Maybe you’ve heard this phrase – Hurt People, Hurt People. It’s really true, right? That people who are filled with unhealed, maybe even unacknowledged hurt, can do a world of harm, whether they mean to or not. Hurt people hurt people. It’s a warning.
There’s a flip side to that line, though, a more hopeful one, which is that healthy people help people. People who are healthy from the inside out can do a ton of good in the world, sometimes whether they even mean to or not.
My therapist talks about this with me. She’s really over the top about it. Maybe she can tell I’m an unmotivated client sometimes. But when I take some baby step or another to try to be a more integrated, compassionate, healthier person, my therapist will be like: This is the path to world peace. This is how we save the world.
And it’s not like she’s just all: woo-woo, blowing smoke in my ears. (Well, maybe a little bit. But not mostly.) She means it. Healthy People Help People. This kind of work saves us all.
So that’s the talk day – Healthy People Help People. And just so you know, I’m not going to tell you five things you’ve got to do to be your best self. I’m not going to really tell you to do anything at all. That’s up to you. But I’m to share a few words of Jesus, talk about how the work we put in with the help of God and friends to get healthier, how that’s part of the Way of Jesus for us. And I’ll tell a couple of stories, share a couple things I’ve seen and learned, and my invitation to you is just to pay attention to what sticks out to you. What lands for you. And if anything does, just notice that, hold onto that, get curious about it and see where it takes you, all right?
Here’s the scripture. It’s some little excerpts of a longer teaching in Matthew 5, part of a whole set of teachings called the Sermon on the Mount. I’ll give you a few little bits and try to fill in the gaps.
Matthew 5:20, 21-22a, 27-28, 43-44, 48 (Common English Bible)
20 I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
This line has been a confusing start for a lot of people over the years. Because some people think Jesus is setting just crazy high expectations. Be more righteous than the most righteous people you know. After all, God demands the best. Perfection. God deserves it, so you’ve got to try.
And that’s led to some weirdly convoluted ways of receiving this whole teaching, like Jesus was setting up some super high standards for our lives, just so we wouldn’t be able to meet them and then we’d reach out to God for help.
That’s messed up, though. That would be devious and strange and it also just doesn’t fit the flow of what Jesus is saying. He says:
The people you might think of as righteous, they’re living by a certain moral code, sure, but you can do better than that.
And then he proceeds to show them the way. He’s like-
You’ve heard this before, but let me show you a different way, a better way, a healthier way.
Let’s catch a bit of that. He says:
21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment.
22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.
So, murder’s bad, beyond bad. We’ve been trying to process murder recently every day… murder up in Maine by mass shooting, murder of civilians by large, organized groups – Hamas, how many would argue Israel. We can’t process this level of organized violence, trauma, death. It’s horrible. No dispute.
But Jesus is like,
avoiding murder – good as that might be right now – is not the goal. It’s wider and deeper than that, it’s avoiding the ways of being out of which murder could even possibly flow – unregulated anger, vengeance, judgment. To get healthy, we don’t avoid just the worst symptom of our problems, we’ve got to go to the roots.
And on Jesus goes, a whole list of: You’ve heard it said, by I say to you…
27 “You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery.
28 But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.
43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you
Jesus is taking Torah, sacred, foundational law for his culture and faith, and he’s not arguing with it, mostly. Like a good rabbi, he’s exploring its foundational depths.
He’s like it’s one thing to prevent the very worst behavior. It’s another thing to heal the heart, to become a radiantly good person from within. It’s one thing to regulate symptoms of sickness, but it’s another thing – a better thing – to really get healthy.
And he ends this bit with this line.
48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
Here’s the upshot, Jesus says.
It’s simple: be like God.
Which, OK, maybe that is a little intense of a thing for Jesus to say.
Like we should all start speaking whole universes into being.
Except, I don’t know, maybe that’s just it. Not quantitatively, like we could be as big or eternal or powerful as a divine being.
But qualitatively so, like human mini-gods, not perfect exactly, but perfectly loving, completely what we are meant to be. We’ll get back to this, but maybe in this mode, we too can indeed speak universes of something into being.
I think I agree with my therapist and, as it turns out, with Jesus too. This just might be how we save the world.
Do you mind wondering with me a little bit about this?
Let’s try. Let me tell you what I hear in this. It’s three things. The first is this. I think Jesus is like:
Know your vulnerabilities.
Know your vulnerabilities.
Friends, I am not a naturally healthy person.
As a child, I was apparently very accident prone. That’s the main thing my parents like to say about my childhood. You were very accident prone. What’s one to say? Sorry?
I guess it was true, though. I was an impulsive kid. Still am, sometimes. But I made some weird choices. Got stitches left and right.
My favorite foods might be ice cream and chocolate, which I’ve learned are not the recommended base of anyone’s healthy food pyramid.
And you know, it cuts deeper. In ways that matter more, I’m just not by inclination the healthiest person. None of us are.
Interestingly, the night I accepted the call to be your pastor, 10 ½ years ago, I felt like God reminded me of this, but it didn’t feel harsh, it wasn’t a criticism. It was gentle, kind, but serious.
It’s weird to try to talk about our experiences of God, like moments when we are keenly aware of divine presence and we think something is being communicated to us. But I’ll try here, just for a second.
On a Sunday night in 2013, I was getting ready for another week on the job at the school I served. It was a Saint Patrick’s Day, a Board member from this church called me up and officially offered me the position I still hold.
We had kind of pre-negotiated it. After saying no for a while, I had basically at that point agreed to say yes if I was formally asked. But still, this was the moment. There had been a prayer meeting at church that afternoon for members and some more discussion around the prayer, another Board huddle, and this was the moment. I was being called.
And you know, it felt real now, it was serious. So I told the Board member I needed to take a walk and pray one more time before accepting.
So I went out that night and walked up the hill near where I live to a little park there, not exactly sure what to pray, but just kind of holding the weight of this moment and asking God if there was anything else I needed to know, that I needed to pay attention to.
And I had this weird sense there was an answer to that question from God. And it kind of took the form of a phrase in my head, which was:
Watch your Achilles.
Watch your Achilles.
So, this wasn’t the weirdest thing. It had a context. At the time, I’d been running marathons and stuff for a few years, and like a lot of runners, just blowing my way through pain signals here and there, and I had some issues with my Achilles at that point. I needed physical therapy, I’d wear a boot for a while.
So the Achilles was on my mind some, but it came to me in that moment as more of a metaphor, like in the Greek legends, like: tend to your weakness, Steve.
And whatever part of this thinking was inspired by God, and whatever part was my own free association, where my mind went in prayer was to feel like God was affirming that I had some of the skills to do this work, like I had been prepared. But if I was going to do it, the biggest work was going to be internal. The most important work I’d do to be your pastor, to be a healthy pastor, would be work you wouldn’t see. It would be tending to my vulnerabilities, doing everything I could with the help of God and friends, to be safe, to be healthy, to be complete.
In Jesus’ invitation to be righteous people, to be healthy people, he speaks about unregulated anger, unbridled lust, and failures in relationships.
This is the stuff, right? Unhealthy people, toxic leaders, hurt people who hurt people, they pretty much fail in at least one of these areas.
Because they matter, they’re serious. When we fail in these areas, it can be devastating.
Who and what you want.
Why and how you get angry.
How you relate – in words and deed – to the people in your life – friends, foe, intimates, strangers.
Jesus doesn’t shame anyone for our weaknesses or proclivities here. We are all in part hurt people. We all have our Achilles, our places miss the mark.
But if we’re to have a kind of health, a kind of wellness that exceeds the ways of the thin self-righteousness and compliance that can get praised in religious circles, Jesus would encourage us to know our weaknesses.
By ourselves, we may or may not be able to do anything about it. But we can start by being honest with ourselves, maybe letting others be honest with you.
So we can move to what I see as the second part of Jesus’ teaching here, which is to open up for healing.
Open up for healing.
I was talking about this phrase with one of our kids – healthy people help people. And he was like: that’s alright, Dad, but I’ve got a better one.He saw it on a T-shirt, or a coffee mug or something, but it stuck. It said: Healed people heal people.
You know, like people who have had problems, vulnerabilities, but they’ve gotten help, they’ve grown, so they’re not full of themselves, not cocky, they know their way around real problems. But they’re not stuck there, they’ve found some paths through. My kid was like:
These are the people you want in your life. Healed People Heal People.
Which – like what do you say when your kid talks that way – like that’s sacred. You say, thank you for saying that. That’s so true. And my God, thank you for being the kind of person that would know that at this age. Glory. That’s beautiful.
Healed People Heal People.
Maybe it’s not obvious in this teaching alone, but if you scope out to everything the gospels tell us about Jesus, it’s clear that he was a healer. He was a healer of bodies to be sure, sometimes. But also a healer of whole selves. Looking to help people find their depths, their center. Find home, find peace, find acceptance, find forgiveness, find their heart again.
See a lot of people use religion to help themselves feel better by feeling superior to others. Like God’s chosen ones, God’s favorite, unlike the people that God and we both judge. Jesus was familiar with this dynamic.
And he was like:
naw, judge not lest you be judged.
That’s not the way. In the way of Jesus, we reject this attitude. We commit to a generous, non-judgmental attitude toward others, and we get curious about our own story of healing.
I’ve got two metaphors for how I think about the healing journey, both of which I got to see at work in someone’s life this week. One is composting. The other is a basket.
So composting. When you compost, you take trash – all kinds of nasty organic mess, and with time and oxygen and motion and bacteria, you turn it into something that gives life.
The composting healing journey is when you see the muck and junk and crap of your life, and you trust that with the help of God and friends, it can be useful, maybe even beautiful. One of the stories of compost pile healing that’s just taking my breath away is a new friend I’ll call Mark. Mark is the young man that three of us have been visiting in a Massachusetts prison, where he’s been held for many, many years on a sentence given to him for a crime he was connected to when he was just 17 years old.
At 17, you’re not involved with the kind of crime that could put you into prison deep into your adult life, if you’re not a hurt person. And Mark is no exception. As a kid, he was done wrong by life in so many profoundly unfair ways. And some bad luck and bad choices crashed onto his head, harder than he ever deserved.
But you know, with the help of God and friends, he’s been composting all that crap. Opening up the pain, getting to know himself, finding God, getting help, making amends where he can, growing, growing, growing, in the toughest of conditions for growth.
When we visit him, as we did on Friday night, I sometimes feel like: who is this holy man? Deep, thoughtful, gracious. Healthy. And so eager to help people, if he’ll just get a second chance at it. I think he will. So we believe. We hope.
My other metaphor for the healing journey is the basket. I got this from my old mentor when I was young, my principal, my boss, Bak Fun Wong. He was always like:
Our lives are like a big basket.
Bad things, good things get put in. Bad things, good things can come out. It’s easier to put things in than take things out, though, so be careful what you put in someone else’s basket. Careful what gets put in yours.
Jesus agrees. Some of his teaching on healthy people is like:
Bring in what makes you whole, cut out what does you harm.
Easy to say, hard to do.
Hard, but possible.
Last week, I was spending some time with one of you probably young enough to be my kid. But I was like, my God, glory, this person has had a few tough knocks but they are just so impressive, so healthy. Beautiful.
And as we’re talking, I’m looking for the cracks. Like where is this person faking me out. But I don’t think so. I don’t have them on a pedestal. But the health I sense, the root of serious, good health seems like the real deal.
And as I listen to the story, get past a couple of tough dynamics, you just hear the grace with which good person after good person has come into this person’s life. And they’ve welcomed good influence after good influence. And the things that have been harder, the less good stuff that went into the basket, they’re asking:
How do I not lean into this? How do I stop believing that?
So good, to be on the healing path, so young. Why not, right? Why wait? Never too soon, never too late.
So know your vulnerabilities, get on the healing journey, and then one more thing. Let’s end where Jesus does, with this invitation to be healthy by becoming perfected in love.
This comes from the Wesleyan branch of Christian teaching, this idea that a person can be perfected in love, like all the parts of you shaped by love.
Sounds illusive, maybe, to be all love, all the time. And maybe it is. But it’s part of the good news call of Jesus. And I got a taste of it the other week.
I was at an award night at our son’s school. This was an award night for a single person, a once every five years award my kids’ school district gives for excellence in school administration. And the man being honored was the dean and director of two of my kids’ high school programs. I was there out of obligation, really, but ended up surprised by just what an awesome evening it was. So inspiring. This wasn’t just honor for a fine school leader – it was a celebration of a life well lived.
This program director is named Dan Bresnan. And this night a whole bunch of students sang Dan’s praises, in the charming and big-hearted and quirky ways only teens can pull off. And then there were his many family members, and alum, and parents and colleagues – lots and lots of them, proud of the work he was doing to make school a kinder, more humane place. Telling stories about his flexibility, his mentoring, his skills.
You got the sense, at least I did, that we weren’t being asked to honor this really impressive individual, as much as we were all stopping to give our attention to the healthiest of lives, a life being just really well lived. Humble, funny, kind, out there, showing up again and again for the good of the world.
Near the end, Dan made a speech himself. And he described what he did in a way I wasn’t expecting. He compared his work as a school leader to being a forest ranger. He said: a forest ranger can’t control what’s happening in the forest. There’s no such thing as a perfect forest ranger. The forest is too wild, too big. But a ranger gets out there and tries to help the conditions best support the safety and the flourishing of everyone and everything. Same with him – there’s no such thing as a perfect school leader. They can’t control teachers or kids or learning – it’s too complicated, there’s too much happening beyond your control. As it should be. But a school leader/ranger, Dan said, can try to work with the community to make it safer and kinder and more connected – a healthy place, a place where people can try new things, and make mistakes with grace, and learn and grow and flourish.
I know Dan’s right because I met a real life forest ranger out in the woods this past week and told him this story, this analogy – he liked it. And I know this is true because it happened for my kids. I’m grateful for Dan Bresnan.
At the heart of this speech, beyond the ranger metaphor, though, was his steadfast commitment to some simple beliefs about education and life. I don’t remember exactly how he put it but it was something like:
I think love is the heart of life, always the most important thing. And so if love is the way we do everything, that’s the best of ways.
You don’t hear enough educators talk this way. You don’t hear enough any kid of person talk and live this way: that love is the heart of life, that love is the most important thing.
This is the Wesleyan vision of perfection, though, to not worry about being perfect in some abstract sense, but to learn to be perfectly loving, everywhere, to everyone, all the time.
It’s the vision of Jesus too, to let love be our guide in all things, and so to be just like God, who loves so deep, so constantly so well, that like everyone who loves, God can birth new universes of possibility into being.
So it is with us.
No one’s asking any of us to be perfect. Mostly, to be honest, no one cares. Same with God. But the world is crying out for more healthy people. People who know their vulnerabilities. People on the healing journey, wise to what we take out and what we put into our lives, people getting help to compost the crap of our lives into something good. People learning the ways of love.
Healthy People Help People. And that saves us all.