Top Menu
Secondary Menu

Posted on Nov 12, 2017

Running on empty—sermon for 12 November 2017

Running on empty


William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

November 12, Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27):

Joshua 24:1-3a,14-25 & Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18Matthew 25:1-13

Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

Friends, I’m tired.

I’m sad and I’m tired.

I’m sure many of you are as well. We’ve absorbed quite a few shocks in the past several weeks.

I’m sad and tired on a personal level, and on a more global—existential level. Many of you know that Monica’s father died in early October. We’ll be traveling back to California in a couple of weeks for his memorial service. And then we’ve had a wave of sudden and unexpected deaths here in the parish. Of course we also had the sheer joy of baptizing 5 children last week. But then again last Sunday a man terrorized a Texas town by walking into a church with an automatic weapon and killing 26 people, and this was just a month after another man shot and killed 58 people and wounded over 500 more in Las Vegas.

All of this makes me incredibly sad, and very tired.

Fortunately, I have a very good system of support…I have family, and friends, and colleagues whom I can talk to…I have well established practices of self-care—daily prayer, journaling, taking a sabbath—time to unplug and recharge…and I hope that you all have similar kinds of support, and ways of healing…certainly, Anoma and I, and Kathy, and Chris, and Jessica are here to be part of that support system for you.

But even with all of the support I have, I’m feeling more drained than usual…like there’s not a lot of oil in my lamp right now.

And so I found both comfort and challenge in this parable today.

Comfort, in that all of the bridesmaids—both wise and foolish—got tired and slept. This isn’t a parable about “constant vigilance” it’s about the 10 bridesmaids not the 10 Mad-eye Moodys—. All of them get tired and go to sleep. Resting—just taking a break—is not what keeps you out of the banquet.

So that’s comforting—the challenge comes in what does keep us from the banquet.

And what does keep us out? It’s not a parable about constant vigilance; but it is a parable about being prepared. About the need to be well stocked enough to make it through a pretty long wait. Which is fine except, as I said; if the bridegroom where to come right this very minute I would be worried about my own stock of oil.

But then, is their lack of oil really the problem?

When they knock to be let in upon their return, he doesn’t say to them, “Truly I tell you, the door will be shut upon you because of your dismal organizational skills.”  What he does say is WAY more disturbing: “I do not know you.” Why doesn’t he know them? Maybe because they weren’t there when he arrived. They didn’t show up. Maybe their lack of oil isn’t the problem…maybe their absence is.

What would have happened, I wonder, if instead of running around looking for oil, they had just stayed there and threw themselves on the mercy of the bridegroom when the he showed up. “We’re sorry. We really thought we had enough, but I guess we didn’t. And I know it’s not customary, but oil or not…lamps burning or guttering…we wanted to be here to welcome you. We wanted to be here to celebrate with you. Even if our lamps are running low.”

Would he have let them in?

There’s no way to know for sure, given this particular parable; but given everything else we know about Jesus, I at least hope I know how that kind of appeal would be answered.

Maybe part of what this parable is telling us is that, yes, being prepared is important, but even more important than being well prepared is simply showing up. Being present. Being there at the right time…ready or not.

And I think the real challenge of this parable, for me, and I think for many of us, is not letting our fear of not having enough…of not being enough—not being good enough…not smart enough…not spiritual enough…to not let our fear of that prevent us from showing up.

Because it’s that fear of never being good enough, that sends us running off to find more of…whatever it is we think we need…whatever it is we think we lack…And while we’re off desperately hustling for more of…whatever…we miss it when God actually does show up.

By all means we need to be prepared. We need to take good care of ourselves and our spiritual lives. We need to be “prayed up” as they used to say in the south. Going into a difficult situation? Are you prayed up? Make sure you’re prayed up? And we also have to remember that prayer is not a substitute for action, prayer is a prelude to action. Prayer is what we do to get ready…fill our tanks. Prayer is what spurs us to action…because prayer changes us. As the Bishops United Against Gun Violence said in their statement this week: “Prayer is not a dodge. In prayer we examine our own hearts and our own deeds to determine whether we are complicit in the evils we deplore. And if we are, we resolve to take action: we resolve to amend our lives….One does not offer prayers in lieu of demonstrating political courage, but rather in preparation.”

We pray and we act. We do what we need to do to get prepared, but just as important as being prepared is showing up…being there…being present…being agents of God’s transforming love. Even if that means—especially if that means—being there in our poverty. Being there in our need. Being there in our “not-enoughness.” Not chasing after the things we fear we lack…but staying there in the gathering dark with our guttering oil lamps. Being there in our doubt, with our halting half-formed prayers to weep with those who weep, to laugh with those who laugh…to welcome the bridegroom…to welcome God…whenever and however God choose to arrive.


Read More

Posted on Nov 5, 2017

Stranger Things—sermon for 5 November 2017, Feast of All Saints

Stranger Things


November 1, All Saints’ Day: (Observed November 5)

Psalm 149;
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10,13-14Revelation 7:2-4,9-17Matthew 5:1-12

Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

I’m going to tell you a secret.

“We are God’s children now.”

Let that really sink in.

We are God’s children.

Right here. Right now. Without having to do anything. Without having to prove anything. Without having to accomplish anything or even understand anything. We are God’s children.

And yet—that mystic seer, John, goes on—and yet, what we will be has not yet been revealed.

We are God’s children, and there is something more, something hidden within us, waiting to be revealed.

Waiting to be uncovered…waiting to be brought into life and light.

We live in a time when a lot of things are being uncovered. Everyday there are new revelations…new scientific discoveries…new technologies…new scandals…and new horrors…a lot of things being uncovered.

A few months ago, I quoted author and activist Adrienne Marie Brown who reminded us that, ““Things are not getting worse, things are getting uncovered”—especially systemic forms of oppression like racism and sexism. And what we must do, in times like this she says, is, “hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

Continue uncovering…continue revealing all of the stuff that lies underneath…

We are living in a time of revelation.

And another word for that is apocalypse. Now the way we use that word, it means an earth-ending cataclysmic event, but the original meaning of apocalypse, simply means “revelation.” To reveal or uncover what has been secret or hidden up to now. We are living in apocalyptic times.

We heard a reading from the Book of Revelation this morning , it’s also known as the Apocalypse of John. And called that not specifically because it describes the final culmination of all things, but because it reveals the secret, divine reality that exists underneath and alongside of our darker reality—it reveals that hidden, Godly realm that is always just about to break through…and sometimes we can glimpse it.

Here’s another revelation. This really shouldn’t be much of a surprise to many of you—I’m a big fan of the Netflix show Stranger Things.

For those who don’t know this show (I promise to do this with as few spoilers as possible)…Stranger Things is set in the town of Hawkins, Indiana in 1983 and 84. And it primarily centers around a group of teenagers and their discovery of (among other things) a sort of parallel universe/alternate dimension that they call “the upside down.” The “upside down” is a world exactly like ours except it is always dark, filled with menacing, creepy things, and always seems to be pulsating with ominous droning 80s electronic music.

The upside down is actually a really helpful way of thinking about the reign of God and this idea of apocalypse as revelation. Like the “upside down” God’s realm exists parallel with our world but just beyond our comprehension. It looks just like our world, except instead of darkness and menace and danger, God’s realm is filled with light and life and health. Maybe we could call it “the right side up.”

And just like the “upside down,” in Stranger Things, God’s “right-side-up” realm is always trying to find a way into our world. Always trying to break through…and establish a foot-hold here.

A few characters in the show are able to see and hear and feel and even cross over to and move around in the “upside down.” There are people in our world who can see and hear and cross over and move around in the realm of God—those are people we would call saints.

These are people—no different from you and me really—except that they have had some life-changing, transformative experiences that make it possible for them to see and know the reality of the realm of God here, in this world.

These are people who are able to see and hear and know that what Jesus says today in this well-known opening to the sermon on the mount is not wishful thinking—these are people who hear the Beatitudes but don’t hear them as aspirational or only in the future. These are people who hear the Beatitudes and know that what they are describing is the deep and very present reality of God’s realm operating here and now. Maybe there are some among us today who hear the Beatitudes in this way. Not as a promise of the future, but as a description of reality.

In God’s realm—“the right side up” those who mourn are comforted. Those who hunger and thirst are filled. Those who are merciful receive mercy. The pure in heart see God. And the peacemakers are called children of God.

And guess what?…that’s what we are…remember? We are God’s children now.

Saints are those who are able to see and know…who are able to live their lives every day as if they already lived in the “right side up”…as if the reign of God was already fully and completely realized in our upside down world.

But you don’t have to be a saint in order to see that or live that way. Baptism is one of those experiences that opens us up to being able to see the world this way…to experience the “right side up.” And holding onto and really trying to live up to and into the promises that we’ll all make (again) in just a few moments—our Baptismal Covenant—those are ways that we help one another gain the ability to see and know and live that “right-side-up” reality in this world. Those are ways we spread the reality of God’s light into the darkness of our world.

And that’s the secret. You don’t have to be a saint in order to do this. You’re already children of God, and you have the ability to see, and hear, and taste, and feel, and know…the reality of God’s love…you have the capacity to share that goodness and love with others…and as you do that…you will be changed, and what you are to become will be revealed. “What we will be has not yet been revealed,” says John, but  “What we do know is this, when he is revealed”—when Christ is revealed—, “we will be like him.”

So again…really let that sink in…we are children of God…right here, right now…without doing anything…and yet…there is more—much more—to be revealed in this world and to be revealed in you. God’s realm is here, now, ready to be shared…can you see it?

Read More

Posted on Oct 16, 2017

Reflections on the Spirituality and Justice Award from the All Saints MANNA team leaders

Dear friends,


It has taken a bit of time for all that has happened with our MANNA brothers and sisters over the past few weeks to start to sink in.  Having the opportunity to both have All Saints go before the MANNA Leadership Team at their weekly Monday meeting to award the larger group our Spirituality and Justice award …and then having 15 of their Leaders come to All Saints to worship with us last week, receive the award, share some stories and insights into their lives on the streets… It was at once heart-warming, eye-opening, and a bit wonderfully overwhelming.

At our parish luncheon after the service, we were given a number of opportunities to see and hear from MANNA members and members of our parish.  We learned a bit more about our evolving relationship with this remarkable community and the challenges they face.

We were shown a short slide show providing a glimpse at the lives and activities of the MANNA community over last year: writing with the Black Seed Writers’ Group, joining in community at their Sunday Coffeeklatsch, walking to raise funds for various causes that are important to their community, worshiping together, sharing stories, meditating, celebrating with a square dance, a weekend camping trip to VT, helping others with a Thanksgiving Day meal and more.
James Parker, a writer for the Atlantic who provides guidance to the writers’ group, distributed poems written by MANNA writers to some parishioners to read out loud.  To hear MANNA members’ words through the voices of our parishioners was a powerful moment.
We also heard reflections from members of the All Saints Leadership Team. Fran Bancroft, Kathleen O’Connor, Sharon Siwiec, Mary Urban Keary and Ginny spoke a bit about the transforming experience for us all working with the MANNA community.  We are all very grateful for the way in which the men and women of MANNA have welcomed us, helped us, shared their stories and offered us a very different picture of men and women who are homeless than what we had experienced in our lives.
Next on were the MANNA speakers: Bryant, who makes winter cloaks, hats and scarves to sell to his colleagues, a man on the street for many years, and now has a room, but who still prefers on many nights to sleep “rough” out with his buddies; Mikel, who described the challenges of staying dry, finding food, searching for a place to sleep; and Richard, who shared his thoughts on what passers by might best do when they walk by a person on the street who is asking for money. He said that offering money is often counterproductive.

He mentioned that what is needed most are white socks, Charlie cards, hand warmers, and McDonald’s cards (which will allow a person to use the facilities, get warm and have a bite to eat).  He also offered that it would be helpful if we raised our voices to the State House to continue their efforts toward providing additional shelter.
We give thanks to our parish in the way that the MANNA community was welcomed and valued on the award Sunday,  to the Mission and Outreach Committee and all who helped in greeting, setting up, preparing our meal and clean up.  We continue to have much to learn and look forward to another year of exploration and growth.
Our next MANNA Monday lunch will be the Monday after Thanksgiving, on Nov. 27.  We hope you will join in in whatever way that may fit.  There are many ways to give thanks.
Ginny, Fran, Kathleen, Sharon and Mary
Read More

Posted on Oct 15, 2017

You are invited—sermon for 15 October 2017

You are invited


Photo Credit: misterlevel Flickr via Compfight cc

October 15, Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23):

Exodus 32:1-14 & Psalm 106:1-6,19-23 
Philippians 4:1-9Matthew 22:1-14

Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

Did you get it?

Your invitation to the banquet?

You got it, right? We’ve all been invited…are you going?

Oh, do you have other things to do?

More important things?


Well…see ya.

This is a tough parable. I guess what’s clear is that there really is nothing more important than attending this particular dinner party. That’s true in all the versions of this parable—because there are others. They show up in Luke and the Gospel of Thomas—but those have the king sending his slaves out to bring whomever they can find to the party. Those are easier to understand. This invitation is something that we need to pay attention to, and it’s an invitation that is open and available to all. But Matthew has turned a parable (which are generally pretty open ended) into an allegory (which are way more specific). Matthew adds a whole bunch of detail—the destruction of the city—and invents this other character—this poor speechless guy who gets roughed up and tossed out for a reason that’s difficult to fathom.

Matthew’s allegory would have made much more sense had we just lived through the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. If we were the first people hearing this, we would have understood that we are ones who have brought into the banquet after the troops had literally destroyed the city. We also would have understood this man without wedding robes as being one of those people who shows up but doesn’t actually do anything. 2000 years later, we just see some poor schlub who didn’t get the memo about the dress code, but in the first century, we might have understood the wedding robes as an allegory for “putting on Christ”—for really living out the Gospel. And we would have noticed that he’s also speechless—he doesn’t even give lip-service to the faith—we’re not supposed to do that. Whether we’re in the first century or the twenty-first century, we’re supposed to proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ. In other words, unlike this guy, we’re supposed walk the walk…and talk the talk…We are to live as Christ’s heart, and hands, and feet, and voice in the world…We’re to continue issuing this invitation to everyone.

Recently you should have received another invitation; an invitation to make a pledged financial commitment to All Saints next year. And as I wondered how I was going to spin this parable into a stewardship sermon, I thought: The core of this parable—not the allegory, but the parable—is this command “to go out and invite everyone.” Everyone. Good. Bad. Deserving. Underserving. Believers. Doubters…doesn’t matter. Everyone. And I remembered a quote attributed to Archbishop William Temple: “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

What we do here…all that we do here—of course we all derive great benefit from it—or I hope we do—but what we do here, at this banquet, is not only for our benefit…it’s for the benefit of those who are not here…everyone else.

And then we buried a beloved member of the parish yesterday, I was thinking about all of the hundred and thousands of people that his life touched and changed. And because he was a teacher, I started thinking about all of the other teachers here…and all the students that the professors and teachers and day care workers among us have taught over the years…all of the clients that the lawyers here have helped, all of the patients seen by all of the doctors and nurses and physical therapists, and caregivers here…all of the customers, and co-workers, the bosses, and shopkeepers, and neighbors, and friends, the generations of extended families who have never set foot inside this building, but have nevertheless been touched and influenced by it because of your presence here. Because you have put on Christ and carry that Good News into the world…every day, through your lives and actions in the world.

And then reading through the stewardship materials—the beautiful letter, and the really cool infographic—I thought about all of people who have been involved in recovery programs here…all of the people who have found community and artistic expression through participation in one of the choral and arts groups that meet here. The young artists who have gotten a start here…the clergy and lay ministers that have been raised up here…I thought of the Korean students who have found a home away from home, and the families who have found a nurturing place for their children here. I thought about all of the people at MANNA and Common Cathedral, and in Honduras, and Tanzania, and all the other places throughout the world where people from this congregation have traveled over the years…and I thought the individuals who occasionally drift in during the week because life has just gotten to be just a little too much, and they just need to sit in the peace and quiet of this space.

And as I imagined all of these connections rippling out from here I thought:

That’s quite a banquet.

That’s quite a story.

To be part of that?

That’s not an invitation I’m going to turn down. And I hope you don’t either.

I want to be a part of that, not just because of what I get out of it, but because of what everyone else gets out of it.

A pledge makes it possible for us to continue extending that invitation…to everyone…it means that those students, and clients, and families, and friends, and artists, and patients…and people in recovery…and people halfway across the world, and people just needing some place to rest can all be reminded that there is something good, and beautiful, and holy at the center of it all…That’s not an invitation I’m going to turn down, because I want everyone—especially those who aren’t here—to continue having access to this glorious, life-changing, life-affirming banquet.


Read More

Posted on Sep 25, 2017

Where’s the justice in that?—sermon for 24 September 2017

Where’s the justice in that?


Sept. 24, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20):

Exodus 16:2-15 & Psalm 105:1-6,37-45
Philippians 1:21-30Matthew 20:1-16

Sermon preached by Alan McLellan – September 24, 2017

“That is so unjust!”  I don’t know about you, but that’s my reaction to a lot of things that happen in the world.  It’s also my reaction to the parable in today’s Gospel: A landowner hires people to work in his vineyard – and the ones hired at the beginning of the day are given a day’s wages. The ones who are hired at midday are given a day’s wages, and the ones hired close to the end of the day are given….a day’s wages!  Where’s the justice in that?  It’s pretty frustrating: you look to Jesus for a parable to confirm your sense of fairness, your sense of what’s right, and he comes up with something like that!

Well, in the men’s book group, we turned to the 19th century Russian novelist Dostoevsky and I must say we didn’t fare much better. We’ve been reading his “Crime and Punishment”. And it’s hard to believe that the criminal in that story gets the punishment he deserves either.

Some of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve had the privilege to be part of the last few years have taken place here at All Saints, as part of the Men’s book group. It’s just one of several opportunities around the Parish (including a women’s book group!) for folks to talk about faith and life, and I highly recommend you get involved in one of them.  This question about justice is at the heart of “Crime and Punishment”.  The central figure of the story is Raskolnikov, a young law student, and one of the most striking things about the book is the way we are drawn to identify with this character. Raskolnikov is full of the idealism of youth, but short on the money he needs to finish his studies.  He’s managed to get himself into debt to a pawnbroker -an old woman he considers a worthless crone. Her only desire is to get money out of her borrowers so she can die wealthy and leave everything to a monastery where the monks will pray for her soul.  And there’s the justice question again: “Where’s the justice in that?”.  So Raskolnikov decides he’s going to take matters into his own hands.  He has come to believe that certain people (such as himself) are superior. They have the right to commit crimes – even murder if necessary – for the greater good.  So he comes up with a scheme to set things right.  He’ll kill the old woman, take her money and use it to further his studies and go on to make the world a better place.  (This is where the reader starts to feel distinctly uncomfortable – because we’re identifying with this guy, and he’s about to murder a defenceless old woman!).  But according to Raskolnikov, it’s in the interests of justice!

We might say that he stands with the laborers who were hired first in today’s Gospel story.  “What’s up with this?” they say.  “These people weren’t here all day, working in the hot sun!  How could this possibly be just?”

We know that we are called to stand up to injustice. I don’t think Jesus is saying that we should just accept it.  He is not saying that we should just accept it when women are paid less for doing the same work as men, or when the poor suffer disproportionately from the effects of natural disasters, or when according to a 2014 study, almost one-third of Brookline residents are economically insecure Where’s the justice in that?  

So what’s up with this parable of the laborers in the vineyard?  What is Jesus trying to tell us about justice?  I think we get a really good hint from Dostoevsky in “Crime and Punishment.”  Because our crazy young man, Raskolnikov, actually does follow through on his plan to kill the old woman and take her money. He even kills her handicapped sister who just happens to get in the way.  But, although he takes her money, he doesn’t actually follow through on using it for good as he had planned -because deep down he really knows how dreadful – how despicable his act really was.  

And here’s where Dostoevsky comes up with a twist in the story that illustrates how God’s justice works so much differently than ours.  

At this point I have to say that there are many ways to interpret this amazing novel, but I’ve just latched on to one.  And many colorful and interesting characters…. I don’t have time to describe to you this morning, but several of them show compassion to this young man even in the face of rejection, and even once they know about his evil deed.

So here’s the twist:  There’s a young woman he gets to know. Sonya is her name – and Sonya’s father is a drunk – a colorful character, but he drank his family’s livelihood away, and left them destitute.  Sonya’s solution for the family’s problem is to “get up, put on her kerchief and pelisse (a pelisse is a beautiful fur-lined coat), and go out.  And sometime after 8 she came back with 30 silver roubles”  (And that’s a lot of money) So Sonya has become a prostitute so that her sick mother and her younger brothers and sisters can live.

And perhaps because she is shunned by the world, Raskolnikov feels he can confide in her.  Ironically, even though she’s living the life of a prostitute, theirs is a completely chaste relationship.  Raskolnikov still clings to the idea that the deed he has done was all for the good.  But he is tormented by what he has done.  He confesses his crime to Sonya, and she convinces him to go to the police detective (who has suspected him for some time by this point) and to tell him everything.  

And off Raskolnikov goes to Siberia, to serve his punishment – 8 years of penal servitude.  But he doesn’t go alone.  Sonya, who has loved him constantly and sacrificially throughout this ordeal, loves him still, and follows him to Siberia to be with him there.  

So here we have young man whose rational world view leads him to commit a grotesque, horrible crime.  He wants to correct a perceived injustice – this pawnbroker is a blot – a stain on society, and the idea is that by eliminating her he can make the world a better place.  But through a series of events that grows to a climax, eventually he comes to realize the enormity of his crime, confesses — and then finally, at the very end, he begins his long journey to redemption.  

So now, the more I think about this, the more I am struck by the image in the parable, of the laborers coming in from the vineyard, dusty and sweaty after working all day in the scorching heat.   They haven’t done anything wrong – they didn’t murder anybody to try to obtain justice – they just worked a full shift, and they’re only looking for fairness.  They have a right to their wages.

But in God’s kingdom, the laborers who just showed up at the end of the day also have that right.

And all the generous and loving characters in “Crime and Punishment”, who suffer immense hardship themselves, but shower kindness on this young student, Raskolnikov, have a claim on the grace of God.  And somehow, in God’s kingdom, so does Raskolnikov, the criminal—the one who comes late, and very reluctantly—nevertheless, he too receives a share of grace in God’s kingdom.

And so do we.  Because the grace of God, as the parable today points out, does not depend on the things we do to earn it.  It only depends on us coming to him, confessing everything, and being welcomed to his table.

So whatever crazy directions your life has taken – whatever it is that you have weighing on you:  welcome! Eat the manna, drink the wine, and accept the grace of God, freely given, whether you come early or late.


Read More

Posted on Sep 17, 2017

Learning a dialect of grace—sermon for 17 September 2017

Learning a dialect of grace


Photo Credit: thedailyenglishshow Flickr via Compfight cc

Sept. 17, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19):

Exodus 14:19-31 & Psalm 114
Romans 14:1-12Matthew 18:21-35

Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

Picture this.

A child on a skateboard. In the living room. As the skateboard goes out from under the kid, the child flies into a table, and the table and everything on it comes crashing to the floor. Before you can even muster an outraged look, the words come flying out of the kid’s mouth… “I didn’t mean to!”

That’s one of the images from a great kids book, David Gets In Trouble, by David Shannon…David Shannon has several books about David who continues to get into trouble, his parents always speak in some variation of “no!” The kid always offers some excuse. Until the last page when there is always reconciliation. Shannon explains in the author’s note “When his [parent] says ‘no’ it’s because [they] worry about his safety, [they] want him to grow up to be a good person. Deep down, [they’re] really saying, “I love you.” But when David says ‘no,’ it usually means, “I don’t want to get into trouble.”

“I didn’t mean to,”—even as an adult—is often code for “I don’t want to get into trouble.” Adults just have more clever ways of saying it. We’ve all heard those non-apology apologies. “If anyone was offended by my remarks, I’m apologize. I assure you it was not my intent to offend.” That’s just a grown-up way of saying, “I didn’t mean to.” “I don’t want to get in trouble”

Of course we don’t want to get into trouble, and last week we heard about what to do when we do get into trouble…when we didn’t mean to…but did anyway. This week we get the follow up…that we are to forgive.

Forgiveness is tricky to begin with. It’s hard to forgive people sometimes. It takes lots and lots of practice. And it’s even harder when we’re not clear about what we did…or when our intentions—whether we meant to or not—gets thrown into the mix.

How many times in your life have you had a conversation that includes a phrase like this “I’m sure she meant well, but…” “He’s such a nice guy, I’m sure he would never do anything to intentionally hurt someone…” Shifting the focus from what happened, to what someone intended—actually short-circuits the process of forgiveness because when we get locked into thinking about what someone meant, we often stop being truthful about the impact of behavior. And really, it’s the impact not the intent that matters.

Most of us don’t intend to say something hurtful, or do something mean. But we do.  I don’t know anyone who wants to be like this guy in today’s parable…(We get that we’re not supposed to be like the guy in today’s parable, right?). OK maybe there are some who intentionally set out to make life miserable for others…but generally we get we’re not supposed to do that… we’re not trying to harm anybody, we’re just trying to get through our day…trying to take care of ourselves, or our family, or get the job done, and sure we’re tired, and cranky, and stressed out, and we don’t mean to act like that, but we do. And we also understand that we’re not supposed to make up excuses  for ourselves or others…but we do that too, and that trips us up.

“I’m sure they didn’t mean to.”

The sad fact is, that even after centuries and centuries of teaching and preaching about forgiveness, we’re still not very good at it. In part, I believe, because we continue to get hung up on intention…on whether someone meant to do it or not. This is particularly true for those of us raised in a North American culture, and especially our church culture—which really values being “nice” over being truthful. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being nice, per se unless it short-circuits real healing and forgiveness. And being truthful isn’t the same as being a bully.

Learning how to do this—learning to apologize (or to use churchier word) to confess…and learning how to forgive is like learning a new language…and the language of confession and forgiveness is still pretty foreign to us.

So I’m going to give you a very short tutorial on how to apologize. [The Gottman Institute is great resource]

Ideally, this is done in a situation like Jesus outlined last week. “If someone sins against you go and point it out when the two of you are alone.”

You’ve done something and someone lets you know it, and the two of you go off (and Jesus is there). First off: Swallow that impulse to say “I didn’t mean to.” Instead, try saying to yourself, “I didn’t mean to do it AND I did do it.” Now what?

Next: acknowledge the reality of the hurt—but, “I’m sorry you’re upset” is not an apology…neither is “I’m sorry you feel that way,” “I’m sorry I was rude.” or “I’m sorry I offended you,” that’s a start to an apology.

Be specific about it and take ownership of your own feelings and actions.

Don’t add an excuse…”I’m sorry I was rude, but I was really irritated,” means “I’m not really sorry, I’m just irritated” or I might be sorry, but I really don’t want to get in trouble… You could try flipping it around and changing the “but” to “and”—I’m really irritated, and I took it out on you. That was wrong. I’m sorry.”

Now, here comes the really tricky part: Ask for forgiveness. “I’m sorry I was rude.” I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” Those great beginnings but they’re just statements. They invite no response. Adding, “Will you forgive me?” is a humble request that can build a relationship. Here’s the thing. And this is crucial…When you ask for forgiveness. You have to wait for a response. You can’t expect it. Nor can you expect the other to also apologize. So, “I’m sorry I broke the lamp.” “I’m sorry I was rude and interrupted. Will you forgive me?” Period. It’s up to the other person to decide how and when they will respond. Depending on the level of hurt, be prepared for them to say “I need some time. I’m not there right now.” As this parable shows in pretty graphic detail, we are never owed forgiveness. That’s why it’s grace and that’s why we should always be grateful when we do receive it.

The final step…attempt to make a repair. “I’m sorry I did X. Will you forgive me?” Wait… “Is there anything I can do to make this right?” And if there is do it.

It’s hard I know. I get this wrong every day. Learning how to really recognize our impact in the world…learning how to really acknowledge all of the things done and the things undone…both positive and negative…learning how to confess, and apologize, and ask for and receive forgiveness…it really is like learning a foreign language…and how much and often do you have to practice in order to learn a foreign language? Every day? Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times? Maybe even seventy times seven times…but imagine the healing that God could bring about if we all became fluent in this dialect of grace.


Read More