August 7, 2016 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proclaimer: Rev. Martha Kearse
Summer Sermon Series: STORIES TO LIVE BY
Scripture: Luke 12:13-23
I was wrong. Do you remember those little tennis socks that came out in the 70’s? They were cropped to be even with the tops of your Adidas tennis shoes and they had a little pom-pom on the back. I hated those socks. I hated (and still hate) pretty much every article of clothing associated with tennis. Girlie skirts with shorts under them, the horrible, loosely flowing semi-maternity dresses that this year’s batch is wearing. Horrible. It’s not that I think they look bad—I just do not like to wear girlie. I don’t like frills and lace. I’ve always believed that had I been born a boy, I would at least have known how to dress myself. As it is, I am in a constant struggle to look like an actual female without wearing female-looking clothes. So I hated the pom-pom. Cut it off of my socks when my mother bought them for me (my poor mother).
You know what? It turns out, that little pom-pom served a purpose, didn’t it? Pom-pom sock wearers, can I get a witness? Those socks did not sink like damaged pontoon boats under the heel of your shoes, exposing your skin to blisters and fire ants and God knows what all. They did not wad up in the middle of your foot like a demented orthotic insert, put there to torment you through the course of your day. The pom-pom held the sock in place! It worked! And you can’t buy them anymore, can you? Just in time for me to get over my issues, pom-pom socks are completely off the market. Honestly, I probably still wouldn’t wear them. I was wrong, though, and I can admit that now.
We make a big deal in our country about learning. We offer free (ish) public school, and actually insist that all children currently within our borders attend. We offer food for those students, and medical care, to a degree; we have laws protecting the rights of students to fair access to the best education, including physical education, each one can possibly get. And as much as learning and education is a big deal in our society, we still reject the essential truth of all learning, which is this: Before a person can learn something, they must be wrong, they must fail a million times. Ever potty trained a child? Day one is so optimistic. “Here we go, sweetie! Your own little potty!” Day seven: still optimistic. “Honey, you won’t believe it! She went into the bathroom and sat there talking to it for almost an hour! Well, no, she didn’t actually sit on it…” Day thirty is something like, “Please sit on the potty! Look, here’s teddy! Teddy wants to sit on the potty with you!” Day fifty: “I think there’s something wrong with her! Well, I did ask the doctor and he said it’s fine, but seriously, she’s almost two and a half and she stood there today throwing giant legos into it.” By Day 382, those of us who have good resources and access to other parents with a sense of humor are able to observe that the child has taken off her pants, headed to the bathroom, and peed all along the hall to the door of the bathroom and then say, “Close!”
Whether our grading scale is six points or ten points, our current system of teaching and learning completely neglects this truth: there is no learning without failure. Let me say that again. There is no learning without failure. No learning. Of any kind. Without failure. Lots and lots and lots of failure. Learning is change—it requires an actual, physical change inside our brain. Thank God that God did not make that easy! Can you imagine if our brains could be physically changed at the drop of a hat? The world would look like something from a Dr. Seuss book! Fortunately, it’s such a complicated process that we often have to physically hurt ourselves before we break through to actual change. Even the act of walking across a room is simply the process of falling and catching ourselves over and over again. And we know this! Intellectually, we know this! And yet, we live these lives where we call ourselves and our children to pursue perfection, which is damaging in many ways.
The expectation of perfection, which in sports is not enough, as coaches require 110%, causes incredible anxiety; it leads to feelings of insecurity and can even contribute to depression. The worst thing it does, though, is that it makes it entirely too difficult for us to apologize when we do mess up. Saying, “I was wrong” becomes an abomination—Fonzy couldn’t say it; none of the cool guys do. This requires that we create elaborate fantasies in our heads about what our lives are and what our lives could be.
Like the guy in this parable. I may have mentioned before how much this parable has always bothered me. What did he do that was so wrong? This entire chapter in Luke is a warning—one of several that Jesus throws out during the course of his ministry. The surface of it is about wealth and worrying about what you have. Jesus is prompted to tell this parable when a couple of brothers, fighting over an inheritance call on him to adjudicate their dispute. If Jesus were prone to cussing, he might have done so here, if his tone is any indication of how he was feeling. This request sets him off on a long rant about people who spend all their time worrying about money and what they have, rather than how things are going between them and God. In this parable, this guy has built up some equity in his farm—he’s got a solid yield and his prospects look good for the future. He’s going to take a vacation! He’s going to sit back and let it ride! He’s all good! Except that this infuriates God, who calls him a fool and informs him that his life is immediately required of him! Dead! For what? For not working? For being successful? What did this guy do?
I’ve thought about it a lot and been unsatisfied by scholarly writings, which tend to lump this parable in with others which are thinly veiled threats: selfish guys die young! Rich guys writhe in torment in hell! Very satisfying, if you are not rich. Pretty easy to say, “Well, I’m not rich—so I’m good here.” And, let’s face it, though, very few rich people admit to being rich. Just to get some perspective, on a world scale, there is no member of this church who isn’t wildly, unbelievably rich, since the world scale is whether or not you have a refrigerator. And some of us could park a Mini Cooper in our refrigerators. But simply making it about money doesn’t help—observably, there are poor people who are ethical and marvelous, and there are poor people who are jerks. Being poor isn’t a value and Jesus does not appear to value it. He understands it, but he doesn’t hold it up as a goal. He certainly doesn’t think of himself as poor and he didn’t even own a house!
What makes sense to me is to look at what this guy in the parable is actually saying. He’s not talking about luxury yachts or seven mistresses—he just thinks he’s done. He has had success and there is no more for him to do. He’s finished making changes or putting in effort—he’s all good! It’s very much like the way we do things in our culture—we tell our children, “Ok, you’ve got 21 years to get your act together for life. During that time, we’re going to cram as much information as we possibly can about every subject imaginable into your brain and randomly test you to see if you’ve got it. Then, at 21, we set you free! For life! You’re good! Fly!”
Except that life isn’t like that. Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, said in his book Illusions, “Here is the test to see whether your task on earth is finished: if you are still alive, it isn’t.” Despite the cheesiness of that statement, it appears to be the point of this parable: you ain’t done, son! You’re not good! You still have work to do! And if you know anything about Jesus, you know that all the work that Jesus talks about is work we do on ourselves. We’re terrible at doing work on other people—we’re like discount plastic surgeons who got our degree from The Grenada Academy of Medicine and Volleyball—if we go about the business of trying to fix you, we are going to leave you with an extra nostril.
There is nothing in this whole chapter of Luke that specifically says, “Repent,” but a call for repentance is all over everything Jesus says here. In verse 57 he says, “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” The whole chapter is about letting go of the mess of things which worry us and keep us away from God. The word “repent” is interesting, because the word “penitent” already exists, and they mean essentially the same thing. Putting “re” at the front of “penitent,” though, implies that there’s a second look required—there’s some back-tracking to be done. Maybe we were penitent before, but it looks like we’ve fallen into the same trap again—time to re-up on the penitence. This word is very important for us, because, essentially, we believe ourselves to be ok. We like the status quo because it is a known quantity, and, for many of us, we are doing ok inside of it. As High School Musical taught us, there is quite a push to “Stick to the Status Quo.” In the status quo, we do not have to change; in the status quo, we get to keep what we have right now; in the status quo, we do not have to admit that we have failed, utterly, and need to start over.
Because we have failed. We are failing. We have failed, completely, for example, to achieve equality. Currently, we live in a society so riddled with misogyny, with racism, and with homophobia that it has led to something like a civil war. On the issue of racism, it’s like the entire white population of America decided that after the Voting Rights Act became law and schools were desegregated that we had all done our bit. We’re done! We said, “Good job, us!” Only we never repented of our racism and the horrible things we had been complicit in. We never repented for dividing cities up into places where white people could live and places where black people could live. We never repented of denying generations access to literacy and to education. We never repented of our privilege, but kept it as a sad, secret little sack we could pull out if we needed to make sure we got what we wanted. White people became fragile—unable to talk about our guilt and angry at anything that might imply that we are not completely and 100% not racist. Here’s a news flash for every person in this room: racism is the default setting for human beings. The question for each of is not whether or not we deal with racism; the question is at what point have we examined ourselves, admitted our own level of racism and done the work of repentance?
Isn’t that freeing? I’m not going to make you do it, but it might help things if we turned to each other and just said, “Hi, my name is (fill in your name) and I’m a racist.” Because here’s how it actually works: we admit our sin; we apologize, or repent, of our sin; God applies grace; everything gets better. The problem with racism in America is that we have all been living in the lie that things will get better without the white population every having to really say we’re sorry! Without the white population really having to give anything up! Because, you know, when we’ve done something truly wrong, we know in our hearts that we ought to have to make up for it. We know it! And the tension of waiting for it to happen, feeling we deserve a punishment that doesn’t come, creates anxiety and anger. But repentance dispels all of that. It doesn’t make it all go away—an apology is just the start. But it is the start without which nothing else can happen. And until white America admits to the faults of racism that continue to pervade every single day of our lives, we will continue to have the kinds of discord, the kinds of violence that we live with right now. Our status quo is terrible, but change is hard and we don’t like to fail.
This is a quote from J. K. Rowling’s speech at Harvard University on the benefits of failure. She is talking about her life before Harry Potter and she says, “I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless. The fears that my parents had for me and that I had had for myself had come to pass, that by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew…So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential…Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged…And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” Rowling reminds the audience that “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case, you fail by default.”
Over the last decade or so, there have been many wonderful memoirs and writings published by people who have walked through substance abuse and, interestingly, their paths all look very similar. A period of excess and denial; a period of sensing their own danger but an unwillingness to accept the depth of their failure; an admission of their failure to be able to control their use of the substance; a repentance; and things get better. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister, and Jim Mitchem, a friend of ours here at St. John’s, who gave me permission to mention his blog, both said they assumed they’d be dead by thirty. Bolz-Weber and Anne Lamott both talk about their sobriety being against their will. They talk of disdaining 12 step programs and all those involved in them and looking for loopholes in the whole abstinence thing. It’s interesting to read what is basically the same story told by three people who never met and to realize, “That is my exact story.” Because despite the fact that the abuse of alcohol and drugs is not my particular problem, I function exactly that same way. Beating my head up against my issues until I am bloody and confused; rejecting help, especially help that sounds uncool and trite and lots of other people are doing it; continuing to beat my head against the wall while thinking, “I’m not sure I should be beating my head against this wall,” until I can finally admit my abject failure, and make my apologies and move on. And my life is IMMEDIATELY better. Not perfect, not solved—better. Repentance is a regular part of a healthy spiritual diet. And we each have to do it ourselves.
So, what if we could do this? What if we even found JOY in it? One of the times I had to go to traffic school, I had a teacher who asked for our tickets first thing. And as we each brought our tickets up to him, resentful, fuming at having to spend a Saturday in a classroom in Lincoln County, he would read the ticket and say something like, “Whooee! You were flyin’ weren’t you, son?” To me he said, “I hope you caught him.” I’m not saying that we should take joy in our failures, but it is possible that finding them, recognizing them and acknowledging them is cause for joy.
What if we, as a church, took a fearless moral inventory of ourselves and repented of any ways we have hurt people, or ostracized people or held up the status quo on the backs of those who needed us most? What if we apologized with an eye on the grace of God and the joy of forgiveness? What if each of us made a regular spiritual practice of saying “I’m so sorry”? What if we looked for any excuse to do so, knowing how it cleans our spirits and lightens our load? What if one of the words we believed in, one of the words we valued most and used often, but only on ourselves, was the word, “Repent?”