“Mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.” -James F. Keenan, SJ
I had the great privilege of preaching my first (ever) sermon at Smithfield United Church of Christ last Sunday. Thanks again to Rev. Doug Patterson and Rev. Dr. Susan Cherian for the opportunity and guidance. I don’t usually get nervous, but I was a ball of nerves for this one! Special thanks to my family and my partner for their unwavering support before, during, and after the sermon (and sorry for being such a ball of nerves!).
The sermon was based on Luke 10: 25-37, which combines the Great Commandment and the Parable of the Good Samaritan. You can watch the sermon below and I’ll include the full text as well (which I didn’t follow word for word, but it’s close).
I’m leaving for a 10 day retreat on Tuesday with the Shalem Institute’s program in Spiritual Guidance and will go straight into orientation for my Masters in Divinity program at Lancaster Theological Seminary when I return. I’ve paid for most of the retreat fees out of pocket and am coming up against some extra financial costs, like paying for a cat sitter for the length of the stay, alongside gas and other necessary expenditures. Stepping into a call to ministry has meant a lot of unplanned expenses, and while I’m in a better financial position than most, your support helps me step into this call with less worry and concern. If you’re able, can you donate something to my fundraiser? Every little bit helps.
As always, your prayers are much appreciated and aside from time I’ll be spending away from email during the retreat, I’d love to connect.
Entering into the Chaos of Another
Have you ever done something so completely counter to the social rules of the moment or era? Of course you have – you still go to church in the 21st Century, and insist that God is still speaking.
I should warn you that I’m a sociologist, which means that someone was crazy enough to give me a doctorate to study social rules and unintended consequences, which is just a term we use to say “oops, didn’t see that coming.”
You can imagine then, in preparing for this sermon, that my heart jumped at the opportunity to meditate on a passage that describes a rule (you shall love the lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself) and then exemplifies how a person may follow it by breaking another rule (the Samaritan helping the Jew, a “fake believer” according to his religious tradition).
In other words, the path to salvation just might mean doing something completely counter to everything you know or have been taught to do. Again, this is like candy for a sociologist. We love rules and surprises.
Let me tell you about something I didn’t see coming - the hashtag #FakeChristian was trending yesterday on Twitter, meaning that a whole lot of people on the Internet are calling out conservative Christians for misrepresenting Christ at our southern border. I mean, I get it. A lot of us from progressive traditions are mad and disgusted. Have you seen some of the photos of these camps? They’re terrible, absolutely inhumane and terrible.
This “Fake Christian” thing feels like a dangerous game to me though. I’m not sure I’m qualified to tell someone they’re doing Christianity wrong, and not because I’m brand new on my seminary journey.
Thankfully, we have spaces like these where we wrestle in community with what it means to be Christian. I’m grateful, especially as someone who has been told that I’m doing Christianity wrong by simply worshiping God while being exactly who I am. I love to come here, to be among others and belong, to contemplate the mysteries of our faith.
Still, I’ll never fully understand or know what it means to be a Christian. I like words and I really like writing, but it’s the kind of thing that always leaves me a little bit speechless, and in awe.
I love today’s passage because I can imagine myself into so many spaces in the story. This is my favorite form of prayer – it’s called Ignatian Contemplation or imaginative prayer, named by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Ignatius directs us to put ourselves into the Gospel and imagine the sights, sounds, tastes, and feeling of the passage, like we are there. In this passage, I can be the lawyer testing Christ when I ask him “who is my neighbor,” so I can maybe get away with things like calling someone a Fake Christian. I’m the man beaten half to death on the side of road whenever I feel defeated by something outside of my control, like being told that my sexuality is the reason our moral order is falling apart. Or I can be the two men that walk away, too afraid that I might also become a victim. This passage is just ripe with opportunities for imaginative prayer.
What I enjoy about Ignatian contemplation is that not only does it bring the Gospel to life for me, but it also helps me to recognize when the Gospel is playing out in my life. It’s a gift, to witness God still speaking two thousand years later.
I want to tell you a quick story about one of those times I recognized the Gospel playing out in my life, specifically through this passage.
I was married once. My ex-wife served in the military and we lived on a military base. If you know anything about military culture, you’ll know that living in base housing is signing up for one of the most diverse living experiences of your life. As a sociologist, I of course had a BLAST. I’ve never seen so many different sets of social rules trying to live together under one overarching, really powerful set of social rules – and actually do it pretty successfully.
About a year into our second location, I got word through social media that we would be getting new neighbors. Being a true millennial, I of course Facebook stalked my new neighbor. I was curious what she was like – and simultaneously broke my first rule of social media: never prejudge someone by their online presence.
It took me about two minutes to make a judgment about my new neighbor and build up a world of problems in my head that weren’t happening. Why? Because I had seen something on her profile that signaled to me that she hated gay people and that gay people had no room in her religion.
I knew NOTHING about this woman, but let myself spin up a story where she wouldn’t let her children out around us because we were immoral. Terrible, I know. I did to her exactly what I feared she’d do to me. Why? Because that’s what the social rules told me to do. They told me to fear people like her.
Fast forward about a year from that moment, and I’m sobbing in her arms in her kitchen after my ex told me our marriage was over. Talk about a surprise. Didn’t see that one coming for sure.
Throughout that year, I made a concerted effort to atone for my sin of pre-judgment and worked really hard to get to know my neighbor. It started with food. Her husband was out of town, and she was expertly corralling her three kids under 5 while also cutting carbs, sugar, and processed foods out of her diet. Seriously, this woman is superwoman, I kid you not.
By chance, I was making a snack that fit her diet, so I brought some over as a treat. A few days later, she went blueberry picking with her little ones, and brought us a tub of blueberries, which we then turned into muffins and shared back with her. It went on and on like this, feeding each other, encountering each other, essentially taking communion together, while her kids made little offerings of toys that could fit through the fence slats. Never once did she ever make me feel unwelcome.
The day after I learned that my marriage was ending, I knocked on her door to return something I had borrowed and she invited me in for birthday cake. Her husband was going to be away again for a few weeks and they were celebrating early with the kids. I tried my hardest not to go inside, knowing how big my grief was and how much I didn’t want to bring it into her house, while her family celebrated.
She kept insisting and pulled me inside, and in her kitchen said “I just want to give the two of you some cake.” For some reason, that phrase “the two of you” hit me like a gut punch and I couldn’t hold it together. I started sobbing, like ugly crying, and all I could choke out was “there is no more ‘the two of you’ – we’re not an us anymore.”
Friends, the way she held me, the way she held my grief, the utter compassion and conviction she poured into her accompaniment of my grief, it was like nothing I had ever experienced. To this day, I firmly believe it is because of her Christianity, because of her devout beliefs, because of her ultimate love of God, that I felt so held – and that I felt like her neighbor. She became one of my best friends through that terrible time and her Christian example was one I tried so hard to follow.
For the first time, I believe I experienced what the Great Commandment means. In progressive faiths like ours, it’s often easier to practice the “love your neighbor as your self piece” and feel a little weird about loving God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. We’re good at being down with Christ the role model, but get a little nervous when our faith asks us to love God as a commandment.
My neighbor was really good at doing both things – even if I decided that she’d be terrible at the second part before I met her. Why? Because she understood mercy. In today’s Gospel, when Christ questions “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer responds “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesuit moral theologian James Keenan describes mercy as a willingness to enter into the chaos of another. We are taught as Christians that our God is a merciful God, not because he holds the power to do as he wishes but because he has a powerful willingness to enter into our chaos.
My neighbor on base was full of that Christian powerful willingness to enter into my chaos, and in doing so, she was not only loving her neighbor as herself, but was loving God with all her heart, soul, strength, and mind. Why? Because she upheld my dignity as a child of God in that moment. She upheld me as his and no matter her beliefs on doctrine or politics, I know that she believed that to love me was to love him. And through her, I felt how her love of him encompassed her love of me. And to think, there was a time where I thought we’d make terrible neighbors.
Notice that in today’s Gospel, there’s no ending where the Samaritan and the man on the side of the road size each other up and decide who is a better or more authentic believer. There’s just a story about a man willing to enter in the chaos of another – and for Christ, that was enough to get his point across.
There are no fake Christians. Many of us are messing it up, doing it imperfectly, and even causing immeasurable harm with the practice of our beliefs. May we be willing to enter into that chaos, Lord have mercy.
**I’m fundraising for my training as a spiritual director through the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. Your donations will help me to write more pieces like this while I support others in 1-to-1 and group direction. Donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/support-my-public-ministry