The Brittle Story of Victimization

Last in the Series, Seven Stories: Jesus’ Big Story, and the Other Stories by Which We Live

Welcome everyone!  I’m Ivy, Cate mentioned. It’s so great to be with you this morning – so lovely to have a room full with the texture of many of you who regard yourselves as young at heart – and many of you who are just, well – young…. Our kid’s programming takes a break once and awhile – and this Sunday is one of them – so welcome all you toddlers and kids! It’s a joy to have you, and your voices and energy in the room this morning!

Next week we will enter the season of Lent, these few weeks leading up to Easter.   We’ll spend these weeks as a community considering the centrality of the cross – and we’ll explore this through a myriad of ways; a daily reflection guide – (that includes Bible and poetry), some thoughts on our blog around “Why did Jesus Die?”, authored by Pastor Steve , sermons of course, special services, Ash Wednesday 2/26, a participatory liturgy, and Good Friday service.   It is a rich season which I’m looking forward to pressing into with all of you – and if you are looking to explore this season with others, beyond a Sunday morning experience – it’s also a great time to consider joining a community group (booklets in lobby, me, website). 

Today though, we are wrapping up our winter series, Seven Stories. We’ve spent the last few weeks exploring 5 primary stories that authors Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins suggest we’ve been telling and listening to for far too long – stories that don’t seem to usher in connection, liberation, creativity or peace for us all.  We’ve looked at the stories of domination, redemptive violence, isolation, purification and accumulation. We’ve told stories, and read scripture, posed reflective questions and gave helpful spiritual practice tips to help us pause and consider just how these stories are woven into our beings. Not just stories we can witness or identify – somewhere OUT there – but WHERE, IN US these stories live… and WHY…. And how on earth, these stories are told with our words and lips and bodies – and HOW we go about the work of unearthing them, shifting them, and yes, (changing direction), repenting from the ways we perpetuate these stories.

Today – as is true every time I stand here – I  preach to myself first. . .. because I am still WAKING up to some of these stories , still acknowledging and owning responsibility for where I participate in telling them,  and I’m still trying to do the work and effort it takes to change them. I’m finding that these stories, (maybe not so surprisingly), DEMAND our trust in the extraordinary, supernatural story of Jesus to shake our constitutions again – to bring us to our knees with the belief in the  power of the miraculous spirit of love , “to see that the movement of the Spirit of God  – often call us to act against the spirit of our times, [these prominent stories of our days], with wisdom, humility, and courage ….” (Howard Thurman).

And to “learn once again  – as Howard Thurman says, how to put at the disposal of the limitless demands of our [painful experiences]- the boundless resources of God – to see that instead of just enduring [being a victim to] this life,  that we can float it.” (Thurman, 173).

The story of victimization, which I’ll talk more about today – tells the truth of the pain we incur in this life and also the lie that life is nothing more than pain…. (and that we are powerless to it). 

Now where we move from being a real victim of injustice, to a mentality of victimhood – that holds us prisoner to our pain – is sometimes hard to parse out.  How much time must go by? A month? 1 year? 5 years? 10 years? I guess the question is less about time and more about what we do with the pain we all experience as humans. Do we tell the truth about this pain – and let it transform us? Or do we as Richard Rohr is known for saying, “transmit the pain” out into the world through defensiveness, anger, fear.  This is a big question, particularly for those of us – like myself, who are white – and enjoy high status, high pay, high privilege, power and authority.  So I invite you to let this question roll around throughout the sermon toda,y and see if it is relevant to you. 

The story of victimization is a story woven in, and a product of all the other stories, I mentioned earlier.  It’s a tangle of knots and harm and lies – of structures, and people’s actual lives, our children, and institutions and  dreams and nightmares – all contorted to fit into boxes of “us v. them”, upon which we’ve built a world, a way of being.  

“Us versus them.

Us versus some of us.

Us in spite of them.

Us away from them.

Us competing with them to get more “stuff”.” (McLaren & Higgins)

We can not untie one story from the other – without being willing to look and face the full entirety of it’s mess.   This is why it’s so daunting to start. What thread do we pull first? What’s the entry point?

Humanity has never known what to do with unjust suffering – yet is our universal experience on this earth.  We are all wounded. We have wounded, and we have been wounded. Wounder/woundee. And to be wounded, harmed, to suffer – all of it is unjust, and to be a victim is to endure unjust suffering.  “Spiritual masters teach us that it is not what happens that causes us to suffer, but the stories we tell about it” (McLaren & Higgins, 133).   So maybe the starting line  – the way into these complex network of stories, is the locus within ourselves that holds ‘yes’ the pain – but also the possibility for transformation of that pain, Jesus’ deep, powerful love. 

Today, I invite you to start with yourself.  To consider what pain you might be in and where that pain resides right now? What have you done with it? Where have you placed it? What are the challenges the barriers? What story are you telling about this pain?

Prayer:  Jesus we/I plead for your help. Where answers are so scarce – We ask for your mercy – as we stumble to create them –  could you listen to us? Could you guide us to our hearts, where our pain is lodged, and also where your love resides. 

MY STORY:  A couple of weeks ago I spoke about the story of isolation and in that I shared more than I ever have about the particulars of growing up in a small mill town in Maine.  I shared that the ethic of this town was built around this paper mill culture – where generational pride and loyalty spun out of working really hard and making an honest living – and held the nexus of where people formed their identities and found belonging.  (the lore is that many people who graduated from the local high school say on a Thursday – would work their first shift at the mill on a Friday – this is how deeply the mill’s story was entrenched into “who people were”). 

The suffering that people endured however, due to poisons and toxins from these mills – found in the erosion of their land, water, air and decaying, cancer-ridde-bodies – – was not acknowledged even as attention to this link grew greater.    Even as the EFFECTS of this suffering and pain was impactful and noticeable in their real lives. 

People lost their jobs.

Healthcare coverage.




Businesses closed.

Schools closed.

People moved away.

Depression and deaths of despair grew:

Opioid related deaths.


Harm, pain and suffering grew.

People were hurt….. And people were victims of injustice at the hands of this great, powerful institution the paper mill.   Which continued to spill out evil with threats of slashing healthcare coverage, over-time on Sundays and all holidays, even as people were dying of mill-related diseases.


Not knowing really what to do with all this pain, 

People isolated, because they didn’t want to be hurt again in that way…   And they turned to each other in these bunkers for protection and safety, and they asked the questions of PAIN; “Why me?”  “How could my livelihood be so disrupted?” “How could my dreams for my family and my life – be so sidelined?” “I’ve worked so hard.” “I’ve been so good!” 

This was a strong thru-line in my town – and perhaps nationally – that  bad things couldn’t happen to good, hard-working, people.”

Such valid questions, and feelings… 

People were looking for a meaning for their suffering. 

An answer that could provide:

A release valve, something to inoculate the pain. 

A place to deposit the tears, the outrage, the fear.  

An answer that would be a remedy to the exhausting plight of poverty that echoed in their bones.  

Pain charges and fires all of the receptors in our bodies and it communicates to our brains, “I am being dealt with in a manner that is ruthless because this suffering ignores my private world of concerns!” (Thurman 171). 

There wasn’t an answer, or for that matter much redemption on the horizon for folks in this mill town.  And where there is an alarming deficit of good/hope/joy people tend to give up on life, and each other. This hopelessness manifests often in cynicism, bitterness, negativity and blaming as a substitute to looking squarely at the pain – and it’s not a bad approach because it provides immediate satisfaction.

With the amped tensions and fears in my town  – and with no direct acknowledgement of pain, victim- mentality set up strong and ran deep.  People felt as though suffering would and could only be the only story in their lives – there was no way out  – and they felt powerless in this.  This is a scary place to be with little resources, with shame and failure, as new, thick words in your vocabulary.

Our primal instincts kick in when we are in pain – and they cause us to fight or flight.  Many people in my home town (and surrounding towns), enacted the “flight” mode – isolating – separating themselves.

But many others also chose to FIGHT.  The first step in fighting – is to identify the enemy, the bad guy, the source of harm –  who will I blame for the pain? We create the scapegoat.

“Philosopher René Girard sees this tendency to scapegoat others as the central story line of human history. Why? Because it works. The scapegoat mechanism was almost perfectly ritualized by the Israelites. They enacted placing their sins on a poor goat and sending it off into the wilderness to die, thus the name, scapegoat”. (Richard Rohr). 

When we can find our scapegoat  – it acts as a relief valve initially, it brings about a sense of justified peace – and gives us a sense of satisfaction.  And for those of us who are used to holding power – the satisfaction allows us to have that familiar scent of power again, to be in control again –  and we get to deposit our fear, our hate, our frustration on SOMEONE else.

Many mill workers stood up to the institution that brought harm to so many.  1200 mill employees decided to strike to bring truth to power for the ways the mill continued to pump pain into people’s lives.    The mill responded with fear and defensiveness and fired all of these workers.     

The mill also replaced all of these workers with new workers.  Many, as it turns out were family members, friends, neighbors of those who originally struck.  Folks in town were desperate to make ends meet, the mill paid well above the hourly wage, and many jumped at the chance to get in at the mill, even if temporarily while the strike was active.   The strike lasted 16 months and when it was over not one of the original strikers got their jobs back. The replacement workers were permanent.

This, created new schisms, fractures, new enemies – and fresh scapegoats. Life was bleaker, more pained, and now riddled with a deeper story-line of victimization for many.    Not only had the town quickly divided over that stretch of time – they had also VERY quickly, “accepted violence as a natural expression of pain”.  Epithets, rocks, ball bearings fired from sling-shots were hurled at strikers…   And those who did not support the strike were taunted with curses, and men whose closest brush with the law had been no more than a parking ticket started carrying guns and baseball bats in their vehicles.   Kids in my classes at school – faced bullying at the power of teachers – who may have had relatives or friends – that were on the other side of the strike line. It became a tangle of these primary stories. 

Playing the victim is a way to deal with pain indirectly. “You blame someone else, and your pain becomes your personal ticket to power and control. …because it gives you a false sense of moral superiority and of having been offended”(Rohr).  But it doesn’t catalyze anything except more fear, more pain, more defensiveness and a brittleness of always being on edge.

It also creates a very fragile system of people.  Because now – not only is the institution the source of your personal pain – but the possibility that your  neighbor, friend, family member is now also on the table – there’s no one to trust. We are always the victim.  

With this posture, the side-eye that someone gives you in the check-out line, the push that someone gives you on the soccer field, the fact that someone didn’t pick up your phone call -or email you right back, or the feedback you got at that meeting, or the feedback you didn’t get at that meeting – it all lands personally, as an attack, and your wound stays fresh. 

Richard Rohr says, “We are all tempted to project our problems on someone or something else rather than dealing with it in ourselves….because it takes away our inner shame and anxiety and gives us a false sense of innocence.” 

But he says it “doesn’t ask us to grow, or to change, or transform.  You don’t have to grow up, you don’t have to pray, you don’t have to let go, you don’t have to forgive or surrender—you just have to accuse someone else of being worse than you are. And sadly that becomes our very fragile identity, which always needs more reinforcement.”

Again – here’s a snippet of my small-mill-town-story, and if it doesn’t resonate or feel relevant to you – than so be it… But I think it points to the greater patterns we enter into – when we take on a victim mentality, when we scapegoat and perpetuate harm.  And it’s how we get into loops of conversation that I hear so often, “my pain is greater than your pain”, or “I’m a victim too”, or “oh, I haven’t oppressed you”, and this is all symptomatic of evading our pain. Which actually leads to deepening the trenches of our own wounds –  keeping them raw and bleeding – far away from healing. 

All throughout the Bible we see this play out  – people in pain – threatened – stressed – wounded – and Jesus gives us countless models of how to transform our pain – How to not just be wounded – but to maybe be wounded and healers at the same time.. These models often incorporate an invitation to reorient to Him – the source of abundant love, healing and good news for everyone.

So I’d love for us to look at the scripture on your program, which gives us some texture in this regard:

Matthew 15:21-28 (NLT)

21 Then Jesus left Galilee and went north to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Gentile woman who lived there came to him, pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! For my daughter is possessed by a demon that torments her severely.”

23 But Jesus gave her no reply, not even a word. Then his disciples urged him to send her away. “Tell her to go away,” they said. “She is bothering us with all her begging.”

24 Then Jesus said to the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep—the people of Israel.”

25 But she came and worshiped him, pleading again, “Lord, help me!”

26 Jesus responded, “It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs.”

27 She replied, “That’s true, Lord, but even dogs are allowed to eat the scraps, the crumbs, that fall beneath their masters’ table.”

28 “Dear woman,” Jesus said to her, “your faith is great. Your request is granted.” And her daughter was instantly healed.

OOOOF – Jesus.  Challenging picture here.

Again the message that I know of the good news of Jesus  – is that He is the central source from which we have hope to transform our pain, to heal, to feel comfort when we are victims of injustice…at our most vulnerable.  It’s a message that says Jesus is good, loving .. always. Always. always. Except, here,  when he’s not?  When he’s insulting and mean?

I am absolutely not going to make sense of all the possible interpretations of this passage, there are so many… but I’ll offer some perspective, which is not to be taken as the RIGHT way of interpreting what’s going on here – but as a possible lens through which you could explore for yourself, one that might open up something you hadn’t seen, or read or heard. 

At a baseline I think there are some power dynamics going on here… that this story invites us to consider in our own lives  – 

This woman is from a Gentile region, so Jesus and the disciples moved into areas that most Jews would have considered unclean. This region, in particular has a long history of paganism and opposition to the Jews.  In addition, this woman herself is regarded as unclean because of her demon possessed daughter. So she is facing, “ xenophobia, sexism, classism and social discrimination”, as her daily existance. (Gonzalez, 125).

Jesus comes into this region not with tremendous power – he’s a working class Israelite under Roman occupation – from a town of lower status – BUT  – he still holds a fair amount of social power as it relates particularly to this woman. He is an able-bodied man, he is an Israelite with Israelite lands – he’s known as a respected teacher.   And yet, what this woman seems most interested in – is not necessarily the power represented in those social strati – but the power he has access to, the power that she’s heard of from afar, that’s traveled over the lands and into her town – the power that she’s so compelled to find, despite her barriers – and this is the power to heal – the power that Jesus holds, to free this woman’s daughter or not, as he chooses.  

He is part of a religious system that holds this power, as far as she’s concerned – and she needs it, she is suffering. 

And here is the set up for humanity, right?  

Power held by some, and needed by so many. 

Howard Thurman says that, “there is something about such suffering that seems to be degrading, that seems to insult the human spirit.  There is something about it that is unclean and demonic (171)” .

Suffering in and of itself – is already isolating, degrading, and insulting.  And this woman is pushing through that suffering, oppression, marginalization –  laying herself flat – desperate – crying out, on her knees… for HELP , JESUS!

And we see her rush to engage with Jesus – a source that could offer her relief, and healing…  and what happens? He seems to add to the rejection, heap on degradation and injure with insult.

 This religious system – that she thought might hold something different than all the other systems she’s been prey to – that might hold in it a healing power to expel the demonic and ravaging forces of suffering that her daughter and herself have endured – seems to offer nothing different, as she is also held victim to the words and actions of Jesus…..

This confirms for her, that his power is bound by the religious institution he is part of – his complicity with it.

Here is where I would have jumped right into a victim mentality… I would have thought, “this is enough – there’s nothing else.  There’s no power that I can have access to, touch – if it’s not found in you, Jesus”… “I”m powerless, all of life will only be this suffering.”

And I do, do this often.   

Just recently I had my brother and my sister-in-laws’ four kids, (all under the age of 10), for a few days in December – while they went on a trip.

Mercifully they let me use their van to transport our collective 7 children around.  And the first day the kids were here – we all filed into the van, and I clicked a zillion seatbelts and carseats into place – and off we went to drop off one of my kids at practice.

On our way home we stopped at a beach on the south shore – where I enlisted all of them to collect and transport 100’s of rocks for an element in our Advent participatory liturgy service that we had in December.

(Surprisingly small children LOVE picking up rocks!)

Things were going so well, I thought I’ll stop at Dunkin’ Donuts and get everyone a treat :). 

So we did, and as we drove out of the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot,  with a munchkin in each hand – I thought about how sweet life is. How thankful I am to be trusted with watching these little guys – and what a real delight it is for me, even though it was in the midst of a really busy season for me.

And then I feel something funny – at the back of the van – feels like the back end is sliding a bit –  I ask the 10 yr old if she notices anything. She’s says, “Eh, this van is on it’s 3rd leg – it’s so broken down – everything sounds and feels funny all the time.”

And I thought, “Solid point”.  Most of that van had things that were patched together to make do… gas tank, glove compartment…

But the sound and the feeling gets more pronounced and I decide to stop about ½ way home at a gas station.
Intending to top off the tires with some air.

I get outside and the back rear tire is FLAT to the ground, I mean on the rim!

I go to look for the spare tire – but we have 100’s of ROCKS covering the vestibule where it lives… 

  • And instantly I’m like, “You know what? Life is really crappy!” 

And the monologue just continues: 

“Everytime I try to do something nice – BAM! something bad happens.

Life is soooo tiring – and – exhausting – unforgiving.

Life is never just smooth, easy , free of “tragic events.”

I work so hard and never get recognized for it. 

Never get any accolades.

Life just keeps giving it’s crappy  – crap – crap – storyline to me over and over again.”

And there it is – it’s this old mill town story-line playing out in my life. The victim hood mentality that rears it’s head – that I can’t quite shake fully from my being.  IN fact I really need to pay attention when I start telling that story to even realize that’s the story I’m writing. The story that says, “there’s no God here, I have no access to power, I’m powerless.”

The beauty of this scripture is that this woman doesn’t  play the victim – or pull out the blame card – and she has every good reason to – but she did neither!  She, “wouldn’t allow the events of her life to make her their prisoner.” (Thurman 179)  And she stands firmly, strongly in front of Jesus. She doesn’t shame or yell or hurl insults back.   

But she challenges him, I think, “Jesus what exactly are you trying to communicate here?”

“I hear of these great stories of healing that you’ve done – even of Gentiles and women (!)  That seems greater than any power I’ve witnessed of a system! So how is it that the stories you tell through your lips and your hands communicate equality and healing – but you can be a part of a religious institution that systematically doles out elitism and exclusion?”

“And how is it I stand in front of you today pleading for mercy, healing and help –  and you call me a dog?” (Which by the way in English, Greek or Aramaic calling a woman a dog is not a term of endearment – it’s an insult – a slur). 

“How is it that your lips and your actions communicate harshness, and prejudice – but are supposed to build, with power,  a KIN-DOM full of acceptance, freedom, wholeness, justice?”

I don’t get it – Jesus, where’s that picture of power – that everyone I’ve heard of is telling is so compelling ? the power of love?  It seems like in either case you are throwing it away.

Don’t’ you see, that even the crumbs – Jesus – even the crumbs of love, could feed a dog like me.   I followed those crumbs, here to you – today.  That’s how powerful they are…..”

This woman speaks directly to Jesus and upholds his dignity,  calls OUT his divinity – by naming him Lord all throughout the exchange…  AND she also sees him as human.
And I think this is where we might stumble with this passage – it’s where we forget that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. 

But I think if we see his humanness here, we can be helped in our own.

What if fully human Jesus is a product of his system the way all humans are, and a fully DIVINE Jesus teaches us how to overcome those systems? 

I think he does both here.

I do think he learned about his own prejudices from this woman. 

And I do think he learned that he can perpetuate these prejudices, this harm that resides in the religious system he’s a part of – EVEN when He’s trying to build upon and fill out that very system with love and acceptance.

It is important to me that Matthew (and Mark) include the words that Jesus says – as much as they discomfort and challenge our picture of a loving Jesus.   It shows how strong, and how insidious the tug of power is – of how privilege, even when enacted OFTEN in a compassionate manner – still has the propensity to continue the story lines of oppression and pain.

As much as blowing the tire out on my brother’s van,  really stunk that day. The gas station that I drove up to – was thankfully also an auto mechanic garage… and the mechanic mercifully took me in immediately, just 10 minutes before they closed.  He plugged the tire, charged me $25 – and my 6 children, were happy to take turns spinning each other around in an office chair – in the tiny vestibule at the side of the garage.  

Hurray ! Glorious ending!
Hurray! Glorious ending – as a result of my whiteness and my privilege.

As much as I was a victim of this car breaking.  And as much as I was a victim of poverty many years ago – I  have to acknowledge and see that doors were opened for me – (literally that day) as a beneficiary of the system of racism – where doors were closed to two other people of color who came into have their cars serviced just a smidge after me –  were turned away. 

It feels relevant to me to think about how Jesus invites me to consider the reality that  I’m not just a “representative” of systems of oppression – but how I am an active part of it… even if I don’t believe in racism or promote ideologies, the systems built on whiteness  still perpetuate racist outcomes. 

I think this is the use of power that Jesus might show us in this passage.   That we have other options than to fight or flight. We don’t need to exclude or find a scapegoat, or play the victim. OUR energy trying to convince people that “I’m a victim too” – or that “I’m not racist” – is damaging to others and creates brittle inner landscapes, avoids responsibility and effects no change.  Furthermore – it doesn’t get to this woman’s main desire – AND perhaps what we all come to Jesus to find; the power of love, the hope of healing, of transforming our pain. Where is it found, how can I access it? I think Jesus is showing us that we can’t get there unless we take steps at unharming – where we have harmed. 

This poet I love, Nayyirah Waheed wrote these few lines (on your program):

unharm someone


telling the truth you could not face

when you

struck instead of tended.

– put the fire out (unburn)

Healing it seems – can only come from telling the truth. The truth about our pain – our sense of self – our worth – …   The truth of stepping out of the victimization story – uncentering ourselves – and owning where we have harmed.  Jesus shows us how to do this. 

This is the mercy for us, that Jesus shows us his very humn moments in this story.  He’s ignoring, he’s defensive, he doesn’t want to take time for this woman – he doesn’t want to be interrupted, he wants to find somewhere quiet… he tries his hardest to reject her,  with exclusion and slurs – AND he uses his power for harm, instead of healing

This woman helps him orient back to the true source of His power – not dictated in this religious system, but imparted to him by God. 

This is divine power.  (She is divine).

The divine power that helps him listen, reflect and repent.

This is the divine power of Jesus not only found in the healing of the daughter at the end of this story… 

BUT found in Jesus’ repentance.

Now the word “repentance”, can make some of us bristle – it’s been twisted and used as a weapon – but like the words Steve spoke on a few weeks ago of “covenant” and “sacrament” – I think it is a religious word , that just might be worth recovering. 

“The Greek word for repentance, translated to English is metanoia. Meta means “beyond” and noia means “thought” or “mind” .. together it means to change your thoughts or your mind, to turn in a new direction, to reverse a direction and go a different way.” (O’Tuama 200). 

Jesus shows us here how to repent – when we’ve wielded our power in hurtful ways.  He shows us how to grow up. To take responsibility – repent of the things that we can, to start the process of unharming, to be healers.

“To be open to the possibility of repentance is a sign of the goodness of humanity.”  (O’Tuama 200).

Jesus showed us his change of direction – his mind opening to the resistance of this woman AND not in the privacy of a quiet meeting, but in the public field… where his power mattered.   

Where he could show that his power really wasfor people, rather than over  them… 

Here, he showed us how to take steps to “unharm”. 

To listen.

To receive feedback without defensiveness and brittleness.

Here in the public sphere  is where the story of this woman will continue to be told, the one who bested Jesus in a conversation – not to make him look foolish or to compromise his following (as others in power tried), but to help him be better and healthier, and more divine.  

Here in the public sphere is where stories of her daughter, liberated from the possession of a demonic spirit would be told… and where lines of logic and heart will follow -to see that pain was no longer transmitted into her lineage.

To tell the story that freedom is the fruit and product of systems of faith that are built on love, healing, listening, justice and repentance – and it’s how the demonic spirits of violence, dominance, isolation, purification, accumulation and victimization will be loosed.

Spiritual Practice for Whole Life Flourishing:
Read the scripture with an imaginative spirit this week:

Who are you in this story? The one wounded, oppressed and marginalized? The one who holds authority and power? The one who watches from the crowd? 
Ask Jesus to direct your speaking up and/or your stepping back to listen, repent and aid in healing.

Read this poem this week:

unharm someone


telling the truth you could not face

when you

struck instead of tended.

– put the fire out (unburn)

— Nayyirah Waheed, Salt. (2013)

Who have you harmed? What truth have you not spoken yet? Or faced? Take steps to acknowledge, repent and aid in healing.


I need to repent in front of God and all of you here today,  of the ways that I’ve knowingly and unknowingly benefited from my whiteness – where I’ve used my privilege to see – and not see – act and not act… And even more than that I need to ask for transformation  – of my heart – and my words and my actions. 


Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins. Seven Stories, E-book.  

Padraig O’Tuama. “In The Shelter”, 200.

Karen Gonzalez. “The God Who Sees, Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong,” 125. 

Richard Rohr On Transformation (Franciscan Media: 1997), disc 1, (adapted from ).

Richard Rohr with John Feister, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 2001), 19-20, 22-24.

Howard Thurman.“The Growing Edge.”171, 173, 179.

Nayyirah Waheed, “Salt”, 2013. 

Greater, Not More

Fifth in the Series, Seven Stories: Jesus’ Big Story, and the Other Stories by Which We Live

[The audio for this sermon had some bugs, sorry! We’ll try to get it back up and running soon. Meanwhile, full text of the sermon below.]

In two weeks, we’ll begin our practice of Lent. Lent is an old church word for the annual time in the weeks running up to Easter, a time when here at Reservoir, we have some great opportunities to deepen our faith, to welcome together a greater connection with the teaching and person of Jesus. We produce a daily reflection guide for the season, which this year will be on The Cross. This month, in the run-up to Lent, I’m posting a few reflections on our Blog on the question, “Why did Jesus die?” I hope you have the opportunity to read some of those, and I look forward to starting this powerful season together in just two Weeks.

Meanwhile, we are close to wrapping up our winter series, Seven Stories. We’re exploring Jesus’ story of reconciliation and liberation, and contrasting that with six other stories we’ve been telling, and listening to, and following for far too long.

We began our time with the children’s book Cory and the Seventh Story. There we met a badger and a fox, each of whom thought violence would be the means to a happily ever after. They told the stories of domination and revenge, the myth of redemptive violence: the very oldest human story, and the founding story of America as well. Over the past two weeks, Ivy and Lydia have talked so powerfully about two stories we tend to live when we’re threatened by how scary the world has become. We isolate and withdraw with me and mine alone. Or we lay the blame for our problems on some set of people or behaviors that disgust us, thinking if we can only purify ourselves from those people and things, we will have our happily ever after. In many ways, isolation and purification are the quintessentially toxic religious stories. How faith goes bad.  

Our last two weeks we’ll look at two more stories that are very much the stories of times, I believe: the stories of accumulation and victimization. 

There was this moment with the animals, you may remember, when the badger and the fox reunited with an idea to distract everyone from their troubles and enrich themselves in the bargain. They made a shiny object factory, which at first delighted all the animals of their village and made them lots and lots of money. 

But in time, all the shiny objects didn’t delight anyone at all anymore. They were distractions, and ways to measure status, and the making of all these objects polluted the rivers and the air. So all these shiny objects didn’t make for anyone’s happily ever after at all. 

This story of accumulation, and what Jesus has to say about it, has at first something really obvious to say. Just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s not important, so we’ll start there. 

But we’ll end someplace less obvious, how our addiction to accumulation is giving us more and more, or at least making us want more and more, but taking us off track from the great that we really want most. 

Let me pray for us, and then read some words from Jesus along these lines. 

Luke 12:15-21  (CEB)

5 Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. 17 He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! 18 Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. 19 I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.”

I love this story. 

It’s grim, but it shows Jesus has a great sense of humor, and man, is it true!

We know this. We have sayings in our culture, like You can’t take it with you. 

We have other phrases like: The one who dies with the most toys wins, but as a journalist pointed out — anyone who has ever said that must have thrown up a little in the back of their mouth as they did. 

We know we can’t take stuff with us. We know that more money and more stuff doesn’t make us happier – sometimes quite the opposite.

We know that when we work too much, we end up hating our lives, and living with regret. We know that when we make and buy and order and ship too much stuff, it just fills up our closets, and fowls our earth, and supports crappy, dead-end jobs for other people, and doesn’t make us happy.

Jesus’ baseline point that more money and more stuff for ourselves will not make for anyone a happily ever after just seems so obvious, it hardly needs saying. 

And yet, we can’t seem to change. For more true today, than in the first century when Jesus told this story, we can’t seem to find another way. 

Why is this? Why do we still write this story of accumulation? How is it not just about money and things, but so much more? And what’s Jesus’ better story he’s pitching? What might it mean to be as he says “rich toward God?” 

When I was last in therapy, I was working with this approach called Internal Family Systems. 

One of the ideas of Internal Family Systems is that each of us has lots of parts. We’re this family, this system of selves. We may have this really fun-loving part of ourselves, and another part of us that worries a lot, part of ourselves that gets really angry, another part that keeps us organized, and so on. 

And these parts exist for a reason. They have their place. We’ve needed them to build our lives. Parts of us know to find and eat food when we’re hungry. Parts of us know to make or buy things that we need. Parts of us know to prepare for danger, or accomplish goals, or present ourselves positively to the world. All of that is great. It is so good to be a human being and to be so adaptive and to have all these parts of ourselves that build a life for us. 

The problem is that most of us also have parts of ourselves we avoid. We have parts of ourselves that are very afraid, parts that are hidden or ashamed, parts that have suffered great pain. If we’ve experienced trauma or neglect or abuse, and especially if that was so when we were young, than some of the sad or scared or angry parts of us may be very large and very deep. Internal Family Systems calls these parts our exiles – the parts of us we can’t face with calmness, curiosity, or compassion. 

When that’s the case, we use other parts to distract us, and sometimes these parts get too loud, too active, sometimes even out of control. 

In my case, in therapy, we were noticing that much of my childhood, I was a pretty chill, happy go lucky guy. Pretty confident, pretty peaceful. But then at one point, I became really internally driven. Sharply focused on killing it, whatever I did. Crazy high standards for myself. 

And after thirty years of that, I was wondering: how do I take my foot off the pedal? How do I slow down? Ease up? Drive less, connect more. How do I do that? 

And in therapy, I started asking: what came into my life that made me so driven? And how had this drive that at one point was positive, had helped me build the life I want – how had that drive become a distractor, something that pulled me away from the life I want? 

See, I think for most of us, what Jesus is calling greed, hoarding for ourselves, is not always just about money and stuff. It certainly can be – one of the big innovations of 20th century American life was that marketers got really good and convincing us we always need more, that we never have enough.  And we tend to but it – hook, line, and sinker.

But we accumulate in other ways too. And when we do, it’s not mainly a character deficit to beat ourselves up about, as if that will do anything. I think for most of us, accumulation is a way we avoid what’s most important. Accumulation is a distraction, sometimes even an addiction, that we pore time and money and attention into to avoid facing what’s most important, because facing that is hard. Facing what’s most important maybe hurts. 

The other day, I read this story from Jesus slowly, while praying. I was using this great method of Bible reading and prayer that comes out of the Jesuit tradition. It’s to read the stories of the Bible, and especially the stories of the four gospels about Jesus, imaginatively. You imagine yourself in the story. What do you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? How does it speak to you today?

So I imagined Jesus telling me this farming story. And as I hear Jesus telling me about the person building his barns, I immediately picture the house I grew up in, particularly this shed on the back of the house that my dad built. I remembered how growing up, our home was kind of an unending construction site. 

My grandparents had bought my parents a little 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom house just before their first child was born. And as our family grew, the house grew. My dad and grandpa were both contractors, and they built an addition with an extra bedroom and bathroom, then a second garage, and a larger family room, and then a shed, and on it went over the years. Partly there was this sense that we needed more space, more room. And partly, it seemed to reflect an ongoing restlessness in my family, that there was never quite enough all around, and this was a tangible way to fight off that not enough feeling we had in life. 

The thing is as I pictured that setting for the story, I remembered that it wasn’t glamorous, this accumulation of space. The constant building meant there were tools and sawdust lying around. Things were never settled. There was always something in progress, unfinished. 

And I thought about that farmer, that builder in Jesus’ story, and then to me, he seemed not just smug and wealthy and over-luxurious. He seemed kind of desperate. 

I mean, for a person in the agrarian and mostly poor and hungry first century Ancient Near East, to plant and grow crops was a good way to manage life for yourself and your family. But maybe, in response to memories of hunger in your past, or your family’s past, you too feel: there will never be enough. We have to store up more, and more. And you start piling up so much food that you’ll never need it all, when plenty of other people do. And that’s not so healthy. You can’t face down that fear of never enough and ask if you can let it go. What freedom that would make to live well, to be truly rich. To be freed from one’s fear, rather than just keep piling up against it. But you can’t do it. You look for more and more, until one day you die, still grasping, still afraid, still not having enough. 

I thought about myself then, and I thought, I have issues of fear and greed around money and stuff, for sure. But the piling up, the building, the accumulating that came to mind wasn’t that. It was other parts of me. 

I thought about how driven I can be. About how when I complete a job well done, I immediately am like: what’s next? I thought about the never good enough way I can feel about my work and effort. About my push  to drive harder, and do more, whether it comes to scheduling my week, or accomplishing my goals, or even hobbies like how many books I read, how hard I work out, all kinds of places where I push and push, and drive and drive. 

And I was encouraged to remember again: what am I avoiding? What hunger, what not enough fears, am I staving off with my penchant for more?

And I thought of the feeling you can have in a productive world when you have ADHD, times when life seemed out of control, there was too much to do, and I didn’t know how to tackle it?

And I thought of how in this wonderful city where we live, there are so many people that seem so accomplished, so successful, so busy, so smart and good at many things, and I thought of times when I’ve wondered: how do I measure up? What if I’m not good enough?

And that took me back to all the times when I was younger and I was afraid my life would be a failure, that I would live the legacy of other men in my life of not reaching my goals, and being a disappointment to myself and the people I love. 

And then I went back further and remembered the gnawing loneliness I had at times, the wondering if there was room for me.

And it’s weird, because pushing hard, being driven helps with some of these things and not at all with others. But we’re not fully logical in our hearts and our choices and how we manage all our parts. None of us are. 

But when I’ve reflected on my own never enough – more, more, more habits – I know that I don’t need to wait until I’m facing my deathbed to know that this is not a great life. 

This is not being rich toward myself, or toward God, or toward anyone else. 

So what is? 

Well, Jesus tells his story about the rich fool, as it’s called. Or to be less judgy, maybe we can call it the story about the fear of never enough. The story about the more-more-more accumulator in us all. 

And then, he says this. 

Luke 12:22-34  (CEB)

22 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. You are worth so much more than birds! 25 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 26 If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? 27 Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 28 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith! 29 Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. 30 All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.

32 “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. 34 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.

My early years of wrestling with this passage were almost absurdly rigid and literal and anxious. 

Is it bad to buy tomorrow’s food today, to own a change of clothing? Are you allowed to save for retirement? Is Jesus saying you’re a fool if you gain experience, or get educated, or make a budget, or plan a career? 

There are many signs that this is not the primary way to engage with Jesus’ teaching? But the biggest one is the anxiety of it all. Jesus is presenting a healing path away from our incessant anxiety, not another more religious version of it. 

Stop worrying. Don’t be afraid, little flock. 

I don’t think Jesus meant to introduce a new rigidity that says literally, live like birds and flowers. Don’t buy, don’t plan, don’t talk, just let life happen to you. 

I think Jesus is actually saying something like: take your energy, and give it to Greater, not More. 

When it comes to our needs, the world has enough. There is enough. We can do our part in that process. But not more. More worry invites misery. More stuff invites moths and thieves. More work invites stress, and regret. Accumulation turns against us eventually.

Jesus says, instead, give yourself to what’s greater. God is doing beautiful and important and marvelous renewal all around you. God’s work on earth, Jesus calls it a Kingdom. The beloved family God is growing, the kin-dom. The beauty that God is creating and shaping. The opportunities to love and to nourish and to make whole. 

That which is greater.

I’m using this word Greater because it’s really important in the Jesuit Catholic tradition I mentioned earlier, this tradition that has so much I appreciate. The Jesuits use the word “Magis” to describe the God who is always greater as well as the possibility of doing things that are great for God in this life. 

It’s a funny motto, Magis, because it can be translated either “more” or “great”, so it could be either the motto of numbing, toxic accumulation or the motto of the beautiful story of Jesus. So that’s fun. 

But Jesus says – there something different about the rich fool and the Kingdom. 

One never has enough, the other believes there is more than enough. 

One can never work hard enough, the other knows how to work but also how to rest.

One thinks you have worked for everything you’ve got, the other knows that so much is received and welcomed as a gift. 

One is always piling up and holding on, the other takes joy in letting go and giving away. 

One looks back on a day, on a life with regret; the other looks back on a day, on a life, with delight and joy.

In my prayers in this passage, I found myself wondering with Jesus: what is the Great that I miss when I strive for the more? And I thought of two things we’ll end on here. 

I thought about our life mission and about our capacity for rest – how we conceive of our work, or of what is ours to do in the world. You know, when it comes to what I think I have to do today, all I have to accomplish and get done, I almost always go to more. My lists for the day are always too long. And some of that is just poor planning, but some of that is a symptom for how I see my life – more, more, more. More as a wall against scarcity, more as a way of feeling I’m good enough, more as a wall against failure, more as a wall against facing the pain inside. 

But as I’ve shared, in my life, Jesus – as usual – is right. It doesn’t work. So what if I left more behind for great. I’m trying to start my day lately asking Jesus to take care of my impulses to more, to trust Jesus that I don’t need to do it all, and that today’s troubles are enough for today. And I’m trying to ask Jesus, what’s the Great for me today? What’s the one thing – the thing for your family, God, the thing for your work on earth, that’s mine to give myself to today? 

In asking that question, I’m calmed a little, and my focus shifts. 

My focus narrows in some ways – from the so many things to the one big thing.

But it widens in other ways – from worrying about my own personal good, to embracing the common good.

I get more generous to others.

And sometimes, I even get more generous to myself.

A friend of mine was sharing recently how she was starting the day with her spouse doing something similar, asking Jesus what Jesus had for her and for them that day. 

And she was surprised that for a while what would come to mind would be things like: fill up your freezer with vegetables. You’re going to want to eat vegetables, right? Go get em. And she’d think really? That’s what’s on God’s mind today – my vegetables. But she’d be like: OK, thank you God, for reminding me to take care of myself. 

Or the same thing would happen with permission to take that run she wanted to take but didn’t know if she had time for, and to enjoy that run. And she’d think: alright, well thank you, Jesus.

I know the gift of the kingdom, the gift of the kindom isn’t about self-care alone. It doesn’t end with just more veggies and exercise. But for some of us, maybe it starts there. 

Anyway, the great instead of the more. God’s good gifts and good ways for us for the common good. That’s where I’m going more and more. 

Where do you want to go ?

Spiritual Practice for Whole Life Flourishing

Four questions to ask:

  • What is my “not enough,” my “more-more-more” accumulation?
  • Do I have deep habits of rest, of letting go, and of giving?
  • What am I afraid of facing, or losing?
  • Jesus, what is the Great instead of the More for me this day? This season?


Purification: Us Marginalizing or Excluding Them

Fourth in the Series, Seven Stories: Jesus’ Big Story, and the Other Stories by Which We Live

Loving and beautiful God, would you bring to light your word? Would you come near to us now, enlighten us with your truth? Would you touch us with your beauty, your delight, your love right now. As we seek to know you. This we pray, in your precious name, Jesus. Amen. 

There are certain stories that people live by. Ask anyone. Why do you do what you do? How do you think you became to think and be who you are today? What story, incident, or person shaped you to be this way? Even though at first, most of us might think, “oh well, I don’t know, there’re many things, and accumulation of many different experiences.” And yes, I’m sure many things added, reinforced, or nuanced you, but there are a few key moments. That clicked you into the you that you are.  A story or two that define you. If there was a movie about your life, what would be a few of those scenes in the beginning, that start the whole movie you know the ones that like establish your character. Or what are the key flashbacks, that really shaped you? 

Here’s a story from my life. When I first moved to the United States, I was 9 years old, I feel like I share this piece about me, everytime I preach, it was a formative time can you tell? And I was one of 2 and half asians in the whole school, me, a philipino boy, and a half korean half white girl. And kids used to ask me, “are you chinese?” and I’d say, “no” and they’d say, “are you japanese?” and I’d say, “no” and they would go, “then what are you?” And I’d say, “I’m korean” And they would say to me, “There’s so such country!” And I was like, oh, maybe I’m wrong and they are right. I mean, what do I know, I don’t even know English. And since then I’ve doubted myself, who I am, learned to depend on what others said who I was. But they never got it either. The thing that mattered to me the most at that time, me being from Korea, didn’t matter to them, in fact, it didn’t even exist in their minds. That became my narrative, always trying to show, to explain to people who I am, even though they’d never seen such a thing. 

Stories shape us. We’ve chosen to talk about particular seven stories these days in our sermon series, based on a children’s book that tries to capture our generation, our current stories most of us tend to live by. According to these authors, there are 6 of them that the world lives by. They are the story of domination, revolution, isolation, purification, accumulation, and victimization. And the children’s book presents these stories through owls and foxes, and turtles, snakes, and so forth to say–none of these stories work. They do not serve us and they do not give us life. These are all stories of US vs. THEM. And those are not the only stories we have to live by. There is a seventh story.  That serves us all toward one another, towards fullness, love, and peace, thriving of all kinds, where there is no us and them. 

Today, I’m talking about the story of purification. In the children’s book it illustrates this core value of purification through a moment when they decide that all those who do not have fur, and look weird with scales like reptiles, must leave the village and not allowed back in. It’s actually a story that most of us really do live by, not only as a natural physical tendency but also as a moral and religious code. Like remain with likes. In fact, religious folks, Christians particular have used and over used, thereby (ab)used this concept of purification to hurt, harm, reject people. We’ve used it as a theological foundation to carry out marginalization and exclusion. And it has hurt people. 

Purification is deeply ingrained in the Christian tradition. It’s a metaphor that’s used all over the Bible. In Leviticus, purity codes determined way of life, the boundaries of religion. It managed and controlled every aspect of life from land, to table, to the body, to sex. These were based on some natural and yes, even helpful ways to operate in a community. Careful as they were, thoughtful as they were, in their best efforts and practices of containment. This was their science. What were contaminants, things that kept them quarantined and safe. If someone was visibly sick or bleeding after childbirth. Some of these things I do think really did help the community and that was their hope and intention, of course. 

The power of these life wisdoms were carried over, not only as protocol, but as the answer, not only physically but also morally and spiritually. It came to dictate what was clean and unclean, who was clean and unclean. And it’s a powerful thinking and it almost seems intuitive and it works. In the book called “Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality” by Richard Beck, he takes a look at this thinking through psychology, particularly a thing called ‘disgust psychology’. To illustrate, he begins by explaining the work of Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, an expert on disgust and contamination. His focus had been on human reaction to food and has evolved as of late to investigating “forgiveness, aversions to ethnic groups, and ethnic identity.” Take his Dixie Cup research. 

Say I asked you to spit into a dixie cup. Now what if I asked you to drink that cup? Would you? Most of us would not, as it’s gross! And it’s apparently interesting to psychologists why we do this. Because we swallow our own saliva all the time, and yet, if it comes out, it’s now been contaminated somehow, even if it was done in a matter of seconds, and now it’s spit. It actually has nothing to do with reality, whether it truly is dirty. Psychologists call this, “magical thinking”. Yes, magical thinking is what we tend to do. Beck gives another example. If he dropped a cockroach in a glass of juice, took out the cockroach, would you drink it? What if it was filtered? What if it was filtered, boiled, and filtered again? Disgust is illogical. 

But it’s natural! You might say. Well you don’t know a baby. Baby put everything in her mouth. She drops it on the floor and put it right back in her mouth. Well, and now I do too. I put it in her mouth, she spits it out and drops it on the floor and says “all done” and I’m like, uh uh, nom! I don’t want to waste…. Cause this happens a lot! 

We’ve taken this same magical thinking not only to our food, but to other’s food, other’s way of life, other’s lives. 

One time my co-worker brought green tea mochi with red beans to happy hour and I was legit excited. It was on the table, next to the cookies and brownies, and a few of them turned to each other and with a disgusted face was like, “what is that?” “I don’t know. It’s… green!” “It’s got beans in it!” “Ew!” And I felt embarrassed, ashamed, like I was disgusting for loving it. Thankfully, my friend was much cooler than I was, walked up to them and was like, “uh like a billion people in this world would disagree with you.” and bit into the mochi like a champ. Not this place, another work place I was at… in the past… 

This whole disgust psychology displayed in mere food, eventually and inevitably moves into a more robust set culture in all aspects of life. And even at food level, it hurts a little. But when it starts moving into, oh why does he eat that. Oh why does he wear that? Oh why does he look like that or act like that? It becomes not only a little embarrassing but life altering.  

That’s what the Levitical laws ended up doing to people. All the rules that were meant to keep people “safe”, to keep things in order, began to divide and exclude people. Those who had bodily discharge, and didn’t have the means to have proper ceremonial bath or the money to buy two doves to for the cleansing offering. Those who had mildew in their house and couldn’t afford the priest to come and do an inspection. A woman who didn’t have the money for young pigeons for her purification after childbirth. Patches on skin, if a man loses his hair, if you touch blood, if you touch dog poop, I’m serious all of these are in Leviticus and where does it stop? And funny enough, it was about money. 

These were the same rules that the Pharisees were applying to Jesus and his disciples. He was eating with sinners! Contamination! Letting a sinful woman touch him. Blasphemy! 

But Jesus was giving us a new story to live by. We see it again and again in the New Testament, where he reshapes the old stories they grew up hearing. Reframing and re-embodying them in ways it never existed. Here’s just one. 

Luke 5:12-16 New International Version (NIV)

12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.

14 Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”

15 Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

What happened here.  A man with leprosy, which was a general term for any kind of skin disease, was outcasted from the town and usually lived in their own quarters. They were prevented from interacting with anyone who was clean. Which meant from their families, from the temple. They couldn’t eat with others. They couldn’t worship with others. They were estranged. We heard last week what isolation does to people. 

Look at the story carefully. Jesus did not seek out a sick man. He wasn’t going around looking for people to heal. In fact as this text ends, he would often withdraw himself to pray by himself. But the man came to him. He begged Jesus and said, if you are willing, make me clean! Because he had been told again and again that he was unclean. But he knew inside, that somehow, he could be made clean. Even though priests have written him off. Even though leprosy was something that was incurable. Something inside him compelled him to seek Jesus and say otherwise please.  And you know what happened?  Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. And then said, “I’m willing.” He touched him. He touched him, first. He broke Levitical purity code right there, before he said a word, before healing, before a miracle. Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. And with that, he overturned the tables of moral codes, religious codes, spiritual and physical codes of its time. With one touch, he shattered the magical thinking that leads to disgust and rejection of a whole human being. The man did not contaminated Jesus as widely accepted norm suggests. It simply wasn’t true. And with that touch Jesus proclaimed what everyone always thought was true, that when you touch someone unclean, you become unclean, to be untrue and flipped it on its head. 

Here’s how Beck explains it, “…consider the attribute of negativity dominance. The judgement of negativity dominance places all the power on the side of the pollutant. If I touch (apologies for the example I’m about to use) some feces to your cheeseburger the cheeseburger gets ruined, permanently. Importantly, the cheeseburger doesn’t make the feces suddenly scrumptious. When the pure and the polluted come into contact the pollutant is the more powerful force. The negative dominates over the positive… What’s striking about the gospel accounts is how Jesus reverses negativity dominance. Jesus is, to coin a term, positivity dominant. Contact with Jesus purifies. A missional church embraces this reversal, following Jesus into the world without fears of contamination. But it is important to note that this is a deeply counterintuitive position to take. Nothing in our experience suggests that this should be the case. The missional church will always be swimming against the tide of disgust psychology, always tempted to separate, withdraw, and quarantine.”

Have you seen this happen in churches? Separate, withdraw, and quarantine?  Have you experienced it first hand? I have. Harshly. Mercilessly. I considered sharing it but I can’t. I’m sorry. It was too painful. Maybe another time, another sermon… I’ve shared bits and pieces of it here and there to some of you. I shared the gist of it briefly at the Neighboring and Justice meeting a few weeks ago, as we talked about organizing power at Reservoir. I have been learning through the work with Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, a way to do radical powerful “missional” work that isn’t just about going out to those in need and helping them, but a way we lock arms with our Jewish and Muslim siblings, Catholics, and even those that might not believe in any God, gasp, to partner and support one another in a common goal of doing public good. Apparently this organizing work starts with telling our stories. Why we do what we do. Why I care. Why I’ve had it with the way things always have been, the stories they tell us that we should all live by. Why I am sick of seeing the powerless forgotten and pushed out by those with power. So I shared my story real quick. And it’s funny, even sharing the story is scary, as if if you knew, you might reject me. Stupid right? I’ve been singled out. scapegoated. Have you?

So has Jesus. If purification is the story that drives the ugly over the cliff, Jesus became ugly. And that’s why I find Jesus so beautiful. 

He touched the ugly. And the text says that “the leprosy immediately left him”. That was positivity dominant, or as I would say because I don’t think Jesus operated on dominance but the power of positive embrace. Again, let’s look at the text carefully. When Jesus says, “Be clean!” the words weren’t some hocus pocus words. They were more like, I pronounce you clean, which is something a priest would have said to someone in a cleansing ceremony. A priest that didn’t follow the levitical codes and just pronounced people clean? That was the scandal. And the incident doesn’t end there. That wasn’t the end point. I would go as far as to say, that wasn’t the point. Leprosy leaving. Jesus goes on to say, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Some scholars think that he may have suggested this to not bring himself more attention, but trying to forward people to their laws. 

This brings us back to Leviticus. Jesus subverts the purity codes and then goes back to them, utilizing them, equipping this newly energized man to go back to the system that oppressed him to take back his power, through the system. With Jesus, it wasn’t just about getting rid of his leprosy, but incorporating him back into the fold of the community. Jesus touched him and said, I care. You’re mine. You’re included. Get up. Go, show them. That you are welcome in the house of God. That you are God’s beloved. No longer are you casted out of the realm of the people.  

We’ve gone personal, biblical, and psychological angles at this. Let me share with you one more, anthropological. This one is from one of our own. Working on his Phd in anthropology at MIT now, is Tim Loh. He told me about his research on Deaf Christians, which fascinated me. He forwarded me his paper, let me read you the beginning real quick: 

This anthropological research paper explores how Deaf Christians negotiate their identity as members of two distinct identity groups: Deaf and Christian. The historical perception of Deaf and other disabled peoples in the church has not been positive, and a number of Christians today also view disability as one consequence of a fallen world that God will eventually restore. Since—beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the present time—many Deaf people believe that Deafness is a cultural, even ethnic, identity centered around American Sign Language rather than a disability (Lane, 2005),”

Interesting. I’ve never thought of it that way. But I’m not deaf. And honestly, I don’t think I know closely many deaf people. Tim mentions the Bible verse that’s been used in the Christian tradition to distinguish those who are saved and those who are not,  “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17), one that has been taken literally and applied irresponsibly to say that deaf people were beyond salvation. But when Tim interviews these folks, they didn’t seem to see the contradiction as starkly, being deaf christian, and in fact displayed a cohesive meaningful identity in being deaf and it being a purposeful part of God’s plan. Listen to a story from the study:

“The formation of a Deaf Christian identity was in many ways a rejection of and a form of resistance against the label of “disabled”—and often, “in need of healing”—that hearing Christians impose on them. This is seen in that the discourse of “God’s purpose” that was utilised by many participants was often linked to specific instances of misunderstanding or ignorance by hearing people. For example, Vikram recounted an incident when he visited an interpreted service at a church in Chicago. During the service, he saw two people close by whispering among themselves, and knew immediately that they were going to pray for his healing. Sure enough, they laid their hands upon his ears and started praying. Nothing happened, but after they finished praying, one of them handed him a piece of paper, on it asking him if he wanted to give a testimony. He agreed, walked on stage, and said through the interpreter: “Thank you to the two of you for praying for me. For me to hear—you all want it for me, I understand, because you have pity on deaf people. BUT God—He sees me and He doesn’t [have pity on me]. He gave me everything. This body is what He gave to me and I’m happy with it”.”

This linguistic anthropology, when listened to and understood in their terms through their experiences in their words or signs, shows a people who identify themselves in a way that is different from maybe most others, but just, human, fully thriving apparently. Tim asked one of them, “do you think there will deaf people in heaven?” And he answered, “Why not? Maybe Jesus knows sign.” Which is the title of his paper. Maybe Jesus knows sign. And his finding and conclusion was their desire for better inclusion in the church. 

It’s not about figuring out what’s right or wrong. Though sometimes that’s a helpful tool. It’s not about figuring out what’s broken and fixing it. Though sometimes we talk about things that way, like relationship or even people. But it was only meant to be a metaphor. That sin needs to washed in the blood of Jesus. That here’s a debt to be payed. That those who are sleeping need to wake up. All of these are true AND but not the whole truth, that they are trying to get at something much bigger. That no matter what, whether dirty, in debt, or sleeping, that God runs towards us, see us, touches us. That we are worthy being touched first, before anything needs to be changed. The miracle only follows after, and that’s up to God. The miracle only follows if needed, and that’s up to God. That’s why I believe that at Reservoir, it’s about belonging before believing. I come from a Presbyterian background and this is to be honest a bit ludicrous. That people who might not have “crossed the line of faith” can become members. Anyone belongs before they sign some belief creed even. What? Anyone can come to the table of Jesus, communion, we’re not going to check if you’re a member or even baptized. What? This is actually quite radical. And it’s not because at Reservoir, all goes. No, this is very intentionally very well thought out theology centered on nothing but Jesus. We think that we’re not gatekeepers. We don’t check your status for you to join the church. We don’t ask who you’re having sex with or not. We don’t police people’s lives, we just hope that you join our community and journey with us together, humbly, so we can just be together no matter what. And we put up with each other. We ask questions to one another. And sit in the questions without answers! And wonder together, Maybe Jesus knows. 

Purification was only supposed to be a metaphor. But that’s the thing with metaphor, they reveal things but also conceal things. They show us truth but it’s limited in its frame. I believe that we’ve taken the metaphor of purification too literally at times. Who gets to decide what is pure? Where is the line? That’s the thing, if we’re not really careful and if we’re not really listening to the people, then we get it wrong and begin to discriminate, cause fear, based on nothing. 

Jesus was holy and pure yes. And, not. Jesus constantly contaminated himself but touching those who had leprosy, eating with tax collectors, breaking all the rules of sabbath, talking to women, letting sinful woman touch him with her hair and oil. Jesus kept moving and moving and moving towards the those who everyone else proclaimed to be unclean, unworthy. So much so that, eventually everyone did agree that since he hangs out with criminals, he must be a criminal, and they treated him as a criminal. He was incarcerated and tried in court and sentenced to death. A gruesome undignified death on the cross. 

Who gets to decide who is clean and unclean? Jesus never distinguished. It was always those who are in power. 

Maybe our job isn’t to decide who’s in or out. Or who’s clean or unclean. Or even try to figure out how to make ourselves clean, perfect, good, or better. Our job is to be close to Jesus. The rest is upto God. May we have the courage, patience, not the sacrifice but the mercy to know the power of positivity embrace, and touch those around us. May that power bring all of us healing, redemption, wholeness, and love that we need. 

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

Think of those that might feel excluded from religion or society. What would it look like to move toward them, to touch them, and to include them back into the fold of your community? 

Spiritual Practice of the Week

If you’ve ever felt like you’ve been excluded or rejected from a dominant group, imagine Jesus putting his loving hand on you, to say, “you’re fine, you’re good, you’re loved and accepted.” 

Jesus, Jesus, are you willing? Give us the willingness to reach out. Not only to know we already know, we get along with, those who want to only help but in a distance. Give us the power to reach out and touch and eat with people we never thought we could. Help us to cross boundaries that we’ve put up, to include all into the fold of your love and care. Give us the strength to do so, in our day, in our church, and in our lives we pray. Amen. 

Isolation: Our Modern Day Weapon

Third in the Series, Seven Stories: Jesus’ Big Story, and the Other Stories by Which We Live

Could we start this morning with a prayer?  A moment to pause and orient your heart to God.  A moment to check-in and ask yourself, “how is my heart this morning?”  Let’s take a few minutes to check our hearts and check-in with God. If it helps you, you can put your hand over your heart.   “How is your heart this morning?”


Dear Jesus, maybe our hearts are all over the place this morning –  heavy, curious, weary, broken, or numb, impatient, eager – maybe all we can say is, “well it’s beating!”  I want to give thanks to you for all of that, Jesus. Thank you Jesus that when we ask for your presence you point us back to our hearts.  Could you, this morning –  let our hearts hear your voice – and feel your presence?


Stories and our Hearts

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus in his longest sermon says that “people speak from the fullness of their hearts” (Luke 6:45). Now, what fills our hearts, Jesus says  – is wide open with possibilities – the full spectrum from goodness to evil.

From the beginning of our existence I believe Jesus has been speaking good into our hearts.  He’s been filling our hearts with HIS great story of peace and mutuality and connection that holds wilder power than we could ever imagine.   A story that has the potential to shape our lives, to build new things and hold our humanity to a greater purpose – to dream and to vision – for greater justice and peace than we say today.

I think he keeps speaking His story to us – for this very purpose – to stretch our imagination.. And the capacity of our  hearts… To keep imagining just how generous Jesus’ story of love is – because it’s a hard one to believe on a daily basis – when the stories we are fed are ones full of antagonists like harm and anxiety – fear and oppression – frenzy and death…these characters SUFFOCATE and flatten the story of love into hard, dark stories.   They are such hard stories, BUT they catch our attention, because they are so LOUD and prevalent – and forcefully vying for space in our hearts. 

These stories prove to be effective weapons at piercing our full hearts and deflating them to dead end stories like of domination, redemptive violence, isolation, purification, victimization and accumulation.

These are the six primary stories, that authors Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins suggest we tell and have been telling, writing and listening to, for a really long time. 

These are the stories that we are visiting in this current sermon series.  Pastor Steve talked about domination and redemptive violence the last two weeks and today I’ll talk about our tendency to isolate – and what effects ripple out from a seemingly benign posture.

These stories are important for us to inspect.  To find out just how much space they have taken up in our hearts – to do the work of excavating where they are rooted, and unweave them from the language and vocabulary we speak in our lives and that we speak of God

This is important so that the spiritual fibers of the Holy Spirit that were written in our DNA from birth, can rise back to the forefront and can be familiar words in God’s story, that speak to bind us to one another  –  ones that say “we are not alone”, “that we are loved” and “blessed by God”.  Today we’ll look at just how sly – but powerful isolation can be at separating us not only from each other – but from this deep, true story of God in us – that was planted long ago. 

We are the ones that get to fill out the story of Jesus – we are the ones that give it shape – dimension – the height, the depth, the width –  how beautiful and powerful this story can be if we speak from hearts that are filled with the greatest, most generative protagonist of all, LOVE. 

My STORY – Part I

I’ve shared about my upbringing here and there in sermons. I’ve talked about the coldness of growing up in Maine  – the poverty, the rigidity of my faith experiences in my religious context. But I haven’t talked that much about the pervasive sickness of this small town in Maine.   

And it hit me this past Friday, when I entered the doctor’s office for a colonoscopy AT 10 years younger than the recommended age, of  just how strong the link between isolation and sickness is.  ((This is not going to be a sermon about a colonoscopy – mercifully!  Just in case you are wondering if that’s the trajectory we are going on – it is not!))

 (*little health alert here*, if you are of recommended age or you have a family history go, go, go, go get a colonoscopy! I’ll make you some broth and pour gatorade for you, but go get one!).

The sinister thing about isolation – is that it can seem so confined and benign.  We can witness people or groups of people at the periphery of our life, doing their own thing, seemingly happy, not harming anyone – and feel like there’s little impact of this distance on our lives.  But often that separation has felt effects – it is destructive, because it breaks off all connection with sources of good – relationship with one another, God, and ourselves, and in the separateness a leeching of poison and decay spreads out into all the surrounding areas.  

The small town I grew up in and neighboring small towns revolved around this epicenter of powerful, paper mills.  An incredible source of revenue for these towns, for the livelihood of so many people and their families – and a badge of honor in many ways to carry on the generational line of hard work and honest living.  These were the stories of the town that were told … of security, loyalty, pride… comfort, happiness.. 

The stories, that were told and the stories that I watched lived however, always held for me a bit of dissonance… (it’s the same feeling I get today, when I see Maine’s license plate that says “vacationland” on it – or the big sign that you see going North at the border of NH into ME – “Maine, The Way Life Should Be”). 

Because what the mill also provided were stories of generational lines of sickness and death.  In the decade I was born, the river which the mills were built along, flowed through the center of town and out into the farmlands – the mighty Androsccogin River, had dissolved oxygen levels of exactly zero.  Which means that fish became unable to breathe and died by the millions, along with any other aquatic life, plants, etc..   Newsweek named this river, one of the ten filthiest rivers in the United States. Everything in the river died. *source: (Kerri Arsenault,

Not only were the waterways poisoned….. but the fresh air we breathed was contaminated with chlorine leaks and other poisons billowing out from the smoke stacks… 

The byproducts that compromise the air we breathed, the water we drank and the land we walked upon were a medley of toxins , “Dioxin, cadmium, benzene, lead, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, arsenic, chloroform, mercury…(and many more that I can’t pronounce)..*source: (Kerri Arsenault,

This cocktail of poisons – leeching into our water, air and land – of course poisoned the bodies of so many humans I knew and loved,  in the form of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer, esophageal cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, emphysema, cancer of the brain, cancer of the heart, and undetermined cancers.

“These illnesses would occasionally show up in suspicious-looking clusters, sometimes in generations of families, often in high percentages.” *data source: (Kerri Arsenault,

This week, I connected with an author, Kerri Arsenault, from a town next to the one I grew up in – who has a book coming out in September called, “Mill Town”, (and from which I was able to quickly get all this data). We shared the commonality of cancer taking both of our Dad’s and witnessing so many other humans we love, decay in our towns… but the greater underlayer that we also held in common was the powerful posture of isolation in these towns from the government, mill authorities to families, neighbors and friends.

The possible link of sickness to the production waste of the paper mills started to get more widespread attention – more attention outside of Maine

  • I remember that a Boston TV station investigated the flurry of cancer diagnoses in their NEW series at the time, called  Chronicle and called the episode, “Cancer Valley.” 
  • And during this time, Dana-Farber in Boston starts asking questions to doctors in neighboring towns to mine, “What the heck is going on in your town? We’re getting all these kids with cancer coming in from your area.”
  • In the early 2000’s: Cancer is the leading cause of death in Maine.
    *data source: (Kerri Arsenault,

As attention spreads, of this link, people in these towns who had their livelihoods built into the mill –  started to feel threatened. Their way of life, this mill their energizing force for security and happiness is called into question.  Fear starts to leech into the fabric of the town as much as the pollutants… 

With this fear, isolation increases and is embodied as denial.

The Los Angeles Times talks to the state representative at the time, asking “why do you think there is such a high cancer rate?”  Her reply was, “We have a very, very high cancer rate, but we always have lived with that. Nobody can prove anything, I don’t want to make [the paper mill] out to be a villain. They’re here to make paper and—there’s no question about it—this valley depends upon that paper mill.” 

And the mill responds by claiming there’s “no clear link between mill wastes and cancer or other diseases.”

As late as 2012, local paper headlines says that “toxin spikes is a good sign and state officials are not alarmed”. “9.6 million pounds of chemicals released do not alarm authorities, because the increase in pollution shows an increase in papermaking. 

“When anyone tried to connect the dots between the mill’s pollution and these illnesses, 

logic was met with stories of justification, 

personal experience with stories of excuse, 

disease with stories of blame.”

*data source: (Kerri Arsenault,

This is the subtly and slyness of isolation.  The story lines that are created when a “way of life and living – of certainty” is disrupted – people feel threatened – they pull back from reality … and they isolate.

The possibility of losing that which they have held on to for meaning, identity and their shape of life – is too much to deal with, too much fear to negotiate and it’s too much of an ask to release, with vulnerability, what’s really going on in their hearts.  So instead it is easier to write story-lines that say “Nothing to see here”, “We’re just doing what we’ve always done – leave us alone”, “Everything is just great, never been better!” 

Meanwhile mills start closing, with the increase of the digital age.  Jobs are lost … and cancer is still the leading cause of death in Maine, and now along with suicide rates above the national average and illicit drug-related deaths exponentially increasing by 340%. (

The wicked lie of isolation, despite heaps and heaps of data to the contrary, despite tons of personal stories that suggest elsewise – is that “everything is ok” – and the fullness of hearts that we speak from are the lies that have leeched into our being…. Polluting and depriving us of the very thing we need most – the breath of God and human connection. 

In isolation – we can’t see a horizon – there is no “looking out”.   We can’t imagine or hope for a different way, we can’t vision for change…in fact we center our hurts, and our fears and our judgements as the only things that we can rely on.  

People  were scared of losing their jobs – having to quit school to care for sick family members; scared of losing health insurance if they lost their jobs.
*source: (Kerri Arsenault,

There were real things to be scared about!  And yet the story on the streets if you were to listen was,  “I”M FINE!” “I”M FINE!” “I”M FINE!” Keeping everyone at arms length. 

This is the active harm, that not one ray of light, or breath, or salt or yeast can get in to catalyze change in an environment of isolation. The mill, was the system that provided people with what seemed like limitless opportunities, fortune – certainty. “People were given something to believe in, a place to belong, but at the cost of their own suffering.”
*source: (Kerri Arsenault,

We make ourselves believe that to survive, it is better to report to ourselves and others, that this is the “way life should be”.   Because we believe deep down that we couldn’t survive telling the stories that we think are unspeakable.  Unspeakable stories of our heart –  of fear, of vulnerability and perceived failure.

We couldn’t entertain questions like:

“How’s your heart?”

“I’m scared.” (way too much)

“How’s your heart?”

“I’m so hurt.” (not even on the table)

I grew up determined not to be poor.

Determined to get a respectable education. 

To always be employable.

And to never get sick.

But I never talked about how scared I was.  How much fear filled my heart.

We are so scared of being vulnerable – and yet we don’t realize that when we isolate, draw away – we leave ourselves in the most vulnerable of states.  At the mercy to our own fears, judgement and thoughts (that grind and churn in our heads). . .  Which in isolation are the only things that grow.

Isolation turns our inner posture of going out and connecting with the things and people that we care so much about – into a posture of protecting ourselves from the things we are scared of , or that we hate, or that we don’t agree with. 

So we go out and gather educational degrees, and bank accounts, and piles of really witty comebacks,  and gym memberships, as resources to fill our hearts and protect ourselves from any possible unforseen change in our future.. 

But the byproduct to this way of life, this isolation, is similar to the poisoning of the mill.  It’s a weapon really – that leeches out and suffocates our beating hearts – it deadens the way we were made, our very constitution – to be in relationship with one another- and forces of separation, and suspicion take over.

Causing us to miss our greatest resource – each other.

It’s one long, hard, flat story. 

And by the way – it’s not just a story about a small mill town in Maine.  

These are stories that permeate our nation – it’s endemic –  all across America.

This isn’t just a story about sickness and disconnection and poverty  – it’s a story about our tendencies as human beings…

It’s a story that says “no one cares”, “go it alone”. 

It’s a story that is a “church” story, a “religion” story, a “family” story, and so on – as much as it is a “mill town story”

And it is the story that reigns as gospel – to so many who are heart-sick and “poor in spirit”, who are bereft and mourn the state of our world, who are weary from efforts of justice-seeking, who are afraid, who have just worked so hard, for so long. It’s our story.


Jesus as you might imagine, is incredibly curious when we start to try to define the gospel for ourselves.   So here on your program are his thoughts on the gospel, 

Matthew 4:25 – 5:11 (NIV)

4:25 Large crowds came from all over to follow and listen to the story of Jesus  – “ from Galilee, [a very Jewish area], the Decapolis, [these 10 towns – a very Greek area which is not Jewish, not religious, not pure, not clean, not holy], Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan.”

  • All sorts of different people, from many backgrounds – races, ethnicities, non-christian, christian,  very, very, elite religious – and non-religious.. .
  • People who were curious.
  • People who were suspect.
  • People who yearned to know more about this Jesus fellow.
  • And people who thought they knew all there was to know of this Jesus fellow. 
  • This crowd is a representation of the wide, massive spectrum of humanity.

5:1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them – this story.

He said:

3 “Blessed are [you whose stories are of] the poor in spirit,

    for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Blessed are you [whose stories are] full of mourning…. 

    for you will be comforted.

5 Blessed are you [whose stories are] meek, – lowly, humble…

    for you will inherit the earth.

6 Blessed are you [whose stories] hunger and thirst for [justice*],

    for you will be filled.

7 Blessed are you [whose stories] show mercy,

    for you will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are you [whose stories are] pure in heart,

    for you will see God.

9 Blessed are you whose stories center on peace,

    for you will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are you [whose stories are] of persecution because of your struggle for [justice*],

    for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when your stories are full of insult, persecution and accusations that falsely fall against you –  because of me.”

*”justice” from The First Egalitarian Translation

Jesus says, “I bless you. I bless you. I bless you.”

“Blessed are you whose stories are of isolation.”

This is the gospel story. This is Jesus’ story.

This is the good news.  This is not good advice.  This is not a passive aggressive story that Jesus that says, “you know what you need to do, you need to be a little more “meek” , a little more “mourn-y” a little more in “pain”, a little more “poor in spirit”…… to get my blessings, to enter this story….
NO!  THis is Jesus saying to EVERYONE, this massive crowd of humanity:
“I LOVE YOU!  YOU ARE NOT ALONE.  I BLESS YOU – YOU ARE CONNECTED TO ME – My heart is connected to your heart.

Even in these states where everyone else on this Earth will want to ignore/avoid/judge/think you are TOO much, hurl insults at you, toss you aside – I BLESS YOU!   This is the story written on your hearts. 

You are not alone.”

Can you imagine what it feels like when you are at the end of your rope, when you’ve been so oppressed for so long, when you’ve lost what is most dear to you, when you feel so alone –  Jesus says, “My friend, I’m here with you.” 

Jesus’ story goes nowhere in isolation. Connection is the key to this story of love. 

It can’t live in the dark. 

The large crowd also held the religious elite who had upheld a “way of life and living, loving God” that had never been touched. Generational lines of being at this religious pinnacle – knowing what it looked like, what was required to ‘obey’ or ‘not obey’ the commandments of God. They already had this religious way of life locked down.

And yet, Jesus in these verses says, here’s a different story, “here’s a new way to live and love” – and it requires you to move in from the edges of the crowd, and connect to all of these people here.”

To drive this message home, Luke records these extra words of Jesus:

Luke 6:24-26 (NLT)

24  “What sorrow awaits you who are rich,

    for you have your only happiness now.

25 What sorrow awaits you who are satisfied and prosperous now,

    for a time of awful hunger awaits you.

What sorrow awaits you who laugh now,

    for your laughing will turn to mourning and sorrow.

26 What sorrow awaits you who are praised by the crowds,

    for their ancestors also praised false prophets.”

Woe to you.

Where a posture of relationship and mutuality is absent.

Woe to you.

Where the expansive spectrum of humanity is shrunk to a suffocating corner in your heart.

Woe to you.

Where love is void from your vocabulary.

For you heart will speak of stories that are bereft of meaning, God and life. 

And your life will be but a weapon of isolation.*

(*I added that – Luke didn’t say that (just in case it wasn’t obvious).

What we try so hard to possess, protect and preserve – turns to poison in our hands. It turns hard and brittle and falls apart… 

The active threat of the story of isolation – the real damage that is incurred – is that it flips the Jesus story upside down – it says that “Peace, security, happiness, love, ” – are all things to possess for ourselves –  hoard and compile. 

To have enough of these – to hold them tightly in your hands is winning at this story of life. 

If they start to slip, the story of isolation says,  hold on “tighter”, fight “harder” and defend more vehemently.

The religious elite in this crowd – already thought they had “won” God.  Happy on their formed island… of certainty and “rightness”. 

Jesus comes in and says, “woe to you, I have a different story,  and it starts with I BLESS YOU.” 

“Bless you! and bless you! and bless you!” Jesus zigzagging across the crowd, inter-connecting those who shouldn’t be connected – by the religious law, societal law, telling the new story of love. 

“Don’t be afraid, you aren’t alone”.. Look! Bless you and bless you and bless you”…. 

 “Loosen your grip.  Peace, hope, blessing and belonging – were never meant to be held so tightly, they can’t be contained in one place.  THEY ARE MEANT TO BE GIVEN.” 

Their very essence is to spread and be magnified and fill all the dimensions of our hearts

This is the flow of Jesus’ story – to receive and to give…  

“You shall receive mercy – as you give mercy.. . you shall receive peace as you give peace.. You shall receive blessing as you stay connected.”

 THIS IS THE STORY OF LOVE.  The great protagonist… and love needs its space to roam and be free… in, and between, and through ALL OF US. 

Jesus is telling a new story – an UPENDING story, where winning, and strength, where the biggest and most powerful don’t take center stage – and HE invites us all as crucial participants into this – into something so much bigger than a story of isolation can achieve.

When we step out of connection, when we sit at the edges of the crowds around us –  we disallow the love of Jesus to be completely expressed in the world.   

We DEAD END the Gospel story


I went back to my home town this December, the first time in a couple of years. And I connected with a friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in some time.  I was in a full room of people, and she came in through the side door…

When I saw her, I was pierced right in the heart.

Have you ever had the wind knocked out of you?  That’s what it felt like – Here it was all at once – the decaying impact of the story of isolation, in human form. Written across the face and in the lines and eyes of my friend… The poison of it, the weight of it, the corrosiveness of it.  She represented the stories of decaying governmental bodies that wouldn’t change policies, the decaying bodies of water and land – the wearying story of poverty – the grind of working so hard – it was almost too much to bear.

And I felt my heart rush with care and love and I had a split second of wanting to hug her and hold her and ask her “how her heart was?”

… and then I shut it all down…I shut my heart down.

I said to my husband, Scott, “we have to leave”. 

Arms length.

Rush back to my space, my story of comfort, peace, warmth, DRIVE AWAYYYYY….. *my own move to isolation*

(and we did, we only stayed one night instead of two).

But Jesus says in these verses…. “Come back, come back! Stay connected. STAY connected. Her story of isolation is your story too…  you can’t shake it. You can’t’ turn your eye.. And sit on the pile of your satisfaction and fullness…  

You see, stories of domination, revolution, isolation, accumulation…  are not just someone else’s story to struggle with and experience – to point fingers at… they are ALL of our stories – they impact all of us… 

I think this is Jesus’ point if we are going to tell this story of love,    

  • We can’t use words like peace, when we only carve peace for ourselves in this corner –  WITHOUT trying to restore peace where it is not… 
  • WE can’t use the word “connection”, when we use power as a way to distance ourselves from others, divide ourselves – when we could utilize it as a way to approach each other, unite and connect us to one another. 
  • We can’t use the word, “belonging”  when the binding commonality is who we hate or what we don’t like … when we could set the foundation of   belonging as what we share – what we love and hope and dream for.
  • We can’t tell the story of  love… with words like, “safety, security, certainty” because the story of love is too big, too dynamic to hold those words… It’s a story where words like courage, resilience and grit build new pathways.   A story that rests on risk, trust, mutuality …..where we hope that the flow of love will create something new that we can’t yet see… a horizon we all long for.

Jesus’ story of love – speaks of blessing and connection  – not hate and decay.

Ruby Sales, the civil rights elder –  says we need to do more of this – we need to speak more of blessing and of LOVE.   She’s been quoted as saying that she joined the civil rights movement not only because she was angry about injustice but because she loved justice itself.  She says that, “most people begin their conversations with, ‘I hate this,’ but they never talk about what it is they love.”(On Being Newsletter January 2020). 

When I left Maine in December I went away with things in my heart that I couldn’t stand the sight of – stories of poverty, sickness, weariness, decay.  Things that I HATE and am outraged by. But I couldn’t get to this spot that Ruby Sales talks about in my heart.   

What was it I cared so much about – what was it that I loved so much? 

When I got back from Maine – after seeing my friend.  I went to write her a letter. 

A simple “thank you” note,  for the Christmas presents and for opening her home to us.  

I was still so full of anger and frustration and sadness at seeing her… 

And as I sat down to write, my heart and fist clenched… 

words came to the paper that I didn’t consciously scribe, 

And the first line I wrote on that page was:  “I love you, mom”.

“I love you – even if you couldn’t take a day off of work”.

“I love you, even if we couldn’t stay another night”.

“I love you” ..

Ruby Sales  says the reason she wants to have justice, is because she loves everybody in her heart – and if she didn’t have that feeling then there would be no struggle.

ANd perhaps, there would be no reason for me to keep telling the story of Jesus, if I wasn’t so torn up at seeing the story of isolation decaying on people’s faces.

The words written on my heart – came through my pen – but they come through our actions, and our words too – so long as we don’t stop the flow of God’s love… It’s love that is meant to be received by us and given by us  – but not held by us… It’s then that I can see with clarity what and who I love.   

God is still writing his story in my heart…and it starts with,  “I bless you, Ivy”. 

And “I bless your friend.” 

“Your stories are the same.”

“YOu are not alone. You are not alone in your outrage and frustration and sadness – and your mom is not alone in her sickness and pain.   

You are both blessed in love, by me.”

We are all part of God’s big story. 

What story of God will we write?  

What stories will be told to the next generation of our day and age?

Will they be stories of growth, and healing, and blessing? 

Stories of resilience, courage, connection and birth?

We are the living words, the sacred texts, the verses and the chapters – that others will read, we are the living Bible stories.  

What Gospel will we write? 

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing: 

Trust that you are actively disarming others, when you devote yourself to love and connection.  Start by infusing your conversations with the words “love,” “heart,” and “hope.” Ask yourself, and people around you, “What do you love?”  “How is your heart?” “What do you hope for?”

We need to start changing our vocabulary.  Our actual spoken and written vocabulary. When you meet people try saying “How is your heart today?” Instead of “how are you?”  And listen. Watch. Notice. Their heart will speak… even if they don’t yet have the vocabulary. Watch their eyes, their face – listen for the intake of breath, the sigh – the silence… we need to start listening to each other’s hearts… and it might have to start with our language. 

Spiritual Practice of the Week:  

In moments this week where the tug of isolation is strong, say as a prayer, “I am blessed by God, I am not alone”.  And then take a practical step and move into the sunshine and/or reach out to someone for connection.


Thank you Jesus that you bless each and everyone of us here today, in our full humanity.  In every state of heart, mind, spirit or body.

May we receive your blessing and give your blessing today, and tell the story of this blessing with a heart full of your love. .




*Book: Mill Town Reckoning with What Remains, coming out 9/1/2020

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

Second in the Series, Seven Stories: Jesus’ Big Story, and the Other Stories by Which We Live

Hey, Friends, spoiler alerts for today’s talk. I’ll be giving away bits from the latest Star Wars film, from a cool bit of storytelling on a New York Times podcast, and the fate of our nation and pretty much everything and everyone else that is built upon violence. So, if you don’t want to hear those things, just close your ears when the time comes. 

Last fall, The New York Times released a fascinating bit of journalism from their bureau in North India. It was called The Jungle Prince of Delhi. It tells the story of Begum Wilayat Mahal, who first came to the public’s attention in the 1970s when she, her two children and a pack of dogs took up residence in a Delhi railway station, refusing to leave, because – she said – she was the last princess of the kingdom of Avadh, a branch of the ancient Muslim Mughal empire that ruled over much of Central and South Asia for centuries, building the Taj Mahal and many other wonders. 

She said her family was never compensated for their losses, dating back to the British Empire, and they weren’t moving until they were given a palace. This being India, they were allowed to remain on this platform for years. Some local governments were embarrassed, tried offering them a small home and other bits of compensation, which were refused. She deserved a palace. And so eventually, a suitable one was found and given. It was the ruins of a 14th century summer palace, in the jungle outside of Delhi. 

The princess and her family accepted and moved in. There they remained for decades, largely shut off from the outside world. 

It turns out the family had lived this strange mix of opulence and squalor. They possessed ancient royal ruins, with an extraordinary rooftop view of New Delhi. In other circumstances, their palace may have been restored as a museum or luxury hotel. 

And yet, the palace was in ruins. No electricity, no water, mostly cut off from the outside, the family lived in poverty and isolation and eventually died one by one, alone. 

And now, the spoiler. Their original claim to royalty isn’t even true. They had a very real grievance, but it was not theirs alone.

The princess wasn’t a princess. She was one of millions of Muslims of North India who fled to Pakistan after the partition of those two countries in 1947. Like tens of millions of Hindus and Muslims, she and her family were exposed to violence and trauma during one of the modern era’s great episodes of forced migration and religious-based violence. It’s a trauma of religion, and a trauma of post-colonial oppression that haunts the region still. 

In the case of this particular family, when the mother returned to India and sought to retrieve her family home and land, she could get no compensation, no justice. When she sought these things, with increased agitation, she was committed to a psychiatric hospital, where she was essentially tortured. Upon release, she either invented the royal heritage to finally get her recompense, or perhaps, after years of trauma and abuse, she had come to believe her own fantasy of grievance. 

The enormous unhealed trauma she endured, and her odd quest for justice, estranged her from one child, who moved to the UK and kept his own traumatic origins a secret nearly til his death. And it led to her other two children each living lonely, empoverished, traumatized lives of their own, until they too died penniless and alone. 

The Jungle Prince of Delhi turns out to be a multi-layered tragedy. It’s a story about the legacy of a lost ancient kingdom. It’s a story about unhealed family trauma. It’s a story about the great South Asian partition, and all the religious violence that has plagued our world for centuries, even millenia. It’s a story about the enormous ripples of suffering created by colonial domination and valiant but usually failed efforts to seek justice and recompense. And it’s the story of unhealed grievances, of the pains of being formed by violence and domination, even if we’re not the ones who started it at all. 

All of this connects to our sermon today, which I’ve called The Myth of Redemptive Violence. It’s the second of six weeks we’re spending telling the story of Jesus from the gospel of Luke and contrasting that story with six other, more common stories that we have been telling, and listening to, and following for far too long. 

This series was inspired by a children’s book by Gareth Higgins and Brian McLaren, which I read last week. It’s called Cory and the Seventh Story. In it, we meet a badger who tries to create a “happily ever after ” story for himself by stealing what he wants from the fox and intimidating everybody else, making sure he can always get his way. That’s the story of domination, us dominating, of being the boss of others. Next, the fox gathers some friends to take the badger down, get back what’s his, and try to make things right in the world through violence. That’s the story of revolution, of us overthrowing them, getting revenge on those who bossed you around. 

Either way, all this violence doesn’t lead to the flourishing Jesus longs for in our lives, a life without us or them, just us. A life that isn’t defined by anyone’s violence or domination, our own or someone else’s. 

There’s a moment in Luke when we get a window into Jesus’ pain over violence, be it the violence of domination or that of revolution. It’s in the 19th chapter of Luke, when Jesus is on his way into the city of Jerusalem, and looks out over it in this moment of clarity and deep sadness.

Luke 19:41-44  (CEB)

41 As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it. 42 He said, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides. 44 They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.”

Jesus looks out over his beloved city of Jerusalem, the center of his culture’s religion and economy and culture, and he pictures all that being destroyed, and asks: Why? It shouldn’t have to end this way. 

See, Jerusalem then was occupied territory, as it has so often been. Rome had brutally colonized Judea and all the surrounding regions, and during Jesus’ lifetime, there was a growing swell of rage, grievance, and resistance. There was a movement that was tired of the oppression. Tired of all the taxation. Tired of the state violence, and terror, and intimidation. Tired of the humiliation. 

Three or four decades after the vision Jesus has, this movement would surge into a revolt that would briefly force Rome out. Until Rome returned with patience and might and laid siege to the city. It was a time of horrific poverty, starvation, and violence that ended with Rome crushing Jerusalem, scattering many of its residents, and destroying the temple – ending ancient Judaism, in one of that people’s many great cataclysms. 

Luke records Jesus looking out over Jerusalem and seeing all that coming. And thinking I had a way of peace for you. Why didn’t you listen? 

Obviously, Jesus isn’t blaming his people for their coming annihilation. That’s on Rome. They were the colonizers, the dominators, the powerful people who again and again took what wasn’t theirs. Who tried to secure their own happily ever after, at the costs of others’ suffering. Us over them. 

But Jesus laments, thinking still, there were other options. Jesus had a way of peace that was better than giving up in resignation, or returning violence in a failed attempt to redress their grievances. Us overthrowing them.

At least this time, Jesus thinks: they’re going to miss it. So sad. 

We’ll talk in a minute about Jesus’ way of peace, that we’ve seen far too little of over the years.

But it’s one that in many ways, the churches of the first couple of centuries appeared to embrace – not living by the norms and stories of their time, but not violently resisting either. They formed and grew counter-cultural communities of radical love, radical hospitality, radical service, radical inclusion. It may well be the greatest reason for the rapid growth of the Jesus movement in its first couple centuries. 

But think with me for a moment: If Jesus and his early followers, way back two millennia ago, had a problem with violence, what does that say to residents of a country that itself was a product of violent revolution? 

How is the Myth of Redemptive Violence one of our favorite stories in America, and what is it doing to us? 

This phrase the myth of redemptive violence is something that many scholars have been exploring in our lifetimes. They’ve noticed that a lot of societies have very violent stories of how things came to be the way they are today. Stories where the world has always been in chaotic violence. Stories where more violence brought order or peace to the world. Stories where heroes were people who won their victories and accomplished good through yet more violence. 

Societies have long been telling this story, this myth. But it’s not just an old story. Hello, America! This country has has grabbed hold of the Myth of Redemptive Violence like maybe no other people, ever. 

We’re a country born first of violent domination. Colonizers claimed this land by trickery and treaty violations and genocidal war. Colonizers enriched this land through the largest, most brutal, most racist slave trade industry in human history. The legacy of all this unhealed violence of domination haunts us still. 

Not only that, but our country is the product of violent revolution as well – a story we celebrate again and again. 

We’re addicted now to this violence. 

Our films, year after year, celebrate redemptive violence. Good people are done wrong, and they heal their grievances through violent revenge. Their violence restores order and justice to the world and makes them heroes. It’s the plot of most of our heroic films. 

Our most popular, lucrative sport is one of incessant, bone-crushing violence, that seems to shorten its participants length and quality of life.

We own guns at rates of no other peacetime country because we view the right to that potential for violence as sacred to us, essential to our security.

And in our lifetimes, America has seen few problems in the world we think we can’t bomb our way out of. Hurt us, cause us grief at all, and we will break you.

Here’s the thing. The idea that any of this violence is redemptive is foolishness. Redemptive violence isn’t just a myth because it’s an old story, it’s a myth in that it’s a lying story. 

I don’t have anything to say about all our violent entertainment – going off against that isn’t really my jam. But on the guns front, we kill each other and especially kill ourselves in this country at rates that look obscene compared to most of the world. Our guns aren’t making us secure. 

And look at any region in the world that seems angry, unstable, dangerous, a potential breeding ground for terror or war or mass refugees, and you’ll usually see a history of American arms dealing and American violent aggression as part of the back story. 

Our collective addiction to violence, our buying in to the myth of its redemptive possibilities is helping us dominate and redress our grievances in the short run, but it’s stirring up more and more trouble in the long run. 

OK, all this is very macro. But I’ve been thinking about the myth of redemptive violence, and the story of revolution – us overthrowing them – on a personal, relational level too. This used to be more obvious, some places still is. 

But I trust that no one is planning on taking up arms against their enemy tomorrow, or challenging someone to a duel. We’re good there, right? 

I was talking with a few friends recently about where we see this story of us overthrowing them in our relational lives these days. And we all agreed that we knew people that use words to attack people that have hurt us. We know what incessant criticism sounds like. We know what bitterness sounds like.

But we all agreed that what we’ve most experience from people when we’ve hurt them, or what we’ve done most to people that have hurt us, is we cut people off. We shut people out. We call them out, or just cancel them. 

I remember the first person I heard articulate this as a life strategy. When I was first living on my own, I had a roommate who was awful to me. He insulted me, was rude to me in all kinds of ways  and then when I tried to talk with him about it, he said: Listen, I don’t ever want to talk to you again. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t know you. You don’t know me. We will not speak again until you move out.

And stubborn guy that I am, I was like: well, if those are your rules, why don’t you move out? And eventually, he did. Fair enough. I’d tried my best, but there was nothing more I could do.

But, given this experience, when I was talking to another friend about moving in, I told him what had happened. And I asked him: I don’t expect we’ll have that kind of conflict, but what happens if we do have some unforeseen conflict? What would you do? 

And he’s like: well, here’s how it works with me. I trust my friends. I’m loyal. I do the right thing. And I’m not easy to offend. But if someone hurts me once, if someone breaks my trust, then I will never trust them again. I cut them out. It’s over. 

And, given what I just experienced, that concerned me a little, and I was like, doesn’t that pretty much guarantee that you’ll never stay connected to anyone. Cause we all hurt people eventually, even people we care about, right? But you seem kind of anti-second chances. And he was like: well, sorry, that’s the way I am. 

Shockingly, we didn’t stay friends for very long. Eventually, he cut me off for something, I can’t remember what, to be honest. 

Have you seen this in your life? Have people cut you off, cancelled you before? Have you done that to somebody else? 

I was thinking the other day about some of the people that I feel have done me wrong, some of the people I think I’ve done wrong too. And it was surprising and sad to me to remember how many of these relationships ended by one of us essentially ghosting the other. 

Not ending the connection for our own safety or protection. There’s obviously a time and place for that. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about times when we’re offended or hurt, and we don’t try to do the same hurt back per se. Maybe we can’t. But we just move on as quickly as possible. 

As a pastor, I see people do that with their church sometimes. Offended by something or other, caught up in a tricky relational dynamic, and just washing their hands and moving on. 

Maybe this doesn’t do the harm in the world that violent retribution does, but it doesn’t mend or heal either. It doesn’t make us whole. 

As I’ve said, I think Jesus has a better way. 


Luke 6:27-31  (CEB)

27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.

This is maybe the most distinctive teaching of Jesus. Love of enemies is a hallmark of what it means to follow Jesus. Sadly, though, many people have heard this and assumed that Jesus taught resignation, defeatism, just roll over and suck up every awful thing that anyone ever says or does. Be nice, while being a victim.

What Jesus is saying, though, is so much more powerful, so much more original than that. 

A couple years back, Pastor Ivy taught this passage. And she taught the perspective that theologian Henry Thoreau and Mahatma Ghandhi and Walter Wink, and Martin Luther King, Jr. saw in this passage. That Jesus taught the disruption of violence through loving, non-violent resistance. Provocation that breaks the cycle of violence, and begins a cycle of healing and flourishing. 

Roman soldiers slapped Jews, to humiliate them. To punch with a fist was only for fighting your social equals.  And they only used their right hand, as their left was for wiping their rear – and it was socially unacceptable to do stuff with your left hand. So to turn your cheek after being slapped is to force the Roman to treat you as an equal or to humiliate them by making them slap you with their left hand. Weird, but true, I swear. When Ivy taught this, she and her son Reed acted it all out – it was great. Plus, as they showed, to stand as Jesus says to is actually a strong gesture, not a weak gesture. Try to fight back with a Roman – and they’re a solider. They will win. And you will end up in jail or dead. But to not cower in defeat, but to look them in the eye, stand erect, and dare them with your other cheek. That is strength.

That’s what’s going on in all this teaching. Jesus teaches love of enemies by not returning violence, but also not accepting it as the final word. 

The Jesus story, the story of love is not to ask: how do I get back or get even? How do I win? That’s the toxic story of revolution. This obsession with grievances, and redressing them. The story of love is also not to ask: how have I lost again? There’s nothing I can do.

No, the story of love, the Jesus story is to ask: how do I provoke a different dynamic here? How do I stay engaged, but on different terms than the aggressor has set up? When me or mine are done wrong, what power do I have to begin a cycle of healing and justice? 

We see this super-powerfully in the latest, the final Star Wars film. And again, double apologies here. If you haven’t seen it still and care, I’m going to give something away. It’s been out a while, so I think I have the right. And if you’re a Star Wars devotee, I’m probably going to say everything wrong, as I’m more of a casual viewer. So sorry to you too. 

But in this story, Rey is the last Jedi. She’s like the last great hope for goodness and light in the Universe. And her great foil turns out not to be the prince of darkness Kylo Ren, but the old, old evil Emperor, who’s existing in this undead, zombie-like existence, still fueling, empowering all the evil in the universe. 

And when Rey comes face to face with the Emperor, what he wants most is for Rey to hate him, to murder him, to return him violence and kill him. Because if she does that, she will in a sense become him. His spirit, his life force, his evil will then live on through her, the new emperor. 

But what Rey does in this film that is so stunning is that each time she is confronted by evil, she seeks to offer healing. She looks at her enemy and says: what can I do to make him whole? And when with the Emperor, she sees no way to make him whole, what she does is she doesn’t hate the Emperor and doesn’t return him violence. She simply protects herself. She refuses to listen to him or be harmed by his evil. And by not receiving the force of his violence, it turns back on himself, and he self-destructs. 

This is of course exactly what we celebrate tomorrow on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We celebrate one man, and not just one man, but a whole movement of women and men, who stared down the great evils of racial injustice in our society and said: this evil will not define me. I will not accept or receive it. We will turn it against itself. 

And throughout the 50s and 60s, America watched as the Civil Rights Movement exposed America’s violent racism with provocative, non-violent love. When King was assassinated in the late 60s, he was of course just getting going, turning his attention to the violence of American militarism, the violence of Northern America’s segregation, and classism, and racism. 

Much work remains for us still. 

But King gave us one of our time’s clearest, most compelling pictures of how the story of Jesus exposes the myth of redemptive violence, disrupts our stories of domination and revolution, and opens possibilities for healing and flourishing. 

I wonder what would have happened in Delhi if Begum Wilayat Mahal had stood on that railway platform with her dogs and her family, not insisting she be given a palace, but insisting that all the victims of the partition be made whole. What if she had held a sign that said: I am the partition. And another that said: We are still here. And another that said: Make South Asia whole again. I have no idea. In that case, one can only dream. 

But we can do more. When we’ve been done wrong, and when the people we are sympathetic to have been done wrong, when we have grievances, we can keep being defined by the violent, we can obsess over winning and vindication and how to take them out or take them down. We can ghost those who hurt us too, cut them off, cancel them, and pretend we don’t bear loss or hurt. 

Or we can engage with provocative, non-violent love. I’d love to invite us to try. So we’ll take a couple minutes on our invitations today, if that’s alright. 

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

How are you defined by domination and violence, even if it’s your reaction to someone else’s? Where is US/THEM strong in you? 

What would it mean to embrace Jesus’ vision of restorative, healing justice that starts to undo being defined by US vs/ THEM?

Spiritual Practice of the Week

When you think of someone you resent, break the cycle of grievance and violence:

  • name the harm this person is attached to,
  • remember this person is not higher or lower than you,
  • release your attachment to them. “This person does not get to write my story.”

Winning is Overrated

For this sermon, Steve began by reading Corey and the Seventh Story, by Brian McLaren and Gareth Higgins in its entirety. This children’s book can be found here if you wish to purchase it.

Steve’s additional comments follow:

Domination. Revolution. Isolation. Purification. Victimization. Accumulation.

Being the boss of others.

Getting revenge on those who bossed you around.

Running away afraid.

Turning on those who look different.

Giving up in helplessness.

Taking pride in having more than others.

So much of the time, these are the stories we live by. Our families. Our friends. Our companies. Our churches. Our nations. 

And they don’t end well. They don’t heal us, or the earth, or one another. They don’t make for flourishing. 

But Jesus has a story too – a story of liberation, a story of reconciliation. And it’s not just a story for Jesus. It’s for all of us. 

Between his birth and death and resurrection, Jesus lived a life, as we do. He liked to tell stories himself. And he lived a great story, one that many of us believe shows us the way to God and the way back to one another and even back to ourselves. 

For six weeks, we hope to share about the Jesus story – largely from the Bible’s book of Luke – while exposing these other six stories we’ve been telling, and listening to, and following for too long. 

Today, very briefly, domination.

You’d think that if someone were to be a prophet – to try to speak for God to us, and if people would claim that same person was actually God among us as well, then you’d think they’d claim the right to be in charge, that they would demand attention, and insist they’d be listened to.

And if that person were to leave a movement, and that movement were to become a religion, you’d think the founder would want to build a winning team, that would be more and more and more powerful and victorious.

But Jesus wasn’t like that at all. 

Listen to Jesus’ big coming out party, as he announces his life mission to his hometown.

Luke 4:14-30  (CEB)

16 Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. 17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because the Lord has anointed me.

He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,

    to proclaim release to the prisoners

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

    to liberate the oppressed,

19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. 21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

22 Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips.

Quoting from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says he is here for people’s freedom – to show God’s favor, to bring liberation, to create wholeness in our lives and communities. He even edits one of the two scriptures he quotes – that passage originally announces the year of God’s favor and a year of God’s vengeance – when God will win, when God will punish God’s enemies. But Jesus says: that prophecy was only half right. It’s just the year of God’s favor. 

God doesn’t need to dominate or punish or take vengeance, just heal, release, and free. 

And people are like YEAH! This is so good. 

But then some people are like – hey, Jesus is a hometown guy. We know him. What’s so special about him? And other people are like, hey, his parents weren’t even married. There’s definitely nothing special about him. And before they even start asking Jesus to prove himself, to show why they should listen to him, Jesus is like: I’m not going to bother. And anyway, what I have isn’t really for you. Or at least it’s not just for you. 

This is not about me winning. And this is not about you or us winning together! God’s work on earth is bigger than that. This is about healing and freedom for everybody. 

And then people try to run him off a cliff. You can read the rest of the passage on your own.

We so like to win, to dominate. It’s the first bad story people tell ourselves, maybe one of the oldest bad stories we’ve been telling our species now. 

That if we can have what others don’t have, that if we can defeat others, that if we can win, be strongest, be most powerful, have the most market share, we will be happy.

It’s been the obsession of our local pro football team, to dominate, and with all due respect to football genius Bill Belicheck, he has been more dominant in his field than anyone else now or ever, and yet he does not seem like a happy man. 

We live in a country that since the middle part of the last century has sought world domination. It’s become very important to our collective self-image and our national identity that we are the richest country on earth, the we are the best country on earth, that we have the most powerful military on earth, that we are the greatest nation on earth. 

Whether or not any of those things are true or not, they are not important. Being committed to that kind of domination has stirred up and will continue to stir up all kinds of bad in us, and all kinds of harm in the world. It is not God’s project. God is not on the side of any person or people that seek to dominate. Period.

This will to dominate shows up in even more subtle ways than this. When I realized I have ADHD and started telling people about this part of me, this learning difference, what some people call this learning disability, people started wondering what I was doing about this. 

And I’d be like: what do you mean, what am I doing? And they’d wonder what I was doing to not have to have the issues that come with having ADHD? I know the sickness now, so what is the cure? You know to beat it – to always be on time, to never forget or lose things, to stay focused and steady on stuff that bores me, to stop interrupting people by mistake, and other stuff that people assume I’d want: to be to be the boss, to be successful, top of my game, dominant.

And I’d say, well, mainly, knowing I have ADHD has helped me learn to love and accept myself more just the way I am. I’m not really trying to win or dominate anything. If anything, I hope the job I have now is like the most responsibility or success I’ll ever have. Because I’m going to want to downshift in the years to come. 

I want freedom, not winning. 

And some people get that, but some clearly do not. 

I like to think Jesus gets it, that maybe he’s finally rubbing off on me here and there. 

Jesus wants to liberate, not to dominate. The religion – Christianity – that took on Jesus’ title of Christ, the special one, the Spirit-filled one doesn’t tell that same story sadly. Christianity has usually wanted to win, to dominate. Still does.

But Jesus doesn’t care about that. During his ministry, Jesus tried to keep from being famous. Jesus didn’t want to win, to dominate, to have it all. Jesus loved to be with people and share good news. Then and now, he wants to heal and to free, and to see us all truly flourish. 

And I think we could do worse than be the same. 

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

In your life goals, professional goals, and civic life, resist America’s obsession with bigger, with dominance, and with winning. Pursue collective healing and flourishing instead.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

If you win a lot (high status, high pay, high privilege lots of attention, etc.), look for times and places to start taking a back seat. And if you watch others win a lot, remind yourself that you’re not a loser. Ask Jesus how the year of God’s favor can be expressed in you this year.

I’m so excited to stick with these seven stories and to tell the Jesus story. Blog out this week, and I’ll be back next week with Jesus, revolution, and the myth or redemptive violence. Let’s pray.