I did eventually overcome my indolence yesterday — indolence, I should say, and coughing fits — to write a sermon, and it turned out better than I expected. I re-used the story about my elementary-school charge and the story of the Garden of Eden; I have to stop doing that, now, it’s threadbare and I have to come up with something different to say. Plus, it doesn’t really fit into the flow of the sermon. But the people who greeted me at the door were positive about it, and it was given for them.
Since I use Mike Daisey’s saga as a jumping off point, I realised that I ought to say something specific about the ground rules for my putting sermon texts online. Every time I do anything with a sermon, anything at all, I’m liable to change it. The text I have at the beginning of a homiletical interaction (whether preaching, or sitting with a manuscript between preaching two services, or just opening a file to have a look) I see little infelicities that I have to change, sometimes whopping infelicities. The sermon I write on Saturday is not the same as the sermon I preach Sunday morning, and that in turn differs from the sermon I paste into the blog interface Sunday afternoon. Different, different, different — and I do not represent any of these as a veridical transcription of the sermon text at any point other than the one I have in mind while typing up a blog.
Anyway, the sermon’s below the fold.
Since today is Mothering Sunday, I had bought Margaret a couple of wee presents, a book about the bird life of Britain (we may take up low-level birding once the weather favours us) and some dark-chocolate and caramel bars. After breakfast, we went to our respective churches, I preached and Margaret read the Old Testament lesson, and we met up after church to go the Antiques Fair. I entrusted a couple of pens for treatment to Peter Crook, and we browsed and came home for a TV marathon and cosy restfulness. A good, sunny, agreeable Sunday, spent in beloved company.
18 March 2012
St. Mary’s, Glasgow
Num 21:4-9 / Ps 107:1-3, 17-22 / Eph 2:1-10 / John 3:14-21
For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we might walk in them.
+ In Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy
The Provost and the Vice-Provost have set a theme for Lent this year. On the first Sunday of Lent, the Provsot asked us, Is Lent wet, or dry? On the second Sunday, the Vice-Provost asked us whether Lent is outdoors, or indoors? So as I was puzzling over the question Is Lent bread, or is Lent serpents? (with illustrations of Moses lifting up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, drawn from our stained-glass window) I listened to an American radio programme (called This American Life) which broadcast a segment that acknowledged that the presenter, Mike Daisey, had made false claims. I won’t dwell on the details now — the story saddens and instructs, perhaps angers an attentive listener — but as I listened to the retraction of the false claims, I noticed that Ira Glass, the programme’s host, reminded Daisey that he had been asked several times whether this or that fact was true, and that he had been given opportunities to change the representation of his narrative, that the editor and the host and the fact-checking team had all been doing everything in their capacities to protect Daisey from making the false claims that committed to the airwaves.
Perhaps the most painful aspect of the broadcast — apart from the protracted, shamed silences — arose from Mike Daisey’s refusal to come to terms with having deceived his host and editors. When Daisey, the reporter, was caught in a lie, he persisted in trying to exculpate himself rather than simply to say, ‘I lied to you; I shouldn’t have; I’m very, very sorry’.
Alas, his refusal to admit that he had been wrong to misrepresent the facts of his investigation coheres with a strong human tendency to try to justify ourselves. The church can track this tendency back to the earliest humans, but there’s no need to look back that far; the parliamentary expenses scandal comes to mind as a source of abundant examples of outlandish self-justification. One can hardly pay attention to the news or to advertisements or to popular entertainment without seeing a continuous flow of people who insist that they were not doing anything wrong, who have elaborate rationales for their apparent misdeeds, people who refuse to confess that they have erred and followed too much the devices and desires of their own hearts, because really, they were in the right all along, if you look at it from a particular point of view. Perhaps you’ve even seen that sort of person in a mirror.
Self-justification doesn’t work out very well. Sometimes the audience of the self-justifier feels a general sympathy for her or him, and decline to press the issue — but wobbly defences and self-serving reasonings may anaesthetise, but don’t get at the heart of the issue. Self-justification can win over people who are already allies, but it does a much poorer job of convincing a disinterested observer, and is of no use at all in addressing someone who has suffered he consequences of an offender’s self-justified actions. Worse still, self-justification typically accompanies social privilege: wealth, power, fame, status, all combine to form a toxic cocktail of illusory inerrancy. Not only do those who dominate our public life enjoy a disproportionate share of material luxuries in this world, but they can persuade themselves and their followers that they’re justified in taking advantage of the world. They persuade their friends that they merit extortionate salaries; they explain to their supporters that failure wasn’t their fault. People like us can persuade ourselves and our friends that we’re justified in exploiting people who have less access to sophisticated legal manoeuvres, less opportunity to make their voice heard from television studios, party platforms, and even from pulpits. Self-justification aggravates, amplifies, and intensifies the impulse to place ourselves at the centre of our world. Not just a single presenter, one time, on a single radio programme, but most people at most times suppose that our failings are understandable, yours are unpardonable. Our excesses were unavoidable, yours have to be recompensed to the last penny. Our transgressions are foibles; yours are felonies.
All this energy could be saved were we but willing to turn to the world and say, ‘Maybe I was wrong. Yes, I was wrong.’
Or as the lessons for today suggest, we can begin by admitting that the world we inhabit invites us to live by self-justification, and very often we simply adjust to that expectation and go along with it, following the course of this world, the spirit that is now at work among those who justify themselves. That passive acquiescence to a principle of self-justification then entraps us in a struggle against our sisters and brothers around the world; if we don’t keep reasonably ahead of others, they’ll be better able to justify themselves at our expense. Our power, our wealth, our social prominence will erode if those other people rise in stature — and we won’t be able to justify ourselves by their standards.
All our lessons illustrate, though, that God has prepared a different way of life for us. God has made elaborate preparations to enable us to avoid falling; in the story my primary-school children loved to hear whenever they could cajole me into telling it, humanity entered a world in which there was only one thing they could possibly do wrong — and still they managed to find that one thing and do it. And when in the story God asked them about their misconduct, they… tried to justify themselves, ‘Well, I wouldn’t have done it, except she gave the fruit to me.’ ‘I knew perfectly well not to eat it, but the serpent explained…’ The Book of Genesis does not record how the serpent responded to this situation, but one can easily imagine the serpent saying, ‘I was merely observing that the fruit is pleasing to the eye, and good to eat.’
God has prepared us for good things, for us to walk in them.
What makes this reflex to justify ourselves so sad is that whereas our self-justifications are too often shabby and transitory, if we but yield the determination to justify ourselves and trust God to justify us — that’s what faith means, trusting God — we can grow in the full and durable justification that comes from standing as honest women and men before the world, of renouncing claims to special privilege and refusing exploitation, of putting others before ourselves. All you have to do is look and see, says God, and what afflicts you will have no power over you. All you have to do is rely on grace, says the letter to the Ephesians, and God will do the justifying. This is a gift from God, not our own doing — and freed from the onerous, endless, impossible task of justifying ourselves, we share the gift of grace with the labouring, heavy-laden world, as messengers of light.
All you have to do is to join in solidarity with Jesus, and in solidarity with him you, too, will be born from above into the true, living way that leads beyond self-justification and mortality. Solidarity with Jesus — not racking up points to impress him, or God, or me, or anybody, but recognising that his works are the works of goodness and mercy that we are made for. Solidarity with Jesus — not over against anybody else, whether foreigner, sinner, oppressor or lickspittle, but on behalf of every one, for God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Solidarity with Jesus, so that the light of the world, to whom we bear witness, may be the more readily recognised and welcomed in every corner of the world.
Lent is not bread nor serpents — Lent is the grace of growing in solidarity with Jesus. Solidarity with Jesus, because we cannot abide in God’s grace by trying to justify ourselves. Grace forgives before we can confess — and the only impediment to grace comes when we refuse mercy because we imagine that we don’t need it, we want to justify ourselves, we want to determine who is innocent and who is a child of wrath. When God has prepared us from our beginnings to walk in kindness, mercy, gentleness, to walk in peace, we have no need even to try to justify ourselves. Grace arrives before us and welcomes us; grace follows us in and dusts off our traveling clothes. Grace, if it be raised up from the earth so that all may see it, grace will draw all people to it, and grace will lead us home.