God’s Heart for Sinners and Sufferers

Pastor Alex was invited to speak at an event for Crossroads, a local faith-based nonprofit working with kids and families involved in foster care. He and his wife have been foster/adoptive parents for seven years. He was asked to speak on God's heart for sinners and sufferers.  Here's the transcript:

Good morning, everyone. I’m very grateful to be given a chance to speak this morning on God’s heart for sinners and sufferers, because very simply TBRI is a tool to help people heal from long-term trauma, and that’s a particular kind of sin they’ve survived, bearing with it a particular kind of suffering.

They told me they wanted me to speak because I’m a pastor and a foster parent; then they told me they wanted me to speak on God’s heart for sinners and sufferers; then they told me I had thirty minutes. So, yeah, I’m going to kind of preach. Right? Everyone saw this coming? Please go with me, if you will, to Luke, chapter 15. This is not a sermon about this passage, I’m answering the question of what is God’s heart for sinners and sufferers, but I’m going to read this to let it set the tone, and I’ll come back to it by the end, I promise. I know we’re probably all familiar with the parable, but with this many pastors in a room, somebody at some point ought to read the Bible. Luke 15, starting in vs. 11. [] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

As we’re getting started, I want to pause and recognize this room is filled with people who in many ways know the heart of God for sinners and sufferers already. I don’t need to convince you of anything. You’ve lived suffering, or you’ve seen it—that’s probably a part of why you’re here. I say this in complete sincerity, but when people ask me about pastors and others to whom I look as role models and heroes, I talk about many of you. Not Chad, of course, but many of the rest of you. I’m not trying to teach something you don’t know, but rather bring to mind something which merits constant remembrance—something true, honorable, just, and pure to dwell upon. My hope this morning is to encourage you, and to give you whatever tools you need to help you not to grow weary in doing what is good.

There is a single word from scripture which explains God’s heart for sinners and sufferers: the word is redemption. Redemption is God’s heart for sinners and sufferers. Redemption, in short, is God’s way of wrapping people up in family until, in Christ, they are known, forgiven, and loved.

The idea of redemption begins in the Bible with the Passover. The entirety of God’s people was suffering in slavery, and it took death to free them, either the death of the firstborn of each family or the death of a lamb in his place. Someone had to bear the suffering in their place. That’s where the idea begins, and very quickly, the word begins, in the law, to apply to all kinds of difficult situations: a family who loses their land and becomes destitute can be redeemed from their destitution by another family member taking their place, buying the land back, which is their livelihood. A daughter sold into slavery could be redeemed by her family by buying her back from slavery and restoring her as a daughter, a wife, a mother, instead of a slave.

The book of Ruth is probably the clearest picture in the Old Testament of redemption put into practice by the people of God. Ruth is barren, coming from a previous marriage. She’s an immigrant from a hated nation, and a refugee of famine. By the time she comes to the people of God, she’s begging, gleaning in the fields trying to feed herself and her mother-in law. She’s desperate. I’ve met so many people like this.

The church I pastor is downtown, in the French Quarter, and a lot of our neighbors there are in similar situations. I can tell you firsthand, there are many people being bought and sold in our city as slaves in a variety of ways. We, as the people of God in this time and place, need to buy them back and make them daughters again. There are many people in our city, who have fled here because of hunger, many of them immigrants, many others grieving loss, like Ruth. My wife and I also foster, and in foster care, every family you interact with has lost their children, and every child is in need of a family, at least for a while. There are a lot of people here in New Orleans like Ruth, in need of redemption.

Ruth’s life, her entire trajectory, is changed in chapter two of the book. Ruth’s mother-in-law tells her, you have a relative who can stand in the place of your husband according to the law—if he’s willing to actually follow the law and heart of God, you can have a family again. The book ends with a small genealogy—Ruth has a child, and through that child God brings about the line of David ultimately the birth of Christ, who through his work on the cross would bear the suffering of all of our sins. Someone who has lost their family—because of sin, slavery, destitution—someone who has lost their family being wrapped up into family again. That’s the idea of redemption.

Redemption is God’s heart for sinners and sufferers, and redemption is central to our faith practice as followers of Christ. Redemption is powerful. It has the ability to fill the practice of your church, of your faith community, with incredible meaning. Children who need family finding it among your people. People with broken families finding love and forgiveness among you. But as with every powerful thing, the higher the angel, when it falls, the fiercer the devil. Many of the scriptural authors note that if redemption is absent from your religious practice as a faith community, the rest of your religious practice is worthless, absurd—Isaiah uses the image of lifting hands up in worship when you have blood on them. It’s an intentionally disturbing image. Redemption is powerful; it’s life-giving when put into practice, and the lack of redemption from a faith community is deadly.

Through the psalms and writings, we start seeing this idea of redemption, this need for family applied to each of us. Not just widows and orphans, not just refugees and lonely hearts. You and I, too. God is really the only good father, and when it comes to it, we are all in need of redemption in our own ways. No matter how cohesive our families, no matter how loving our relationships, there’s still sin separating us. We still need to begin to understand God as our father.

In the New Testament, the idea of redemption is used to explain the way in which God saves us in Christ, and his heart for the sinners and the sufferers. Each and every person God saves he saves through family—adoption as sons and daughters, marriage of a bride made new. God’s salvation, throughout the entirety of scripture, is wrought through redemption, wrapping people up in family, the church standing in the place of those they’ve lost for as long as we need to be there. And again, the authors of the New Testament insist, this is something we all need. If you’re here today asking who this training is really for, who is in need of connection and loving family, who are the sinners and the sufferers in your church—the Scriptures answer, we all are. This is something we all need, only some of us are in desperate need.

In our work drawing other people into family, we realize our own need. Or to say it differently, we are allowed, we are invited, to admit our own need. Bonhoeffer lays out a choice we all make in his book Life Together: “Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone with our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners.” Every one of us makes a choice between isolation and confession, between family and the outer dark.

Strangely, when you follow along Christ’s way, the further you go, the more you become like all of the people in our society who most need redemption. God doesn’t save us to be put-together and honorable—he saves us by calling us out into suffering and hurt. In Christ you begin to understand yourself as a child in need of adoption into the family of God. You become a refugee in exile and longing for community. You become a sojourner, a traveller, longing for home.

One thing my wife pointed out to me this past month—we just had a baby girl, so…I’m tired. My wife pointed out, when we are born, when we’re new, we only really know how to do one thing: to cry out for help to our parents. Our newborn, she can’t even tell us what’s wrong, only that she needs us. In Christ, you are made new again, day by day, born again. No matter how much honor you have in your community or how many expectations are placed on you, as you walk further down his road, you are allowed, invited again to be a child who can only really cry for help to her father.

In a tangible way, in our work as a church toward redemption, we find our own place in the broader story of God’s redemption of his children. I started with TBRI about seven years ago when my wife and I started fostering. We thought this was going to be a tool that would help us help some kids who were in need. Isn’t that usually how we stumble into these things? Thinking, this is going to be a thing that you, helper, are going to use to help, not yourself, but, you know, the other people. The people with the needs. Me, helper, you, sufferer. But Christ teaches us we are all the sinners and sufferers. We’re all in need of redemption.

Shortly after starting fostering, my family started in therapy after my kids, the kids my wife and I were fostering, started having some issues at school. I asked my wife the night before if she could take them to therapy so I could get to work—but (ha!) that’s not how family therapy works. You can imagine how surprised I was when, the first session, the therapist let the kids play off to the side and talked to my wife and I for the entire hour. Before we left, she told us for the next few appointments, we could just leave the kids at school. Because I am one of the sinners. And in my own, small way, I am one of the sufferers, and you can’t really help people heal if you’re still bleeding out.

So this training is not just for the people you’re trying to help, but for you, as well, because God’s heart for sinners and sufferers is for you, as well. Our faith helps us understand that. Our faith also helps us to understand the goals here. With TBRI, as with Christianity, people tend to want the correcting principles first, and they try to gauge how effective the system is by measuring change in whatever behaviors they are trying to address, but if that is your goal, in TBRI as in Christianity, you will certainly fail. You’re beginning in the wrong place. Christianity as a whole is not really meant to change behavior. Life in the Spirit does change behavior, but that’s rather beside the point. The point is redemption. If changing behavior becomes your goal as a pastor, you may turn sinners into pharisees, but you will have done nothing that has anything to do with redemption.

My first real job was teaching high school in one of the last true New Orleans public schools, at L.B. Landry in Algiers. There were a lot of kids in that school who suffered, who sinned and had been sinned against. Behavior issues you would not believe, and system failures in the extreme. For example, they had only hired two teachers at the beginning of the year for about 800 children. They kept them all in the gym for about a week and a half. It was the first year the school had opened post-Katrina. There were no books, and there was one copier. I scrambled, once they had us in classrooms, to plan lessons and make the copies we needed, though usually the lessons were interrupted with fights or disruptive behaviors which, until I started studying trauma, I didn’t understand. I just thought they were bad kids, and I did everything I could to get those kids out of my class so I could teach. Take the kids away, so I can teach. Put him in timeout so I can teach. Shame him enough to shut his mouth for one class so I can teach.

My vice principle pulled me aside one day during my planning and he asked me what I taught. I kind of huffed, because I thought he’s my vice-principle—he really should know what I teach. I told him I taught science, and I still needed to put my lab together for this week, and I was trying to get these worksheets printed, and he stopped me. He got my eyes, and he told me, “No, Mr. Brian. No, you don’t teach science. You teach students.” You don’t teach science; you teach students. That’s a hard lesson to learn as a teacher. Even harder as a minister—the church I pastor now is about a mile from that school. I still need that lesson.

As a pastor every time someone asks you how it’s going, or they try to gauge how well you’re doing, they’re asking about science; all people can see about your church if you’re a pastor, or your classroom if you’re a teacher, usually, is the science, the outcomes. That’s what outsiders and visitors are looking for. What’s the lab going to be this week, teacher? Do you have all of the materials, teacher? What are your test scores, teacher? What is your attendance, pastor? Do you have enough children’s volunteers for this week, pastor? Dad, do you want to come play? I can’t right now, buddy, I’m working on my sermon.

Church world, just like education, is filled with outcomes. Meals given, baptisms, event attendance, volunteers mobilized, and all of that is good—it’s even worth seeking and celebrating the outcomes, pursuing excellence—but at the end of the day, you have to remember you don’t teach science. Your sermon illustration will not come up before the throne of God, where the illustrative will be indelibly replaced by the real; God’s not going to be impressed if you get invited to that conference of ten thousand, and he’s not going to be disappointed if you spend your life faithfully preaching to a room of ten. You don’t teach science; you teach students. You minister to the children of God.

Again, we all know this already, but for me, I forget. I’ll speak for myself. As a pastor, it’s pretty easy to watch one sheep fall into a pit, and 99 others keep showing up on Sunday and tithing, and think, you know? 99/100 is an A+ at most schools. Which is true in one sense, but in another sense, what you’ve lost, then, is not one sheep; people quiet quitting your church or your staff, it happens—but when you stop caring why, when people came to you with suffering and found no help, when people really become outcomes in your mind and you value them for what they can do instead of as a child of God—what you lose when you start thinking solely about outcomes is not a single sheep out of a hundred, what you lose is the heart of God for sinners and sufferers. And the whole world is not worth losing that part of your soul.

TBRI is not going to help your church grow very much—although as an adoptive parent, if I were looking for a church, a trauma-informed kids ministry and youth group would be a strong draw for me. But for the most part, TBRI won’t help you grow your church—that’s not what this tool is used for. TBRI will help you help one person in a hundred in the midst of your congregation heal from abuse. It will help you pull them out of a pit and bring them back into the fold, and in God’s kingdom, that’s something to celebrate.

In many ways, TBRI is a practical outworking of the biblical idea of redemption, which is good. We need to know how to do redemption, practically. When I talk to most people about fostering, or working with homeless folks, or other kinds of redemption ministry, it’s the practicality people are hung up on—not the ethics or theology. We know we ought to care for widows and orphans—we’ve read the book of James—it’s how to care for them that trips us up. All of those single moms and kids we’re meant to care for are so much easier to deal with theologically than practically. So even if people feel called to this kind of ministry, they don’t see any way to do this that doesn’t shatter the peace of their lives and damage the relationships in their families. The practical piece is what many people need to know to follow what they know theologically is their calling, and TBRI can give you that piece. For every person wondering how you could possibly be a family to kids or others who need families, this is a good answer.

TBRI will help you with that one kid who feels like he needs to be hard, to get through to him; with the veteran who’s struggling. It’ll help when the young person in your church comes forward after being abused, TBRI will help you respond well to her, care well for him. And in the Kingdom of God, that’s vitally important, and a lack of redemption in that moment is deadly to a faith community.

TBRI can help you retain employees and create a staff environment that feels like a family, not in the cheesy corporate way of speaking, but in the gut-wrenching I-love-this-person-as-my-own-brother way of speaking. Since we implemented just basic methods into our ministry to people experiencing homelessness—we started to play a lot with folks who came in, eye contact and touch—violent incidents dropped from multiple times per week to about once per month. My staff and volunteers went from restraining folks to playing checkers with them, and they are all still with the church. Instead of staff and members leaving hurt from your church, what if they left in the same way kids go off to college or get married, bittersweet, ready for what’s next, grateful for what they received here. Imagine everyone on your staff feeling safe, cared for, and like they are able to advocate for their needs as you work toward shared goals. Imagine, among your congregation, having drastically fewer discipline meetings because you’re able to focus instead on connection and empowerment.

If I were to describe the effect, overall, in the church I pastor of beginning to implement TBRI broadly—in our staffing structures, volunteer teams, children’s ministry, and missions—not to mention my own personal interactions with folks—I would say TBRI is a tool we can use as pastors to help create healthy family within our churches. At its core, TBRI is about connection. Getting on the same team with your kids or your congregants, facing together the wrongs they’ve done and those that have been done to them.

There is a reason TBRI started with a Christian mom. She was trying to take what she had experienced as a child of God in her own relationship with our Father, and give it out to her kids and any other kids who needed family. This is a woman living out her faith who has done the work to actually research why this is something we need.

This whole time I’ve been saying redemption is God’s way of “wrapping people up” in family. I want to close with a picture repeated throughout Scripture. We saw it in the passage we read to start. In the Bible, the “wrapping up” of family is literal. There’s a repeated image of redemption in scripture of wrapping people in clothing. Clothes meant more back then. Only the ultra-wealthy bought them. Usually you had to make them. It would have taken the large part of someone’s time in the family, typically the mother, to clothe everyone. For someone to make you a tunic was an act of incredible love and sacrifice. Still today: with our new baby, almost from her first moments, before she’s done anything of which we might be proud, before she speaks a word, before any mistakes, we, her parents, wrapped her in cloth and in a blanket my aunt made for her.

This image in Scripture of family and redemption begins in the first moments of sin and suffering, after the Garden, East of Eden, God’s first response to sin is to make robes, and wrap them around Adam and Eve. He’s telling them, even in sin, even in suffering, you are my children. Joseph, in Egypt, when he decides to forgive his brothers, it says he gave each of them clothes, to show them they were a family again. Over and over again we see God wrapping people up in redemption.

In the passage we read, a son denounces his family, wastes his inheritance, and comes home thinking he’s walking into slavery. We call this story the prodigal son, but in the story there are two sons, and that’s part of the point. Mostly when I read this passage, I stand in awe of the Father, and I think we should. We should always imitate our Father in heaven and stand in awe of his grace. The father sees his child on the road, the very son who had hated him in every way, and the father runs to him, he wraps him in a robe, and before the prodigal can say anything about being a slave in the household, his father is calling him his child again. Clothes, a picture of redemption, wrapping up in family.

Jesus is telling this story to religious leaders of his day, just as we are the religious leaders of our day, and the story has a way of inviting each of us to make a choice. We want to imitate the Father in his love and redemption of this child, and we should, but that’s not the choice I mean. We have to choose between the two sons. Will we be a people who celebrate with the father when the child who was dead is made alive again, or will we be a people who refuse the feast table of redemption because we see it as beneath us? The other son is busy about all the other work of the kingdom except the redemption of his brother.

My hope this morning is that we would choose to view ourselves as prodigals, to admit our own need for redemption, our own sins and suffering, and come to the feast God has laid to celebrate those who were dead whom he is able to make alive again. And I hope we choose to take part in the redemption of our brothers. We all need to be redeemed, only some of us are in desperate need. God’s heart for sinners and sufferers is a feast laid and an invitation to each and every one of us to come and eat. An invitation to be made new, to become like children again, who only know how to cry out to our Father. He is waiting and watching on the road for his children to come home. His heart for sinners and sufferers is redemption. May our church families, and may the families in our churches, come to the table.

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