A moment of confession
As a child I was socially awkward. Terribly so. It’s just a reality I grew up with. Church was a safe place where they had to accept me, and they did. Youth group was also a safe place where I could be myself and not be afraid.
That probably formed my earliest visions of what the church can and should be. A place of safety and acceptance. I still think it’s the task of the church for all of us.
As a result, I developed a protectiveness towards other kids who were likewise awkward. I hated bullies and decided that no kid should be without friends. I stood up for other kids. This became who I am and who I wanted to be, an ideal that governed my life then and now.
Some of those kids remain friends with me to this day.
Yet in 5th grade, I remember a moment with clarity. There was a new albino kid in our class. And some of the kids were snickering and making jokes about her. At that moment I laughed along with them. At that moment the girl knew I wasn’t safe after all.
I’m sure there were reasons I could tell myself why this happened. I was a social kid even if awkward and I wanted to be liked by other kids, so I joined in with them. Cruelty can have a shocking character, like comedy and you start in without realizing it until it was too late.
But what made the episode so terrible to me is that I had betrayed who I was and who I wanted to be. I betrayed the ideal I had really believed in, the ideal of inclusion and against bullying. I was the bullied kid who now was doing the bullying, even if indirectly.
The fact that I tell this story 36 years later, well that is how betrayal work. It never quite leaves you. And the church knows no way around the fact except by the process of confession and forgiveness.
Not the forgiveness of the albino girl who may or may not remember that episode. I couldn’t demand that of her anyways. She needed no extra burdens. But rather the forgiveness of God, the forgiveness of the gathered church, the forgiveness offered in the ministry of reconciliation in Jesus.
And repentance, metanoia, in the Greek, which means to turn away from such acts to a different way of being. The act is not undone and cannot be.
But this is why to me, the call to confession and pardon done in this church every Sunday, is so important. No matter how good we may be, we have things in our life where we need to hear that God loves and does indeed forgive us.
This story came to my mind when reading our Gospel lesson today.
0:32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;
10:33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
I have never been asked to deny I’m a Christian. I don’t believe that will ever happen. Sometimes being a Christian is a social plus in our world. In some contexts, it produces suspicion, but it has never been something I have ever wanted to deny.
But could I betray the way of Jesus, the life he lived, the life we are called to live as Christians? I believe this episode of bullying where I betrayed what I held dear to, was a denial of Jesus.
Such a betrayal always strikes us to the core of who we are, who we want to be, who we feel compelled to be because of our faith in Jesus. It strikes at our soul, that part of us that defines us as we truly are.
10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Now, all of us have been judged by others because we did not live up to the ideals others have set before us. But those were never our ideals. And so, they have no power over us.
I have folks accused me of being gay and Christian. It’s not an accusation, it’s just true. They consider it hypocrisy. I consider it living out my calling before God.
Most people’s judgments of you will mean nothing unless it is an ideal that has grabbed you and shaped you as a person. Folks will accuse you of having the wrong politics, the wrong ways of household management, of not doing your job in the way they would do it. It means nothing.
But when you come a judgement that is true, one that strikes you because in fact you were not living up to what is the highest ideal to you, then it can be devastating.
But right after this passage we get this
10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.
10:30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.
10:31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
God loves us. Whether we judge ourselves or other judge us. Whether we can slough off false judgments or get terrified of true judgments. We are infinitely valuable to God. Every bit of us.
Sometimes I get asked: what is the Gospel? In a quick elevator speech, the kind where you must describe your faith in the shortest time possible.
It is this to me: We are infinitely valuable to God. Our job is to love others, so they truly experience this fact. And to love ourselves such that we come to trust this fact about the world.
And despite the tough passages this one can be the toughest for many of us
10:37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
10:38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
I was adopted by my father when I was almost 12. But before that he was my social worker when I was in the foster care system. While he passed many years ago, I feel forever connected to my father.
Not everybody can say that about their fathers today, which is Father’s Day. But I bet there were men in your life who played that role, uncles, teachers, cousins, a coworker, a boss, a pastor, a coach, a friend…somebody who believed in you and who made you who you are today.
Let us take a moment to honor them and remember them when we pray today.
I believe Jesus would have us honor our families when they play that role in our lives. But I was in foster care because my birth parents could not play such a role of support. There were not able to raise me and my brothers and sisters.
But I’ll close with a story a pastor told me. She felt called by God to serve the poor in Latin America. She was involved in a mission’s trip with a campus ministry in college. And it became not a one-time event but proved to shape her life, it became an ideal for her, one that she had to follow.
But her father had other plans. She was to attend law school and become an attorney. And he would bankroll this effort. He would have no time for nonsense such as helping the poor in other countries. And told her to give up on this call.
She refused. When you get called by God, you listen and follow it. The father said this was foolishness and that if she pursued this call, he would cut her off emotionally and financially. You know what happened.
She followed God’s call. I doubt there was an emotional connection and that it was only the finances that were affected. She lost a lot materially but to her it was no cost at all. She had found what life worth living looked like.
10:39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Now few of us are called to move to Latin America. But what you all have, what the college students I work with are seeking, is a call. An ideal, a life God is calling us to live into.
It could be our work, our role as parents, our volunteer activities, it could be continually living into the person we want to be and aspire to. But we know what it looks like and we know what it feels like when we live into and when we fail to.
When we live into the life God would have, individual and unique as we all are, we have life. If we fail to live rightly into this call, there is forgiveness and pardon. Our call as a church is to support people in their calls and together seek God’s forgiveness when we stumble in this call.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings and summer interim at Peoples Congregational in Sidney MT and First Congregational in Savage MT.
There is an unstated corollary to that passage about worthiness. If we love someone more than we love Him who is love personified, WE ARE NOT WORTHY OF THE ONE LOVED. For it is through love personified that we learn to love. If we want to be the best lover of the one loved, we must turn always to Love and ask: is there a better way of loving them?