A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, December 16, 2007
One of the things I like most about Jesus is his ability to cut to the chase. He sees right through natural defenses and self-justifications. He doesn’t sugarcoat things. Like the man who wanted to confess some familial shortcomings: “When I die, I want to die like my grandfather – who died peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like all the passengers in his car.”
Or the daughter who decides that her Mom’s vision of herself is a bit too rosy: “My Mom said she learned how to swim when someone took her out in the lake and threw her off the boat. I said, ‘Mom, they weren’t trying to teach you how to swim.’”
Or Dave Barry’s admission that there’s something fundamentally wrong with guys: “If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant’s life, she will choose to save the infant’s life…without even considering if there is a man on base.”
Now, everyone here knows it’s Advent. Advent 3, to be exact. And at the center of this time of year is John the Baptist. Crotchety old John the Baptist, pointing fingers and requiring people to admit to their basest motivations. I’m sure that most were shocked. That’s why Jesus asked them:
“Well, what did you expect? Some guy in a thousand-dollar suit? Some politician whose views reflect public opinion to the decimal point? Some guy who’s going to tell you what you want to hear? No, whether you knew it or not, you came to hear a prophet. Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet.”
In other words, John is a dangerous man. He tells the truth. On that subject, I think a lot for what passes for Christianity is just plain, un-reflected-upon schlock. Or, put another way, to many Christianity is a hobby. I think the reason for that is a general lack of self-awareness. Most people read the comics to get their guffaws on Sunday morning. Not me. One need not go beyond the sports page. Here are of my favorite comic lines:
* A Major League free agent saying, “It’s not about the money.”
* An NFL coach who just signed on with the University of Arkansas saying, “The Atlanta Falcons are my family.”
* Or the baseball players’ union announcing, “We’ll honor baseball and do what’s right for the game.”
My only question is, how can they say those things with a straight face? If you can’t see your true motives, how can you take responsibility for them? And if you can’t take responsibility for them, how can you do what this guy who was “more than a prophet” wants you to do: repent? As an aside, there are two general schools of thought (or, should I say, lack thereof) regarding repentance:
* One school revels in denunciation and judgment. These are the folks who go to church on Sunday and pray fervently that the preacher man will con-VICT them of their sins. If they don’t go through a drive-by guilt-punishment-repentance-acceptance cycle every Sunday morning, why, they just haven’t experienced real church.
** That’s a very clever dodge, you know. Apparently, it’s the idea that if you throw God a bone, everybody goes home happy. The congregation’s“sins” usually include such heinous offenses as watching R-rated movies or using imprecations in a fit of pique. Apparently, turning a blind eye towards extreme poverty and basic education for little girls in Sub-Sahara Africa would be lesser offenses and not worth the mention.
* The other school of thought when it comes to repentance is the school that fails to differentiate between regret and remorse. [William Ian Miller] Regret is being sorry we were caught. What makes regret feel bad is not that we actually did something wrong; rather, regret is feeling sorry that we have to pay a price that we didn’t anticipate paying.
** It’s regret – not remorse – that you feel when you make a gamble and lose. Rather like the subjects of the Major League Baseball report on the use of steroids – these home run champions and Cy Young Award winners don’t feel a lick of remorse for having damaged baseball. No, they feel regret for having gotten caught. And I’ll eat my hat if they don’t couch their regret in phrases like, “I made a mistake” (which, when subject to the light of authenticity, means, “I hate that I got caught and that now my record has an asterisk”).
“I’m sorry” just doesn’t carry the punch it used to. Now, most tepid “I’m sorry’s” are low-grade statements of commiseration. Like when a mother says she is sorry her child scraped his knee or when Sinclair Lewis writes that Mrs. Babbitt “apologized” to her husband for his hangover.
So, when an “I’m sorry” really is in order, how do you know whether it’s sincere or not? One Jewish tradition imposes a rather strict control on what repentance might mean. Maimonides, a 12th century rabbi, physician and philosopher from North Africa, devised a test of sincerity that would involve future behavior:
“If a man had sinful relations with a woman, and after a time was alone with her, his passion for her persisting, his physical powers unabated while he continued to live in the same district where he had sinned and yet he refrains and does not transgress, he is a sincere penitent.”
(I am opined that this might, in fact, be superior to the random drug test….)
Here’s another true test of sincerity. [Miller] It comes from an Icelandic saga of the early 13th century. Hydar accidentally hits Bryndis with a pole in a game in which poles were used to goad horses to fight each other, not to whack people. Hydar immediately calls a timeout and says, “I am sorry, I did not mean to hit you.” But here’s the crucial addendum: “I will pay you 60 sheep so that you will not blame me and will understand that I did not mean it.” To prove sincerity, you had to ante up.
Nowadays, people are not so sincere, I suspect. Maybe it’s because we’re a litigious lot and any small slight can lead to an expensive lawsuit. It would be better, perhaps, (if we’re going to get all legal about it) if we employed more artistry. How about this as an apology: “I have been punishing myself with remorse; my sense of well-being will be destroyed forever if you do not forgive me. Even with your forgiveness I will be scarred by the memory of my transgression.”
La Rochefoucauld comments, “Some disguised deceits counterfeit truth so perfectly that not to be taken in thereby would be an error in judgment.”
Or we can, like Jesus, simply cut to the chase. In about six minutes you’ll have that opportunity to suspend your disbelief and say to God, just once, with as much sincerity as you can muster, “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
I suspect that God prefers that to 60 head of sheep.