By Pastor John Johnson

February 10: Throwing It Back In

February 10, 2019

I have spoken before of my lack of affection for fishing. My standard comment is that I can do more active things, such as watching grass grow, although in Arizona, I am not so sure that either activity is easily available.

I believe I have shared before an incident from back when I was in business. We hired a fishing boat in San Francisco to take some customers salmon fishing. There were seventeen of us, as I recall, and we departed the pier at six in the morning, boated for three hours through choppy ocean water to where the captain thought we would find fish. We caught a total of fourteen — which took four hours or so, with four of us catching two each, — then spent another three hours returning to the pier. One person was vomiting off the boat, every one was cold . . . and that was supposed to be fun. I think I would prefer my last root canal to another fishing trip.

But there is a sportsmanship and an appreciation for the fish themselves to be found in fishing. If a fish is undersized, both the law and good sportsmanship require the fisher to throw it back in, back into the water, to give it a chance to grow, a second chance. And while using fishing in this message is my sole — no pun intended — sole connection to today's Gospel lesson, fishing also applies to what I really want to discuss: Virginia, or not so much Virginia, but how “throw it back in” relates to what it means to make a mistake in one’s younger — or older — life.

I doubt many of you missed completely the past dozen days or so of farcical goings-on involving politicians in that great state, the Commonwealth of Virginia. In my most recent newsletter, without specificity, I indirectly attacked the Governor of Virginia whose clumsily honest but abhorrent explanation of a new “abortion rights” law implicitly condoned what I, as an ex-lawyer, believe would be infanticide. So I do not begin these remarks with particular compassion for the further public humiliation he brought upon himself when he first admitted, but then denied, that he was one of two people in a picture in his medical school yearbook, one of whom was in blackface, the other of whom was wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. But… but, a serious issue is raised for us as Christians and as citizens by some reaction to that incident.

First, a confession — sort of. When I was ten years old and in fifth grade, I was an end man in a minstrel show. The show was put on as part of the school’s music program, and we wore charcoal, I think it was, on our faces to make us appear as African American, though the word in 1954, was “Negro.” I believe we also faked accents. I say that because, as an end man, I got to tell jokes, one of which was about fishing, gar fishing, which included the line, “I sort them into piles. I put the ‘a’ gars into one pile and the ‘b’ gars into another pile,” at which point, the other end man asked, “What about the ‘c’ gars?” And I answered, “I smokes ‘em.”

I do not believe I would have known at age ten what “racism” is, though I was already very much of an I-don’t-care-what-color-you-are individual, so my apology really is not serious — and yet I do regret that the insensitivity that minstrel shows displayed was not understood sixty years ago.

Being held accountable as an adult for that ten year old boy’s participation in a minstrel show would strike most as absurd and extreme.

Being answerable as an adult for behavior as a ten year old does seem extreme, but  what about answerable for behavior as a high school sophomore? Or as a freshman in college — which the Attorney General of Virginia was when he wore blackface? Or as a graduate or medical student in one’s early twenties, the Governor of Virginia’s position at the time of his insensitivity? I’m not sure, but if not answerable, at least willing to accept the errors or mistakes made and the possible offense given. And if anyone or any group of people might have been offended by those behaviors, would a person not owe an apology? And should not that apology be accepted if it is clearly sincere, especially if the one apologizing had been an advocate of respect and fair treatment for all ever since? Which, putting aside the innate hypocrisy of even his recent electoral politics, the Governor of Virginia, has apparently been.

Alas, though the subsequent attempt to undo an apology by denying the event had ever occurred further undermines sympathy for that Governor, it is not his behavior I want to discuss, but rather that it appears that there is no Mercy for the youthful and insensitive, but I doubt mean-spirited, and most probably ignorant, behaviors of the Governor and, as we learned subsequently, of the truly hypocritical Attorney General of Virginia, who first criticized the Governor than admitted to his own blackface as a college freshman.

But I ask, how many of us have behaviors well into adulthood that we would not want to see the light of day? Are there any of us who at an earlier time did not tell Polish jokes, or make fun of the more effeminate boys in our schools? Neither of which is defensible, let me make that clear, but both of which I did.

But I don't feel so much that I need to beat my breast as to recognize how true it was what Paul said in last weeks lesson from 1 Corinthians: “When I was a child I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”

I have been in the redemption business the past twenty years. While I do not endorse hypocrisy, I understand that all of us are in fact hypocrites, especially we Christians, because we proclaim standards which we cannot attain. Yet, if we did not proclaim them, would that be any better? I do not believe the governor of Virginia nor the Attorney General of Virginia, no matter how hypocritical their behavior of recent days, should be crucified for their behavior as students. As Jesus says in the possibly apocryphal story in the Gospel of John of the woman caught in adultery, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. He is not defending sin; he is understanding and forgiving the sinner, the caught sinner, which all of us are.

But just as the caught fish who is shorter than the legal limit is thrown back in and essentially given a second chance, so is anyone who has made a mistake, whether it offended another or not, entitled to a second chance. As Christians, and though I hesitate so to state, as Americans, it behooves us to recognize that humans are less than God, as a psalmist tells us.

And this message is not inappropriate as we anticipate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, no saint, yet proof that no matter our past, we can do right by God. Lincoln was apparently not color blind, as I would hope we all aspire to be, yet none can question the rightness of the Emancipation Proclamation. Whatever it's motivation, It was an act of redemption for the wrongs the United States had allowed to continue even as it— as we — adopted our constitution.

One can properly argue that redemption should require a confession of guilt, an apology at the very least, and in the sociological and probably legal senses, that is highly desirable. Yet, I always maintain that forgiveness benefits the one forgiving even more than it benefits the one forgiven. Carrying a grudge does no one any good, although I plead guilty, because I am still mad at new England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady because of bad referee calls — nothing changes, does it, where Brady is concerned — because of bad referee calls against Illinois when Tom Brady played for hated Michigan.

More seriously, and of far more concern, is what it says about us if we act self-righteously with respect to youthful errors of that Governor and Attorney General.

I am adamant that confession must be part of our worship services, not so that we might show-off or beat our breasts, nor even because we need forgiveness. Nor even because we need forgiveness, not because we do not need forgiveness, but because it was given us 2000 years ago, when Jesus went to the cross. I am sure Jesus had no way of knowing that John Johnson would need forgiveness for an anti-gay joke he used to tell before he considered what it must be like to be gay in a heterosexual world. I am sure Jesus had no idea that a Governor of Virginia would need forgiveness for insensitive and unkind behavior in his early adulthood. And I am sure Jesus had no idea of many of the sins any of us here would commit during our lifetimes.

Yet if those sins were not included in Jesus’ sacrifice, God is not whom I believe God to be, while my actual greater fear is that the God I believe and proclaim to you is not as great as God truly is.

In other words, my friends, I believe we are forgiven, that we have been thrown back into the water more than once to grow in our wisdom and understanding, and will be thrown back in again and again before we are caught that one last time. We serve a loving God, of that I have no question.

And so, while as political animals we might take pleasure in the discomfort of those with whom we disagree, let us never forget that while their sins might be different from our own, they are not necessarily worse than our own. They might be hypocrites, but no one who has standards can help but be a hypocrite, for as I said earlier, no Christian can live up to the standards by which we seek to live. As Paul says in Romans when he asks what hope there is for a sinner like himself, “Thanks be to God,” for Jesus Christ.

It would be wonderful if politicians could admit their mistakes; it would be much easier to excuse and forgive their errors. Nonetheless, let us not fail to be Christian even as we descend into politics, and let us not merely accept the moral relativism of “everyone does it” or “well what about Donald Trump?” or “What about Bill Clinton?”

The Governor of Virginia may no longer deserve public trust, but do not let it be because of youthful indiscretion; it is important to understand that.

But it is also important to understand, which is the reason for my lengthy introductions to our prayers of confession, that we ourselves have been guilty of sins for which we have been forgiven, and we should always be grateful for that forgiveness, and, I hope, driven to be, well, less hypocritical.

And part of that that gratefulness should mean we forgive others even when they fail to acknowledge their need for forgiveness. That is what Jesus would do.

I have long enjoyed the wisdom of a quote from Oscar Wilde, who as you may know was himself very much a practicing homosexual and was jailed at the time when such relations and behavior were illegal in the United Kingdom. Wilde once said, “We are all down in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars.”

What he meant was, quite simply, that we aspire to be good, but can't quite achieve it. In my words, we are all sinners, forgiven sinners. But let us not settle to be forgiven sinners in our relations with the other children of God, but rather let us keep looking up at the stars.

And in doing so, let us forgive others, even as we have been forgiven by God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Hmm. The symbol or signal among those early Christians was — a fish. Ponder that. Amen

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