"Jesus has always been too much for us." - Richard Rohr
How is it that after two thousand years of meditation on Jesus Christ we’ve managed to avoid everything that he taught so unequivocally? This is true of every Christian denomination, even those who call themselves orthodox or doctrinally pure. We are all “cafeteria Christians.” All of us have evaded some major parts of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): the Beatitudes, Jesus’ warning about idolizing “mammon,” his clear directive and example of nonviolence, and his command to love our enemies being the most obvious. Jesus has always been too much for us. He is the only true “orthodoxy” as far as I can see.
If Jesus never talked about it once, the churches will tend to be preoccupied with it (abortion, birth control, and homosexuality). And if Jesus made an unequivocal statement about it (Love one another as I have taught you), we tend to quietly shelve it and forget it.
At least one reason for our failure to understand Jesus’ clear teaching on nonviolence lies in the fact that the Gospel has primarily been expounded by a small elite group of educated European and North American men. The bias of white male theologians is typically power and control. From this perspective nonviolence and love of enemies makes no sense.
Because most of the church has refused to take Jesus’ teaching and example seriously, now much of the world refuses to take Christians seriously. “Your Christianity is all in the head,” they say. “You Christians love to talk of a new life, but the record shows that you are afraid to live in a new way—a way that is responsible, caring, and nonviolent. Even your ‘pro-life movement’ is much more pro-birth than pro-life.”
Like it or not, the church is finally becoming much more universal in its teaching. Marginalized and oppressed groups have a wealth of insights to offer us in reading the Gospel. The New Testament is being rediscovered by altogether different sets of eyes, raising very different questions and perspectives that we just never thought about before. We are just beginning to honor the voices of women, minorities, and many groups that have not had access to the power, privilege, and comforts of past theologians. Frankly, they represent the peoples who first heard the Gospel and allowed it to radically change their lives.
The big questions are more and more being answered at a peaceful and dialogical level, with no need to directly oppose, punish, or reject other people or religions. I sense the urgency of the Holy Spirit, with 7.5 billion humans now on the planet at the same time. Our future is either nonviolent or there is no future at all.
Ken Butigan writes in the foreword to John Dear’s book, The Nonviolent Life:
[This is] the urgency of the great choice we face as a species: will we choose to continue to affirm a culture of systemic violence—or will we build a culture of active, creative, and liberating nonviolence so that we can not only survive but thrive? 
 John Dear, The Nonviolent Life (Pace e Bene Press: 2013), x. Note that Pace e Bene and John Dear are leading a Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions, September 16-24. Learn more at paceebene.org/programs/campaign-nonviolence/.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 101-103;
Near Occasions of Grace (Orbis Books: 1993), 86; and
Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2004), 161-163.
Today I'd like to talk to you about “Forgiveness.” It’s a subject I think a preacher could preach on every Sunday, and still could see a reason to preach it again the following week. It’s a good message ...one that is often easier said than done.
My goal today is not to make you feel guilty for not forgiving someone. Or to add more shame to your heart because someone won’t forgive you. Instead I hope to show you how forgiveness can free you to live life as God has always intended you to live.
Like food, Jesus teaches us that forgiving those who wrong us is essential to our health and wellbeing. Just as he told us to pray for our daily bread, so to must we pray for the forgiveness of our debts, trespasses, sins, so we can forgive others.”
One could argue that forgiveness is an essential element of love, kindness, peace and generosity; the good fruits of the Spirit that feeds and heals the world. Forgiveness is a way of life that resides at the very heart of our Christian faith.
Yes…it’s so simple to preach, yet so hard to practice.
As we marked the 16th anniversary of September 11th, Christians are forced to look at they way they practice forgiveness in the dark shadows of foreign and domestic terrorism.
While those 19 hijackers perished with their victims in 2001, a young man by the name of Dylann Roof had to face the rage and anger of those left behind in the wake of his violent rampage on fellow Americans.
You remember him, don’t you? He’s the white supremacist who murdered nine African American Christians as they bowed their heads in prayer during a bible study.
What you might not remember is at his bond hearing something amazing happened. Just two days after the horrific killings inside a historic church in Charleston South Carolina, five family members chose to face a cold-blooded killer and offered him their forgiveness.
These deeply wounded people understood this was the only way to claim their freedom from the deep seeded hatred that had been stewing for more than a century. It was the only way their families and community could heal from the pain one man caused because of his beliefs.
Melvin Graham, a brother of one of the victims, told the white supremacist, “The hate you possess is beyond human comprehension… You may have wanted to start a race war, but instead you started a love war.”
We mustn’t think forgiveness as impossible, but instead we must always remember that it's invaluable.
Forgiveness is hard. And an unwillingness to forgive can lock us up in bitterness. For months I held on to deep seeded resentment towards a person who had worked hard to ruin my career and reputation. No matter how many times we applied the Biblical steps of reconciliation, she continued her deceitful campaign against me.
There was no telling how far she would be willing to go in order to get her way.
I’ll admit didn’t want to forgive her, but I knew in my heart I had to. And so I did. But not really. The words of my mouth were nothing more than manure that fertilized the seeds of bitterness festering within me. And quickly those seeds began to grow. Before I knew it, I was becoming the phony she claimed me to be. I was having trouble practicing the very words I was preaching.
The feelings I harbored only allowed her to imprison me. And even though I knew I was only hurting myself, and not her, I continued to struggle to break free. My spiritual health and faith had flat lined.
Even though I held the key forged by God’s amazing grace, my unwillingness to forgive this person rendered this gift useless.
I learned the hard way that an unforgiving heart chokes out gratefulness. It prevents us from experiencing the freedom that comes with free-flowing grace. And dare I say, it nullifies the tremendous sacrifice Jesus made on the cross...because it stops us from bearing good fruit.
This begs the question: how far are we willing to go for forgiveness?
Are we like Peter who wants a hard and fast numbers to give someone who has done him wrong? Or are we more like Jesus, who understands the real costs it takes to forgive a person?
Of course there’s nothing wrong with Peter’s question. He speaks to the relationships we all have with ourselves, with God and with those we love or even hardly know. But then Jesus goes and tells us to make room in our hearts for our enemies, and people who try to harm us. This is where things get a little weird. And people start to tune him out.
Peter asks, “How many times do I let this person hurt me before I cut my losses and go?” In response, Jesus answers with a parable:
“The kingdom of God is like this… You will be forgiven only as you forgive.”
Now Jesus isn’t suggesting God’s grace is conditional. He’s just setting the line Peter needs to see to understand that none of us are in the position to withhold forgiveness from another. We all need it.
And it’s by God’s grace we receive it. To deny someone of it would be like piling manure on God’s gracious heart.
To be Christ like is to practice unlimited and absolute forgiveness. Failing to do so implies we fail to recognize our own debt that we could never repay.
Jesus has set the parameters: The forgiven must forgive.
Now you might have a desire to punish those who have hurt you. And I get that. But let me ask you this. Is your moral superiority that demands punishment more fitting than God’s grace?
Those five brave Christians in that South Carolina courtroom would beg to differ. They chose to use their time, not to sway judgment, but instead to forgive a young man who did not recognize his own need for forgiveness and grace.
There on live TV, they proclaimed the gospel. They did not side step the law to get what they wanted, but used a higher law to get what they needed; liberation from their pain and anger. They needed free themselves of their bitterness and hatred to make room in their hearts for God’s healing love.
The moral lesson is clear: forgiveness must engender forgiveness if there is going to be true healing within us, and within our world. It's that simple...and still that complex.
So you see how I could preach this every day, and still many of you will hold on to your anger. You’ll wear your bitterness like a badge, until it cripples and crushes you. If bitterness isn’t good for fruit or coffee, why then would it be healthy for human relationships?
We need the sweet nectar of God’s Spirit to help us be more like Christ who gave himself up willingly; even forgiving his enemies with his final breath.
Becoming a generous people who freely forgive is a painful process. For some of us, the hurts we have suffered and endured may never result in reconciliation or a restored relationship. That’s okay. But it doesn’t excuse us from participating in the process.
When you stop to think about it, Jesus didn’t say we should deny our hurt...or even forget the one who caused the wounds. He knows there are some events that happen that we must never forget:
September 11th is a great example; slavery; the holocaust; a violent relationship; a series of lies that turned your life upside down.
Jesus isn’t saying forget the pain, or the cause of it. He is simply saying constantly forgive and forgive and forgive... until forgiveness become as natural as God’s unending love towards us.
This finally became clear to me in the early morning of July 5, 2017. This was when I ran into that woman one last time. And when she saw me it was like catching a kid with their hand in the cookie jar. Not wanting to face the person she had harmed, she turned and quickly walked the other way in shame.
A part of me felt smug and I wanted to gloat. But inside my heart I just quietly bowed my head and asked God to forgive me for holding on to all that crap for so long. After that I asked God to forgive her for the pain and suffering she inflicted upon my family and my church. I took all that pain from my heart and left it in God’s hands. Then I got in my car and never looked back.
As those five families and their faith community demonstrated, the cultivation of a forgiving heart frees us from bondage… and opens us to the possibilities of giving forgiveness instead of punishing others or yourself.
For the one who first understands his or her need for forgiveness,... and then opens his or her heart up to forgive others,...is the one who enters the very heart of God’s everlasting love.
Story of Dylan Roof inspired by a piece written by Margaret Manning Shull on January 17, 2017 for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, Bellingham Washington.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox) 2011. pp. 68-73.
William Sloane Coffin writes, "Jesus is both a mirror to our humanity and a window to divinity, a window revealing as much of God as is given mortal eyes to see. When Christians see Christ empowering the weak, scorning the powerful, healing the wounded, and judging their tormentors, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work. What is finally important is not that Christ is Godlike, but that God is Christ-like. God is like Christ."
I find this to be deeply thought provoking and powerful. Do you? So often I have looked at Jesus as being the perfection of God's presence, or as the living Word of God, living Torah perfectly for us to mimic.
I like what Coffin suggests. Christ like God and God like Christ. A coin toss where everyone wins.
Two days after giving a sermon on grace I received a phone call from a small home church group who wanted to talk to me about the sermon which had been posted online.
They had all been moved by similar things...God loves them (and everyone) no matter what. But such love posed a problem for them as well. Knowing God loved them as much as the next person she them somewhat uncomfortable. Do some reason it made them feel less special (so to speak).
This lead to a great phone conversation about how vulnerable God would become to rescue them, the length God would go to save them.
Side note: I was standing in the blazing hot sun on a used car parking lot trying to by a car. The conversation was cut short when Kathleen wanted me to take a test drive.
Before I hung up we talked quickly about how amazing God's grace really is...and invited them to reread the lyrics to the classic hymn of the same name. More than amazing, Paul reminds us the grace is enough. With it, we are covered...freed to do all we need to do to share that good news with others.
A few hours later, at home without a new used car, I stumbled upon this from my daily devotional (Bible in a year 2017) app. I found it to be an appropriate and refreshing addition to our conversation.
Here's an excerpt:
"The people of God depend on the grace of God. Mother Teresa wrote, ‘I don’t think there is anyone who needs God’s help and grace as much as I do. Sometimes I feel so helpless and weak. I think that is why God uses me. Because I cannot depend on my own strength, I rely on Him twenty-four hours a day. If the day had even more hours, then I would need His help and grace during those as well.’
Paul expresses this dependence when he writes about the thorn in his flesh. Three times he pleaded with the Lord to take it away. But God said to him, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9). His grace is not only amazing; it is ‘sufficient’. It is enough.
This is one of my favourite verses in the entire Bible. It’s a verse I often quote to God and remind him of his promise that his power is made perfect in my weakness."
In the face of natural disasters, human warfare, and economic uncertainties of all stripes, let us hold fast the the wisdom of the blessed Henri Nouwen who wrote this for us on this day:
"Jesus teaches us how to live in the present time. He identifies our present time as the end-time, the time that offers us countless opportunities to testify for Jesus and his Kingdom. The many disasters in our world, and all the tragedies that happen to people each day, can easily lead us to despair and convince us that we are the sad victims of circumstances. But Jesus looks at these events in a radically different way. He calls them opportunities to witness!
"Jesus reminds us that we do not belong to this world. We have been sent into the world to be living witnesses of God's unconditional love, calling all people to look beyond the passing structures of our temporary existence to the eternal life promised to us."
From Richard Rohr:
The story of Noah and the flood is filled with insight. (Although I do not really believe God killed all the people on the earth and saved only one family!) God tells Noah to bring into the ark all the opposites: the wild and the domestic, the crawling and the flying, the clean and the unclean, the male and the female of each animal (Genesis 7:2-15).
Then God does a most amazing thing. God locks them together inside the ark (Genesis 7:16). Check it out.
Most people never note that God actually closed them in! God puts all the natural animosities, all the opposites together, and holds them in one place. I used to think it was about balancing all the opposites within me, but slowly I have learned that it is actually “holding” things in their seemingly unreconciledstate that widens and deepens the soul. We must allow things to be only partly resolved, without perfect closure or explanation. Christians have not been taught how to live in hope. The ego always wants to settle the dust quickly and have answers right now. But Paul rightly says, “In hope we are saved, yet hope is not hope if its object is seen” (Romans 8:24). The virtue of hope widens and deepens our foundation.
Noah’s ark is not meant to be a cute children’s story; it is a mature metaphor for the People of God on the waves of time, carrying the contradictions, the opposites, the tensions, and the paradoxes of humanity--preserving and protecting diversity inside of a safe unity created by God. (Thinking of it merely as punishing “bad” people only appeals to our lowest instincts and puts us back into meritocracy.) It is no accident that animals are deemed worth saving and that the covenant YHWH proclaims after the flood is “with every living creature,” not just humans as we presume. (Read Genesis 9:10, 13, 15, where it is said three times!) This is no small point, although it has been largely ignored.
God’s gathering of contraries is, in fact, the very school of salvation, the school of love. That’s where growth happens: in honest community and committed relationships. Love is learned in the encounter with “otherness” as both Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas taught. Not coincidentally, they both were Jewish philosophers whose worldview was formed by the Hebrew scriptures.
Forgiveness becomes central to Jesus’ teaching, because to receive reality is always to “bear it,” to bear with reality for not meeting all of our needs. To accept reality is to forgive reality for being what it is, almost day by day and sometimes even hour by hour. Such a practice creates patient and humble people.
Forgiveness reveals three goodnesses simultaneously. When we forgive, we choose the goodness of the other over their faults, we experience God’s goodness flowing through ourselves, and we also experience our own capacity for goodness in a way that almost surprises us. We are finally in touch with a much Higher Power, and we slowly learn how to draw upon this Infinite Source.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 36-37; and
Love that takes the initiative has the power to be transformative. It has the power to change the world.
In my reading and understanding of Jesus, I have drawn two conclusions. The first, Love is the most important virtue, and that it was so important to Jesus that it compelled him to give up his life out of great love for us. The second is this, we too are called to love with the same passion. We can do this through simple acts and more difficult acts; forgiveness, humility, servanthood, generosity, and peacemaking.
This weeks sermon (you can read here or watch a video here) is based on Paul's message to the churches in Rome. He gives a long list of things we can do (ROMANS 12:9-21). Most seem doable...but we must be willing to do it. Like the point I drive home in the sermon: Love is an action, not an emotion. We have to put our love to work in order for it to work! After all, "love that takes the initiative has the power to be transformative. Not only is it a game changer but a world changer too!
Paul's "how to" list of things we ought to do:
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”