Sometimes, the events in the world around us do require some comment from the pulpit, and this morning — and it does fit into what I have to say based upon the Scriptures — I want to chastise three public figures, two of whom apparently believe they do not make mistakes, and perhaps for that reason do not have the ability to offer an apology in their behavioral tool boxes. But before you take either offense or delight, let me finish with all three, and allow me to suggest that there is something we, unlike these more perfect examples of how human beings should behave, something we can do when we do make mistakes in our own behavior.
First, I want to criticize the person most deserving of criticism for the point I am about to make, and that is the President for his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. My criticism is not just that it was not the appropriate setting for him to attack his critics, but rather, that his attack was based on what he considered errors and dishonesty in their use of their faith. This is beyond the pale for me; I do not think one — I do not think a Christian, at any rate — I do not think any decent person,, — should ever question the sincerity of another person’s faith and where that faith might lead him or her.
Which gets me to the second person I want to criticize, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I have zero doubt about the sincerity of her faith, and I do not care whether, as a pro-choice Roman Catholic, she is disregarding her church’s teaching. But while to question the sincerity of her prayers is not proper for any self-respecting person, the way in which she responded to the President’s ill-timed and offensive criticism by her saying she prays for him because of — her words, not mine — because of her concern about what he does to the Constitution, well, such a statement is childishly returning tit-for-tat and appears to make a lie of her prior claims that it is for him that she prays.
And, alas, while I strongly admire the political guts it took for Senator Mitt Romney to come out as he did, though I am not quite certain I agree that what the President clearly did, which was highly imperfect, is adequate basis for removal from office. As the Senator invoked his religion, which was fine with me, he is a devout Mormon, he unfortunately indulged in what seemed to me to be an excess of self-righteousness, which in my religion is something we should avoid if we truly are listening to Jesus’ teaching.
What all three seem to me to have forgotten is a sense of humility and of one’s own fallibility — qualities I witnessed in a less powerful or well-known one of my parishioners this week in a way that allows me to touch upon what is one of the most central tenets of what I try to proclaim each Sunday, as well as to incorporate, even if not explicitly, from three of our Scripture readings for today concerning “commandments” and “the Law.”
This parishioner came in to offer me an apology, I need not say for what, although the apology was, paradoxically, both appreciated and unnecessary. Her — I give away little by that gender description — her comment was, “I know I’ll soon be facing judgement so I want . . .” At which point I interrupted her, and said, “You do not need to worry about judgement; Jesus took care of that for you 2000 years ago.”
Which I try to say every week: do not tie yourself up in knots about your past sins, but seek to avoid repeating or continuing them, for a central part of the message of Christianity is that our sins have been forgiven.
Which only says part of what I then went on to say to this parishioner:
“That you want to apologize is a sign of your faith and of your thanks for that forgiveness, for in the best Protestant sense, we follow the commandments not to obtain forgiveness, but in gratitude for that forgiveness.”
And I cannot over-emphasize my belief in this idea: at some point, we transition from fear of God in the historic sense of “fear of punishment” to “fear” in the sense of “in awe of God,” in the sense that we want God to realize that we acknowledge Him — not that there is a gender to God, — and in the sense that we want to feel that God approves of what we do.
Jesus’ teaching in today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount is interesting, specifically, the statement:
'Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them. 18 In truth I tell you, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, is to disappear from the Law until all its purpose is achieved
I enjoy the actual Greek of this passage, which does not refer to “dot” and “stroke,” but to “yod” and “waw,” the physically smallest of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. But be that as it may, there is an interesting aspect to this statement, because Jesus goes on and frequently disparages aspects of what the Jews considered the “Law” to be, especially customs built on the Law, so that I often wonder whether there was tone of sarcasm in his statement. Yet, ultimately, I think not, because Jesus does indeed say elsewhere that the whole of the Law can be summed up as, “Love God,” and “Love your neighbor,” and of course, the Ten Commandments themselves are really specific statements of at least some ways in which we “Love God and love our neighbor[s].”
Summarizing the Law that way is helpful for us, but for all of us at various times in our lives, the challenge is to determine how we apply that Law, apply those two summaries of the Law, to all the challenges and choices we encounter in our daily lives. Being able to state the Law or quote the Commandments is one thing, but applying them in our daily lives is another.
I can, though, say without hesitation, that tempting as it may sometimes be, trying to get revenge against any person for a wrong we perceive him or her to have done against us never meets the test of “Does it show love to my neighbor?” Anyone who defends the smallness of attacks on another because of wrongs, real or imagined, done to one’s self is not following either the Commandments to be found in the Old Testament nor the teachings of Jesus. “Vengeance is mine,” God declares through the writer of Deuteronomy, and as Paul adds in his letter to the Church in Rome:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
“Killing with kindness,” except it is not killing, it is saving.
In their tit-for-tats, both the President and the Speaker of the House demonstrated their smallness, the Speaker in making a scene of tearing up her copy of the President’s State of the Union speech, and the President in his several remarks this past Thursday. If it is difficult for us at times to know what is the right thing to do, both of these supposed-leaders unambiguously showed us the wrong, even if too natural, way for Christians to behave.
Rather than, as in both cases, to refuse to admit any error in their behaviors, the President and the Speaker should look to my parishioner, whose felt “mis-behavior” was no more than a possible bit of misjudgment on her part, but who in her apologizing wanted to make certain that she heal any offense she might have caused me.
And that is a sign of faith in action. While I might question the President’s depth of knowledge as to what the Christian faith entails — it entails loving one’s enemy, of course, and that is a few laters in The Sermon on the Mount — While I might question the President’s depth of knowledge as to what the Christian faith entails, I do not question whether he has faith. I do not question the sincerity of the Speaker’s faith, either, but neither of them provided a role model for Christian behavior this past week; my humble parishioner, on the other hand, did so. She offered Christian humility that is too often absent in the public square.
If you are like me — and I hope, in this case, you are not, — you have at least one really bad thing in your life you wish you had not done, that you wish God had not witnessed. For those who do share this with me, I find an extremely Christian message — though I hope not a message that I would use to rationalize our own behavior — an extremely Christian message in something I mentioned to you last week that I had read by columnist Peggy Noonan, the former presidential speech writer. She discussed a reporter who, commenting in a tweet — tweets seem to be short both in words and in forethought — a tweet upon the helicopter crash death of former basketball player Kobe Bryant, had reminded her followers that, though acquitted, Bryant had been charged with rape some years ago; she was pointing out within hours of his death that Kobe was no saint. Wrote Noonan:
All this is connected to something larger, a more difficult question we have trouble getting right in the age of causes. It is that you can’t judge somebody’s life by the worst thing he ever did. The worst thing he ever did is part of the story but it’s not “the story.” It’s too strict a standard, it’s not realistic, and though it pretends to be unblinking, it is really unknowing. A life, even a small one, is a big, dense, effortful thing, a real drama that can’t always be easily resolved.
Indeed, Jesus did not change the Law, but Jesus came because we — at least not I nor Donald Trump nor Nancy Pelosi — simply are not able to keep the Law perfectly. Humility is understanding that; Christianity is understanding that, plus knowing that Jesus died to tell us that God loves us despite our failures to keep the Law and commandments, and in gratitude for that, expressing our thanks for God’s love and understanding by trying not to claim virtue for ourselves, but rather trying always to display similar love to others — even if we fail the first time and must apologize afterward.
To err is human, to forgive is indeed divine, and to know both that we need forgiveness and that we have been forgiven is, well, awesome, as is the God we worship.
So let us always focus not on the errors of another or on his or her failure to live out the faith he or she claims, that is, to paraphrase Jesus, let us focus not on the splinter in our neighbor’s eye but on the plank in our own, acknowledging, even if our national leaders fail to do so, that despite our failure and theirs to live perfectly, Jesus died for us all.
Which means that when we err, we can indeed apologize, to others, and by confessing, we can apologize to God who sent Jesus on our behalf.
And in the name of Jesus, the Son of God, our Lord and Savior, Amen.