking 500 miles across northern Spain.  This ancient pilgrimage route ends up at the Cathedral of Santiago de Campostela, which is said to contain the relics of St. James.  My friends are both people of faith and the pilgrimage was very spiritually meaningful for both of them.  But it strikes me that in all the stories they have told about that journey, I have never heard much about this church where they ended up, the church they were walking toward the whole time.  Instead I’ve heard the stories of how their feet hurt, how they lost the route and found it again, the people who gave them directions, the hostels where they spent the night with other pilgrims on the journey, and how they supported and encouraged one another as they grew hungry and tired and injured along the way.

I wasn’t on that journey with them, but I think back to my own trip to the Holy Land when I was a senior in college.  Everywhere you turned was some holy site with a church built to mark it—the church of the place where Jesus was born.  The church of the place where Jesus fed the five thousand.  The church of the place where Jesus was transfigured and his disciples said we should build a monument here to commemorate this and Jesus said, no, definitely don’t do that.  In Israel and Palestine, you don’t have to search for long to find something that is holy.

But one of the most meaningful days of that trip for me was not at any of these holy sites, but the day we walked part of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, on this narrow cliff above a dry riverbed.  That was a day when I felt like I literally got to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to see the things he might have seen, to have time to think about it all instead of rushing from one holy place to another.  And it was pretty cool to be able to see the city of Jericho appearing in the distance, but at the same time, it wasn’t really about the destination.  At the risk of sounding cliché, sometimes it really is about the journey.

I think sometimes we go searching for Jesus and maybe we never entirely get there but we meet him here and there along the way.

Sometime he might be in the homeless man we stop to share a cup of coffee with, or the person who brings us a meal when we are sick.  Sometimes he’s at church, in our prayers and singing, where two or three are gathered in his name.  Sometimes we meet him in that bread and wine, or in a passage of Scripture that speaks to us; sometimes, he couldn’t be any closer than in a moment of silence when everything else around us is whirring around at top speed.  He might be in all of those places, and more.  These are our little epiphanies.

Again, the beauty of searching for a God who comes to earth is that we are searching for a God who is also searching for us.

One thing the wise men had going for them on their journey was the fact that, while they might not have known exactly where they were going to end up or what they were going to find there, they did not go on this journey unguided.  This unusual star that they saw at its rising went with them, showing them the way, leading them to Jerusalem and then finally to Bethlehem, where Jesus was.  Maybe they were lucky that way, although of course the story tells us it was more than luck.

But none of us have to make the journey unguided, either.  All of us have someone or something, probably many someones or somethings, that are our stars along the way.

For me it was the church I grew up in that first introduced me to Jesus; a book by Desmond Tutu that convinced me the good I hoped to do in the world was inseparable from my faith; the college professor that made me fall in love with the Bible; my campus minister who told me that following Jesus should be a lot more radical than a lot of people make it; the women at the shelter in my church basement in Atlanta who made me think I should try to keep meeting Jesus in people like them.  And, of course, many others along the way.

In all of them, I found Jesus, a little bit; through all of them, I was pointed on the way for the next stage of the journey.  Through people and traditions and scripture and communities and experiences—God does not leave the way unlit.

Maybe sometimes, even, the problem has not been a lack of stars but not knowing which one to follow; but I have to believe that as long as Jesus is who we’re looking for, most of those roads will lead back in his direction, because God is a God who meets us where we are.    When we run away, God follows.  When we take a wrong turn, God is there to guide us back.  When our journey falters, God waits, and comes closer.

God comes to be with us: that is the good news of Christmas.  God takes the first step but then we get to step toward God: that is the challenge of Epiphany.

Somewhere in the middle, we’ll find each other, and the journey continues.