Decision-Making, Action-Taking

I. The Decision-Making, Action-Taking Continuum

When it comes to decision-making and action-taking
there are two extremes. On one end of the continuum, there is the person who for hosts of reasons has great difficulty making any decision; thus, she or he waits around for just the right inspiration or just the right information to cause making the decision that needs to be made easy to do or making the next step so evident that anybody, they imagine, would know exactly what to do in those circumstances. Brendan Francis said: “Some persons are very decisive when it comes to avoiding decisions.”

Some of these types of people wait so long to decide that, frequently, decisions are made for them by others involved or by circumstances that take over; subtly, this may be what Polly or Paul Procrastinator wants. However, when someone else decides FOR us, we lose all ability to shape our lives in the present and in the future. Thus, some wise philosopher has aptly said: Not to decide is to decide.

At the other end of the continuum, there is the person who weighs no facts or evidence before jumping headlong into a decision, even a decision of great import. We all know people who have committed to a relationship before they really knew the other person. We all know people who have made financial investments before they really weighed the information particularly about risks for a given type of investment. We could list many situations in which a person finds herself or himself in a difficult or compromising situation because she or he did not take the time to study options and only then to make a carefully crafted choice.

I can think of several reasons why a person might not want to or be able to make decisions in a constructive, useful manner. I will mention three of those.

  1. The person–teenager, young adult, middle-aged person, senior person–has little or no experience at making a decision of importance. Up to the point of the moment of decision, other people have made decisions for this person. Part of bringing up our children well is giving them opportunities to make decisions and to live with the results, we could say the consequences, of their decisions. We should begin as early as feasible because the longer we wait to teach that lesson the more challenging it will be to have our point made, for our kids, with as little pain or frustration as possible.If you go into your sister’s bedroom uninvited again, you are going to have to go to your own room and stay there alone and without television or video games or cell phone. Yes, I know that’s totally inhumane, but it is your choice and your choice alone.”
  2. The person used to be fine with making decisions, but made a doosey of a wrong choice at one life juncture and has been after that petrified to make another decision. Sometimes, we see this only in the area where the bad choice was made–in the realm of relationships, for example; but sometimes the fiasco has made the person who made the wrong choice in one area to be afraid of decisions altogether.
  3. There really are those decisions that have to be made for which there isn’t a good alternative. Many of us have gone to the polls to vote across the years and not had a candidate for whom we were truly enthused. Sometimes we felt that we were choosing the lesser of two evils, and I don’t mean evil for the most part in terms of someone’s moral character. I am mean evil in terms of the maxim–in this case, what we anticipate as an absence of viable leadership skills and dreams for our nation and our world.

    On a much more personal, day to day note, the same damned if you do and damned if you don’t dynamic applies. There really are situations in which we find ourselves, very often through no fault of our own, in which we have a complete lack of good, positive, healthful, happy-ever-after alternatives.

 

The principal says to the student who has accumulated an over
the limit supply of absences. Both the student and the principal
realize that the student’s parents know about some but not all of
those absences. The principal says to the student: “You’re
going to be suspended from school for one full week with no
privileges for makeup work. You can explain this to your
parents after I get them on the phone for you, or I can just go
ahead and tell them. You decide.”

 


The model decision-maker, action-taker is right in the middle of the continuum. She or he neither waits too little nor too much in the face of a need to make a decision. This person weighs the evidence, considers a timeframe during which to make the decision, and manages to decide, however difficult the process, within the timeframe–thus claiming all of her or his own independence and influence as a decision-making individual. Theologian Paul Tillich shared this insight: “Decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free.”

 

II.The Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip the Evangelist

The biblical story that charges our imaginations for much of today’s consideration is, on the surface, a meaningful narrative, an important one, but there’s much more to it if we go just below the surface–which we definitely should do. It’s a story about evangelism and the early church, specifically during the time when Paul was busily at work spreading the gospel in the Greek part of the world with tremendous success. By the way, “evangelism” is not a bad word, and I look very much forward to preaching a sermon on the topic of progressive evangelism when my summer sermon series begins the first Sunday in May.

This has been an unpaid, nonpolitical announcement. Now, back to our story from the book of Acts.

It is kind of embarrassing to talk about the main character in this story from the early years of the developing churches. And I say that because the main character is not named. He is only referred to as the “Ethiopian Eunuch.” We don’t know if that was an oversight on the part of the storytellers initially making it impossible for those who followed them down through the years to report this person’s name; eventually, all of us treated the matter as unimportant. It would be similar to referring to someone today as that Black waiter or that Asian clerk or something to that effect. I try my hardest when I have to identify someone whom I have seen but whose name I do not know to avoid falling into a lazy racial designation rather than pressing my brain just a little bit harder and coming up with a non-racial way of referring to her or him. “Hello? Yes. I dined with you all today, and I think I left my umbrella on the floor of the booth where I sat. My server was wearing some really nifty red shoes.”

The story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in the eighth chapter of the book of Acts is filled with potentially conflictual information, which is probably a sign that it is an absolutely authentic story at least at its core. The first thing we notice is that this Ethiopian Eunuch who was something like the CFO of the nation of Ethiopia when Queen Candace was the monarch was accepted professionally but kept at arms length personally because of his sexual situation even though he had absolutely no control over that as far as we know. He could get all the professional attention he wanted, but when he left the office he was as ostracized as anyone else with an atypical sexual attribute. Ever since I was a little boy I wondered who it was in Bible times checked to see who was circumcised and who wasn’t, who was a eunuch and who wasn’t. I still don’t know who, but somebody had that job.

Anyway, second, he was a believer in Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, the God of the Jews–though he was not a Jew. Further, when we come upon him, he is returning from a worship visit at the great Temple in Jerusalem. Sounds interesting, but the problem was according to the laws of exclusion in chapter 23 of the Hebrew scriptural book of Deuteronomy, a eunuch–and we are back to the genital checkers again–would have been excluded from worship in the Jewish Temple. Bad huh? Yet the Temple by its very architecture was set up for exclusion.

At the very outer perimeter, Gentiles, dogs, anybody could come in–no problem. Moving inward next came the court of women; Jewish women could go there, but no Gentile man or Gentile women could go in. Next court–the court of men. Jewish men could go in but not to Jewish women or men of any other race or ethnic background or religious conviction. On in, there would be a place where only priests could go, and in the very center of the Temple there was the place where parts of the ark of the covenant that housed or had housed the tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been written were kept, and it was considered such a holy place that only the high high priest could go in there and only once per year at that.

So the notion of exclusionary practices at the Temple was hardly something to have raised an eyebrow over. Perhaps for this Eunuch, entry into the court of the Gentiles was sufficient from his unique point of view; at least he was at the Temple, perhaps finding his own little area at which to pray.

Another incongruity in the story is that he was reading when the Christian evangelist Phillip from one of the Isaiah scrolls, which had absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. Phillip found him and asked if he needed any help understanding the Isaiah scroll. The Eunuch responded, “Yes, I do, but how can I get that kind of help unless someone is willing to teach me?” Remember that none of the Temple personnel were going to risk affiliating with a kind of person on the official REJECT LIST.

Much to the Eunuch’s surprise, and the surprise of most of the early hearers of this story, evangelist Phillip ignored the REJECT LIST, though he knew the tradition well, and said, “I happen to be trained to assist you with scriptural learning.” So, Phillip in his teaching role, explained Isaiah to the Eunuch and used it as a starting point to get to a message about Jesus of Nazareth who had a vision of a God who is love and whose love embraces all of humanity–priests and rabbis and eunuchs and monarchs.

 

image

 
My friend Solomon is Ethiopian, and he tells me that the Ethiopian Church had its inception based on the experience of that Eunuch. He also points out the fact that the Eunuch was reading Hebrew Scripture proving that the Ethiopians were believers in Yahweh as were the Jews; the Eunuch was not an anomaly in that respect. Solomon goes on to point out that Ethiopia was the first major empire to embrace Christianity as its state religion, before the Roman Empire.

Every Ethiopian child in church school is certain to be in introduced to the to the Eunuch and that admiration for the Eunuch doesn’t stop there. There are hymns about the a eunuch–for example, one song during the season of Epiphany has congregants singing about how the Ethiopian Eunuch brought communion to the first Bishop of Ethiopia. There are hymns about the a eunuch–for example, one song during the season of Epiphany has congregants singing about how the Ethiopian Eunuch brought communion to the first Bishop of Ethiopia–obviously a spiritual experience or vision as they were temporally separated by some 300 years. Still a very profound image.

So the Ethiopian Eunuch makes a very powerful personal decision, which moves him ahead. He was willing to leave behind what was religiously acceptable in his home country Ethiopia as well as in Jerusalem where the God as taught of in Hebrew Scriptures was embraced. He was willing to move beyond that to the perception of God taught by Jesus. The Eunuch was willing to embrace the God who is love and whose love embraces all of humanity–straight Jews and gay Ethiopians in the mix.

For our purposes today, how do we know when and how to take the next spiritual step? Well, in the case of the Ethiopian Eunuch the next step was joyfully obvious. If followers of Jesus after having embraced divine love were supposed to be baptized, the Eunuch decided that he too should be baptized. He therefore asked Phillip, “What hinders me from being baptized?” Phillip the evangelist had the correct answer: “Not a thing.”

 

 

 

 

III. The Moment to Decide

Peter Drucker said this about business though I believe it applies to many arenas of endeavor: “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” By courageous, I think Drucker meant the courage to take a risk or to keep taking risks. The successful business person or the successful academic or the successful scientific researcher or the successful trapeze artist at least once took and often continually takes risks.

There is frequently a time element in the process of making a pertinent decision…or not. There are some decisions confronting us about which we have to decide within a given time frame if we’re going to decide at all. There are deadlines on business deals. There are deadlines on dissertations and other major academic projects. There are deadlines for applying to schools and deadlines for seeking grants. There are deadlines on performance schedules. There may be a deadline on offering a marriage proposal, or of responding to one. There are times when we must get off the fence and make a choice or lose out forever.

Want about making a spiritually significant shift as the Ethiopian Eunuch did? There are untold numbers of people for whom religious conservatism of whatever flavor stopped working, a week ago or a decade ago. Some of those thought it was too late to make a change, too late to brother by the time they had the realization. They said, “I will just sit in church and act like it is meaningful.” Some of those said the whole spirituality thing is a sham, and I’m out. Some said, “I know there must be some place out there (Silverside Church) where I can join a seekers’ journey and keep moving and growing. I will find out! What hinders me from shedding what does not work and putting on new clothes suitable for a seekers’ journey?

Poet James Lowell:

Once to every soul and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

How to Survive Life as Stormy Sea

Image

I.     The Inevitability of Turbulence
Many of you, no doubt, remember several years ago when we were forming a committee to prevent the Grants from taking any more vacations.  If you weren’t a part of us then, you are justifiably wondering why in the world anyone would want to deny Marge and Brent any opportunity to go on one of their visits to yet another exotic spot on the globe.  The reason was this:  they began returning from their trips battered and in need of hospitalization rather than relaxed and filled with new knowledge about a place some of us can only dream of visiting.
Notably, there was the cruise that took them into the icy waters where some turbulence pushed the ship into an iceberg jolting the vessel and causing, among several problems, Marge to be thrown across their cabin onto the floor opposite where she had been standing.  This resulted in a severe neck injury ultimately requiring meticulous surgery at Thomas Jefferson Hospital.
The accident was not inevitable or brought on by fate.  What was inevitable was that some ship, at some time traveling those waters would experience turbulence.  You may recall from the limited collection of stories about Jesus that we have available to us today, the account of Jesus and his disciples who went out on a fishing boat and began sailing the normally calm Sea of Galilee.  If you recall that much of the story, you also remember that sudden–rare on those waters but inevitable–turbulence threatened to capsize their boat and scared the disciples aboard with Jesus nearly out of their wits.
The point of that story, other than intending to showcase Jesus’ command over nature when he calmed the waters, is that turbulence is inevitable in our lives regardless of how long we’ve had nothing but smooth sailing.  Tragically, when the turbulence begins for some people it plagues them for the rest of their days; for others, like the disciples in the story to which I refer, the turbulence takes its toll but comes to an end allowing them to live beyond the threat.
You might have chosen, I’m glad you didn’t, to be in another church today where the preacher would be giving you a long, enumerated list of things to do to be able to avoid turbulence completely, even though that is nor possible.  Undoubtedly, any list would contain two items common to all lists being preached on by such preachers any given Sunday.  First, you’d need to believe the right things, which ironically are always exactly what the preacher believes.  Second, chances are you’d need to make some sort of financial gift to whatever organization sponsors that preaching.  Feel good religion has almost always sold well, but I have to tell you that turbulence is inevitable.
Hopefully, it is minimal; hopefully, no real damage is done.  Hopefully, you live beyond it and learn some kind of life lesson–not from the turbulence itself, but from how you endured.  Calm is never restored for some; that is tragic for those whose ship has sailed into troubled waters.  For others, it’s a challenge that they didn’t want but aren’t surprised to face, and they say to the turbulence, “Bring it!”
If anyone knew turbulence, it was Job, and his so-called friends were no help at all as they were relentless in trying to convince him that regardless of how he tried to understand his plight, God was behind it.  After due consideration, Jonah said with absolute confidence, “Though God slay me, yet will I trust in God; nevertheless, I will maintain my own ways before God.”  While I was looking at that declaration in several translations of the Bible, I stumbled across this expanded paraphrase by Albert Barnes:  “Though God slay me, multiplying my sorrows and pains so that I cannot survive them, and while I see that I may be exposed to increased calamities, I am willing to meet sorrows, pains, and calamities. If while maintaining my own cause to try to show God that I am not a bad person it should so happen that my sufferings are so increased that I die, I will do it.”
So, I’m saying to all of us that turbulence is going to come our way, for shorter or longer periods of time.  I quickly add, though, that I am not a doomsayer, and I do not wish to promote paranoia.  Preparedness does not have to mean paranoia!

II.   The Jonah Metaphor
The marvelous book of Jonah in Hebrew scripture is a parabolic short story.  Those who believe the main point of the book of Jonah is to offer an historical account of a man who was swallowed by a really big fish, but who lived to tell about it, are, I respectfully suggest, missing the point.  The book of Jonah is, in its entirety, a metaphor for life as stormy sea for anyone who rebels against God.  In fact, life becomes a stormy sea even for those who do not rebel against God, and that is ultimately our concern today; we begin with Jonah and move to a larger picture.
I will go ahead and tell you now that the story does not have a happy ending; nor is the ending conclusive. It closes with anger, sadness, and stubbornness.
Before we are left with that, we get to know a bit about Jonah at one particular juncture in his life. Jonah was a prophet, but he wanted to be a prophet on his own terms, not on God’s terms. He was successful and comfortable where he was, and then God messed things up for him by calling him to use his considerable communication skills to warn the Ninevites that if  they did not heed the reality of God and live accordingly they as a city would fall.  Nineveh was a real place; it was the capital of the expanding and powerful Neo-Assyrian Empire and widely recognized as one of the greatest cities in the world.
Jonah was accustomed to preaching to people who welcomed his insights and encouragement. He did not enjoy delivering bad news to people he liked, and so he grew very popular by preaching what people wanted to hear yet apparently managing to stay barely within the boundaries of reality.  A preacher’s popularity may often lead to blind and unfortunately callous comfort among those who hear her or him.  Ministry of any kind is supposed to be an on-your-toes responsibility; complacence is not acceptable.  Sometimes, definitely not always, a lengthy ministry loses its edge. It becomes more about placating than about challenging hears to take risks and to take stands.
One of my star preaching students asked me to meet her for coffee before class last week. She wanted to talk about some turbulence in the congregation she is serving as pastor. The position as pastor of that congregation in an odd way fell into her lap. She was not actively seeking to serve in that role, in that place, and yet the call came with both urgency and promise so that so she knew deep down she could not decline it.  Certainly, she can identify with St. Augustine who claimed that he was ordained to the priesthood against his will; he writes about a congregation where he preached in North Africa, and they liked him so much they forced him into the ministry. That’s an odd tale to tell, but that’s what he said. That is not what my student thought happened in her case, but I noticed the parallel.
The pastor whom she succeeded was a placating pastor, and my student is anything but a placater.  My student hungers and thirsts after righteousness and justice, and those profound commitments come through unmistakably in her preaching.
A comfortable congregation does not want to hear challenges. A comfortable congregation does not want to hear that there are acts they must undertake, that there are positions on which they must take stands, that their journey of faithfulness has not ended thereby bringing them to a place of rest but rather still propels them onward into ever new risks in ever new societal contexts.  The world changes so rapidly, and with change comes the demand to understand and then establish the moral standard appropriate for that issue.
A hundred years ago, pastors and their congregations had no idea that the day would come when it would fall to them to take a stand against the easy availability of assault weapons because mentally ill people and evil people would be killing innocent and unsuspecting children and adults in places we all once thought safe.  That day has come, however, and if we are silent we assist those who increasingly take precious lives.  Synagogues, churches, and mosques–my dear friends–are not, if they are true to their calling, spas or salons.  The God of Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammad–peace be unto them–calls the faithful together to commission them to stand untiringly for what is right in a world, with plenty of help from the religious right in all three monotheistic communions, constantly trying to baptize evil so that it may be disguised as good.
My student has a pastor’s heart, but is unapologetically prophetic–calling the church to mandatory action.  As a result, she is under fire by some members of her church, and as an idealist in the best sense of the word that creates an incongruity with which she cannot be at peace. I would hate for any of my successors in churches I have served to find themselves at odds with the congregation because they justifiably called the congregation to action when I had left them comfortable and complacent.  Back to Jonah who was doing just that.
Suddenly, one day God said to Jonah, as the ancient story goes, “I need you in Nineveh. You have the ability to tell them the truth–namely that their godless actions will eventually come back to haunt them when their great city falls, destroyed by its own inner moral decay.”
Jonah answered God by saying, “Oh, God, as much as I would like to tell the Ninevites and all the power people in the Assyrian Empire that they are going to rot in Sheol, you know I don’t do that kind of preaching or any kind of international mission work.”
God responded, “Yeah, I know how well things have gone for you in your narrow niche; regardless, though, this job has your name all over it.”
Jonah, believing that God was geographically challenged, was so determined not to do what he knew good and well he could do that he decided to run from God.  He hurries to the harbor and books passage on a cargo boat headed to Tarshish, a city in the opposite direction from Nineveh.
Some cartographers have created maps to show the relationship of Tarshish to Nineveh. Nineveh was built on the banks of the Tigris River. Tarshish was as far west from there as Jonah and his people knew anything about.
If we try to escape or evade what we were born to do, life will become turbulent. I do not mean that God calls us to do tasks or else–though that is precisely what the book of Jonah teaches. But I do mean that each one of us is born to do some task for which we become rather uniquely qualified, early on probably not even knowing what that is.

 

  • >June, I think, was born to be a peace activist. That’s as much a part of her personality and her being as anything.
  • >Gordon was probably born to minister to addicts, a job so very few people do well and not for lack of desire.
  • >Marie undoubtedly was born to help people celebrate and mourn through the ministry of hospitality.
  • >Melissa no doubt was born to sing and play music that inspires.
  • >Walt was certainly born to uphold justice.

 

The list could be extended to include everybody in this room. If we resist our calling, by which I mean what we were born to do, life will be turbulent and not because God creates the turbulence to punish us.  A fish out of water is going to have a tough time of it.
As the boat sailed along toward Tarshish, rather suddenly the calm waters became turbulent, and the ship was tossed to and fro to the extent that professional sailors were scared out of their wits, same as with Jesus disciples as I mentioned earlier. They figured a storm like that had to have been caused by a divine force. Believing in multiple deities, the sailors had no clue which god was behind this and therefore which adherent was the culprit.  When in doubt, cast lots.  Jonah was the guy.  It occurred to some of them that Jonah was a preacher and therefore that he must have some kind of special connection to the God whom he said was the only God.  That is not a forgone conclusion, by the way–that those with ministerial kinds of professional responsibilities automatically have a special connection to God.  Still the sailors thought if they could get Jonah to appeal to his God that God would still the storm, and all would be well.
No.  Jonah had this much decency, though. He insisted that they help him toss himself overboard because he said he knew he was the cause of the turbulence threatening to take the lives of everyone on board.
III.     Maneuvering Stormy Seas
Let me remind you again that Jonah is going to come out of this episode okay–physically.  A big fish swallows him. In desperation he prays.  And as the story was told God upsets the fish’s stomach so that, after three days in its belly, the big fish vomits Jonah out on dry ground.  Jonah then reluctantly goes to Nineveh, and begrudgingly proclaims the message that God had told him to preach. What happens there is not a part of today’s sermon, but in brief the people of Nineveh heard Jonah. They took him seriously. They changed their ways and turned to God’s standards, which saved their city from destruction. Jonah was irate; he did not want them saved from destruction.  He never got over his anger. That’s what I meant a few minutes ago when I said the book ends in anger, stubbornness, and lack of resolution.
I’m not suggesting that in the midst of our turbulence we can get to dry ground if we pray correctly, but I am saying that leaning into love, and God is love, will help us weather the turbulence. Certainly not all turbulence is caused by our failure to live out what we were born to do; that was Jonah’s experience, and it can be our experience.  The turbulence can be caused by our own poor choices, but just as often and probably more often the turbulence is caused by forces completely out of our control.
Though it is ingrained in the teaching of the book of Jonah and in many parts of Judeo-Christian scripture, I’m saying I do not want you to believe such a thing when tough times come your way, when turbulence comes your way.  Don’t ever let yourself think when you are at a low point that some wrongdoing on your part prompted the universe or God to trouble the waters of your life and cause you to fear for your existence. Turbulence comes to the best of us even if we live nearly flawless lives, and the worst thing we can do as we try to get through the turbulence is to blame ourselves for upsetting God.
“Preparedness.”  I return to that word I used earlier, and I say again:  preparedness does not mean paranoia.  If I were giving you a how-to list, which is not my intention, the first item on the list would be:  Be prepared by knowing that while we can avoid some turbulence through making sensible choices and not destructive ones turbulence is still going to come to us all.
The second item on my list if I were making one to share with you would be:  Realize that experiencing turbulence of some sort is an unavoidable part of being human; again, it may not last forever, may not do you in, but in time your calm waters are going to get rough.  If you know that God hasn’t chosen you for the “unique” experience of life as turbulent sea, somehow that helps.  Unfortunately, our tortured central character, Jonah, didn’t know this truth.
I well know that there are people in our world who have to deal with turbulence so destructive and so persistent that they die emotionally and even spiritually before they die physically.  Those who endure such turbulence without giving up altogether amaze us.
It is a fact that we are all in this together.  We all have had to/will have to navigate life as stormy sea.  The third item on my list IF I were giving you one would be:  dare to let others who have been through similar turbulence share your fear, your pain, your anger with you.  They more than any well-intentioned person who has not been through what you are enduring have a much better shot at helping you feel understood and supported though the pain or the struggle that may never go away.  Thus, support organizations such as Compassionate Friends, one of the groups using our facility from time to time, have come into existence; this is an organization for parents who have lost a child.  Same for Alcoholics Anonymous and many other such groups.
We read a few minutes ago in the Response words from G. K. Chesterton–the British philosopher, poet, and apologist–who said:  “We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.”  Let those compassionate and willing souls who have been through the same troubled waters plaguing you help you face the turbulence.  Amen.

Knowing When and How to Make Restitution

I. Sin and the Self

Some have said Roman Catholics take sin more seriously than Protestant do; that could well be debated, but in one sense that assessment might be right on target. It is not at all unusual for a priest hearing confession to tie restitution to having a wrong erased, well—pretty much erased, from one’s morality record. Rather than simply pronouncing forgiveness, the priest may say, “Say three Hail Mary’s, and you sin will be absolved,” or, if the sin or wrong is something that can be repaired, the priest’s prescribed restitution could involve fixing it or repairing as much as possible what the penitent parishioner has confessed to doing.

Many wrongs cannot be undone. A kid I was in elementary school with used to say, after classmates had made fun of him for being a nerd (a word we didn’t even have back then), “Sorry don’t put the hay back in the barn.” Later, I’m sure he learned to say, “Sorry doesn’t put the hay back in the barn.” Anyway, you get the point Eddie was making. The damage had already been done. The apology was nice enough, but the embarrassment the taunting had caused Eddie couldn’t be erased as easily as erasing Miss Garrett’s blackboard as far up as one of us could reach.

One Roman Catholic congregation has in its new member materials an explanation of the practice and the expectation for seeking forgiveness for moral failures along with what the new member might expect to hear from the hidden priest regarding penance or restitution. You will never find anything like this in any document produced by Silverside Church—even adapted to a progressive Protestantish slant:

After a person confesses her or his sins, and before the priest offers absolution, the priest imposes a penance. This is stipulated by Canon Law: “The confessor is to enjoin salutary and suitable penances in keeping with the quality and number of the sins but with attention to the condition of the penitent; the penitent is obliged to perform the penances personally.” The penance is supposed to “make satisfaction” for one’s sins, to reconcile or strengthen one’s relationship with God and neighbor, and to help the person grow in holiness. The old stand-by penance, the one routinely given for many years, was [to be required to say]…three Hail Mary’s. This penance has the advantage of being simple for the priest to assign and uncomplicated for the penitent to complete. While the priest may still assign a short prayer penance…priests [today] try to pay more attention to the penitent’s individual circumstances and then to tailor a penance that would be most helpful for that unique situation

.

I don’t know of any Protestants whose clergy do this sort of thing, formally at least. Many Protestant churches have either a unison prayer of confession or a time for silent prayers of confession during worship services, and after these times for confession the pastor may say something like: “Your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more.”

The critics of that Protestant practice, and Silverside folk don’t even get that much in their Gatherings because no one here sins, say that Protestants let the sinners off too easily. They say a rather mindless, “Slam. Bam. Thank you, God,” won’t do the trick.

Those who want to defend the typical Protestant practice say that those who have been sincere in their confession don’t need clergy to tell them what to do about the wrong they have done; if their confession was sincere they will rather automatically try to make amends if they can at all. One of the worst case scenarios according to my way of thinking evolved into Opus Dei, the tiny branch of Roman Catholicism that teaches self-flagellation as a way of dealing with personal wrongs. Many of us had never heard of such a thing until we saw or read The Da Vinci Code. It came to national attention while Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign was taking off because he has had a longstanding fascination with this group and its practices. Of greater concern, or of more importance depending on your point of view, as Pope John Paul II’s consideration for sainthood continues, a nun who once served as a personal aid to that Pope reported to the Vatican that he practiced self-flagellation. So far, we don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for someone who is being considered to be named one of the saints of the church. There aren’t many Opus Dei centers in the United States. You’ll be glad to know that one of them is in Philadelphia. Radical flagellents have been known to beat themselves, usually across the back, until the lashes bring blood. Today, one Opus Dei leader told a reporter, flagellents use a cotton whip that brings mild discomfort but not blood.

To makes it all worse, the God behind such practices hates the sinners more than they are taught to hate themselves. Groveling and appeasement are their only hopes for making always tenuous peace with this hateful, moody, and capricious God, and even with that it’s hard ever to feel OK about oneself. Therefore, the more we can hate ourselves the more in line with God’s thinking we are.

II. Zacchaeus

Zacchaeus is someone about whom most every child who has ever spent any time in Sunday School knows. As you grow up, if you continue to learn about the story, there’s much more to absorb than children can learn. What they can understand depending on their age is summed up nicely in the children’s Sunday School song:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.

And when Jesus passed that way
He looked up in the tree.
And said, “Zaccheus, you come down! For I’m going to your house you see!”

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
Now a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a very happy man was he.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. This means, as you may know, that he was considered a traitor to his sister- and brother Jews. Tax collectors were Jews whom Rome hired to collect taxes from other Jews. The taxes were staggering. Depending on who the emperor was at a given time, personal preferences of the peoples held in subservience were largely honored. Nonetheless, Rome taxed these people heavily, and to say that the rank and file Jew hated the tax collectors would be an understatement. Tax collectors either made no salary at all, or else they made a pittance of a salary and, in either case, jacked up tax assessments in order that they could have plenty to skim off the top so that they, the tax collectors, could pad their pockets. So, here were Jews making a profit from the misery and struggle of other Jews. It seems ironic, unless one has some sense of the perspective of Jesus, that he had in his band of the twelve closest male followers, a tax collector by the name of Matthew.

Zacchaeus wasn’t just any tax collector; he was a chief tax collector so he not only dealt with several “clients” personally but also got cuts through what those whom he supervised took in from their “clients.” As it turns out, there was a great deal of wealth in Jericho, which was the town where Zacchaeus worked. This wealth was tied to the balsam trade. It was a wood producing area, and those who had grown wealthy from the balsam trade were very likely Zacchaeus’ personal “clients.” Obviously, Zacchaeus was well to do and much more well to do than most of the citizens of Jericho.

I am not sure why it was important to the storyteller that she or he would emphasize the height of Zacchaeus. Nonetheless, the point was made as something worth remembering that Zacchaeus was small of stature. As a matter of fact, almost everyone in Jesus’ day including Jesus, was of smaller stature by today’s western standards.

In any case, Zacchaeus was not tall, and he was a tax collector. I have wondered if the storyteller wanted to emphasize this about Zacchaeus because for a change he was inconvenienced. He told people how much their annual tax bills were, and did he ever have some fascinating tax tables to work with. Even those who detested him wanted to try to get on or stay on his good side.

For reasons not made known to us, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. We’re not told that there was anything more than curiosity involved, but at least there was that much interest; and the crowds lining the roadways as Jesus’ came into town were made up of people of average height or above and crowding together so that Zacchaeus had no line of vision to Jesus either over or around those whom he taxed. Some of them surely noticed Zacchaeus trying to get a peek of Jesus but pretended they didn’t. Thus Zacchaeus was significantly inconvenienced, and his only recourse was to climb a tree. That’s what he did.

When Jesus walks beside the huge sycamore fig tree into which Zacchaeus had climbed, he looks up at Zacchaeus and tells him to come down in a hurry. Why? Because Jesus needed hospitality, and he chose Zacchaeus to provide it. Why? Well, maybe he’d been through there before and knew that someone needed to confront Zacchaeus in regard to his patterns of taking advantage of his own countrypersons. Maybe Jesus knew of Zacchaeus’ wealth and decided to stay at a home where his presence wouldn’t squeeze a family’s already tight resources.

In any case, Zacchaeus didn’t hesitate. He scurried down the tree and took Jesus to his house. The conversation between the two men isn’t reported; all we can surmise is that they talked about the unfairness of Zacchaeus’ business practices. When the conversation was over, the chief tax collector reported a change of heart. He said he would give fifty percent of everything he owned to the poor. Then he said to Jesus, “IF I have defrauded anyone, I will repay it fourfold.” If? Really? If? Just drop the IF; Zacchaeus knew better, and his plan was shocking. It was the restitution he demanded of himself, though. Jesus did not ask this of him as far as anyone knows. Zacchaeus knew what the score was, and he knew the implications of what he planned to do. Restitution. Wonder what happened to Zacchaeus after he doled out all of the ill-gotten gain? One tradition reports that when Caesara appointed its first bishop, that bishop’s name was Zacchaeus, the publican or tax collector.

III. Healthy and Appropriate Restitution

Back in 1988, psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book titled, Whatever Became of Sin? . Sin-focused clergy, most of whom never bothered to read the book, saw in book reviews or heard at pastors’ conferences what the author’s key point was supposed to have been—namely that in a liberal leaning society people who do wrong are let off the hook too easily by teaching someone who has done wrong just to forget about it. Dr. Menninger did say that people who do deeds that are morally wrong need to be held accountable not only by society but also by themselves and further that they rather naturally tend to hold themselves accountable despite society’s trend of taking the word “sin” away from them. Menninger said that people who do wrong don’t need to be punished, but they need to know how to own their wrongs and try to repair them. Dr. Menninger died in 1990. It would have been interesting to know, and maybe he wrote about this somewhere or some of his students know, what kinds of patients he tended to treat.

We see truth in what he had to say on this subject, but most of us also know of religious traditions that browbeat adherents into believing that “mistake” and “sin” are synonymous. Since we all make mistakes, as far as I know, this has led to self-loathing and crushing shame. Aside from reflecting horrendous theology that is as far from the core of Jesus’ teaching as possible, it is useless to lead someone or useless to be led into such a state of mind. Self- loathing is crippling. People who detest themselves have no energy available for trying to accomplish anything positive. So, if the person who committed the wrong has been brow beaten into hating himself or herself then there is no energy left for her or him to try to correct the mistake for the sake of the person who was wronged as well as for the sake of the person who did the wrong.

Some acts of restitution are easy to figure out—a corrective for stealing, for example. If someone steals from another person then the she or he should return what has been stolen to the person stolen from.

I have a friend finishing his last year of a prison term. I’ve mentioned him in a sermon a time or two recently as the end draws nigh. With an amazing array of sterling personal qualities, I say without exaggeration, he became greedy as an accountant. He was filing federal returns for clients, reporting to the IRS inflated amounts of money due the clients. Being an approved instant refund agent, he was keeping the “extra” money that came back presumably for his clients. The federal judge who pronounced his sentence several years ago first ordered him to repay the IRS. That was part one of his restitution. Part two was to pay any clients who had suffered loss because of the ways he may have prepared their returns; that was his restitution to them. He had violated federal law, however, and the law of the land states that he had to make restitution to the country by serving a prison sentence. Sorry and repayments didn’t put the hay back in the barn.

He is entirely a non-violent person, and I happen to think community service would have been a much more suitable sentence. The law, paired up with mandated sentencing guidelines, though, says that restitution to the country if one has stolen from the country is payable in time served. So, there he was.

Under the best of circumstances, one chooses for oneself to make restitution including the how and the how much. Zacchaeus was in that boat though something in that conversation with Jesus had clearly put him on that track.

Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Always pulling, prodding, stretching us morally. He says if you’re in the middle of a worship service, and you’re right at the apex of the service—in his case, the point at which gifts were offered to God—and you happen to remember that somebody has something against you, you should leave the worship service and go directly to the person whom you know has something against you, even if you have nothing against that person and even if you think what she or he is holding against you is of no consequence. You go to make peace as best you can with that person. Only after that do you return to the worship service, I’m guessing he had really long services in mind, and finish presenting your gifts to God. Would you call that a kind of reverse restitution, or would you call it a demonstration of your willingness to make restitution even though the conflict is one sided?

Jesus has in mind something that can be fixed, potentially or probably, by the person who was not offended, by the person who didn’t feel wronged. The person who left worship needs to say something like, “I have heard that something I said or did offended you, and even though it wasn’t intentional—in fact, I’m not even sure what it was—I want to do whatever I can do to make things right and restore the positive connection we have had.” So, I ask, “Why should I leave my time of inspiration, which I need so much, to go and try to make restitution for I don’t even know what with someone who might not even open the door to me?”

Jesus’ teaching makes no provision for that kind of concern. The issue is not what the person offended, justifiably or otherwise, will do or avoid doing. I am the one in worship presuming to offer my best in gratitude to God, and I am frustrated to find out that doing so is also connected to real life stuff going on away from worship.

We have to think carefully about that at Silverside. Most of us stand for causes and principles that offend plenty of other people—people who don’t even know us personally. If we press this teaching, we’d never get to church because we would be out trying to make things right with someone we offended simply by speaking our truth, which by the way, we think is connected to other core truths Jesus himself taught.

I wonder if we could make it work by putting out on the front signs, “We are sorry if we offended you with our efforts to understand truth as well as justice and live them out. Personal apologies and attempts at restitution offered every Sunday morning BEFORE OUR GATHERING.”

Jesus asked his hearers to apply this principle in relationship to sisters and brothers, your blood relatives and/or members of your faith family. Geez. That doesn’t help. I’d have to drive over to Lynchburg, Virginia, to tell my nephew working on a Ph.D. in theology at Falwell’s seminary, unless Tweeting counts, that I can’t complete my weekly worship experience without acknowledging that I know my theology is offensive to him. “Neither of us is likely to change our theological positions, but we were relatives before we were theologians; and we have our mutual appreciation for the teachings of Jesus in common. We also have my sister, your mother, in common; and if we create tension at one more family event she’s going to keep us both from all future family gatherings. Is it worth that?”

Jesus’ hyperbole wasn’t intended to impress or entertain, however clever it may have sounded. There is a core of seriousness to the hyperbole here. If interpersonal or financial/property restitution can be made, it must be made. There’s just no way around it. And while sorry may not put the hay back in the barn, sometimes, not always, it moves a bale or two in that direction.

Amen.

20130205-191916.jpg