If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 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. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
I’d like to speak to you about a particular place that we all know well. This all-too-familiar place can be difficult to acknowledge, for it is, at least for me, the place of my greatest disappointments, humiliation, and shame. Yet it is also where I have grown the most as a human being and have had the most palpable, life-changing experiences of God. If you had been standing next to me at the time, I’m not sure you would have known, but that, to my mind, is part of the mystery of grace.
You know the place of which I speak, for you’ve been there, too. In fact, a part of you is there now, as is a part of me.
This is the space in between, the gap, which sometimes can feel like a chasm, between the person we would like to be–and surely want others to believe us to be–and who we are. It’s the space in between our self perceptions and reality; our aspirations and our actions; between our professed values and how we behave. In religious terms, it is the space in between the words we pray in church and how we live when we leave; the space in between the person we imagine God calls us to be and the one we encounter every time we look in the mirror.
There are many ways we can occupy that space, some healthy and some not. Our immediate response whenever we find ourselves there, or realize that we’re there, depends a lot on how we were treated in our first and formative experiences of this particularly excruciating internal dissonance and publicly exposed contradictions. Let me tell you one of mine.
When I was in junior high, I wanted nothing more than to belong to a particular group of friends, a group that unfortunately wanted nothing of me. I totally missed all the signs they were clearly sending, every social cue in the highly structured social strata of adolescent girls, and so I persisted in effort after futile effort to make way in among them. I was in close enough proximity to convince myself that we were, in fact, friends. But one horrible day, two girls made it crystal clear that I was not one of them and never would be. I felt exposed, embarrassed, and ashamed. I think I went numb for awhile–frankly, the rest of junior high is a blissful blur in my memory. But from that point on, I learned how to read social cues like no one’s business. And I learned, slowly, painstakingly, how to fit in, becoming a chameleon of sorts, able to adjust and blend into every situation and social group, and internally panicking when I failed. So I’ve spent a lot of my life on what Bill Hybels aptly names as “image management.” But as Dr. Brené Brown, formerly scheduled to be in this pulpit this morning, surely would have said if she were here, “fitting in is a hollow substitute for belonging. Fitting in requires you to change who you are, while true belonging requires you to be who you are.”
So here’s the grace part, the encounters with God that have come to me in this particular corner of my in-between place: there have been times, after I had worked so hard to fit in and either succeeding or failing, when it has occurred to me that fitting in wasn’t worth it, or isn’t where I belonged. Even more transformative, I have heard God speak to me in that very awful, shame-filled place with a word of love. Thus, in a few situations I have been given a taste of what Dr. Brown describes so well in her latest book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone: Belonging isn’t something that others confer upon us; it something we carry within ourselves.
Another path to the in-between place takes us through the terrain of suffering that we have caused others, sometimes intentionally, more often unconsciously. Again, how we respond when we realize we’re standing in the gap, the space in between our professed values and our behavior, our self-image and how others experience us, depends a lot on how we were treated in our first conscious experiences of that stunning realization, or how we watched others important to us navigate the same terrain.
Defensiveness is our most predictable response once denial no longer serves us, with all our explanations, rationalizations, and excuses. Anger is not uncommon, enabling us to strike back. I mean, have you ever responded to someone daring to confront you with your contradictions, “Thank you, darling, for pointing them out to me?” When the truth is no longer deniable, depending on how long we had lived behind the edifice of our blind spots, we may collapse for a time under the weight of the reality that we are capable of inflicting such pain. This is where addictive behaviors and distractions can become so useful, with the potential to veer us off course for years on self destructive paths.
But again, this painful in-between place can also be the soil of our greatest growth and spiritual transformation, when we come face to face with who we are, what we have done, and allow God in.
One a personal level there is no more compelling description of the saving grace of God in this in-between place than what is commonly known as 12-step spirituality as it has come to us through Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery movements:
Let me briefly review the steps: The first three are deeply personal. We acknowledge powerlessness over our addiction, our complete dependence on God to save us, and we turn our lives over to God. This is the foundation of recovery and healing, and it’s tempting to stop here at step 3.
But then come steps 4-9: which include taking a comprehensive moral inventory of all the ways we have hurt others, and making our confession before a trusted person. Then we must go back and, wherever it is possible without causing more harm, make our apologies and amends to all those we have hurt. This is the accountability part, and it’s really hard. Steps 10-12 simply send us back to steps 1-9, so that we repeat them, again and again, until they become a way of life, a way of grace, freedom, and accountability for our actions.
On a societal level, the process of acknowledging and coming to terms with the collective harm done on our behalf by our people–wars fought in our name, systemic racism and white privilege, environmental degradation–is a far more complex process. If we are among those who have benefited from what seem to be invisible forces that we personally did not create, we can hide forever behind a kind of learned helplessness, and simply choosing not to think about such hard things. That choice not to think about painful things is an expression of our privilege, of course, for those not so fortunate have no choice but to think of those harsh realities every day of their lives. Another response among those of us with privilege, just as unhelpful, is to carry a diffuse sense of guilt that leads us nowhere.
But again, here in this most uncomfortable, challenging place, our species has taken some of its greatest leaps forward, when a few of us decide that no matter how we got here and who is at fault, on our watch we are going to strive for something better. In the words of the great Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, who walked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the March to Selma, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” We often wait and pray for God to set things right in the world, he said, but just as powerfully God is waiting on us to help create a better world.
Holocaust survivor Eli Weisel put it this way: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.” God needs us to care, to be engaged, to do our part.
Let me bring this sermon home with one final example of the in-between space, the one I belief Jesus was getting at in his increasingly tense conversations with the religious leaders of his day. As you can surmise from today’s reading, Jesus is losing patience with those leaders. Just prior to this passage, he had entered the Temple and thrown the money changers out. His stories, like the one we hear today about the two brothers, have a message for those in religious power which they do not want to hear, namely that sinners and tax collectors may well enter the Kingdom of God ahead of them.
We need to remember that Jesus was an infinitely patient person when faced with the foibles and sins of human beings, with one exception. He hated self-righteous hypocrisy among those who held power over other people. Do you remember the story he told of the Pharisee at prayer who thanked God that he was not like “other people?” You can only pray that prayer when you lack self knowledge, when you aren’t in touch with your own sin.
Whenever any of us choose not to deal with our own sins, and instead focus on the sins of others, we fall into that dangerous in-between place of blind self righteousness. It’s a dangerous place, and the power we have, the more dangerous we can become.
But when we choose the path of self knowledge, and an open acknowledgement of our vulnerabilities and foibles, that very place can be one of relief and solidarity. We recognize it as our home, for we are all in-between, on the journey from where we are to where God calls us to be. We can, at last, put down the weight of our aloneness, in the words of David Whyte, and join the human family. For we cannot accept the failings of others until we accept our own. But once we do and see ourselves as part of the human family, “intrinsically connected by a power greater than all of us,” in Brené Brown’s words, “a power grounded in love and compassion.”
The in-between place is our place of belonging. It is where Christ comes to meet us and take us home. But remember, we will walk into the kingdom together. Or we won’t walk in at all.