In her most recent book Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, Nadia Bolz-Webber writes the following:
“Jesus stories seem like nonsense, but then they also seemed like absolute truth at the same time. He just kept saying that the things we think are so important rarely are; things like holding grudges and making judgements and hoarding wealth and being first. Then one night, this Jesus got all weird at dinner and said a loaf of bread was his body and a cup of wine was his blood, and all of it is for forgiveness. All of it means our no-goodness is no matter. Then he went and got himself killed in a totally preventable way.”
Nonsense and absolute truth — that feels to me like a pretty great way to describe the Gospels and the Jesus story in general. Take todays Gospel text for example, I mean come on… that is not how our world works. It certainly isn’t the message we are given as we look around, watch TV, generally live in this society. And yet, I think that is exactly the point.
To love, bless, pray for those who have done you harm and then to turn the other cheek, is exactly the point of following this faith. It is exactly the counter to this culture that we are invited to live into.
This is a beautiful glimpse into the kingdom of God.
And it sounds really lovely until you have to actually live it.
Because the harm that we humans are capable of is vast. And the institutions that we create that empower us to do all of the things that Jesus talks about here: including hanging out only with people who are like you, lending in order to receive something back or better yet, more than you gave out in the first place and of course, offering judgement, are many. We love that last one.
Even the church has been a part of this. (I know that will shock you). Even within the church (and I am making broad sweeping statements about “the church” as a whole) we have sought ways to control, hold back, keep out of sight or vanquish those things that challenged us, or pushed against the power that some held and wanted to hold on to.
And really that is the thing that makes me feel saddest of all — that in the name of Jesus, we have so harmed one another. That we have sought to hold power than to share love.
I’ve been spending my time recently exploring church history particularly in connection to women and the LGBTQ2S+ community but the more I read, the more I also think that about the harmful ways it impacts men — so basically, I am talking about everyone.
By deciding what the “right” way to live looked like for everyone, so many were pushed to the margins or felt left out of any relationship to or with God. By judging and condemning each other for things that made us feel uncomfortable, by choosing exclusion over inclusion, by trying to section off parts of ourselves, like our bodies, our sexuality, our love for women or men or both, we reduced our experiences of God down too and made ourselves sick and very afraid of a vengeful man in the sky who was coming to get us if we didn’t get it right.
It’s like we completely ignored the parts of the book that talk about love, about forgiveness and about grace and instead chose to run with them. “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”
Without exploring the possibility that what we were doing: condemning one another, refusing to see a fuller expression of God through what bold and loud women and soft and gentle men, Trans women and men and non-binary humans, gay and bi and straight, various ways in which we might form families and relationships have not only harmed our relationships with each other but I would also argue with God.
God chose to show up and I believe continues to show up for us in our flesh. And our flesh does not look or express itself in just one way — just as our God cannot be confined to one expression. If we are made in Gods image — then it stands to reason (at least to me) that we also must have more than one way of expressing who we are — fully alive, fully ready to love and to be loved as we are — not in some confined way that some have decided is the best way.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
And I looked a number of versions, which all seem to agree on this plural expression of God. God as us and our. A multiplicity of expressions of God, not just as man. And so here we are, made in God’s image, a multiplicity of expressions of humanity.
And I am so grateful for this conversation that is happening now. I mean it took long enough.
But I am so grateful that we get to have it or begin it, maybe.
This is why the Gospel is both hard and incredibly beautiful. Because again and again it calls us back to love.
Last week Andrew and I were invited into a class at the Vancouver School of Theology (VST) to talk about St. Brigid’s, about how and why we started it and some of what we have learned.
And I think some of my answer to why is this, because I wanted to try to be church differently. I wanted to be a part of a community that doesn’t section part of me or you off. And I want to be a part of a community who will teach me how to do it well — or as well as we can.
We don’t get it right all of the time, we have definitely learned some hard lessons. We have had to figure out how to come back.
But this is still the church I want to belong to. I still feel so lucky to be a part of your community or this community.
I am grateful to you for teaching me how to be the pastor you need and for telling me when I need to learn more or better or listen more or more deeply.
There is that line in For Everyone Born that we have been singing for the last few weeks, which says: For everyone born, a place at the table, abuser abused, with need to forgive.
And every time we sing it, I stumble. “Really?” I think, “Really?”
And then we read tonight:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good for you, what credit is that to you? …Love your enemies, do good and lend expecting nothing in return…”
No one said that following Jesus would be easy.
But when you begin this hard work of forgiving and loving and sharing, do it from a place of strength and of belovedness. Do it from a place of deep knowing that you are beloved, and no human gets to tell you otherwise. There is no point at which God or Jesus tell you otherwise.
No rules about how you should express yourself or who you should love or how you should love yourself, or how you live in your skin as defined by other people, get to define your relationship with God, who loves you into being.
It is from that deep and rich place of knowing that we are beloved and made in Gods image — every part of us; that we begin that hard work of forgiveness and turning the other cheek.
A little later in Luke, Jesus will be asked to summarize the Law — distill It down to a couple of lines and he says this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” And, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
That is the work that we are here to do in God’s name. And it is work that can only begin when we begin with that very last part loving ourselves. Loving ourselves comes from a deep knowledge and understanding that God loves us first — before anyone else — God looks at us in the darkness of our mother’s wombs and says, it is good.
It is that goodness and love that I am asking us to remember tonight. As we gather around the table in a few minutes and remember that wacky dinner in which Jesus reminds us that his body is bread and his blood is wine and that we take these things in in remembrance of him, we are also reminded as Nadia Bolz-Webber puts it so aptly: “That all of it means forgiveness. All of it means our no-goodness is no matter.”
And I would say to you that much of our perceived no-goodness is a weight that we have been burdened with by others and it isn’t one that you have to carry anymore. It is not connected to your gender or lack of connection to any gender, or who you love or how well you live into the human definitions of masculine or feminine, or whether you are a sexual being or not (with other adults and including an understanding of enthusiastic consent, of course).
Tonight, in this Gospel reading, we get a lovey glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven is like and how we can help to bring it about and it’s a kingdom that is built on love, blessing, prayer, forgiveness and sharing. And it’s a kingdom build on a God who loves you first no matter what anyone else might say.