My Neighbor is a Sinner

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 24 included Luke 18:9-14 and I Peter 4:8-11.  


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OK, Let me start this morning’s message by saying that I’m not sure what kind of dirt you thought you’d get on the Gielarowski family when you saw the title of today’s message, “My Neighbor is a Sinner”, but Jessalyn saw the signboard outside and sent me a certified letter containing a notarized copy of our Mutual Neighborly Non-Disclosure Agreement, so the only thing I can tell you about the residents of 1581 Cumberland St. is that their home is an unending parade of sunshine, lollipops, unicorns, and rainbows. Isn’t that right, Ron? Are we good? OK.

But seriously, I’m thinking this morning about every time I have ever been interviewed, or conducted an interview, for a ministry position. There are questions about education, faith, previous work experience, and ideas for the future. And then, invariably, someone comes up with a question that asks the candidate to imagine a scenario where he or she is put into a situation where someone is in the midst of pain and brokenness. “Hypothetically,” the interviewer begins, “what would you do if you got this job and encountered a young person who did ________?” Usually, but not always, the question involves some sort of behavior involving either human sexuality or the use of a controlled substance. And usually, but not always, someone (sometimes the candidate, sometimes the interviewer) ends this portion of the conversation by saying smugly, “After all, you know, ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin!’, right??”

And when I have heard that phrase quoted by those with whom I have interviewed, it almost always uttered with the same reverence and in the same tone as if it were a passage in The Sermon on the Mount. “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.” It’s one of those things that “everybody knows,” right? At least, sincere, gentle, loving, tolerant, kind-hearted souls like us know it, right?

Except, of course, it is nowhere to be found in the Bible. More to the point, I’d suggest that this phrase is actually anti-biblical. There are a couple of reasons for that…

First, it presumes that I decide what sin is. Both the Hebrew word for “sin”, chata, and its Greek counterpart, hamartia, are terms that come from archery or spear-throwing. They mean something like “miss the bulls-eye”, or “fall short”, or “fail to achieve or connect as was originally designed or hoped.” We see that in some English words that begin with “mis” – like “misconduct” or “misappropriation”; or with words that begin with “dys”, like “dysfunction” or “dysrhythmia”. When something is chata or hamartia – when something is sinful – it is not functioning up to its design; a person is not behaving at or experiencing their best. When we understand it this way, we think of sin as being in a place that is other than God’s best for us. Sin is a condition, an experience, an attitude, or a reality in which I am stuck (sometimes voluntarily, other times as a result of choices that others have made).

And yet somehow, when we use a phrase like “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”, we stop talking about the condition or reality of Sin. Instead, we find it easier to talk about sins – a list of behaviors that I find objectionable or offensive, and over which I am the ultimate judge or authority. Often when we are stuck in conversations about sins, I find that what you do with your time, your money, your sexuality, your diet, somehow becomes mine to judge. When that happens, then, your falling short of the Creator’s intent somehow becomes my business, or an affront to me.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as Sin, or that you have to accept or ignore everything that I do, but when anyone says or does anything that would seem to put themselves in a place that is reserved for God, then that person is making a grave error. And “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” simply smacks of that sort of judgmentalism and condemnation.

Even worse than presuming to determine what Sin is, however, is the more dangerous implication of that phrase: namely, that it presumes I know what you are. You are a sinner. You are one who has failed. You don’t work right. You’re not quite as up to snuff as the rest of us.

Icon from Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, Marietta, Georgia

When Jesus was active in his ministry, he attained a sort of celebrity status. There were all kinds of people who wanted to connect with him, or to see or be seen by him. And so the Gospels are filled with descriptions of him being welcomed by Teachers of the Law and Pharisees and other religious leaders; by wealthy and responsible people; by Roman soldiers and lepers and children; by tax collectors and drunkards and prostitutes. Jesus, it seems, would hang around with anyone. And he refused to dismiss anyone out of hand.

He, who bore all the purity of the Godhead, poured out his anger, scorn, frustration, and condemnation, not on the people who already stood in public judgment because of what they ate, or what they drank, or who they slept with…No, he reserved his harshest words for people like me…and maybe people like you: the religious elite who thought that they were better than everyone else.

The Gospel reading for today tells a story that Jesus told “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” It’s pretty plain in the story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who the “good guy” is, and it’s not the person who is most likely to get elected as a Deacon around this place.

How dare I look at you, or something you’ve done, and say something like “well, Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”? How can I speak those words without putting you and me in different categories? How can I even think that without elevating myself and diminishing you?

Like some of the other “half-truths” we’ve been considering this month, this one is just too long. It’s about five words too long. What if we simply said, “Well, you know… love.” No exceptions.

What if we followed Jesus’ lead and treated each other, not as “sinners” who were more or less messed up than we are and instead simply as “neighbors”? What if we looked at the people who surround us, who disappoint or inspire us, who irritate or enliven us, as someone who, just like us, falls short of God’s glory, and errs, and “misses the mark” from time to time?

Peter writes to his community and says that we need to come alongside each other in love.

Look, I know that there are places in my life where I miss the mark. So how can you, in a spirit of love and truth, help me to apprehend and learn the will of God more adequately? Rather than dismissing me as some poor slob who just isn’t measuring up to your standards, what if you considered me to be your neighbor; one who, like you, is crafted in the image of God and formed for His glory?

Now, listen: if you observe anyone hurting someone else in their conduct; if you see someone who is careening through life in a blaze of violence – whether it is abuse, or racism, or anger, or more subtle forms of manipulation or control – you will need to call them on that. You may need to put yourself between the predator and the prey in some of those situations.

But the only way to engage another person in truly meaningful conversation such as any of these scenarios implies is to make sure that we all stay on the same level.

My mother used to respond to situations wherein someone was experiencing great struggle or disruption in their lives by saying something like, “Well, what can I say? There but for the grace of God go I…” When one of my pastoral colleagues saw his life and family ruined by a particularly ugly and salacious series of behaviors, a wise mentor of mine cautioned me against adding to the scorn that this man was already receiving by simply saying, “Look, Dave: what makes you any different than him? How is it that you are better than that?”

The prime message of Jesus, over and over again, was “the kingdom of God is at hand!”. And when he was pressed for a vision of what this kingdom looked like, he said, “Love God, and love your neighbor.” And when he was pressed for a definition of who the neighbor might be, he told a story indicating the dangers of looking too far up at some people and too far down at others.

May we – each of us – have the humility and wisdom to be kind and gracious to each other as we seek to embody the Kingdom of God at work in our world.

Author Frederick Buechner was writing about how the sacrament of communion binds us together, and his words are instructive in this context, as well. He said,

It is…called the Mass, from missa, the word of dismissal used at the end of the Latin service. It is the end. It is over. All those long prayers and aching knees. Now back into the fresh air. Back home. Sunday dinner. Now life can begin again. Exactly.

[Our calling] is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need…for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters.

The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, “Christ died for thee.” That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. [Remember] that Christ died for thee.[1]

I’m here to say that you can’t do that, day in and day out, without starting to look at those faces and seeing your neighbors. And that’s a good thing. Remember who you are. Remember who they are. And remember who God is. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper, 1973), p. 52-53.

The LBJ Principle

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On August 10, 2014 our readings came from Matthew 10:1-31

Think, for a moment, about your passion. What do you love – I mean, really love? Running? Cooking? Sports? Do you remember the day that you fell in love with that hobby?

A Malachite Kingfisher

A Malachite Kingfisher

In 1998 I was traveling through Machinga, Malawi, in Central Africa. My friend, Pastor Mnensa, and I were on our way to the Chikhale CCAP, and were crossing a little “bridge” about 20 kilometers from the nearest paved road. As we came near to the bridge, Ralph began to tell me about a wonderful little bird he had seen near that stream on an earlier trip. We stopped and waited for a moment, and I was delighted to see a Malachite Kingfisher – the most beautiful bird I think I’ve ever seen.

Later that same year, I was sitting in my friend Dirk’s living room in Pretoria, South Africa, and I noticed all the birds that were flocking to his feeder. Of course, to my mind, they were all exotic. I was in Africa, after all. I said something to the effect of, “I can’t believe you have so many cool birds here. If we had nice looking birds in America, I might start watching them there. But all we have are boring birds.”

Fortunately for me, and perhaps unfortunately for anyone who gets stuck in a conversation with me, I have since discovered that we have some amazing birds in the 412 and across our continent.

House Sparrows

House Sparrows

However, at the time, I was thinking about all of the LBJ’s that flock to my feeder every day. An “LBJ” is a “little brown job” – one of those small, undistinguished creatures with dull plumage that seem to be everywhere. There are at least 35 species of sparrow in North America, and by and large, they are (at least from a distance) LBJ’s.

I know, I’m committing some sort of ornithological heresy by saying this, but I don’t see the excitement in watching a flock of a hundred small brown birds looking for the one with a different color eye stripe or bill color. Once in Texas, I talked with a man who had followed a flock of sparrows around the wildlife refuge for an hour because he thought that in and amongst the House Sparrows there was, in fact, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. And there was. And it’s hard for me to envision a scenario whereby that photo would be worth an hour of my time, but…

A Lincoln's Sparrow.  I know - this is sooooo much better than a House Sparrow, right?

A Lincoln’s Sparrow. I know – this is sooooo much better than a House Sparrow, right?

The House Sparrow is a much-despised bird, even among serious birders. There are articles that talk about how to create an environment in your backyard that discourages these LBJs from crowding out the feeder. There are about 150 million of these birds in the United States, and not many people like them.

In fact, in the late 1800’s there was a movement called the “Great English Sparrow War”, wherein this bird was called a foreign invader who was lazy, immoral, and harmful to native songbirds as it stole their food and habitat.

Publicity poster for Mao's "Four Pests" campaign.

Publicity poster for Mao’s “Four Pests” campaign.

Half a world away, a couple of generations later, Chairman Mao named the English Sparrow as one of the four pests that had to be eradicated from China for the country to succeed – again, calling it an immoral and lazy bird who stole food from the native inhabitants. For hundreds of years, people have spent a good bit of energy hating the sparrow.

And yet Jesus says that God actually cares about the sparrows. Billions of sparrows in the world, living, breeding, dying, hatching…and God actually cares for them. God knows what is going on in their lives, if we can trust Jesus on this one.

God gave me one child. I love Ariel, and now her daughter, Lucia, with my entire being. I am not exaggerating when I say I love them more than life. Sometimes I look at my friends with 2, 3, 4, or more children and I say, “How do you do that?” Not so much, “how do you manage to get everyone to school on time, or in dance classes or little league or those activities?”, but “I know how fiercely I love my one child. How do you love that many children as much as I love mine? Isn’t it exhausting?”

Loving people wears you out, doesn’t it? It’s nerve-wracking and annoying – you worry about people making bad decisions and getting caught up in someone else’s bad decisions and…

I am a hover-er. Ask any of the kids in the youth group, and I bet they will tell you, “I know that Pastor Dave loves me, but he sure asks a lot of questions. And he hugs me a lot.” At this moment, I am as drained and spent as I have ever been because of the ways that I have tried to love the kids from this community who have served on a Mission Team for the past week. I would walk across broken glass for them, but I am beat.

But as noble as all that is, I am not that good at loving and caring, at least compared to God. My world is so full…and my head hurts and my heart aches and sometimes I just throw up my hands and sigh.

And yet there is something in the divine nature that loves and treasures even the House Sparrow. These little creatures, which Matthew tells us are sold two for a penny, are noticed and valued by God. When Luke gets around to this part of the story, we see that he must be shopping at Walmart, because he finds them five for two pennies.

They are as close to worthless as they can be. And God cares for them.

What does this mean? It means that in the divine economy, there are no Little Brown Jobs. God refuses to look at some part of the creation and say, “Oh, that? Meh. It’s not my best work. I’ve done better.” God knows, values, and cares for everything in creation.

By extension, therefore, it would seem as though I, made in the image of God, am called to a similar level of attentiveness and care. I am not free to disregard or despise that for which God cares.

Which leads me to some thoughts about the current crisis on our nation’s southern border…or the educational system in our inner cities…or the famine in South Sudan…or the warfare in Israel and Palestine.

It seems to me that so much of what is truly evil in all of those places comes from the way in which one group of people looks at another group of people and says, “Them? Meh. They’re nothing special. Just some little brown jobs. Don’t bother with them. You can’t do anything. They’re lazy, and immoral. They don’t belong in our world. You’re best off trying to find a way to get rid of them.”

Beloved, this is the truth: that kind of reasoning is more prevalent than we admit, and that kind of thinking will kill not only “them”, but “us” as it removes their humanity and tarnishes the image of God in us.

BOrderChildrenSince October of last year, more than 63,000 children have been caught crossing the border alone. Many of these children have run right to the Border Patrol officers. These children tell stories about being sent on this harrowing journey by their parents who have said, “Look, this is the best choice we have right now. Sending my seven year old daughter, by herself, through Mexico and into the USA is the best way I can think of to protect her from sexual predation or murder.” These are parents who love their children as much as I love Ariel.

Just stop and think about that for a moment. How bad must your range of options be if that is the best idea that presents itself? If you would like to explore this a little further, watch the movie Sin Nombre some time. It is harrowing and disturbing.

But back to these 63,000 children. Look, I’m not sure what we are supposed to do with them as a matter of national policy. I don’t know enough about immigration law and the situations in their own countries to be able to pretend that I have a great idea as to how to “solve” this crisis.

But I’m not preaching a sermon because I want to sell you my ideas about solving the crisis. I’m preaching this sermon because I am sure that we are not free to disregard or despise those children. You don’t have to agree with me or anyone else as to which policy is most effective at stemming the tide of children who fear for their lives. But I’m pretty sure that the gospel forbids the church of Jesus Christ from looking at any child of any ethnicity and saying, “Oh, for crying out loud. What are we going to do with all of these stinking LBJ’s?”

This is what I realized last week: I cannot think of a single one of my friends who, if they went down to get their morning paper and found a naked, cold, nine-year old who appeared to have been violated in some horrific way, would turn that child away. I know rich and poor people of all ethnicities. I know liberals and conservatives, crunchy-cons and libertarians, socialists and anarchists. But I cannot think of a single friend of mine who would look at a child like that and say, “Tough luck, kiddo. I think you’re on your own,” and then take the paper and go indoors.

I don’t know any of my friends who would shoot a neighbor for being in the wrong place.

But many of us are content to look at situations on the border or in the Middle East or somewhere in the world and say, “You know what? Let’s get rid of them all. They bother me.”

We wouldn’t say that. But we employ institutions to say that for us. We are fundamentally good people who are kind and generous who find ourselves asking the government or someone else to be ruthless on our behalf. There is an inconsistency in that which threatens our ability to live faithfully.[1]

Jesus says that not one sparrow is forgotten by God. Not one escapes his notice.

Debbie Blue says this in Consider the Birds:

Can you love songbirds and still be compassionate to the house sparrow? Can you have an incisive critique without a hardening of the heart? Maybe it’s tricky, not completely easy, a little complex, but we of all species are especially equipped to handle a little complexity.

The house sparrow is not necessarily dull and uninteresting. In Australia, they’ve learned to open automatic doors. Some hover in front of the electric eye until the door opens. Others…sit atop the electric eye and lean forward until they trip the sensor…

Our hearts beat seventy times a minute; the house sparrow’s beats eight hundred. At rest, we breath about eighteen times a minute; a sparrow, ninety times. I like thinking of them breathing so fast – all this breathing out in the world, all this heartbeating.

Love your neighbor. It’s the most brilliant instruction. It’s wise and wonderful and something we need.[2]

Complexity is difficult, but we can handle complexity. I have to admit, I don’t know how to make love the cornerstone of our social policy. I am not sure what the best way to care for these children is. But I do not want to live in a nation where indifference or vindictiveness is the rationale around which we set up our systems and institutions. I don’t know how to help those children or our Border Patrol or anyone affected by this. I don’t know.

But I don’t want to not help. So I guess I’ve got some learning to do.

Consider the sparrow. There are no LBJ’s in the Kingdom.

Consider your neighbor.

Love – even when it wears you out.

A Savannah Sparrow, whose song, heart, and breath matter to God.

A Savannah Sparrow, whose song, heart, and breath matter to God.

[1] South African theologian Peter Storey has said, “American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth. You have to expose, and confront, the great disconnection between the kindness, compassion and caring of most American -people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good -people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among -people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.” (this was in an “Open Letter” to the people of the United States, written not long after September 11, 2001)

[2] Consider the Birds (Abingdon 2013), pp. 147-148.