Jesus’ Hard Sayings

Jesus’ Hard Sayings

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. . . it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Matthew 5:21-37

It’s the custom of the diocesan staff to begin our meetings with a reflection on the gospel text for the upcoming Sunday. So last Tuesday, we read the passage you just heard. Normally our conversation is lively and animated, but not this time. It was jarring to hear Jesus speak in such harsh and condemning language. For some, myself included, his words touched a nerve.

I wonder if you had a similar reaction as the text was read.

In a mere fifteen verses of Jesus’ most famous sermon–known as the Sermon on the Mount–Jesus has painful things to say to all of us. Could this be the same Jesus who said in other contexts, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” and “I have come not to judge the world, but to give life to the world.”?

Hyperbole is the word we use to describe an extreme exaggeration to make a point, and Jesus spoke in hyperbole a lot. He said things like, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Jesus liked getting people’s attention, but if taken literally, his hyperbolic statements can be dangerous. Then again, if we simply dismiss them, or explain away what biblical scholars aptly call Jesus’ “hard sayings,” we miss the growth that comes when we are challenged by truths that we don’t want to hear or are taken to those painful places within us where we are in need of God’s healing grace.

What could be more troubling and offensive than hearing Jesus encouraging us to cut off offending members of our bodies to avoid sin?

I am quite certain that Jesus wasn’t encouraging us to do bodily harm to ourselves for the sake of spiritual purity. Nor do I believe that sinful thoughts are the same as actual deeds. His blunt point is that sometimes it’s best to avoid situations that cause us to sin, and we know that this is true. We know it’s best to stay away from certain circumstances that lure us into behavior or deeds we will later regret. So stay away from them, he counsels us. To do so can feel as hard as cutting off a limb because there is a part of us that wants what is not best for us.

Jesus was adament that our thoughts can be dangerous, which we also know is true. If acted upon, our unchecked thoughts can lead to real pain. Moreover, inner integrity requires self-discipline, which isn’t the same as having an internal police officer monitoring our every thought, but is rather a gentle, yet firm, daily practice of choosing life.

Jesus goes on to say harsh things about divorce, which touches a nerve for a lot of people, myself included. My parents divorced when I was an infant. This was in the early 1960s when divorce in this country was still a scandal. The Episcopal Church’s teaching on marriage and divorce in those years was patterned on this very passage and the notion that any divorced married man or woman remarries, is committing adultery. Remarriage after divorce was rarely permitted in The Episcopal Church, and my mother, as a young divorcée, was in essence told that she could never marry again.

I vividly remember the time when one of my mother’s friends who was also divorced became engaged to another man. The priest of our congregation told her that if she remarried, she and her new husband would be committing adultery. This woman, whose name was Linda, was initially devastated, but then she had a realization–one of those epiphanies in life that gives one courage. Linda mustered up her courage and told our priest that he was wrong, that she fully intended to re-marry, and she felt confident that God had led her to this new relationship. If he didn’t want to preside over the ceremony, she would find another priest who would. To his credit, our priest realized that Linda was acting out of great faith and he agreed to the wedding.

There’s no need for us to hang our heads in shame for the fragility of our marriages. Long-term intimate relationships are among the most humbling and audaciously hopeful human undertakings. How could we not fail at them? Surely Jesus understands that. On the other hand, Jesus espouses an undeniably conservative relational and sexual ethic, one meant to protect women in the patriarchal society of his day in which men had all the power. There is a word for us here, holding up the importance of living a vowed life, and persevering in relationship when times are hard.

For me, the most painful part of this passage is in the first few lines, about reconciling with a brother or sister before approaching God’s altar. You see, if I were to leave my gift at the altar and not return until I am fully reconciled with my brother, I don’t know when I would be back.

I’m not speaking about “my brother” in the universal sense. I mean my flesh-and-blood brother, my half-brother to be precise, who has chosen to keep me at arm’s length. He surfaces from time to time, as he did recently when his mother died. We had a sweet reconciliation, or so I thought, but he withdrew again, choosing to live his life apart from me.

I wish I could say that my brother is the only person who comes to mind whenever I read or hear these words, but he’s not. I’m 63 years old. I’ve made mistakes and hurt people deeply, and people have hurt me. By God’s grace and with a lot of love and forgiveness, some of those relationships survived, but others didn’t. Everytime I hear Jesus’ words about reconciliation before coming to the altar, they are the relationships that come to mind.

I’ve learned some things about reconciliation, in success and failure, that I carry with me.

I’ve learned, for starters, that reconciliation requires forgiveness. If you can’t forgive another person, if that person can’t forgive you, or you can’t forgive yourself, reconciliation is impossible. It is possible to forgive someone without reconciling, that is, to release another person from the burden of your hurt and disappointment, move on with your life and let that person move on too, but not continue in relationship with one another. I learned this from an elderly woman in the parish I served as rector who was robbed by a young man she had befriended from her twelve-step group. With bruises on her arm and face, she looked up from her hospital bed and said, “I forgive him for what he’s done. But I don’t want to see him again.” I knew both statements were true: she needed no restitution or even an apology. But as she was in her eighties, with limited energy, she chose not to invest any more in that relationship.

Reconciliation is only possible when those involved are ready to forgive one another and move forward together. You can forgive alone, but you can’t reconcile alone. It’s a painful realization, to be sure, because if someone doesn’t want to be reconciled with you, there’s nothing you can do. Trying harder to make things right often makes things worse and you have no choice but to let that person go, at least for now. But when both parties are able to forgive and want to move forward together, reconciliation happens, and sometimes with remarkable ease.

Reconciliation also rests upon the kind of personal growth gained through suffering. I’m speaking now of the suffering of the wounded, who don’t deny or discount the pain endured, but nonetheless work hard to grow large enough inside so as not to be defined by their wounds. Reconciliation rests on solid ground of maturity and compassion that living through painful circumstances affords.

The biblical story of Joseph and his brothers comes to mind here: Joseph, as you recall, was deeply resented by his brothers, who were jealous of his favored status in their father’s heart and irritated by his arrogance. So his brothers threw him in a hole and slave traders carried him away. Joseph suffered greatly as a result, and yet over the years he grew through his suffering. He matured in sensitivity and compassion and he learned to use his gifts for good. Through a series of events set in motion by his brothers’ hurtful deed, he found himself in a position of power, so much so that his brothers, who had long assumed Joseph to be dead, were dependent upon him for their very survival. In the moment when he could have lashed out at them in anger, he said instead, “Out of what you intended for evil, God has brought great good.” Joseph no longer needed to hold onto anger or hurt. He was grateful for how his life had turned out and the person he had become through suffering. (Genesis 37-45)

Guilt and shame have no place in a reconciled relationship. There’s no longer need for retribution or restitution. The debt has been paid, and not by the perpetrator, but by the grace of God, serendipity of life, and hard work of the one refusing to be defined by another’s transgression. The balance of power in the relationship is completely reset and reconciliation takes place on that solid ground.

I’ve also learned that reconciliation takes a long time, and that the initial work of it is done apart, as the one wounded grows stronger and heals, and the ones who have wounded also heal from the pain of having hurt another so badly. The healing required on the part of the wounding one is harder than we realize. Often the ones resisting reconciliation are those who have caused the most pain. As Karen Armstrong wrote in her memoir The Spiral Staircase, “It is always difficult to forgive the people we have harmed.”1

Yet when the work is done, and people meet as two who have grown stronger in the broken places, reconciliation is a wondrous thing. It signals a fresh start, yet with all the hard-won benefits of having come through the hardest thing and prevailed. It changes you in ways that are hard to describe, and it gives you hope for the world.

What I know for myself is that I want to be on the side of forgiveness and reconciliation whenever I can. That requires me to take responsibility for my part in the pain and hurt others experience, including my personal behavior and the unearned privilege of my place in this society as a white person. I need to own these things and make restitution whenever I can.

If you, like me, are hoping for reconciliation with one who doesn’t want to reconcile with you, you know well that the path is a lonely one; but it is a path–of prayer, acceptance of what you’ve done, and of the other person’s right to choose not to forgive or be in relationship.

If you, like me, are in need of healing from wounds sustained by others who hurt you, you know that path is a lonely one; but it is a path–of prayer, openness to healing that comes from unexpected places, and a willingness to grow through suffering.

Perhaps we’re on both paths at once. On either path, or both, this I know: we are not alone. God’s grace is there to guide and heal us, so that, one day, here–or on the other side of death–when the gate of reconciliation opens to us, we might be loving and brave, and walk through it to meet the one waiting on the other side.

God’s compassionate and healing presence is what I hope to leave you as you consider any of Jesus’ hard sayings. Allow them to touch the tender places in your lives and dare to engage God honestly in ways that allow you to both speak your truth and receive grace and mercy where you need it most, and the strength to choose what the life-affirming path God wants for you.

1Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

St. John’s, Olney | Visitation Sermon | January 21, 2023

St. John’s, Olney | Visitation Sermon | January 21, 2023

Now when Jesus* heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, casting a net into the lake–for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ They left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Matthew 12:4-23

Good morning! I’m so glad to worship with you at St. John’s, Olney today. If we’ve not met before, I am Mariann Budde and I serve as bishop of this diocese, a geographic area that includes four Maryland counties and the District of Columbia. I’ve been in this position for eleven years, and my work is primarily one of support, encouragement, and resourcing of the eighty-six Episcopal congregations and 10 schools of the diocese. Most Sundays you will find me preaching and presiding at one of our congregations.

This is my fourth Sunday visitation to St. John’s. My second visit stands out in my memory, because it was Fr. Henry’s second Sunday as your rector, back in 2016. My last visit was in late 2019, just four months before the pandemic came and changed our lives. It’s always a poignant experience for me to read my notes from those days, knowing what I know now about what was awaiting us all.

I am a great admirer of Father Henry, Mother Shivaun, Deacon Nancy, and the ministry of this congregation. You are one of the strongest Episcopal congregations in Northern Montgomery County. I give thanks to God for you, for Fr. Henry’s intentional, thoughtful leadership, for Mother Shivaun’s creativity, particularly in spiritual growth and discipleship, and for Deacon Nancy’s passion for service.

Last fall, prompted by a conversation with a group of young adults in another congregation that wanted to ask me far deeper questions of faith than I had anticipated, I sent out a notice in my bi-weekly writings to the diocese, inviting anyone else to ask me their questions of faith. There was a slow response at first, but as the days went on, more questions came. I remain profoundly moved by the honesty and vulnerability of those who have written to me. And I’ve used their questions as the springboard for all my writings and sermons since then.

Here is the question for today:

I often wonder if I truly hear God’s voice when I ask for His guidance or if it’s my own imagination telling me which way to go. I pray that God will help me to hear His voice and to understand His word but I’m afraid that I get distracted and sometimes I’m overwhelmed and may not hear Him. How do I know that I’m going in the direction God is showing me?

Today is the third Sunday in the Christian season of Epiphany–a word that means “revelation,” To have an epiphany is like the proverbial lightbulb going off in your head. I hear in the question I’ve just read a longing for such an epiphany, for a moment of clarity with which to set one’s life course, or to take the next step.

An epiphany is anything that comes to us from the outside that resonates deeply with us on the inside. For there is a part of us that is always listening for that connection, what the great Black theologian Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine.”

In one of the last speeches of his life, a commencement address at Spelman College in 1980, Thurman told the graduates:

There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself, and if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching. And if you hear it and then do not follow it, it would be better for you never to have been born . . .

You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all of existence and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will, all of your life, spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.1

A quick story about listening for the sound of the genuine. When my mother was still living alone in her New Jersey home, she had become increasingly susceptible to telemarketers and scammers that prey upon vulnerable adults. One day she received a call from a woman claiming to be her granddaughter. Her car had broken down in Pennsylvania and she needed money. Could my mother please give her her credit card information so that the car could be repaired?

As it turns out, my mother has one adult granddaughter, the daughter of my older sister, who would have been in her 30s at the time. My mother struggled to understand how her granddaughter could be in such trouble–and what was she doing in Pennsylvania?–and how best to help her. But then it dawned on her: if her granddaughter, Jennifer, was in need of money, she should call her mother! “Call your mother,” she told the woman. “Oh, I can’t do that,” the woman replied. Then my mother knew that the woman on the line wasn’t Jennifer. It wasn’t the sound of the genuine she was hearing. And she hung up.

We just heard one version of how Jesus called his first disciples to follow him–there are several versions of this same story in the gospels, but what they all have in common is their description of how clear those four fishermen were that they needed to drop everything and follow Jesus. This particular version reminds me of the moment in the musical West Side Story when Tony and Maria first see each other across the crowded high school gymnasium. Immediately they knew that they were meant for each other. Apparently, that’s how some people fall in love, and how some of Jesus’ disciples decided to follow him–seemingly in an instant. They must have heard what they were searching for, and they were ready.

I wish I could assure the person who asked me how she can tell when God is guiding her steps that she’ll just know, the way the disciples of Jesus seemed to know. But for those of us who want to follow God’s will, who try to hear Jesus’ voice, and who long for divine guidance when faced with an important decision, it’s not that simple or straight-forward a process.

There’s no escaping the need for us to cultivate some kind of inner spiritual practice, a practice that helps us to listen for the many ways God might speak to us, and to make peace when we aren’t hearing anything at all. Equally important, we need a way to ponder, sort things through, test our perceptions, and get ready for what may be asked of us.

Sometimes what on the outside looks like an impulsive decision has been taking shape within us for some time.

I suspect that the disciples’ seemingly immediate decision to follow Jesus as they did was preceded by experiences and events not recorded in the Gospels. Surely they had seen Jesus before, in and around the villages around the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps they, too, had been followers of John the Baptist, and like Jesus, was motivated by John’s arrest to do something brave with their lives. We don’t know, but it’s hard to imagine that their decision was made without any previous knowledge of Jesus.

But then again, it was Jesus after all, in the flesh. And perhaps there are times for us as well when we are that clear in an instant. Looking back, however, we might recognize how we had been preparing for that moment without awareness. Part of that preparation is how we learn to listen for the sound of the genuine.

One might simply call this spiritual practice “prayer,” but if so, the kind of prayer I’m speaking of has a specific purpose. It is discerning prayer, the process we go through to help us decide what to do in response to an event or circumstance or invitation.

The Christian writer Urban Holmes defines discernment as “the ability to intuit God’s will by casting a particular question the Christian faces in a given situation before the judgment of the deeper self. The result of discernment will be a willingness to risk decisions and take actions whose surety is enigmatic at best.”2 When we come to a decision through discernment, we have a greater capacity to act in the face of uncertainty, and a willingness to risk failure in the service of what matters most.

So how do we go about this discerning type of prayer? What is it that we do, exactly, when we’re pondering?

Actually, we can do many things. For some, the work is quiet and still, a daily practice of sitting and paying attention to all that comes into consciousness. For others, to ponder requires movement–a walk or a run, anything that engages both body and mind. Former president Obama was known for working things out while shooting basketball. Apparently, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a momentous decision before him, he would pretend to get sick and stay in bed for days. I am one of those who “putters” as I ponder. It doesn’t really matter what I do, but I need to be active and quiet at the same time, to allow my brain to sort things out and be open to the voice of God.

Talking through things is also helpful in the discerning process, particularly with someone you know and trust has your best interests at heart. As a young adult, I spent years in a therapeutic relationship trying to work through one central issue in my life. Looking back, I marvel at my therapist’s patience as I talked, pondered, and resisted, then got angry, and resisted some more. Then I would gain clarity, only to lose it again. So it went, back and forth until finally, my inner world settled enough inside for me to hear. What I heard was silence. God, as far as I could tell, wasn’t saying anything. I took that to mean–stay where you are. Make peace with who you are and where you are. Doing anything else would have been very costly, not only to me but to others, and I needed a clear word if I was to make that kind of change. No word came. So I stayed.

But all the help that others can be, there is something solitary about this listening and pondering process, as we claim for ourselves the path we will take.

One of the more helpful practices of pondering that I have been taught is described in a small book entitled, Sleeping With Bread.3 The book’s title comes from a story told about children left orphaned and starving during the Second World War. When at last they were given food in refugee camps, they couldn’t trust that there would be more later on, so they ate themselves sick at every meal. Their caregivers’ solution was to give the children a loaf of bread as they went to bed. They could sleep, then, with confidence that there would be food for them in the morning. Inspired by the children holding their loaves of bread, the authors describe a simple practice of holding onto what gives us life, especially in times of uncertainty and transition.

The practice is this: at the end of each day take a few moments to reflect, asking two questions: For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment am I least grateful? There are many ways to ask the same questions: When did I feel the most alive today? When did I feel life draining out of me? When did I give and receive the most love? When did I give and receive the least? This practice, exercised over time, heightens our awareness of moments we might have otherwise passed by as insignificant, moments that can ultimately give direction for our lives. It helps to write our reflections down, a few sentences each day, so that we might watch for patterns as they emerge over time.

When at a particular crossroad, or when striving to discern a particular path; when the ground beneath us shifts or we’re feeling stuck, a simple practice of reflection of what gives us life and takes life from us can guide us. The spiritual assumption behind this practice is that God’s desire for us is greater life, not less. And should we discern that a costly, difficult road is ours to take, we do so equipped with a greater reservoir of what sustains us in lean times.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I believe it’s possible through these practices to receive complete clarity about how we are to make our way in this life. I don’t believe that, and I have never myself attained it. But I tell you, a little bit of clarity goes a long way. A little bit goes a long way in helping us sift through the endless demands and focus on what matters most; a little bit goes a long way in helping us say no to the many worthwhile tasks in order to say yes to the few tasks we are called to; a little bit of clarity helps us to let go of what is no longer compatible with our lives and reach for what our heart desires, because at last we know something about it. And if by grace, we are invited, as Jesus’ disciples were, to do something truly brave, we will have the capacity and spiritual strength to say yes. It may seem to the world as if we’re acting impulsively, and perhaps sometimes we are. But generally speaking, we’ve been getting ready for that moment for a long time.

Years ago I met an Episcopal priest who served as the director of a camp and retreat center. At the time we met, he was leaving his position as camp director to work in a residential program for troubled teenagers. What he said to me about that move I’ve never forgotten. He said, “I have been preparing all my life for this job.”

I had the sense that he was telling a lot about himself in one sentence–about his own childhood, perhaps, and his own acquaintance with trouble; about times of vocational uncertainty, no doubt a failure here and there. He was telling me about his passion and repertoire of gifts, and that he felt himself to be moving to a place of great potential to exercise those gifts. This was clearly not a set up on any ladder of vocational advancement. But it was, for him, what his entire life had been preparing him to do. And he was ready.

He was about twenty years ahead of me in life and ministry, and I remember envying him for his clarity and freedom to embrace a new life so completely. I also had the sense that the clarity he had attained requires time and work, a lot of listening and interpreting of life as we make our way.

Let me leave you then with a word of encouragement, should there be any area of your life in need of that kind of discerning, listening, and waiting for the sound of the genuine. Trust your unique ways of listening, of pondering–whatever helps you make the connections between what you’re hearing from the outside with what resonates deeply with you on the inside. If it’s a really big decision that you’re wrestling with, take the time to seek out the wisdom of people in your life whom you trust to want what’s best for you. Should you be that person for another, know that you are walking with him or her on holy ground. Know that I, as your bishop, am praying for you as you listen for Jesus’ voice, the sound of the genuine in your heart, that you be given sufficient clarity to respond. And I pray you as a community, under the good leadership of your clergy and vestry, as collectively you do the same.


1Howard Thurman, Commencement Address at Spelman College, May 4, 1980.
2Source unknown. This quote comes from a colleague, Andrew Waldo, who quotes Urban Holmes in a talk he gives on discernment at CREDO conferences.
3Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1995).

Questions of Faith – Sunday Visitation Sermon, St. James’, Indian Head

Questions of Faith – Sunday Visitation Sermon, St. James’, Indian Head

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Isaiah 65:17-25

Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. “Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Luke 21: 5-19

I recently spent a few hours on a Sunday afternoon with 8 young adults–men and women in their late 20s and early 30s–from a congregation in Washington, DC. They wanted to talk with me about spiritual practices, and in particular, what our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, has commended to all of us in the Episcopal Church: The Way of Love: 7 Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life.

We spent most of our time discussing the first of those practices, to turn, which, as a flower turns toward the sun, is the daily invitation given to us to turn our focus toward Jesus and his teachings, to consciously open ourselves to him and allow him to guide us through life. Turning also has the connotation of turning around, or turning from those things that are not loving toward ourselves and others, and thus not of God. The word itself acknowledges the fact that all of us fall short, make mistakes, do things that we regret, and participate in evil in ways that we may not be aware of or believe are wrong. Each day brings a new opportunity to turn away from those things that make us lesser versions of ourselves, hold our lives before the life and love of Jesus, and turn toward him, trusting that he is always turning toward us.

I told the group that one of the ways I try to remember to turn toward Jesus each day is to quietly offer myself before him when I rise in the morning, and to think of him before I check my phone. I remember most days, and when I don’t, I stop whenever I realize that I’ve forgotten, and turn my gaze and my thoughts toward him. Likewise when I’m driving, before turning on the radio, I take a breath and turn my thoughts toward him. Obviously, these aren’t huge gestures, but I pray that the daily practice of them helps prepare me for those other times when Jesus may invite me to turn in a bigger way, or–as the gospel texts soberly reminds us–when life itself turns and I’m faced with real suffering and hardship, so that I have more inside me to draw upon, and that I’ve become practiced in turning towards him for those times when I really need his strength to persevere and endure.

As our session was drawing to a close, I asked the group if they had any questions for me. Normally when I open things up for questions with a group, people want to know about things we’re doing in the diocese or for assistance with something they are struggling with in the church. This time was different. The first person to raise her hand asked me how I knew that God truly loved me. The look in her eyes suggested that she wasn’t so much asking about me, but for herself, how I might help her believe that God loved her. The second person to ask a question wanted to know how I had forgiven someone who had hurt me deeply; again, I felt as if the one asking needed guidance on how he might forgive.

Such deep and important questions. I did my best to answer honestly, first by acknowledging that even for someone ordained in the church, knowing for certain that God loves us isn’t just an intellectual matter, but one of the heart and experience. There are days, I told the group, when I struggle as much as anyone with a sense of distance or unknowing–certainly feelings of unworthiness–in relation to the love of God.

If those were my only experiences, it would be impossible to believe that God loves me, or anyone else. But they aren’t. I have had other, deeply personal, transformative moments when I’ve experienced what I can only describe as love. While they are fleeting, they help keep me going, and allow me to hold onto what I choose to believe–that is, what I choose to trust– even when I don’t feel it. Sometimes the choice to believe in God, and in God’s love, is all I have.

Regarding forgiveness, I began by stating the obvious: that forgiveness of the deeper wounds is hard and that it takes time. In order to forgive, we need to have sufficient capacity inside ourselves; we need to be able to define ourselves as something more than the wound we have suffered. The deeper the wound, the longer the healing process takes. Forgiveness also requires a certain amount of distance from the wounding person or situation, so that we are no longer in danger of being wounded again, or in truly dire situations, when we know that God has a hold on us, even as we are in the midst of pain. Forgiveness is an expression of love–first, for ourselves, as we hold ourselves tenderly in that wounded place, and, when we are able, love for the one who has hurt us. Forgiveness, as Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “is the attribute of the strong.” Think of Jesus on the cross, forgiving those who put him there. In his suffering, he was the stronger one. We can’t fake that kind of love and capacity to forgive. Often I fail at forgiveness. When it comes to me, I recognize it as the gift that it is.

Inspired by the questions these young adults asked, I asked in my most recent bi-weekly message to the diocese, if others had questions of faith they would like to ask me. I’ve been deeply moved by what has come back to me.

Before I delve into some of those questions, I invite you to consider your own. You received, along with your bulletin, a half-sheet of paper on which I invite you now or sometime this morning to write your question, or questions, about faith. If you’re willing, we can talk about them in our time together after worship, or I can take them home and respond another way. I can’t promise satisfactory answers to your questions–I don’t have answers for many of my own–but I promise to ponder them, in a spirit of mutual wondering. Questions are fertile ground for faith.

In the questions that have come to me thus far, the range of topics is broad. Some have centered on the Bible–how to read and understand it, what authority it has over us. One person asked if we begin to question literal truth in some places (as opposed to its literary, symbolic, and moral truth), where do we stop?

Others questions have been more personal: “How can I know God’s will for my life?” and “Would you like to know the exact day you will die?”

Several questions were about the very existence of God, and the nature of God, which is where I’d like to spend the rest of my time this morning. “Are there days when you wake up in the morning,” one person asked, with the thought “All this stuff about God can’t possibly be real. Have I been deluding myself all these years?” Another asked, “How can we truly know that God is good?” Still another asked, “Does God intervene? How do we pray for God’s protection over our drive from our home to our work while children are starving? Yet we ask God to watch over us. Is He watching over them? Or are we watched over at all?”

In answer to the first question–if I ever question the existence of God–the answer is yes. For me, doubt is not the opposite of faith, but essential to my life of faith. I’ve had my share of doubts and struggles, in part because of all that I see in this world, as do you, I cannot reconcile with the reality of a loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God.

Among Christians, in the Bible, and from the traditions we’ve inherited from our spiritual ancestors, there are “answers” to the hardest questions that human beings have asked for millenia, but to be honest, I’ve never found the answers I’ve heard or read compelling or satisfying.

There’s a book in the Bible, the Book of Job, written centuries before the birth of Jesus, which tells the story of a man from whom everything of meaning and importance to him had been taken–deliberately so, it seems, by Satan and with God’s consent, in order to test his faith. If you only read the first and last chapters of the book (which it seems many do) you’re left with the impression that despite everything that happened to him, including the death of his children, losing all his property and immense physical suffering, Job never lost faith in God and of God’s goodness. But the middle 37 chapters tell another story entirely. In them, Job pours out his grief and outrage, and he rejects every explanation that his well-meaning friends offer to explain why these things had happened to him, which sound a lot like the platitudes we can fall back on in such times–such as, there must be a reason for this; surely your sins have brought this upon you; just trust in God’s plan.

What turns things around for Job isn’t any of the answers given him. No, what happens is that Job has an experience of God speaking to him at last. The long stretch of God’s silence is at last broken. To my reading, it’s not that great of an experience, actually. God isn’t particularly consoling to Job, and God explains nothing, as if the mystery of human suffering must simply be accepted. But for Job, the experience of God coming to him was enough. It didn’t take away his suffering, or answer his questions. But it was enough for him to believe in God and keep living.

Such moments when they come (and they come on their own timetable) are what keep me going. Yes, I study the Scriptures. I show up in church, I say my daily prayers, and do my imperfect best to follow in the way of Jesus. But my faith in the reality of God, and of a God that is good, is sustained in moments of encounter, either in my own heart, and equally compelling when I see the impact of a God-shaped, Jesus-centered life in another person.

I’m reminded of a song which put to a melody a haunting poem that is said to have been discovered on the wall of a World War II concentration camp:

I believe in the sun.
I believe in the sun, even when,
even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love.
I believe in love even when,
even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God.
I believe in God even when,
even when God is silent.1

Such belief would be impossible without some previous sense of God’s presence and love. Often it’s the memory of God, the desire for a connection with God, or someone’s faith in God that keeps us going when our faith wanes. Once, when my heart was deeply broken as a young person, a wise spiritual mentor in my life said to me, “God is still with you, even though it doesn’t seem so now.”

The question, “Does God intervene when we pray for specific things?” goes to the heart of prayer. How can we give thanks to God for sparing us from suffering when others are not spared? What are we actually praying for when we ask God to open doors for us or those we love, heal our infirmities, make wars to cease–not to mention helping us navigate through the smaller yet real complexities of our lives?

What I believe is this: God does intervene through us; God moves through the lives of human beings, and that as we draw closer to God and strive to follow the example of Jesus, we have greater capacity to be agents of positive change in places where God’s love is needed. I’m not rejecting the possibility of other forms of divine intervention, because there is so much about God that I don’t understand. And I pray for all manner of things that I need help with, that I long for God to do or to make possible. I bring all my desires before God, because that’s what our faith encourages us to do. In the end, however, I recognize that in prayer–even in the prayers that are of raw desire or desperate help–what changes most through my prayers is me.

When we pray for others who are suffering, we put ourselves in God’s hands to move toward some form of response, and in some way we take on the suffering of others as our own, which we see in Jesus on the cross.

“Christ has no physical body here on earth but ours,” Teresa of Avila reminds us, “No hands and feet but ours. Ours are the eyes with which he sees, ours are the feet on which he moves; ours are the lips with which he speaks to this world with kindness.”

In closing, let me simply emphasize the importance of your questions, and to encourage you to hold them in your heart and share them with one another. Offer them to God–even to the God you’re not always sure that you believe in–and wait to see what happens. Strive to be a community that honors the deeper questions in life and create space wherever you can to explore them together.

One of my gifts to you, that I’ll leave with members of the vestry, is a collection of faith sharing cards, that are simply questions to prompt meaningful conversations among you and a way to go deeper on the path of faith. As we go deeper, what matters isn’t so much the actual answers that come to us, but the relationship itself–with God, through the presence of Jesus and in the power of God’s mysterious spirit that lives and moves through us all.


1I Believe by Mark Miller | Virtual Choir

The Story About Money That’s Not About Money

The Story About Money That’s Not About Money

Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Luke 16:1-13

Good morning, friends of Ascension and St. Agnes church! I’m thrilled to be in worship with you once again, to greet old friends and to meet those of you who have made Ascension and St Agnes your spiritual home in the time since my last visit. A special welcome to anyone who is a guest with us today. We are glad you are here and pray that through this service God speaks to you in a powerful way.

Today Jesus’ words, taken from the Gospel of Luke, cause us to consider our relationship to money–the money we earn, the money we save, the money we spend, and the money we give away.

Jesus spoke a lot about money, quite apart from the rather curious story about the rich man’s manager that we’re just heard. He spoke so often about having a right relationship to money and possessions that we have no choice but to conclude that for Christians, how we relate to whatever wealth we have is of great spiritual concern. For how we earn, save, spend and share our money reveals core values and life priorities. “Where your treasure is,” Jesus said in another place, “there your heart will be also.”

Today’s text leaves us with another of Jesus’ rather famous one liners: “You can’t serve both God and wealth.” My first thought whenever I read these words is that none of us wants to serve wealth. We value money because of how it can serve us, free us from worry or want, and allows us to live in the ways we like.

In important ways money does free us. If you can’t afford health care, or new clothes for school or work; if you have to decide which bills to pay with a limited paycheck, or don’t feel welcome in a certain social setting because you can’t afford what others take for granted; or worse, if you can’t feed your family and or secure adequate shelter, or lose sleep at night wondering how you will pay for retirement, you know some of the ways that poverty can imprison us. We want money to free us from that aching worry or feeling that we don’t measure up.

Jesus understands what we seek in our possessions and in our wealth or the pursuit of it. But he also loves us enough to speak the truth. Be careful with money, he says, for it can also trap you. It can seduce you into believing that it’s the most important thing, and it’s not. The most important things can’t be bought or sold; they can only be given and received.

For all that Jesus spoke of wealth, he didn’t really care about it when he walked this earth, and he doesn’t care about our wealth. He doesn’t care–in the sense of valuing us more or less–if we are rich, poor, or somewhere in between. Jesus doesn’t judge us according to our balance statements or credit card debt. Unlike practically everyone else, Jesus doesn’t want our money. He wants a relationship with us. All this to say that money is not important to him, except in the ways it affects our experience of life. He cares about that a lot.

There were people in Jesus’ day, as there are in ours, who were trampled on, ruined by economic exploitation. Jesus cares when people are trampled upon. He cares because such cruelty deprives people of life. Likewise he cares when we exploit others, consciously or unconsciously, because it diminishes us as it dehumanizes them. I can’t say that I know Jesus’ opinion of global capitalism, but I do know this: he cares about the people who make our clothes in Malaysia, pick our coffee in Guatemala and lettuce in California, and produce in China the gazillion things we buy at Target. He cares about the people who wash our sheets when we stay at hotels and who pick up our garbage each week and who try to sell us things on the telephone or at our door. He cares about the migrants, some of whom have traveled thousands of miles from their home to reach our southern border, and are now being bussed to cities like Washington, DC, arriving at our doors with nothing. Jesus cares for all who are at the bottom of our economic pyramid as much as he cares about anyone else. He asks that we care, too, and that we do our best to hold those at the top accountable for the decisions they make affecting the lives of millions.

Jesus cares about us when we’re caught in the deadening spiral of anxiety about money, when we max out our credit cards or worry about an impending lay-off and are ashamed to talk about it. Jesus wants us to be free. But the path to freedom, he says, isn’t necessarily by getting more. More money doesn’t always buy more freedom. Because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, poverty is a subjective experience. The richer we become, the poorer we can feel, as our tastes and expectations change, and particularly when our material wealth distances us from true wealth, not defined in possessions but rather depth of being, quality of relationships, and generosity of spirit. If we use our material wealth to serve true wealth, Jesus says, then our money becomes an instrument of grace. But if it distances us from what matters most, money becomes our master and we its slave.

More than anything, Jesus cares about the quality of our lives. The only way I can make sense of the comical scenario in the story of the rich man’s manager is to conclude that it’s not a story about money. It’s about life and what we do with what we’re given. Use what you have for good, Jesus says. Use what happens to you, your life circumstances, and your resources, he tells us, no matter how much or little you’ve got and how you feel about it. Use everything about your life, for good. Be creative. Be persistent. Be crafty if you must. You’ve been entrusted with one messy, imperfect, glorious life. Stop being squeamish and jump in, headfirst.

A friend of mine married into a very wealthy family. While she seemed to enjoy the luxury of her husband’s wealth, she found herself resenting it for how it defined her and for many years she kept it all at arm’s length. She complained about it quite a lot, having no idea how ridiculous she sounded to those of us not burdened with multi-million dollar trust funds. To be fair, her pain was real. Who among us would want to be defined by someone else’s money? It’s not my money, she would say, it’s not my family. Finally, when she was in her fifties, she realized that she had imprisoned herself in a veneer of passivity and learned helplessness. She decided it was time to take the reins of her life. One way she did that was join the leadership circle of the family’s foundation and there she helped set the course for its future. It is now one of the important sources of funding for organizations committed to social justice in the nation, and her mark on it is everywhere.

I realize that most of us can’t even imagine what living with that kind of wealth would be like. But no matter where we are on the spectrum of riches, we are surely more blessed than we realize, and at the same time, there may be a lot about our lives that we wish we could change. We may find ourselves in situations that frustrate or hurt us; or disappointed by the attributes we wished we had but don’t. We see others who seem to walk through life with more grace and joy and we wonder, why can’t it be like that for us?

But that, in the end, is a false question, in that it leads nowhere. The real question is, what are we going to do with what we have? What we have may not be what we want and it may seem paltry compared to what we see others enjoy, but so what? As Jesus said, “Whoever is faithful in little is also faithful in much.”

Our Jewish friends are about to celebrate the holiest days of their faith, beginning with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year on September 25-27 and followed by Yom Kippur, a solemn day of self-reflection and atonement for sin on October 4. Years ago I read a newspaper article by a journalist named Gail Rosenblum entitled “A Question for the Jewish New Year” with the byline: “How do we know, finally, whether we’re living the good life?”1

“I once knew a man,” the article began, “who confessed that he read the obituaries every day to make sure he wasn’t in them.” “I confess that I also find my way to the obituaries every day,” Rosenblum continued, “but not for the same reason. I go because Entertainment Weekly only gets me halfway to the answer I seek. I’m pretty clear on how the rich and famous choose to spend their time and trust funds, but the obituary pages are even richer. There, in black and white, is our society succinctly summarized: the workaholics and tireless volunteers, the billionaires and custodians, the blue-ribbon bakers and golf fanatics. Read the sweet tributes–‘she loved her library card and a good game of Scrabble’–and the tragedies that some did not escape: ‘She was 24…she died after a long and courageous battle with cancer, ALS, or depression.’ Or, ‘he died suddenly.’”

“Who among them had lived the better life?” Rosenblum wondered, “The right life? Who was happier?” It was an impossible question to answer, she realized. Yet it haunted her, particularly when it was her task to pick eight outstanding members of the community who would be elevated from paid obituary to recipient of a more fully reported story. “How could I choose?” she asked. “It felt like playing God.” In the end, she was spared the task. But a question lingered for her: “What about me? Would my life make the cut? And if so, what would I want written?”

What, indeed. One thing is for certain: when assessing the quality of our lives–how well we live and how happy we are–what matters is how we have embraced our life and given of ourselves for others. How we use our money figures into the equation, but only as it relates to the most important question of all: how well are we living the one life we have to live? Whoever is faithful in little is also faithful in much.

So let me leave you with a few questions to ponder, and with an offer, should you be interested.

  • How would you describe your relationship to money?
  • Do you have a financial plan–a way of managing your money? If so, how is it working for you? If not, would you like to explore the possibility of establishing one?

For all of us living in a capitalist, consumer-driven society, intentionally thinking ahead and making informed and generous choices is the wise thing to do. Having a plan ensures that our money serves us and not the other way around. If you don’t have a plan–or a satisfying one–or if money is a real source of anxiety for you, I invite you to talk about it with someone who could help. There are many such people. Speak or write to Fr. Dominique or to me and we’ll create such a space for conversation and support, without judgment. Trust me, you are not alone. And you’ll be glad you did.

  • And the final question: when it’s time for your obituary to be written, what do you hope that people will say about you?

I’d love to pray for us.

Gracious God, I have attempted to interpret Jesus’ words about the distinction between serving wealth and serving you; of what it means to be faithful with what has been entrusted to us, and how to live with the kind of freedom you long for us all.

I pray now for all of us, asking that you speak to our hearts with the word that we each need to hear, to be assured of your love and your desire that we can truly live the best possible version of our lives.

Thank you for all that you have entrusted to us–materially, relationally, and spiritually. Help us all to use the many gifts entrusted to us wisely and generously, and to live well. In your name, I pray. Amen.


1Gail Rosenblum, “A Question for the Jewish New Year,” in the Minneapolis Star Tribune this week there was an article by Gail Rosenblum entitled, “A Question for the Jewish New Year” September 15, 2004, p. E-1.

The Power of A Pause

The Power of A Pause

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. . .'”
Luke 15: 1-3: 11b-32
Let me begin by saying how glad I am to be back with the community of faithful at St. Mary’s Foggy Bottom, and to add my voice of welcome to our friends and guests who join us in worship. Among our honored guests–too many to call out by name–is our mayor, the Honorable Muriel Bowser. Welcome, Mayor; welcome all.

And a special word of thanks to St. Mary’s leadership: The Rev. Dr. Wes Williams; Mr. Brandon Todd, Senior Warden, Mr. Windon Ringer, Acting Administrator, and members of the vestry. Thank you for guiding St. Mary’s Church life and ministry. It has been a long and challenging season since the COVID pandemic entered our lives and forever changed them, in addition to the other events in our city and the nation’s capital seared in our memory and whose effects are with us still. You’ve also had your trials and transitions as a congregation, not all of them easy. But you are still here, St. Mary’s Church. Our city is still here. And so am I, ready to support you in any way I can.

There is no other church I would rather worship in today than the first Black Episcopal Church in Washington, DC as we anticipate the confirmation of the first Black woman judge to sit on the highest court in the land. During the nomination hearings this past week, when Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was given the opportunity to speak and answer questions of actual relevance to her work, we heard her intelligence and wisdom, grace and grit. Her judicial and life experience make her an exemplary Supreme Court nominee–of that there is no doubt.

We saw many other things on display this week, far less noble, and worrisome indicators of what certain members of the United States Senate believe they can, and perhaps must, say to secure a presidential nomination for 2024. Many commentators have reflected the juxtaposition of Judge Jackson’s behavior with that of some of her interrogators, and how normative it is for people of color to be treated as she was this week.

Fully prepared for what was coming, Judge Jackson never once lost her composure. But there was, as Elie Mystal among others have noted, the moment she took a very long pause.

“Senator,” she began to answer a question that had no place in the hearing room. Then she sighed and paused, for quite some time. “As the silence filled the room,” Mystal writes, “I felt like I could see Jackson make the same calculation nearly every Black person and ancestor has made at some point while living in the New World.”1

There is power in such a pause. We all felt it.

Well, today is Sunday, thank God, and we’re in church. So let me turn our attention to another person known for pausing and taking his time before answering questions put to him, questions asked by those who were threatened by all that he said and did, as well as the questions that his followers asked, giving him the opportunity to help them grow in wisdom and love.

We’ve dropped ourselves into this man’s story as he’s taking the longest walk of his life–the 60-plus mile journey from the region where he began his ministry in the northern part of Israel Palestine to Jersusalm, the seat of religious authority for his people and the political power of the occupying Roman Empire. Jesus was walking to Jerusalem fully aware of the fate that awaited him there. For those of us who walked this road with him before, we also know how the story ends.

You may recall that prior to taking this journey, Jesus had a mystical encounter with his spiritual ancestors, Moses and Elijah. He had gone up a mountain to pray, taking three of his closest disciples with him. This was a pivotal moment for him, when he realized that he was not long for this world. That’s when he decided that in the time he had left, he would take his message of God’s all-inclusive love and his teachings of a way of life defined by mercy, compassion and justice for the oppressed to Jerusalem and let the chips fall where they may.

So, the Gospel of Luke tells us, when Jesus came down from that mountain, he gathered up his disciples, “turned his face toward Jerusalem,” and started walking. As he walked, he healed, he taught, and he preached as if these were the last words the world would hear from him, which, in fact, they were.

As it turns out, Jesus had a lot to say, worthy of our spending a lifetime pondering and applying his teachings to our lives. Which is why, in church, we hear his words over and over again. They never grow old for us; they always have something to say, and something different depending on where we are in our lives and whatever it is we’re struggling with, or what God is up to within and among us.

Most of Jesus’ teaching and sermons on the road were in response to questions, and many of those questions were from people less interested in his answers than in hearing themselves talk. (Not that any of us would do that). Like the lawyer who stood up to test Jesus, and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Figuring that a lawyer would already know the answer, Jesus asked him back, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer responded with what we know as the Great Commandments of Jewish Scripture: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replied, “You have answered rightly.” But the lawyer pressed further, because that’s what lawyers are trained to do, and because he wanted to justify himself, “And who, exactly, is my neighbor?”

That’s when Jesus paused. Maybe he sighed. And do you remember how he responded? He told a story of a man who fell into the hands of robbers, and of the two religious leaders who crossed over to the other side of the road and passed him by, and of another man, of a despised race, who stopped to help. “Who was the neighbor of the man beaten by robbers?” Jesus asked. “Go and do likewise.”

Further down the road, Jesus stopped to visit his good friends, the sisters Martha and Mary. Do you remember what happened there? Martha busied herself in the kitchen, while Mary did what was unthinkable for a woman of that time. She sat herself down among the men and listened to what Jesus had to say. When Martha complained to Jesus and told him to put Mary in her place with Martha in the kitchen, Jesus paused. Maybe he sighed. And he said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things. Only one thing now is needed. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Mary was in her place. Now the text doesn’t tell us what happened next, how Martha responded. Being Martha-like myself, I hope that she heeded his words, took off her apron and joined her sister where they both belonged, alongside the men, listening to Jesus.

So Jesus went from village to village as he walked toward his death, preaching at every opportunity, pointing people toward God, toward their neighbors in love, and toward their best selves. One man came up to Jesus and demanded that Jesus arbitrate in a family dispute about inheritance. Taken aback, Jesus asked the man, “Who set me to be a judge over you?” But then he paused. No doubt he sighed, and he told a story about a rich man with so many crops that he decided to build an even bigger barn so that he could store them and keep them for himself. But the very night his new, enormous barn was finished the man died, before he could enjoy any of his stored riches. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves,” Jesus warned, “and are not rich toward God.”

There was another time when Jesus was teaching in a synagogue and a woman approached him who was so crippled that she couldn’t stand up straight. Jesus had compassion on her and healed her, on the Sabbath. The leaders of the synagogue were indignant and they came at the woman with all they had. “There are six days on which work ought to be done. Come on one of those days if you want to be healed.” Now Jesus was angry. But he paused, and took a breath, composed himself and said, “You hypocrites. Do you not give your animals food and drink on the sabbath? And ought not his daughter of Abraham whom Satan kept bound for 18 years be healed on the Sabbath?” The crowd rejoiced and his opponents were put to shame.

Jesus kept walking. The crowds kept coming toward him, and Jesus’ tone became at once more compassionate and urgent. He didn’t have one point to make; he had many, all touching us differently depending on what’s happening in our lives when we hear them, for the first or the hundredth time. It’s why we’re meant to dwell in his teachings, and meditate on them regularly.

Turn with me now to the story we heard this morning and that’s printed in your bulletin. It’s one of three stories Jesus told in direct response to the grumbling of some Pharisees. Pharisees get a bad rap in the Bible, because they came at Jesus the most. They weren’t all bad people, but they were intense rule followers, and they held themselves apart from people that weren’t. These particular Pharisees took issue with the fact that Jesus seemed to enjoy the company of tax collectors and sinners–the very ones the Pharisees avoided so that they might maintain their spiritual purity and sense of moral superiority.

Jesus paused, sighed, and told not one, but three parables about being lost and found: first that of a shepherd with a flock of a hundred sheep, who, when one of his sheep gets lost, leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one. Second, of a woman who had ten silver coins and lost one of them, and who searches the house incessantly until she finds it.

Finally, as the capstone, Jesus tells of a man who had two sons. It’s the classic emotional triangle between parents and siblings and the perfect vehicle for Jesus to explain to the Pharisees why he was happy to keep company with sinners. The father–the obvious God figure–loved both his sons, enough to let the one determined to leave go and then to welcome him back when he was chastened by the world. He loved the more responsible and dutiful son enough to gently chastise him for his unwillingness to forgive his brother and celebrate his return or his father for being so forgiving to one who had squandered so much.

Jesus’ point is clear: true love is not dependent on the worthiness of another, but rather on our capacity to love. The wayward son was no less worthy of the father’s love; nor did the stay-at-home son earn his father’s love with good behavior. Both were loved for who they were, not what they did or failed to do. Equally significant, for both, the father went out to meet them where they were–the returning son while he was still far off; the sulking son out in the field of his self-imposed misery.

With Jesus’ words and example foremost in our minds, and inspired by the dignity of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson this week, never forget the power of a good pause. Pause long enough when you feel under pressure, or under attack, or filled with anger, or hurt, and fear to breathe, to let Jesus in.

Pause long enough to regain your internal bearings, and allow the great wisdom of the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart. LIke the loving father, God meets us in that moment, where we are, as we are. God also gives us a strength and wisdom greater than our own with which to respond. God helps us grow in our capacity to love as Jesus loves, and loves us, our capacity to heal and forgive, our ability to withstand and maintain our God-given dignity in the face of cruelty and injustice, and to overcome evil with good.

Let me leave you with a practical suggestion on how you can access the grace and power of Jesus in the course of your daily lives, and especially in those moments when something, or someone, is attempting to throw you off course, or has managed to unnerve you; or when you feel overwhelmed or tired or scared.

Think of it as the power in a pause. Wherever you feel yourself tightening up inside, wanting to react, or to hold on, or whenever you aren’t sure what to do or say next.

Stop. Take a breath. Pause. Pray for Jesus’ to be with you, in that moment. And surrender yourself to Him. I promise you that whatever occurs to you to say or do next will have a greater intentionality and impact than if you rushed in, or if you shut down.

I’m not ruling spontaneity out of hand. There’s a time and place for that. And there’s a time and place for genuine expressions of anger. But if you take the time to pause, collect yourself, and allow Jesus in, even in spontaneous moments and in anger, you will speak and act with impactful grace and power.

In the end, it comes down to the kind of person we want to be in this world. We saw two stark examples this week. Which kind of person would you trust and choose to follow?
And what example do you want to be for those coming up behind you?

Remember, then, the power of the pause and the grace available that is always there for you. Amen.

1 Elie Mystal, Ketanji Brown Jackson Long Paused Explained Racism and Sexism in America, The Nation