Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blessed by guilt

Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21: 33-46
Heritage United Church of Christ, Baltimore, MD
October 8, 2017

(This is the second year that the Rev. Julius Jefferson, senior pastor at Heritage UCC, and I preach at each other's church, taking turns so we can worship with our congregations.)

         From the very beginning, the people of God, who is the great “I AM”, were intended to be different from their neighbors. The Babylonian creation story is one of violence and bloodshed. In the Hebrew scriptures God speaks and brings order in the midst of chaos, with light and darkness, land and seas and heavens, creatures of all kinds, and human beings in a garden. Rather than the ways of empire, God established the people to be God’s tabernacle, God’s dwelling place.

         But the story is more complicated than that. Despite God’s hope, God’s dream, violence and bloodshed run through the story of God’s people like every other civilization. Brother kills brother, God’s people become corrupt and violent; God floods the earth; generations are born into captivity and slavery, whole peoples are conquered in the name of establishing a promised land; rape, lust, and murder become the weapons of patriarchy.

         So God lays down the law, a law of love: God’s laws are a sign of God’s love for us just as parents set rules and boundaries for their children. God also knows that we will break these laws, and so they are also a way to return to God. When we leave something undone, when we do something wrong, when we sin, our feelings of guilt and remorse become the pathway to wholeness. But more often than not, we hide from our wrongdoing, we refuse to acknowledge it, we justify ourselves, we blame others, we sin under the radar, in backrooms, in the shadows, by ourselves. We find loopholes and good enough reasons and convincing lies. We tell ourselves we’re not as bad as that person over there and so what does it matter.

         It matters because our moral compass as a human race is on a rapidly falling decline. Our ability to live up to what we value and believe has always been in question but it seems now more than ever, the abyss is inescapable. Each day it seems the question is shifting from “If…” to “When…”. Author and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in his book People of the Lie defined sin as “nothing more and nothing less than a failure to be continually perfect. Because it is impossible for us to be continually perfect, we are all sinners.” Evil is a result of our unwillingness to acknowledge our failure, our inability to tolerate the fact that we are indeed sinful.

         We can see this evasiveness, this unwillingness in the scripture readings for today. After Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, terrified of God’s power in the thunder and lightning, in the sound of the trumpet or shofar, and the smoke that covered the mountain, God’s people tell Moses that they’d rather hear from him what God wants instead of God speaking directly to them. Like Adam and Eve before them, they want to hide from God.

         Jesus tells a parable of how God sent one prophet after another to God’s people, how the people stoned God’s prophets, beat them, and would not listen. Then God sent God’s son, and still not able to bear God’s law of love, the people killed the son. No guilt, no remorse. And yet when the Pharisees hear this story, they fear it is about them. To use a word not often heard in mainline churches, the Pharisees are convicted.

         Conviction is the work of the Holy Spirit in which we are able to see ourselves as God sees us, with our guilt and our inability to save ourselves. This is not unlike the first four steps of the twelve: Admitted that we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable; came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God; made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

         But it’s that first step that hangs us up. We have to admit, confess, face ourselves. One of the oldest calls to confession begins with verses from the first letter of John: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive only ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just. God will forgive us our sins and cleanse from all unrighteousness.”

         We don’t like to admit we’re wrong or that we’ve done wrong, that we are powerless or that we’re part of the insanity. A Facebook friend of mine wrote earlier this week that we got the president we deserve. He said, “We want dedication, thoughtfulness, and human decency in our elected officials, but we are largely unwilling to demand it of ourselves, our society, our own political parties. Trump represents all of us a lot more than we care to admit. To change who we get as leaders, we must first change ourselves.” A friend of his replied with these words: “We shame and blame and are surprised when our politicians do it. We bully the people around us and are surprised when our leaders do it. We export our problems, and we act surprised when our government does it. We pollute our own backyards and are surprised when our corporations do it. All we have to do is look at ourselves to see Trump.”

         If we aren’t feeling guilty about the current administration, if we aren’t convicted as to how we conduct political debate and public discourse, if we see ourselves as somehow apart from the horrible mess and abject pain of Charlottesville and San Juan and Las Vegas, evil has taken root within us. This evil within hides where we cannot see it, but it cannot hide from God. The inability of whites to face our sinful selves promotes white privilege and bolsters white fragility. It is the reason why we as a nation still have not faced the genocide through which this nation was born and our imperial economy that was built on the backs of and with the blood of slaves. It is why human trafficking, child labor, and the slavery of poverty are still with us today.

         Tomorrow is Columbus Day. Some cities have changed it to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but in truth it should become our national day of atonement, our first step of the twelve, the beginning of true compassion and empathy as a nation. Talk about ‘Make America Great Again’. But this would require sacrifice, humility, courage, fearlessness and a good deal of pain—nothing less than the love that was nailed to a cross. 

         If I may nerd out for a moment, our national soul is beginning to look like what was left of Lord Voldemort after his confrontation with Harry Potter: small, shriveled, weak and bloody. The only thing that would save Voldemort at this point was remorse—guilt. But it would be extremely painful and he would have to love something, someone, anyone, more than himself. But in order to do that, he would have to know what that kind of love was like. But no one had ever loved Tom Riddle, not really, except perhaps Dumbledore, who tried more than anyone to save Tom from himself.

         The question for our nation and for ourselves is this: what do we love more than our country, more than the flag, more than ourselves, more than our freedoms, our laws, more than guns or war or money or power or security, more than our very lives? All these are idolatry, false gods. When we can answer that question, for everyone on this earth and not just our own, we just might find the peace and restored justice we are seeking.


*Sermon title borrowed from People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck, pg. 71, paperback edition, 2nd edition, 1998.

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