[[Manuscript of sermon preached at New Song, 1-9-22, second in a three-part series. You can see the video here.]
Last week we talked about how we come to be part of this crazy Kingdom of God when we’re also the people who struggle to get out of bed, literally or figuratively. Jesus’ Kingdom seeks to turn things upside down or, maybe better said, seeks to take what is upside down now and turn it right side up. Jesus tells us the last will be first. We become great by serving others, not by ruling over them.
You know what the Kingdom of God is like? It’s like Jesus showing up in a foreign country, the land of the Gerasenes, and making a point of talking with one person–a man possessed by so many demons they call themselves “Legion.” Jesus delivers this man and heals him. How does everyone else who lives there react to Jesus? “Please go away.” Okay, there was the small matter of the swine who went over the cliff because of the demons, but let’s not get sidetracked. The people of the city saw Jesus had transformed this man from a raging, screaming, horror into a calm, sane, grateful human being again. What is the Kingdom of God? The Kingdom of God is Jesus taking the least likely person in the entire region and making him a partner to spread this vision, this mode of life, this world-challenging teaching about love, of all things. This Good News.
We discussed how Jesus seeks out seemingly underqualified and truly unexpected candidates to join in this Kingdom movement: Zacheus, Peter, the woman at the well. The Healed man of the Gerasenes. Everyone you see Jesus hanging with in the Gospels.
Today in Part 2 we’re talking about changing the world and considering how much of the job is ours, somewhere between 0 and 100 percent. Right in there somewhere. Just to be clear, this series is Trying to Change the World When You Struggle to Get Out of Bed, “struggle to get out of bed” stands for any ways we feel underqualified–or disqualified–to change the world. “Change the World” here for us means the Kingdom of God. Part II is: “A Piece of Your Heart ”
When we dig into the Kingdom of God, we run into all these paradoxes, these seeming contradictions that somehow work together and even make a crazy kind of sense. The Kingdom is like the tiniest seed that grows up into the biggest plant. The Kingdom is like leaven that gets into the dough and spreads through and changes everything. The Kingdom is treasure, but it’s buried in a field and no one seems to know it’s there. The Kingdom is made up of ridiculously challenged people who, it turns out, have this huge impact. People who struggle to get out of bed but also change lives. The one thing, the only thing we need to participate in God’s Kingdom is some experience of Grace, some sense that God loves us now, sinful, messed up, and challenged as we are.
When God looked at the Wenatchee Valley and thought, “What church should I lead to be inclusive and affirming, embracing of all?” clearly it made sense to pick a church founded and led by a pastor trained and raised in an extremely conservative Baptist tradition. Who better? I don’t know why God chose New Song, and yet I know exactly why God chose New Song. When God said, “Will you do this?’ Tim and Kelsey and the people of New Song said, “Okay.” Remember, God’s goal isn’t to find the most competent people; it’s changing us as we’re willing to try. Faithfulness is simply being willing to try.
26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” I Corinthians 1:26-31
The Kingdom of Jesus is a beautiful vision–not a dream, mind you, but an alternate way to live we can choose, through God’s Spirit–in which love is stronger than hatred, peace overcomes violence, and the hungry, the thirsty, the abused, neglected, and persecuted, all know their value, their belovedness. You are God’s beloved. That’s the Kingdom of God. You are. When Jesus sent seventy of his followers out to tell about God’s love and gave them power to heal, Jesus told them to declare “The Kingdom of God has come near.” Their presence, and God’s spirit in them, was the Kingdom of God drawing near. Just so as not to be too abstract, the Kingdom of God is where Black lives matter just as much as everyone else’s, where queer kids are loved and not bullied or forced to hide, where we value women enough to end violence against women and we work together to end it, and where we nurture and protect the physical world we live in–serve as stewards–instead of this suicidal insanity of poisoning our planet we’re doing now. That’s the Kingdom of God.
Those sound like huge jobs, don’t they? And those are just examples. Like this massive, bigger-than-we-can-wrap-our-heads -around campaign.
Guess where we start?
Us. INside us. With our hearts.
It’s almost anticlimactic…but it’s not.
Changing the World When You Struggle to Get out of Bed: Part 1 is God chooses the unqualified and all we have to do is receive Grace of how wildly unqualified we are. Being “qualified” merely means “will you receive God’s grace? Will you say ‘yes’ when God says ‘I love you like this and I’m going to do some work in you?” That’s part 1.
Part 2 of changing the world is Our hearts. A piece of our hearts. It has to start within us.
This is another paradox. I’m going to tell you how we are called to pitch in to improve all of the problems in the world and we are responsible only for the issues emanating from here [Chest] and here [head].
This may be my favorite quote of all time. It’s by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The world, virtually every country on the planet, current political parties in the United States, and every sports team fan, takes the view that [pointing] “they” are the enemy, the bad guys, the “evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds.” If only it were so simple. Our vision would not be a redemptive one, but a simple “seek and destroy.” We’re pretty decent people, right? I mean, sure, we have trouble getting out of bed, and we have our own little quirks, but we’re not the bad ones. They are. IN any way you happen to like defining “they.” When I was a pastor in Colorado, I spent time with a guy who was on Team Chevy and just hated Team Ford with a raging vengeance. In 2015, when the Yankees did so badly, I cheered for the Royals as an honorary fan, in solidarity with Tim. When the Yankees did well and the Royals didn’t, Tim…said “Nope. I can never cheer for your evil team.”
The Kingdom of God is, in its deepest heart, the most central core of its being, a Redemptive life. The Bible gives many descriptions of God, but we know from the Bible that God is…what? God is love. God is love and love is from God.
We don’t believe that there are “evil people somewhere,” because we know exactly where the evil people are. Don’t we?
If you haven’t seen grace, if you’ve never acknowledged your own brokenness and sin and need for transformation, it makes no sense to be part of God’s Kingdom. You don’t need healing. “They” do.
If you’ve experienced Jesus’ grace for yourself, you know grace changes everything. I don’t mean it magically solves all your problems and makes you able to play the violin when you’ve never picked one up before. I mean it fundamentally changes how you see yourself and others.
Because this is the Gospel truth: the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. There aren’t evil people “somewhere” because all people, all of us, have evil and good in our hearts.
The danger of “us” and “them” is we are tempted to forget where the dividing line cuts. We start to imagine that the line swerves around us and circles the [insert descriptives of those you consider bad] people. That’s what racism does, for example. “Those people who look that way and act and talk that way are the real problem.” That’s why every military force has to dehumanize the enemy.
When I tell you the Kingdom of God changes everything, turns everything upside down (or finally rightside up) I mean this: It throws out the idea that “we” are good and “they” are bad.
We are beloved. All of us. We have evil in our hearts and Jesus loves us. All of us. The God who is love enters our world to say “let me help you with that.” God didn’t come for good people, or Christians, or the right people with our views. God came for all of us
The biggest and most immediate job, the one Jesus gives us, is us.
You’ve got evil in your heart. I’ve got evil in mine. Now here’s something you may not have heard before: That’s okay. I mean, yes, it’s an issue, but there are worse things. Like what? Like not knowing or admitting we’ve got evil in our hearts. Like really believing that we’re the “good guys” and someone out there, our least favorites, are “the bad guys.” Like believing that God hates everyone we happen to hate. Like being hypocrites who won’t admit that we hate some people. Having evil in our hearts is less a problem than being blind to it or in denial of it. Look at Jesus’ story of the tax eollector and the Pharisee praying in the temple in Luke 18.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The guy who knows he has evil in his heart is going in the right direction while the one who is only grateful not to be evil like “them” is not.
Now I have to stop here and say we are living in the real world. Please don’t hear me saying that this means people doing truly horrific things in our world aren’t a real problem. They are. A big one. We’ll get there. We’ve got one more week to go. But we can’t start there, or we jump the track off this whole Redemptive course and get on the Fix Others by Force track. That might feel more instantly gratifying but it will destroy us internally instead of restore and heal us. And it won’t heal them. The disciples took a shot at this: “Jesus, they didn’t welcome you; shall we call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus did not say ,”Oh, that’s a good plan. I’m glad one of you finally thought of that.” Jesus said, “I rebuke you. You have not understood about love yet.” I think that means it would be bad. Like “crossing the streams” bad.
Those of you who heard Part 1 last week might have suspected that Part 2 of Changing the World was the changing the world part. You might have suspected we’d be hearing about world problems. We are talking about world problems. We’re talking, in fact, about the. literal. biggest problem in the world: people not dealing with their own stuff. People not addressing their own hearts, our own sin, our selfishness and unacknowledged, unhealed pain and trauma. We have an environmental crisis because people won’t deal with themselves, because we prefer our comfort and selfishness over other people’s survival. See, that’s not dealing with ourselves. We have systemic racism within our nation and within major parts of the US Christian church because people won’t look at themselves and deal with themselves. By “people” I mean Us.. Abuse of women? Same cause. So yeah, this is bad.
You know what would be cool? If everyone would read Solzhenitsyn’s quote, or have it read to them where necessary, and respond, “Oh, dang, there’s evil in my heart! That sucks! I need to do something about this, now!”
I tell you, Friends, I am optimistic and irrepressibly hopeful, especially when you take into account I’m someone who deals with depression. But even I am not hopeful that this will happen any time soon. What I see in much of the church is a circling of wagons, a digging of trenches, and a deeper commitment to finding and destroying that enemy out there.
To paraphrase Pogo from so many years ago: “We have met the enemy, and they are us.”
Jesus never says “hate the sin, love the sinner.” It isn’t in the Bible. And we’re terrible at differentiating. We’re all too good at lumping sin and sinner together, and conveniently forgetting who we are.
I don’t need to “fix myself.” I need to start with myself.
Jesus said, 39 “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 42 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.Luke 6:39-42
Jesus teaches we need to think of our own heart problem as the log and our neighbor’s as the speck. I’d say that’s because we’re naturally inclined to think of them the opposite–of course my problem is tiny and your problem is huge. When I think that way, I’m much more likely to want to start with my neighbor’s problem–in fact, mine is so small and theirs are so big, I might not even get around to mine at all.
Our goal is to be part of God’s redemptive and restorative work. That means I need God to redeem and restore me. Starting with my neighbor won’t do that. Most likely, my neighbor won’t be psyched when I show up to say “Hey, you have a problem. Let me look at that eye!” And since I know they have a big problem, their unwillingness is just going to frustrate me. So what do I do? Discount my neighbor? Write them off? Or up the force with which I try to change them?
But if I agree with Jesus and first sit down with God to take that log out of my own eye, I will see clearly to take the speck out of my neighbors’ eye. I won’t be so critical that my neighbor allowed a speck to get in there in the first place. My neighbor may be a lot more willing to listen, when they know that I, too, have dealt with eye lumber. And I know exactly how uncomfortable–or excruciating–this surgery is, so I’m not going in with scalpel and tweezers, swinging them around like…someone whose own vision is occluded and who can’t see well enough because of that to be performing surgery on someone else.
Jesus wants to redeem, everywhere that redemption is possible. And I can spread redemption if I let it start with me.
Truth is a key, not a hammer. We don’t use the truth to beat the crap out of other people, we let the truth turn as a key to open the redemption in us. And then we can share that key and people say “Oh, cool, a key!” They’re much more receptive than when we swing a hammer.
Again, this is the real world. All of this sounds beautiful on a Sunday morning. But it’s not neat, it’s not, orderly, it’s not linear. It’s cyclical. We can’t really hunker down for the next 30 years and then go love. What we really do is we start with ourselves and then we go love. And when we go love, we realize “oh, crud! I’m still ugh!” And that forces us to go back to Jesus and say, “I’m still ugh! Jesus, help me!” And Jesus does. We become more able to love. And as we love, we start to see who we are. And we start to see who others are, more like us, less like “bad guys.” And it’s a cycle. It’s not a straight line, it’s a cycle. And Jesus redeems us through being willing to try to love, face the evil in our hearts, and try to love again. That’s the whole thing. That’s how we change.
The We open ourselves to God’s work in us, we love others, we learn more about what needs changing in us. We see more clearly where that line runs through our hearts.
I was sickened when I saw another leader, and one whom I have hugely respected–and I’m not going to say the name of the ministry–just be removed from leadership. because of abusive of power in their leadership. We’ve all seen these. I know the media love to report these. But the fact is, they keep happening! All I can say is, I think probably you should have dealt with your own heaert first, before you tried to fix and change other people by force. And then we wouldn’t have this abusive style of leadership. You know, the way Jesus says to do it: my log first, your speck second.
“But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” When we want to change the world, I pray we will be willing. Amen.