When I retired at age sixty-four rather than sixty-five, I was often asked, “why?” I usually referred to my forty-six years of service or that we had completed our retirement home, but seldom revealed the real reason. Actually, I retired because one layman came into chew me out for one illustration that he did not like in the previous Sunday’s sermon. It was a bad illustration—one of those not in the manuscript that came from the Holy Spirit’s work in the study, but on the spur of the moment in the pulpit. In an effort to relate to younger people in the congregation I mentioned that once upon a time I had a blind date whom I met in the dark as we got in a friend’s car. She was quite romantic and I was thrilled beyond measure until we got to the bright lights of the miniature golf course! Then I made the mistake of saying, “The day that facial beauty was passed out, she was not in line.” The congregation roared with laughter. This layman was livid. His anger was his correct insistence that no one is without beauty. Of course he was right. Like most jokes, the punch line invariably discriminates against a “goat” who is the butt of that joke. It was my last joke in the pulpit. I was really sorry, apologized profusely, and offered to apologize to his six year old son. He refused my offer, and instead met with the committee who asks Methodist preachers to be moved. They did not agree with him, but that night when I returned to their meeting room, I told them it was time for me to retire. And so I did.
As guilty as I was of poor judgment in one lousy joke, my ministry at that church for three years had been received very positively. The church was growing and everyone except this one man seemed happy enough for me to stay . . in fact, many were asking me to stay until I was seventy. As I’ve thought about that conversation over the years, the most disturbing aspect of it for me has been how quickly we can “turn on each other” for one poorly chosen word or sliver of conversation, one human failure, one weakness of memory, one example of poor judgment, or one adverse opinion. Family members can sever ties for the rest of their lives, neighbors can stop speaking, church members can move their membership, pastors can lose their jobs, denominations can lose their soul over these things.
A British pastor friend of mine has wrote about the American pastor who opened his sermon on the “Prodigal Son” by saying that we should perhaps be more sympathetic to the furious “elder brother” who had stayed at home, worked the farm, and “walked the line.” Before the preacher got to the real point of his sermon, a congregant belted out, “Right on, preacher, that’s the way the parable should always be preached.” In that response, that man revealed his own identity as “an elder brother type.” My friend noted that many of us are trapped in the “tyranny of self-righteousness,” calling it the “misery of the heresy that love must be constantly earned or deservedly trashed.”
In 1959, my second year out of seminary, I visited the Chicago Temple (which in many ways represented the “First Methodist Church” of the city). The guide showed us a three dimensional wood carving on the front panel of the sanctuary communion table of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem, carved in 1924. Then he took us 400 feet above street level to the world’s highest worship space—the “Chapel in the Sky” built at the base of the skyscraper church’s spire by the Walgreen family in 1952. There he pointed out that the same wood sculptor had been commissioned to paint Jesus’ weeping over Chicago featuring the prominent buildings of the city’s skyline.
Through the year I always pled with every church I served that our prayer and goal be that Jesus was not weeping over our church but was instead thankful that we were being faithful to his call for us to love God with all our mind, soul and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus said, “On these hang all the law and the prophets.” If I understand him correctly, there is no law in the Bible and no word from inspired prophets that eclipses Jesus’ commandment. So when we allow our opinions, our judgments, our convictions to trump God’s command to love one another, Jesus weeps.
Pope John Paul II once challenged us Christians to “let your faith be refreshed, your hope be increased, and your love exert itself even more.” Paul Tillich once wrote that the essence of the Christian gospel is “the truth that God believes in you, that you are loved and forgiven, and therefore there is hope for you as a person saved by grace.” This gives to each of us an escape from the tyranny of self-righteousness. I cherish a New Testament given me by a dear lay woman in 1968. In the flyleaf, she wrote, “Don, dear, let God go free.” That inscription changed my theology 180 degrees.
There is an old maxim of truth observing that when we point a finger at someone else, four of our fingers are pointing back at us.” Another is that “when we throw mud, we are losing ground.”
If we wonder where God is when we Christians resort to hate, Jesus speaks again from the cross and says, “Right here.” Hate, misguided justice, miscarriage of mercy, and the utter absence of love put Jesus on the cross. Each of us must ask what each disciple asked when Jesus indicated that one of them would betray him: “Is it I?”
General John Gowans of the Salvation Army wrote of his tour of service in Australia he learned about the day each year when large areas are planted with trees in danger of becoming extinct. It is marked with the sign, “Regeneration Area—Take Care.” He wrote that what the world needs is to “regenerate the world with good things that we are in danger of losing.” In every relationship, I must ask, “Am I planting a tree in a ‘regeneration garden’ to give hope for the ‘things that are in danger of becoming extinct?’”
When we use the Bible as a weapon to beat each other over the head rather than to “rescue the perishing” we usually engage in some form of self-righteousness. When we articulate our feelings of pain or anger or indignation we very often make a “mountain out of a mole hill.” When we accuse each other of something we think disobeys “what the Bible clearly says,” we seldom are in a posture of penitence for our own shortcomings. Our self-righteousness keeps us from a spiritual mood of reconciliation—Paul’s description of God’s mission in sending us Jesus.
When a giant airliner is ready to leave the gate one solitary, untitled, employee must first remove from the huge wheel a small cube of wood, called a “chock.” Without the removal of that chock, the massive plane cannot move, much less fly. What a different world it would be if each of us allowed God to remove the chock that keeps us from God’s will for us, leaving us stuck at the gate when our mission is to take others high into the sky.
I know I am guilty of occasional imprisonment to the tyranny of self-righteousness, but my daily prayer is, “Oh God, show me the chocks I need to remove so you can enable me to fly. Liberate me from the tyranny of my self-righteousness.”