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I need to be honest with you. As a pastor, it is very tempting to use guilt as a manipulative tool. Hopefully no pastor sets out to be manipulative, but the toxic mix of good intentions and our own high anxiety makes guilt seem soooo useful.
Take today’s Scripture text, for example. It is the perfect text for our New Beginnings Sunday, the day when we re-commit ourselves to the work of the church. After all, we have a blank ministry chart on our hands with slots to be filled. We have a Habitat for Humanity project still lacking enough volunteers, and hello, today’s text is about helping the poor and matching our deeds to our faith. With enough clever wit and righteous fire, surely I could preach in such a way as to fill that ministry chart with fresh volunteers, maybe even fill the cleaning schedule.
And to be honest, my type A personality really likes to see charts and schedules filled and efficiently organized, so I was tempted to wax long today about the importance each person doing their fair part . . . after all, “The Bible says . . .”
But the way I see it, guilt is a cheap shot.
Guilt is marginally effective. People often change for no other reason but to alleviate the crushing guilt, but it is seldom the type of change that sticks. Have you ever noticed that preachers try to peak your guilt level, push you right to the brink so you’ll dive right in to short-lived change? It’s no wonder our messages get tuned out.
Preachers don’t mean to be so mean to you. It’s just that we want to see results that make us feel like we are succeeding, even if changes made to alleviate guilt aren’t really sustainable.
A pastor has to kill off a lot of her own ego before she is able to quit trying to change people’s behavior. The easy thing to do is for pastors to jump on the bandwagon of your guilty conscience, and like a runaway cart zooming downhill, the wagon of guilt picks up speed the heavier it gets, and that makes it seem like we are all moving somewhere. (Of course, I can jump on just about anything without adding all that much weight. Perhaps that’s what inspired to me rethink this strategy of adding weight to guilt-ridden consciences.)
I mean, I get it. I don’t need one more ounce of guilt myself. I feel plenty guilty enough as it is, without anyone else cramming more of it down my throat. I already feel guilty when I say no to yet another great opportunity, guilty when I drive by the homeless person on the street and don’t make eye contact. I feel guilty for not exercising, guilty for drinking Dr. Pepper instead of eating vegetables, guilty for hitting my snooze button three extra times. And while the guilt sometimes builds up to unbearable, so that I actually do something differently, it doesn’t fundamentally change who I am and it sure isn’t a healthy way to live: one guilt binge to the next.
The last thing ministers need to do—even if it is the easiest—is pile guilt higher when you’ve got more than enough as it is. A deeply spiritual woman was seeing a spiritual director. The woman had grown up Catholic, took her faith quite seriously, and became a Catholic nun. But something was stirring in her heart, calling to her, pushing her on, eventually leading her away from the life of a nun and away from the Catholic faith altogether. As she talked with her spiritual director, who was a Catholic priest, about these stirrings, he blessed her journey and when the time came, he blessed her departure from the Catholic Church. I don’t even know if a priest is allowed to do that, officially speaking, but unofficially, he sent her off with love and acceptance, trusting her with her own path. I keep returning to that story, the image of that priest, because it is rare to meet anyone, even or especially, a minister with such strong faith they’ve entirely stopped trying to control the outcome of other people’s lives.
I do believe that exposing ourselves to Scripture changes us, that worship and the Holy Spirit transform us, that we always have the potential to become something new, that we are all imbued with creative power, that we are shaped and re-shaped again and again in this life.
But change doesn’t happen when I tell you what to do or when I use Scripture to tell you what to do. Change happens when you encounter the Living God and otherwise pesky pastors get themselves out of the way. At least, that’s my philosophy, and I try to live and to preach and to pray for you by it.
This text about caring for the poor and loving everyone equally isn’t about telling you what to do or revealing that you’re such a failure at those things. This Scripture, this sermon, every Scripture, every sermon should be about a new vision and a fresh encounter with the living God.
James is envisioning that things don’t have to run by the same old rules where we used to discriminate against one another, even inside the church, sometimes especially inside the church. How we had the audacity to sign God’s name to our bigotry, twisting faith into a stamp of approval for our deeds, because we didn’t know how else to live, I guess, and we assumed God must be just like us.
A new world, a new way of relating to one another, a new way of thinking is possible, and James isn’t saying that to pile on the guilt for all the times we’ve neglected to care for the poor. James is writing in order to give us hope.
For starters, it turns out that God doesn’t look anything like our bigotry after all. God shows no partiality, and to James, this is Gospel, Good News. A God without favoritism: just think of the possibilities for the world with a God like that.
I always say that people act like their God. If your god is hateful, you’ll become hateful. If your god is vindictive and violent, you’ll become vindictive and violent. If your God is nurturing and life-giving, you’ll become nurturing and life-giving.
That is how worship changes who we are from the inside out. Not by standing over us with a set of rules or infusing a guilty conscience if we don’t toe the line. Worship changes us by re-introducing us to God, week after week after week. There are a lot of misconceptions you can pick up about God through the years, and this is the place where we debunk the myths. You can find churches that will just rehash harmful myths about God, as if on auto-pilot, but I am telling you right now, we will debunk them, every week, in this place, without faltering.
One myth is that God is discriminatory. People of a discriminatory god become frantic to perform flawlessly to make sure they remain on god’s good side. We start acting like our prejudiced god, first by discriminating against ourselves. We assume god judges us harshly, and so we follow suit, and judge ourselves relentlessly: “How naughty I am for eating one more cookie, for getting angry at the kids, for not keeping the house clean enough, for doing anything that doesn’t equal total perfection.”
This is a nasty way to treat yourself, and honestly, your self just won’t stand for it, so you’re forced to project the nasty outward, onto others. “Whew, at least I am not as bad as that,” you start repeating to yourself like an unholy mantra. It starts as innocent as that, a little game of comparison, but the favorable comparisons stick with you simply because it is such a relief to be better than someone. We become compelled to belittle others so we can enlarge ourselves; we have to because we shrunk ourselves down to worthless by playing-acting the vindictive god.
At least, that’s how it is for me. I am a pinball machine, ricocheting back and forth between judgment of self and judgment of others, too frantic to just settle in with Grace. Why do I have such energy for harshness?
Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to forgive yourself, to walk around light and free? What it would be like to be kind to yourself?
I can’t figure out which comes first: believing in God’s forgiveness or forgiving myself. My patterns of self-loathing are so deeply entrenched, it’s near impossible to conceptualize and really embrace a God who doesn’t loathe me for my mistakes the way I loathe myself. But on those rare moments when I forgive myself—for forgetting to lock the door before I left the house or being late for an appointment or whatever—it is like a light bulb clicks in my head and I think to myself, “Wow. What if God forgives like this?”
We are still so confused in the Christian church about the difference between guilt and repentance. Guilt is an energy-sucking form of idolatry; it is allegiance to the wrong god.
Repentance is on the opposite end of the spectrum from guilt. Repentance is worship. It is the gentle and compassionate wind of truth that breathes new life and renews hope.
A healthy self-acceptance does not keep us from changing what we need to change. Healthy self-acceptance enables us to change. When we quit being afraid of what we will find if we take an honest look at ourselves, we become brave enough to venture down deep inside, to the core of ourselves, and begin that slow and authentic change that spreads from the inside out.
When I accept the fact that I am going to be uncovering prejudices and repenting of them for the rest of my life, I can ease up a bit, and I am able to lean into new knowledge about myself and about the world rather than fighting off any new insight that might double the load of guilt.
When I soften the inner critic that chops me up into good parts and bad parts, I start coming back together, and with this healed heart, I soften the bigotry with which I have viewed others. My deeds and my faith grow a little more aligned, my head and my heart, a bit more in sync, my actions start to match the Love I profess. I become a Worshipper, rather than an idolater whose loyalty lies with a discriminatory god.
The Scriptures say it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance. So if guilt brought you to your knees, stand up, lift your head, defy that god and walk away in pursuit of Kindness. Amen.