Judgment and Forgiveness Justice Kindness Posted on Feb 6, 2019 by Susan Sparks


This piece was featured as a nationally syndicated column for GateHouse Media as well as preached as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church.


I just played Vegas.

As a Baptist minister.

Okay, so I offered a workshop for seven people ninety miles outside of Vegas.

Either way, that trip created one of the craziest combinations imaginable: a Baptist minister in Vegas! Think about that. It’s like putting an Episcopalian in an improv troupe.

Vegas is nothing if not a series of crazy pairings. The town is one of humanity’s tackiest and most garish creations, and it’s situated in the midst of one of God’s most beautiful creations—the Mojave Desert. There are gondolas in fake Venetian canals floating by Elvis impersonators. The Eiffel Tower stands proudly next to the Statue of Liberty. The Sphinx and the Great Pyramid tower over an IHOP. And my personal favorite: a billboard for the Mormon church appears next to one advertising an all-male dance review from Australia called “Thunder from Down Under.”

But from all these crazy things that seemingly have nothing in common, a city emerges—a community that bridges the differences and unifies them into one joyful, celebratory spirit. Tell me that isn’t a lesson we need.

The joining together of unexpected things breaks open our way of seeing the world. It helps us approach situations in a fresh way. In fact, here’s a statement I bet you never thought you’d hear: Vegas and Jesus have a lot in common.

Jesus knew how to jar people out of their comfortable places and challenge old images with what might have seemed like crazy pairings: the kingdom of God and a mustard seed; the weakest as the greatest; a banquet table where the honored guests were tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. His images still jar us today. They make us stop, reconsider, and reevaluate. It’s like the old saying goes, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”

When we jar our thinking, we shift our perspective. We begin to see and appreciate the marvelous diversity of God’s creation, things like heaven and earth, platypus and blowfish, Jerry Springer and Jerry Falwell.

It’s a crazy, wondrous variety, and yet a variety from the same creator. As the Apostle Paul said, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

Today, we are faced with factions, dividing lines, and anger. The only lens through which we seem to see is the lens of difference. And therein lies the problem—our current inability to see past the differences to our commonalities. I say current because we are capable of a much broader vision.

In addition to the Thunder from Down Under and Mormon Church billboards, I saw one featuring a photo of Abraham Lincoln with one of his most famous statements, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Underneath that familiar quote was a new phrase: “Civility is in you. Pass it on.” This was such a simple reminder, but one that hit me like a jet breaking the sound barrier. We have civility in us. Find it, remember it, and pass it on.

One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, died last week. In her poem, “The Summer Day” she wrote:

Tell me,
what is it you plan to do
with your one
wild and precious life? 

I can’t imagine a better way to spend that wild and precious life than to dedicate yourself to seeing our commonalities first.

Baptists in Vegas? Why not.

If Elvis and the pyramids can come together to create an oasis in the desert, then what greater thing might we build if we bridge our differences and come together with one joyful, celebratory spirit?