The sermon for week April 13, 2014
Sometimes we're wrong about Jesus. The cheering crowds on Palm Sunday were wrong about who they thought Jesus was and what he would do for them. And we get Jesus wrong, too.
The Reverend Quinn Caldwell recently reminded me of one of our spiritual ancestors in the UCC. In his devotional in the 2014 Calmly Plotting Lent Devotionals, Quinn shares the story of Samuel Sewall.
Samuel Sewall was one of the judges who condemned so-called witches to death in Salem in the 1700s. Eventually, he became convinced he’d made a terrible mistake, so he later wrote a public confession and chose to stand before his congregation in Old South Church in Boston in shame while the minister read the letter aloud.
This moment was so important for Boston that it’s immortalized in a State House mural entitled “The Dawn of Tolerance in Massachusetts.” Sewall’s heart was so softened and opened by this pain that he became a leading advocate for the oppressed. He later went on to argue publicly for women’s rights and the full personhood of Native Americans, as well as to write the first anti-slavery tract on this soil. (Caldwell, 31)
Lent is a time of repentance. And repentance means “to move beyond the mind you have.” In the tense it’s used in, it means more along the lines of “to think differently afterward” than “sinner change your cheating ways.” To think differently afterwards means there’s a realization that how we’ve been doing things has been wrong somehow. I know I don’t like being wrong. I hate it. I think it’s a true human universal that no one likes that feeling of being wrong.
Most of us do everything we can to avoid even thinking about being wrong. We get it in the abstract. We all know everybody in this room makes mistakes. We easily see, standing on this side of history, how misguided and wrong Samuel Sewell was. The human species, in general, is fallible; we get all this. But when it comes down to me, right now, to all the beliefs I hold, here in the present tense, suddenly all of this abstract appreciation of fallibility goes out the window and I can't actually think of anything I'm wrong about right NOW. And the thing is, the present tense is where we live (Shultz).
We go to meetings in the present tense;
We go on family vacations in the present tense;
We go to the polls and vote in the present tense.
We say the prayer of confession in the present tense which makes it hard sometimes to say “yeah, I need to confess what’s in the bulletin today.”
So effectively, we all kind of wind up traveling through life, trapped in this little bubble of feeling very right about everything.
I think it's a problem for all of us collectively as a culture. Yet what I think Jesus is pointing to and the message for Palm Sunday is that if we can repent, that is, admit we’re wrong, this can be the door to transformation and it could be what writer Kathryn Schulz states as the “greatest moral, intellectual and creative leap you can make.” (Schulz)
Jesus comes into Jerusalem in dramatic fashion. He’s riding on a donkey, people are freaking out. They’ve heard the news about him. They know about this strange teacher with his crazy, backwards stories. His incredible healings. This movement that people are joining. There are rumors that this guy is the messiah, the military leader who is going to change everything! Jesus and his band of fishermen, tax collectors, and outcasts are going to overthrow the Roman Empire and throw them out of the Holy City! And he’ll do it before Passover is over! We just need to cheer him on!
The crowd is in the present tense. They know they are right about this. They know all the stories, the prophecy, the theology of the messiah and his coming. They can quote all the right verses to you even though they can’t read, they know this stuff. But we know what’s going to happen.
In a few short days, the crowd is going to change on Jesus and demand his death. They get angry. Maybe you can understand the feeling the crowd has. How do you feel when you’re wrong? Can you describe it? (I’m actually asking this)
Actually that’s the realization that you’re wrong. Schulz states that realizing you’re wrong is like being Wily E. Coyote. Do you remember that Looney Tunes cartoon with Wily E. Coyote who's always chasing and never catching the Roadrunner? In pretty much every episode of this cartoon, there's a moment where the coyote is chasing the roadrunner and the roadrunner runs off a cliff, which is fine. He's a bird, he can fly. But the thing is, the coyote runs off the cliff right after him. And what's funny is that the coyote's totally fine, too. He just keeps running, right up until the moment that he looks down and realizes that he's in mid-air. That's when he falls.
When we're wrong about something -- not when we realize it, but before that --we're like that coyote after he's gone off the cliff and before he looks down. You know, we're already wrong, we're already in trouble, but we feel like we're on solid ground. So it does feel like something to be wrong; it feels like being right.
The crowd is wrong, and they don’t realize it. They feel right, Jesus was supposed to do these things and he didn’t and we’re demanding his death because of our wrongful assumptions. They have stopped entertaining the notion that they could be wrong. And when we stop entertaining the possibility that we could be wrong, well; that's when we end up doing things like dumping 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, or torpedoing the global economy. So this is a huge practical problem. But it's also a huge social problem.
Maybe God has something else in mind than fixing our problems for us. Maybe Jesus had a different plan when he came riding into town on his donkey, a plan that we’re invited into, not just to witness from the sidelines.
1,200 years before Descartes said "I think therefore I am," St. Augustine sat down and wrote "Fallor ergo sum" -- "I err therefore I am."Augustine understood that our capacity to screw up, it's not just some kind of embarrassing defect in the human system, something we can eradicate or overcome. It's totally fundamental to who we are. Because, unlike God, we don't really know what's going on out there. And unlike all of the other animals, we are obsessed with trying to figure it out. To me and according to Kathyrn Shultz, this obsession is the source and root of all of our productivity and creativity (Shultz).
We love stories with twists and turns and surprises, whether the story is told in a movie, book, on NPR or face-to-face over coffee. As audience members, as listeners, as readers, we eat this stuff up. We love things like plot twists and red herrings and surprise endings. When it comes to our stories, we actually love being wrong!
We love when we’re wrong in our stories because our lives are like this. We think one thing is going to happen and something else happens instead. I thought I was going to live my life in the Washington D.C. metro area working for a drywall company but something else happened instead. Maybe you thought you were going to marry your high school sweetheart and something else happened instead. The crowd thought Jesus was going to save them without them having to do anything, and something else happened instead. The church happened.
The church is spawned out of repentance; of thinking differently afterwards. Peter realized he was wrong to deny Jesus three times and he realizes this on the seashore over a breakfast of fish. And Peter, the blockhead, the screw up, the denier, he is called the foundation of the church. Thomas doubted when the other disciples said they saw Jesus, but he’s the first disciple to say, “My lord and my God.” At the foot of the cross, a Roman Centurion sees Jesus dead and hanging and he feels how wrong this situation is and says, “Surely this man was the son of God.” Saul persecuted the early church until he was blinded by the light, and he got up and called himself Paul, the greatest advocate for the church ever. The disciples, the Temple and the Romans thought they killed Jesus and he was over with, but next Sunday we’ll tell about how something else happened instead.
Samuel Sewall saw the error of his ways and became a champion for the rights of women, Native Americans and African-Americans. He worked primarily in the context of his church. He’s got his own memorial in the statehouse for being wrong and admitting it. From such humble beginnings, great things happen.
Even our greatest scientific discoveries came about by being wrong. Percy Spencer was experimenting with a new vacuum tube called a magnetron when his candy bar began to melt. He discovered the microwave. Richard James was trying to develop a spring that would support and stabilize sensitive equipment on ships. When one of the springs accidentally fell off a shelf, it continued moving, and James got the idea for a toy; the Slinky. Play-Doh was accidentally invented in 1955 by Joseph and Noah McVicker while trying to make a wallpaper cleaner. (Howstuffworks.com) All of these scientists thought differently afterwards, they moved beyond the mind they had. They set off to find one thing, but something else happened instead.
The first words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is “Repent and believe the Kingdom of God is near.” Think differently afterwards and know that the kingdom of God is here. If we really want to discover and live into this kingdom, we need to put down our palm branches and stop waiting for Jesus to come and do our work for us. We can step out of our terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and say, “Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we can work together and fix this mess we’re in.”
And in that space, we’ll hear our still speaking God say to us collectively, “This is my plan for you all along. For I have plans for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Caldwell, Quinn. “In Praise of Guilt and Shame.” 2014 Calmly Plotting UCC Lent Devotionals. Page 31.
HowStuffWorks.com. Nine Things Invented or Discovered by Accident.
Schulz, Kathryn. On Being Wrong.