A Sermon by

The Rev. Barbara Mraz

St.  John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. Paul, Minnesota

February 24, 2019

Luke 7:27-39

(Matthew 5:38-41)


The popular culture is defined by change and driven by economics. What we wear, what we say, the homes we live in, are all influenced by designers and companies who, each season, inundate our sensibilities with images of what we must change and buy to be “in style”.

So according to the latest, ladies, in 2019 we should be rocking the barrettes in the hair, square-toed shoes, and pleats. You men should be in corduroy and plaid.

Banish the words “rad,” “sick,” and “gnarly” from your vocabulary. Instead say “tea” meaning “gossip,” “GOAT” (greatest of all time) and “Gucci” meaning “good.”

Some styles resurface every few years, like neon or “vintage.”  Who would have thought that vinyl records would be “in” again (I should have saved my Springsteen collection), or that the furniture some of us grew up disliking in the Fifties would trend back again today as “mid-century modern?”

The popular culture can be exhausting if we pay much attention to it, yet few of us want to seem dramatically out of step, sporting bell bottoms when leggings are prescribed – oh wait, this spring, the wide legs…they’re back.

I think that many people who leave the church or never go there in the first place do so because of beliefs and traditions that actually have been abandoned long ago, at least by more progressive churches. For example, not allowing full participation by women or LGBTQ people, or insisting on a literal interpretation of the Bible, or a preoccupation with being “saved.”  Many appear to think all Christians are Fundamentalists! A recent Pew Research study says that 30% of the unchurched see the church as “old-fashioned”. If their understanding of the faith was updated, however, I wonder if they would feel the same way.

Marie Kondo is a wildly-popular, young Japanese woman who preaches the lesson of downsizing and simplifying your life by eliminating what is not useful or does not “spark joy.”  Dare we: “Marie-Kondo-ize” our faith?

We do, in fact it’s essential if growth is to take place. That’s what I want to talk about today, first with the Gospel and secondly, with my own experience: that spiritual growth is driven by change.

Some sections of today’s Gospel from Luke are still used to condone a kind of passivity, almost being a doormat. This could not be further from the truth.

“I say to you that listen,” Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.”  

In Matthew’s version of this teaching, Jesus says that if struck on the right cheek, offer the left, and that is key to understanding this statement.

If someone hits you on the right cheek with their right hand, it has to be a backhand blow, more like a slap. The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place.  The backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews.

But to offer the left side of your face after being slapped on the right puts you in a different relationship with the oppressor, that of a human being instead of an inferior who would be backhanded on the right cheek; it signaled that you had no intention of running away and you had more human dignity than to respond in kind. (1) Hence the term “cheeky.”

Sometimes it takes some bold but good-natured humor to resist with dignity: Years ago in Cape Town when Bishop Desmond Tutu (who is black) came to a narrow part of the sidewalk, a large white man challenged him to move aside, saying, “I don’t give way to gorillas.”  With a smile, a bow and a flourish, Tutu stepped aside and said, “But I do.”

Luke’s Gospel also contains Jesus’ mandate to forgive, even our enemies. It is stated in term of reciprocity; since we have need of forgiveness, especially from God, we should be quick to extend it to others.

But it’s seldom that simple.  

For one thing, Scripture puts an emphasis on repentance as the first step towards being forgiven, making some acknowledgement of the wrongdoing or the hurt that’s been inflicted. Do we forgive without that repentance? And without “amendment of life,” as called for in Scripture?

And there may be people we just do not want to be  forgiven–at least for a very long time—perhaps current political figures, or people in our own lives who have caused us immeasurable hurt. What about those people who are causing irreparable damage to the climate out of their ignorance and refusal to recognize the conclusions of 97% of scientists who have studied these issue? What about those who kill again and again, and hurt the helpless out of ignorance or intention? Or is it possible that, as Sister Helen says in the movie Dead Man Walking, that “there are places of sorrow that only God can touch?”

My own understanding of forgiveness was updated by accident recently by some words from the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. She says,

“What if forgiveness, rather than being a pansy way to say, ‘It’s okay’ is actually. …. a way of wielding bolt-cutters, and snapping the chains that link us? What if it’s saying, ‘What you did was so not okay I refuse to be connected to it anymore?’  Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter. Free people aren’t controlled by the past. Free people see beauty where others do not. Free people are not easily offended. Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid. Free people are not chained to resentments, and that’s worth fighting for.” (2)

Let me add this thought about repentance and forgiveness…

My father and I had a stormy relationship for a long time (and it’s still unresolved in my mind) but once I had a home of my own, he would make things for it, shelves or cabinets. By accident, I recently came across a poem by the late Mary Oliver that really challenged my thinking. Speaking about her own pretty horrible father, she writes that he spent his last winter in his drafty workshop, making ice grips for shoes:

He wrapped and mailed

A dozen pairs to me, in the easy snows


Of Massachusetts, and a dozen

To my sister, in California.

Later we learned how he’d given them away

To the neighbors, an old man


Appearing with cold blue cheeks at every door.

No one refused him,


For plainly the giving was an asking

A petition to be welcomed and useful……  (3)


Was that repentance? Does that merit forgiveness?

This is only one example of how something I read “by accident” helped me update my understanding of the faith. Let me share a couple of others, with the hope they will speak to you, too.

I’ve been feeling this strange affection for the person of Jesus as revealed in Scripture. I can’t explain it; it’s almost like a throwback to Sunday School. I think it comes from paying closer attention to what is going on here in classes and church. Yet I know that Jesus is a stumbling block to many of us (and has certainly been for me). So consider this statement I ran across by accident from the Franciscan Richard Rohr:

“In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart that we could see.  God became someone we could really love. While God can be described as a moral force or consciousness, or as high vibrational energy, the truth is we don’t or can’t really fall in love with abstractions or concepts. So God became a person that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at and touch with our hands…” (4)  Rohr notes that this harkens back to John 1: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

And then there’s the church. And that has changed, and it hasn’t. We come to church, dragging our ragtag belief system trailing behind us, because we know that belief is certainly not a requirement for being here, nor is unquestioning assent to a creed or set of doctrines. Instead we come here to be in conversation with these things, and with each other as we forge a faith.

Some of your friends may think you are naive for coming to church. They may say that they don’t like the idea of a God that leaves the world in a mess and allows abuse of children. Or they say that other demands like work, exercise, sports, or catching up are far more pressing. Others insist they’re spiritual but not religious. UCC minister Lillian Daniel takes this on:

“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

Update your understanding of where you are today. For over one hundred years, people have come to this church on the corner of Kent and Portland. They have come with knees knocking to mumble their marriage vows at this altar, they have carried their babies here to be baptized — new parents who can scarcely contain their astonishment at the gift they hold in their arms. They have come here with their dead and all the unfinished issues of love, guilt, sadness, and relief that are a part of profound loss. They have come and sat here, week after week on Sundays, because they need to kneel and sing, to pray and to be fed at the table, to be reassured that their one life is important to the Creator of the Universe. They have marveled at the detail in the wood carving, thrilled to the thundering organ, and took what they could from the preacher in this pulpit, trying their best to give voice to the great mysteries that can’t be contained in words.  They have gone out through these doors to the neighborhood and the community and their own lives, reaching out to what Jesus called “the least of these,” because that is what we do as people who follow Christ and as members of the human race.

Context has meaning; place has power to reveal God to those who pay attention.

The night of the State of the Union Address, the Democratic response was given by a black woman, Stacey Abrams, who came within a hair’s breadth of winning the governorship of Georgia. She talked about her parents who later in their lives both became United Methodist ministers. She said that her family values were faith, service, education and responsibility. And she shared this story:

“Now, we only had one car, so sometimes my dad had to hitchhike and walk long stretches during the 30-mile trip home from the shipyards. One rainy night, my mom got worried.  We piled in the car and went out looking for him, and we eventually found my dad making his way along the road, soaked and shivering in his shirtsleeves. When he got in the car, my mom asked if he’d left his coat at work. He explained that he’d given it to a homeless man he’d met on the highway. When we asked why he’s given away his only jacket, my dad turned to us and said, “Ï knew when I left that man, he’d still be alone, but I could give him my coat because I knew you were coming for me.” (5)

“Because I knew you were coming for me.” That’s what it means to be part of a church, a community, and the Christian faith.  

Some truths are timeless, beyond the reach of trends or cycles. but waiting to be embraced by our minds and our hearts. Scripture literature, place, all invite us to go deeper, to grow, to pay attention and ultimately to love.

I’ve talked before about Pastor Judy on channel 11 from Brooklyn Center every Sunday morning. Pastor Judy is a fundamentalist but sometimes it amazes me how similar are our points of reference. Just today SHE was talking about the popular culture, as I was! And I learned that:

  • Satan is the God of the airwaves since he likes to fly.
  • Unicorns and mermaids are demonic (as is much of Disney) because they were not natural creations,
  • Hitler had the sword that pierced the side of Jesus sent to him in Germany to use for demonic purposes

Stay open: you never know what you’ll learn. Or from whom.



  1. Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence, 2004.
  2. Nadia Bolz-Weber in “On Struggling to Forgive,” by Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, February, 2019.
  3. 3.Mary Oliver, “Ice,” New and Selected Poems, Volume One.
  4. Richard Rohr, “The Face of the Other,” Jan. 31, 2019, Internet blog
  5. Stacey Abrams, Democratic response to the State of the Union address, February 5, 2019.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Copyright © 2020 St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
[email protected]
60 Kent St N, St. Paul, MN 55102-2232
Map & Directions

Skip to content