St. Paul's Episcopal Church | Louisburg, NC | September 28, 2014
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Lord, our strength, and our redeemer.
How do you go about building a sermon? Over the past 4 months, I have given quite a bit of thought, read and pondered literally hundreds of hours, and written thousands of words under Lauren’s watchful eye. At times, giving my attention has been such an unconditional joy for me, while other moments have not been quite as uplifting. I’ve reflected on lots of reasons to walk down this path of sharing my reflections with our congregation. So, at the beginning of this endeavor, thank-you for giving me this opportunity. I deeply appreciate it.
I’ve read that a good sermon should, “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” Sort of a nice Statement of Purpose for me, until a better one comes along. I’ve been living with today’s readings from Exodus, Psalms, Philippians, and Matthew for the past two months. You build an interesting relationship with stories when you can reflect on them over a period of time. They have become neighbors who I keep running into on my daily walk.
As a college professor for over 30 years, I have come to realize that there is really only one main difference between Education and Entertainment and that difference is – Participation - you participate in your education whereas you only passively observe when you are being entertained. Another way of seeing this component of being an “active listener” is look at the two words Tourist and Pilgrim. A Tourist only observes, while a Pilgrim truly participates. I am going to ask you to be a Pilgrim and do two things to participate in this sermon. First, I want you to remember something. Then, about ten minutes from now I will ask you to imagine something.
#1 - REMEMBER, #2 – IMAGINE, are you ready?
OK, first, remember something you regret doing. Maybe it was something you said, or maybe it was something that you did, but I want you to remember some decision, words, or actions that, simply put, you regret.
Take a moment. You got it? Here’s one of mine.
I regret that I lived with so much doubt and fear in my early 20s. I was very fortunate and extremely challenged to be accepted into the most competitive Ceramics and Sculpture Graduate School in the nation. If you drew a line from Baltimore to St. Louis to Dallas, I was the only person who was from the southeastern United States. I was miserable. One low point was when I got caught shoplifting a pound of baloney. I was 23, too cold, and too proud to ask for help from my peers. My reality was I was not getting paid for two weeks, and there was three feet of snow on the ground, and my car had not run for a month. Remember a time you were in a predicament like that; a time you were that cold, and that hungry, and that lonely? Fortunately, my new vocabulary word I learned in that situation was EXPUNGED, as in this action from my record, after 6 months. I remember the grocery store manager loaned me 20 bucks until payday. He said, “Even though you’re a southerner, you seem like a pretty good guy to me.”
Of course, we all have self-effacing moments in which we can now laugh at our growing pains and our naivete. But I’m asking you to go to a different place, some thoughts and words to a person , or a judgment of a place or thing that you have buried a little deeper, something that costs us a little more when we take a look at it.
Our regrets; I bury mine. You bury yours. And we defend these shameful memories with our careers and our accomplishments, marking our time. We sort of pave over them. We build doors to these places and we lock them. So find some quiet time to get to one of your regrets. Then, take a look, take a listen. I’ve learned that we all spend the first half of our lives stuffing the parts that we do not like about ourselves into a bag, and that we should spend the second half of our lives taking out each piece and seeing what power that memory or decision is holding over us.
In a recent TED Talk Kathryn Shultz claims to feel that regret is a gift, and is not something we should shy away from feeling. If you don’t feel regret, then you are either a sociopath, who has no remorse, or have experienced some type of brain trauma. Feeling regret only requires us to have an experience and the imagination to see a different narrative.
Instead of figuring out how to live without regret, we should be trying to understand how to live with it. Both Moses, “God, why did you make me lead this angry mob?” and the people of Israel, “Moses, why did you bring us to this dry death.” were individually and corporately full of regret. Hence, Moses called this place MASSAH which means Test, and MERIBAH, which means Finding Fault. When we each find ourselves in this hellish place of testing and finding fault, it is always helpful if we pause, take a breath, look around, and let things be for a moment.
And how do we go about making peace with our regret? First realize the universality of our mistakes. Learn to laugh with yourself. And finally come to trust in the passage of time. Like my grandmother Addie used to tell me, “You don’t get to be old by being dumb.”
So you have completed #1, REMEMBERING a Regret.
Now for #2 Imagine.
What if the pain is so great that you have your regret buried under layers and layers of remorse, or judgment, or addiction, or shame? What if you just cannot get to it? I want you to IMAGINE a door that leads to this place of words and actions which embody your regret. What kind of door is keeping this memory locked away?
See the door. What color is it? Why can’t you open it? How is it locked, with a simple hook, a keyed lock, a combination you can’t remember, a dead bolt you can’t budge, a hinge that has rusted over time? Is it made of wood, or steel, or glass? I’ll give you two examples from my life.
I was visiting my brother in Baltimore 25 years ago. Camilla was a year and a half and securely belted in her car seat in the back seat. My keys were in the ignition and baby Camilla was smiling, not yet understanding that I had locked her in the car. My first thoughts of having to shatter the glass window to get my child out of the hot car are still so scary to me, that I cannot remember the more peaceful and mature solution I finally came up with. My memory was that I did not want show my fear to my child. So that car door was made of steel and glass and the key I needed was trapped with my daughter in the car. I could see the solution but I couldn’t get to it. Have you ever felt like that?
My second door is a light weight wooden screen door with a long lazy spring holding it shut. It is the screen door on the back porch of the tiny shingled house I grew up in. I would often fling the door open on a full run and be in the yard throwing whatever ball was in season, and then hear distinctively from my father’s Laz-E-Boy chair, “You better not let that damn screen door slam.” I would pivot immediately, running to the back porch stoop, reaching just in time to just place my hand in between the door and the door jam. That door, and that house, and that father, held a lot of regret for me, but as an adult I have realized and accepted that both pain and persistence were nurtured there.
I’ll give you another moment, what does the door covering your regret look like?
So now you have remembered a regret, and imagined a door through which you can walk through and claim it. The most important lesson that regret can teach us is that we should feel pain when things go wrong and that we should love ourselves in our imperfection. A good person feels bad when they have done something that has hurt someone. That is how our lives teach us who we are, and what we can be.
The first son in Matthew felt this regret when he harshly said, “No pops, I can’t help you in the vineyard this morning, I’ve got something else to do.” His regret leads him to a sincere obedience that follows his change of mind. The 2nd son offers a bogus commitment, pretending to obey, only talking a good game, an empty promise worth nothing. Be the first son. The ability to be the first son in the Gospel is born out of our acceptance of our brokenness and vulnerability. God knows we are all flawed people who need to be loved and forgiven and blessed.
We Regret. We Repent. We Redeem. We weave these decisions into the fabric of our lives. But like red wine being spilled on a white linen tablecloth, we never really can completely remove our stains. We are stained people. Our regrets do not teach us that we have failed. They simply remind us that we can do better, and we will get that chance, and we can find that door, walking down a hallway, called tomorrow.