Sermon, Sept. 13

I want to begin my homily today by reading you a story. It’s from a book called Tales of a Magic Monastery, by Theophane the Monk (Crosswood Publishing, 1988). The Magic Monastery is a strange and wonderful place. People come there seeking answers from the wise monks. Often what they get instead are questions – or the insight to realize that what they need is different from what they seek.

In this story, a monk from another monastery comes to the Magic Monastery. He’s fed up with his brother monks, and wants a time of retreat. As usual, the Magic Monastery gives him just what he needs. 

The story begins: The guestmaster looked at me carefully and led me to a room marked “Righteous Indignation.” “Good,” I thought. “Back home some people don’t understand me. They think I’m judgmental. But this man understands.” 

There wasn’t much in the room besides the four walls, and that was all right with me. I sat down and meditated a while. Then I read my Bible. I found myself looking at those walls. I read some more, then meditated, then looked at the walls again. 

Late in the evening, as I was staring at one of the walls, it became transparent, and I found myself looking at my own monastery. FAScinating. What’s more, as I watched, I found I could see right through its walls and into the church and cloisters. After a while I could even see inside the cell of each monk. I saw everything. I saw what each monk had in his room and what he was doing. I saw some praying, some sleeping, some reading. I could even see what each one was reading. Brother! Do you see what that one is reading? And look at the private property! Soon I could hear their voices. I could hear everything that was said – the complaints, the backbiting. My own name was mentioned. Huh! That one to be complaining of me! 

I began to take notes. I filled page after page. I had thought the place was bad before, but here were the facts – what they said, what they did, what they had. Nothing subjective – just cold facts. As I kept writing, I began to see right into their heads, to see their very thoughts. These also I wrote down. 

Once, when I was resting my eyes, the thought came to me, “I wonder what I would see if the other wall were transparent?” Perhaps if I kept looking at it long enough… well, it did open up and through it I saw the Magic Monastery, every bit of it. What an eyeful! I thought my own place was bad. Talk about individualism. I began to write that down too. 

I rang for the Brother and asked him to bring me some more notebooks. There was so much to get down. From time to time a further question would come to me, “I wonder what’s behind these other two walls?” I became uncomfortable. “Who is there? What are the walls hiding? Why don’t they let me see? It’s probably dreadful.” I took to starting at these walls. The Brother said that behind the one wall were the deceased members of the Magic Monastery, and behind the other were the deceased members of my own monastery. 

“Ah,” I said, “but why can’t I see them? I want to see them.” 

“You won’t like it,” he said.

“Truth, that’s all I want. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. I call it like it is. Show me!” 

“You’ll only get angry.”

“Show me. Bring me some more notebooks, and show me.” 

But he refused and hurried away. I was determined that when he returned the next day I would get the truth out of him. 

I did. I took him by the throat and demanded to know what was going on behind those walls. “Behind this one,” he gasped, “are the deceased members of your own community. They are all looking in at you. They are weeping and praying for you.

“Behind this other wall are the deceased members of the Magic Monastery. They are all looking at you and laughing.” 

I’ve loved this book for a long time, and this story is one of my favorites. It’s a story that points to the problem with righteous indignation.

Righteous indignation is a powerful, even intoxicating, feeling. Think back on a time you’ve felt it. Something was unfair. Somebody in power was wrong or hypocritical. Somebody said something stupid and dangerous.

Righteous indignation is important. It drives us to speak and act. It can drive us to stand up for what’s right, and against what’s wrong. But – as the story reminds us – there can be something both laughable and deeply sad about someone in the throes of righteous indignation. 

When we are seized by righteous indignation, it tends to be really hard to stay self-aware. To keep a sense of proportion about the situation. To be the person we mean to be. 

Both of today’s lessons have to do with righteous indignation. In this portion of the letter to the Romans, Paul is addressing a division within the church over faith practices, especially food practices. This is the passage where Paul calls me “weak” for eating only vegetables. 

Seriously: Meat was an issue for a couple of reasons. It might have been used in the rites of pagan temples; Paul addresses that issue extensively in 1 Corinthians. The animal might also not have been killed in accord with the practices of kashrut, kosher. In an urban setting where folks had to buy food instead of raising their own, the only way to be sure to avoid ritually impure meat was to avoid meat altogether. 

Paul uses the loaded terms “Weak” and “Strong” to refer to the parties here. The “weak” are concerned about whether their practices put them right or wrong with God. The “strong” know that all of that is details, and what matters is giving yourself, body and mind, heart and soul, to God through Christ Jesus. Their confidence might well put them at risk of judgmentalism and righteous indignation towards the “weak” with their tender scruples.

In case the “weak” and “strong” vocabulary doesn’t give it away: Paul agrees with the Strong, in principle. He says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” But Paul has seen this kind of thing play out enough times that he knows that there’s no future in having one group within the church be RIGHT and another group be WRONG. People need to listen to each other, love each other, and grow together, slowly, into a shared understanding of their life in Christ.

Even Paul’s identification with the Strong here is a strategic act – he’s trying to take their sense of righteousness and massage it into compassionate consideration for others. The really strong thing to do here, says Paul, is to accept people as they are and let them figure it out step by step, instead of arguing with them about deeply-felt convictions. “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

And then there’s today’s Gospel. In which Peter wants to know what do to if somebody isn’t just sinful but is, like, super-duper sinful, over and over again. And not just generally sinful but sinful AGAINST ME. What do I do about somebody like that? Do I have to keep forgiving them as many as seven times?Jesus says, Not just seven but seventy-seven – a number that clearly means, “as many times as it takes.” And then he tells a story, a parable: 

A king wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. One slave owed him ten thousand talents – an incredible sum, a fortune. The slave, of course, could not pay him back. So the king ordered that the slave, his wife and children, and all his possessions, should be sold, to make up the lost money.

Let me pause and remind us that every king in a parable does not represent God! The king, the debt – all of this is just the situation Jesus sets up for the real point of the parable, which is about the human heart. Anyway. 

The slave, naturally, is horrified; he throws himself to the ground before the king and begs for mercy. And out of pity, the king releases him and forgives him his debt! An amazing gift of freedom from bondage and obligation! Imagine the slave’s gratitude and relief! 

But that same slave, as he’s leaving the king’s court, spots one of his fellow slaves who owes him 100 denarii. And he grabs him by the throat and says, Pay me what you owe. And when he can’t or won’t, the first slave has him throw in prison. People tell the king what happened, and he calls the first slave before him and says, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

I’m honest enough with myself to find the slave’s actions believable. He’s just been faced with losing literally EVERYTHING, because he doesn’t have enough money. He reacts from that desperate fear and sense of scarcity, even though the great debt has been forgiven; even though this second debt is literally one ten-thousandth of what he owed the king.

As much as anything, this is a story about self-awareness. If the slave hadn’t been awash with anxiety, he would have realized how senseless it was to make this demand from his neighbor. He might have said, “Hey, forget that 100 denarii! I just got my whole life back!” But that’s not what happens. Instead, he turns towards righteous indignation – You owe me, you good-for-nothing slacker! – as a release from his feelings of terror, shame, and inadequacy. 

The fundamental premise of righteous indignation is that somebody else is the problem. 

LOOK: SOMETIMES OTHER PEOPLE ARE A PROBLEM – in heartbreaking, terrifying ways, that touch many lives besides their own. Human beings can be both wrong and bad. And niceness is not a Christian virtue. Striving to follow Jesus by no means obligates us to tolerate abuse or to make peace with injustice and cruelty; quite the opposite. Jesus himself often corrects people and argues with people.

The lesson of the magic monastery, of Paul’s admonition to the Strong, of Jesus’ parable, is that part of the work is always, always self-work. 

There’s a prayer I’ve learned from a friend in the recovery community: Bless them; change me. So simple, and yet so hard to pray: Bless them; change me. 

Praying this prayer doesn’t mean simply accepting the other person as they are, even if they are dangerous to themselves or others. Praying this prayer is a recognition that I am only person I can control. And that even my capacity to maybe, possibly, begin to help that other person, or change that person, or change my relationship with that person, or change the circumstances in which  that person has power to do harm – all of that, too, has to start with my inner work. 

A couple of weeks ago a member shared a quotation from the great spiritual writer Thomas Merton, that’s been knocking around in the back of my mind ever since:“Those who attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening their own self-understanding, freedom, and capacity to love, will have nothing to give others. They will communicate to others nothing but the contagion of their own obsessions, their aggressiveness, their ego-centered ambitions, their delusions about end and means, their doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.”

Merton doesn’t mention righteous indignation but it’s in there, right there at the center of the Venn diagram of aggressiveness and ego and delusions that WE are the ones who have it all figured out. 

Bless them; change me. It is hard to pray this prayer for the people who spark my righteous indignation. For the people who are most callous or clueless about the brutal impact of the Covid pandemic. For the people who refuse accountability for their role in institutions that harm and oppress. For the people who believe they are so righteous that they’re allowed to hurt God’s children in God’s name. 

But I try to pray it, even if I pray it with a little coda:  “… and also please change them too.” Because I know that the faith I preach and try to live is a faith that begins with metanoia: with a changed mind and heart that bear fruit in a changed life. The faith I preach and try to live is a faith that continues with self-examination, holding up our lives to the light of God’s loving purposes; and with confession, and forgiveness, and amendment of life.  I know that I am my own life’s work, in a way that is the opposite of self-centered or self-indulgent, because as Merton says, I have nothing to give others if I am not continually striving to deepen my self-understanding, freedom, and capacity to love. Because I can’t be part of any solution if I haven’t also taken a brave, honest look at the ways I’m part of the problem.

Righteous indignation is a powerful force that drives many human movements for a more whole, just, and merciful world. The nutshell version of this sermon is not that righteous indignation is bad. But that part of righteous indignation where we tend to lose our sense of self-awareness and proportion, and project the whole problem outward – that is risky. Because we are each our own life’s work. 

Comedian and kindness advocate Josh Gondelman says he has never been asked to give a graduation speech, but he wrote one just in case. It’s in his book Nice Try. Here’s part of it: “Every time you fail, or someone fails you, you could grow embittered and defeated and withdrawn. Or you could take some time to stomp around and curse heaven and earth before making the choice to become more resolute and compassionate and righteous and tender. Just because things are bad doesn’t mean you have to get worse with them. You don’t have to pretend things are good; you just have to believe they can get better…It won’t always be easy. In some cases, that will take a substantial amount of time, or effort, or support, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. But you can always learn how to better stand up for yourself or for other people… You can become gentler and more relentless.” 

Faced with the inevitable failures and errors of people and institutions, may we follow the way of Jesus by choosing to become more more resolute and compassionate; more righteous and tender; gentler and more relentless for the sake of good. And may the God who calls us to this work give us courage, clarity, and grace. Amen.