The other day I was at my kids’ high school and I went into the office of a program director where I saw some calligraphy on the wall that was made by my old mentor, Bak Fun Wong. It was a reminder of what an influential educator he was locally, certainly very influential to me. I see signs of him everywhere.
Bak Fun was my boss for nine years. He gave me the opportunity to teach and helped shape a really unique, beautiful school in which to learn that craft and to learn about leadership too.
A few years into my work with Bak Fun, when I was taking on some new responsibilities in the school and starting my path toward becoming a principal, I took a road trip with him and a couple other members of our team to a school in New York City we were observing and learning from.
And on the ride home, as we cruised along the highway, I asked Bak Fun:
You’ve had a profound influence on so many people. What is your leadership secret?
Bak Fun thought for a moment, and then he said-
Sure. I can tell you. Leaders don’t make a mess. That’s level one leadership. And level two is that leaders clean up the mess they make.
And then he stopped.
And I thought: That’s it? Don’t make a mess. Clean up your mess. There’s some tension there. And it sounds like etiquette in the lunchroom, not leadership wisdom. When it comes to talking, I’m kind of a maximalist. I’m trying to learn how to preach like 20 minute sermons rather than half hour ones or more, for instance, and it’s not easy for me.
Bak Fun, though, was more of a minimalist. He’d choose his words carefully, but say things you’d keep thinking and wondering about later, not unlike Jesus actually.
So I was used to these moments like this, but still, I asked:
Is that all?
And after a minute, Bak Fun said,
No, there’s a level three leadership too, which is that leaders clean up other people’s messes.
And he turned away. That was it.
Don’t make a mess.
Clean up your mess.
And clean up other people’s messes.
That’s leadership. Or maybe that’s responsible moral living in the world. Or maybe that’s part of the point of being a spiritual or religious person in the world.
The faith tradition that Reservoir is part of, the Christian tradition, is known for a lot of other things. When people have been polled in recent years about what comes to mind when they think of Christians, they often answer: judgemental, and hypocritical.
And I get it. A lot of Christians have tried to take what they see as the moral high ground on a few issues, without any curiosity about how other people, even other Christians, might have good reason to see things differently. And this happens without backing up that aggressive moralism with loving, kind action that makes communities better, that cleans up messes rather than making them.
Well, we at Reservoir and others are trying to center the very opposite approach. To grow lives of faith in inclusive, diverse communities where we are humble and open about our dogma, but where we are deeply committed to healing and repair in the world.
Part of Reservoir’s beloved community vision is to empower wholeness, love, and justice in our lives and in the communities where we live and work, so that our expression of the Christian faith will be beautiful, and so that it will promote genuine flourishing.
We want to be people that try not to make messes, and that clean up our own mess when we make them. And maybe we can even go level three and try to clean up other people’s messes a little too.
One of the words in our cultural and political discourse for this cleaning up of messes is the word reparations.
And that’s the topic of today’s sermon: the good news opportunity of reparations.
We’re going to read a gospel text from the life of Jesus through the lens of reparations.
And then we’re going to try to paint a picture of reparations on a personal, an institutional, and a national level. Then we’ll close with a couple really practical ways we can live the teaching, if we’re so compelled.
Here’s the text. It’s called the story of the rich young ruler, from the gospel of Luke. It goes like this:
Luke 18:18-27 (Common English Bible)
18 A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”
19 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God.
20 You know the commandments: Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Honor your father and mother.”
21 Then the ruler said, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”
22 When Jesus heard this, he said, “There’s one more thing. Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.”
23 When he heard these words, the man became sad because he was extremely rich.
24 When Jesus saw this, he said, “It’s very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!
25 It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
26 Those who heard this said, “Then who can be saved?”
27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.”
I’ve struggled with this passage over the years. One person I used to study the Bible with in my 20s talked about the wiggle room we all try to create with Jesus. Because Jesus says and does so many provocative things, and it’s easy to try to wiggle out of our discomfort with him.
Like here. Jesus asks this potential student if he’s been living God’s commands because to do what God says is to have life. It’s good to say yes to God. And this young adult is like, yes, since I was a kid, I have been doing all these things. And Jesus doesn’t dispute that. That’s interesting.
But Jesus had been very specific with his words. He quoted the second half of the 10 commandments, the ones that in other places he summed up by saying:
God’s command is to love your neighbor as yourself.
And he left out the first half entirely, the first half which he summarized:
Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
So, if you’re following me here, when Jesus is like, you still lack one thing, he’s saying:
You may love your neighbor, but your path to loving God is to sell all your stuff and give it to those who are poor.
And you can see what the guy is like: Seriously? What kind of rabbi, pastor, imam whatever is like: I’ll know you really love God when you sell all your stuff.
Maybe a cult leader?
It’s hard to hear from Jesus.
So we wiggle.
The most common interpretation of this passage I’ve heard is that:
Oh, well, if you love your money, if you put too much trust in your own wealth and resources so that you can’t trust God, then God’s going to want you to let go of your stuff so you can love God. And Jesus must have known that this young executive, or bureaucrat, or whoever he was, was one of these people.
Which is ridiculous.
Because one, what wealthy person – and by wealthy I mean me and most of us in this room who live in America at nowhere near the poverty line – how many of us hear this story and are like:
Fine, Jesus, you’ve got me, I’m the greedy, money-loving, too-attached-to-my-possessions person you’re speaking to. I’ll sell it all. You’ve got me.
With some beautiful exceptions, people don’t do that. We wiggle. We’re like, whoever Jesus is talking to, it’s not me. He’s talking about the millionaires, or if you’re a millionaire, which many people are these days, you think, oh, he’s talking about the billionaires, or if you’re a billionaire, you think Jesus is just talking to the greedy, obnoxious, godless ones who are out trying to be Twitter.
Also, Jesus generalizes with his disciples right after the guy walks away. Jesus looks at his students and he’s like:
I get it, it’s next to impossible for the wealthy to follow me. Wealthy people have a hard time living in the beloved community, like as hard as getting a camel through the eye of a needle.
I’ve heard some weirdo wiggle room theories about Jesus couldn’t have possibly meant what he said here too. But he said it. Elsewhere he said
You cannot love God and money.
Spoiler alert. I can’t tell you exactly what Jesus meant, either here or anywhere else. Not my place. After all, Jesus said he wasn’t trying to be understood so much as followed. Jesus wasn’t looking for anyone to fully get him, he wants to get under our skin, to delight and intrigue and to spook and to woo and to compel us out of our slumber into connection with a living God and out of our death into abundant life!
So when Jesus seems hard to you, don’t make up some easy way to close the book. Sit with the discomfort, trust that a loving God has life for you in Jesus’ words, hang in and don’t just walk away.
Alright back to this teaching. This winter, I heard the best teaching I ever heard on this passage, so simple and obvious and true to my mind that I can’t believe I’d never heard it before.
It was a reflection by Chris Hoklotubbe, who’s a professor of religion and who is also a Chocktaw. And Hoklotubbe, reading this passage through Native American eyes, is like: Oh, this is a passage about land and about reparations. He points out that all wealth comes from land, but that this was especially direct in the ancient world.
In Jesus’ culture, if you were rich – especially if you were young and rich like this person – then you were either an emperor or something, or you’d inherited a bunch of land. And with that land, you could collect rents, and trade olive oil, and stuff like that. And the way people collected a bunch of land was usually that people with capital would make high interest loans to poor farmers, and when they couldn’t pay back their loans, you’d take their land.
So Jesus, and everyone around him, would look at this young guy, rich in land, and know that he’d inherited land that was gotten at other’s expense.
It’s not his fault, he’s young, he didn’t do it, his daddy did, or his grandparents, or the generation before them, but Jesus looks at him and says:
You can love God by making things whole.
It’s not just about this one person’s heart, it’s about a whole community in disrepair, a community where most people don’t own land and resources, and this one owns a lot, and the injustice of previous generations made that possible.
And Jesus doesn’t blame him, but he invites him into love. Jesus doesn’t say it’s his fault, but he does invite him to consider his responsibility to do justice. Jesus says: love God, by making things whole.
And on that day, it’s too much for him. He walks away.
How do we not walk away, friends, when Jesus comes calling for us to walk in the ways of love and justice? How do we be people who know that it’s right to clean up the messes we’ve made, and it’s loving and just and right to clean up other people’s messes, especially when we’ve inherited them?
Or hey, let’s say the mess has been made on us and our ancestors. How do we be people who know that we deserve repair, that we are worthy of being made whole?
How can we all embrace reparations as part of the good news of Jesus?
I’ve read experts on this, I’ve talked to experts on this. But I am not an expert.We also don’t have a lot of time, so I can’t answer the question entirely, but let me share a couple bits of what I’m learning.
Years ago, when I was a principal, I started looking at the data at the time on the risks and hardships some LGBTQ youth were experiencing – rates of depression and bullying and other harm. And I was sobered and sad, but not shocked because I remembered my own youth and how brutal we all were about sometimes about difference, and how unsafe it was to be different in your sexual identity or orientation. And I thought, along with members of our faculty and student leaders and other administrators, we have got to make our school safer, less homophobic, a better place for the flourishing of our LGBTQ youth.
And it was clear to me that this was a must and that if anyone objected, we were just going to say your personal viewpoints are not what is at stake here, but the health and welfare of our youth.
And this was probably especially important to me because of the time and place I grew up in, where we called all kinds of people and things gay, and we were all utterly homophobic. The only childhood friends I knew who came out did so after they had grown up and moved on, because there was no way that environment, the one I was part of, was safe for that.
And in my early years as a Christian following Jesus, in my teens through my 20s, the form of the faith I knew taught that you could love LGBTQ folks like anyone else, but the expectation was they would keep that locked up inside, because the expression of their love and sexuality was disordered, not God’s best, all that. Now I’ve moved beyond those ways of thinking, those ways of reading the scriptures. But I was once part of them, and they’ve been dominant in the past, and in many places still in the present. So it may not be my fault, but I have a responsibility.
So for me, being part of work to make a school safer and more welcoming for LGBTQ people, or being part of work to make the church safer and more affirming for the experiences of LGBTQ people isn’t some special kindness, it’s a form of reparations, of cleaning up of messes made.
Which effects how you do things, by the way.
At my school, for instance, it was suggested that a particular organization, led by LGBTQ people, conduct training for our faculty and workshops for our students. And to be honest, I didn’t agree with all of the views or tactics of this organization, but I’ve been taught that when you’re making reparations, part of what is required is giving up control. You don’t get to call the shots anymore for the person or group that has been harmed and deserving of repair. It’s their hour of agency.
This has continued in my life in this area, in looking at where our family giving goes, at how we make our church a better place, and in other areas, and for me, healing and repair in my relationships and the church’s relationship to LGBTQ people has consistently meant listening to and learning from the voices of LGBTQ people and seeking to make a holy yes to using my life to try to do make repair, to love God by making things a little more whole.
OK, that’s very personal. And I focused on this for a reason, because most of the repair we do is personal. It’s about making amends and repairing when we’ve hurt someone, and about doing things in our finances and jobs and communities to see legacies and dynamics that are broken, and to act to make things whole.
But when it comes to reparations, this isn’t mostly what we talk about. Reparations mostly comes up because of growing movements in our times to ask how it is our country can repair the damage done by centuries of race-based discrimination and violence, particularly toward Black Americans.
And to be honest, I used to think – like most Americans – this was impossible. I’m a citizen of a nation built on injustice, built with the hands and bodies of unpaid Black Americans, built literally on top of the blood of Native Americans.
How could any of this ever be made whole? How can there ever be repair? Maybe it’s best to forget and move on.
But one, that’s a super-white thing to say and two, didn’t Jesus say what is impossible for humans is possible for God.
Why bother worshiping God, why bother following Jesus if we’re not going to invest our time and hope and love in impossible things.
You know, swing big with God or go home.
What is impossible for humans is possible with God.
And there are some exciting things going on in the arena or reparations and repair.
There was just the release of the big Harvard report, about their wealth and their ties to slavery and to centuries of discrimination, and about what they’re going to do about it. And sure, the $100 million involved might not be nearly enough, but it’s a $100 million dollars more than yesterday, right? It’s a move forward.
And there are some exciting national conversations going on about what reparations can look like for the centuries of violence and inequities toward Black Americans in our country. Inch by inch, we’re getting closer to serious proposals being considered. And those conversations are happening locally too. Looking at Boston’s present day segregation and wealth inequities, and how we got here, and what we’re going to do about it.
A good friend of mine has been working for King Boston, who’s been taking the lead on local conversations about reparations and becoming a more racially just and inclusive, and equitable city. There’s a great series of conversations and events happening next month on this front called Embrace Ideas Festival.
I don’t know how we’ll be made whole in this country, friends. The violence and the wrong are all so old and deep and persistent. But what’s impossible with humans is possible with God. We live in hope. So it’s worth our time to invest in hope too.
So what do we do?
Well, first the institutional. Leaders don’t walk away from messes. They clean them up, whether they personally made them or not. And followers of Jesus, when we here talk about reparations, ought to lead with love and curiosity, not defensiveness or dismissiveness.
So whether it be in national politics or with a company or institution you’re part of, when reparations come up, or questions about discrimination or inequity, past or presnet, and how to make things right, I strongly encourage you to not start with questions like “who deserves what?” and “what will it cost?” Those are common questions people start with, and common ways of zero sum thinking where we assume that if one person wins, someone else has got to lose, and why should I lose if it’s not my fault?
And maybe that’s where the rich young ruler started too – like why should I have to give up my wealth based off something my ancestors did? Doesn’t Jesus know how hard I’ve worked in my life to treat people right?
But when it comes to communities that are in disrepair, who deserves what? And what will it cost? Are bad starting questions. Better starting questions would be:
How do I enter the kingdom of God?
What does love look like?
What will bring about beloved community?
What will make us whole?
We may or may not be at fault for the inequities – many of the race-based – in our country, but we all bear a responsibility, and if we’re part of historically privileged, and historically oppressing communities, we bear extra responsibility, just as if we’re part of historically underprivileged and historically oppressed communities, we deserve repair. We deserve amends.
And personally, when we realize we’ve done wrong, whenever we have occasion to say sorry, let’s do two other things, every time.
Let’s tell the truth about what happened. Because without the truth, it’s hard for us to be set free – either the person who hurt or the person who was hurt. So tell the truth.
And two, when you say sorry, offer a way to make things right, to make amends. Or if you really can’t think of any way at all, ask the other person if there is anything you can do to make things better because they deserve that and that is the least you can do.
When we do that, we don’t need to hang our heads and go away sad anymore. We can be made whole with our neighbors, and we can know that Jesus is proud of the love he sees in our hearts as well.