Friday, May 27, 2011

What Give Me Hope? - Judy Williams

Judy Williams
Quaker Campus Minister
Rollins Chapel, 5.26.11

Ps. 51:8-12
 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
 Do not cast me from your presence, or take your Holy Spirit from me.
 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints - the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth.

I fell down on the job, I fell down on my knees,
I found I was a sinner: God have mercy on me.
I thought I was so perfect, I thought I was so free.
I learned I’m only human: God have mercy on me.

As most of you know, this term’s chapel sermons have addressed the question, “What gives you hope?” Last week, Alison Boden gave us a wonderful sermon on hope in the face of suffering. Now, she was talking about the kind of suffering that comes from without: the suffering the early Christians faced because of persecution, the suffering that we all face in living in a world troubled by disease, war, and disaster. And she talked about how, in the face of that suffering, her faith gives her hope.

I’m going to talk about hope in the face of a different kind of suffering, the kind that comes from within.
I’m talking about the kind of pain that we cause ourselves because of our own sinfulness, and what’s more, because of our own arrogance and pride.

Now, maybe I’m the only person in this room who has ever struggled with pride. But as I look around me, I am clearly in a room of people who have many strengths. We are a group of smart, well-educated people with a great deal of knowledge about the world. That gives us a great deal of power. Power is not necessarily a bad thing. Hopefully, we generally use our  powers for good. But the downside of power is that it can make us too confident in our own abilities. Competence can give us the illusion that our strength is all we need. We think can do anything, fix anything, make anything happen, by virtue of our own intelligence and ability.

I suspect I am also in a room of people who are generally very good. Frankly, it is a small and rarified group that actually shows up for ecumenical Christian chapel at the end of the term. And I suspect that most of us are people who put a strong value on things like kindness, honesty, charity and love. We strive to be good, and mostly, we probably achieve that. It is deeply ironic, then, that our own ability to be mostly good can become a pathway that also leads us into a dangerous form of pride.

“And this I know experimentally,” which is a historic Quaker phrase that means, “I know this from my own experience.” Because I have recently been forced by God to confront my own arrogance, and to be profoundly humbled.

What happened was that I managed to commit a grave sin. I’m not talking about your ordinary, garden-variety, day-to-day sin. You know, the tiny lies of convenience, the small moments of selfishness or dishonesty that we occasionally slip into. I get away with those all the time, and the way I do it is that the balance of my life is so strongly to the good, that I can ignore my minor failings. I even ask for forgiveness for them, with the smug sense that I probably really don’t need it, because I am so darned good in general. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I’m a youthworker and a campus minister, I go to worship every Sunday, and I raise my two beautiful adopted children and it all looks so very pretty and wholesome, to me as much as to everyone else.

So it was a horrible shock to me when I blew it completely. I won’t go into a lot of detail about what I did, but I will say that I hurt someone that I cared for, not because of malicious intent, but because I was not paying attention to my own vulnerability to weakness – my own capacity to be selfish, to be impulsive, and to be unwise. I betrayed the trust of someone who counted on me, and in doing so, I stole something from someone that I can never give back or replace. Because in life, there are no take-backs, no matter how hard I have wished there were.

And how I responded to having committed such a sin is telling. Practically, I can tell you that I did all the right things: I admitted my error, I sought help, I took responsibility for what I had done and took action to see that care was given where it was needed and that I made amends as much as possible and that I did what I needed to do to make sure I wouldn’t make that same mistake again.  But on the emotional and spiritual side, I was a complete wreck. I couldn’t seem to recover.

I reacted to my failure by trying to punish myself. I thought, if I could just feel bad enough, that might somehow make up for the hurt I had caused. But all I did was to make my own life a wasteland. I wrecked myself. The hymn says, “I went down to the rock to hide my face: the rock cried out, ‘No hiding place.’” That’s how I felt.

And I stayed there, clinging to my sin, and my guilt, and my misery. And finally, one day, when I looked around at this barren wilderness of my own making, God was kind enough to show me exactly how arrogant I was being. I call myself a Christian! I claim to believe that we are all only human, full of flaws, and yet that God loves us and forgives us and offers us grace. Everyone, apparently, except for me. I had to ask myself, “Who do you think you are? Do you think that you are so much worse than every other human being that you are the only one in the entire world not worthy of redemption? Or do you think that you are so perfect that you don’t need grace? That you will accomplish your own salvation by being perfect and never screwing up?!” Yeah, cause that worked out REAL well.

In order to get right in my own spirit again, I needed to embrace the humiliation that I was experiencing, and to accept it. I needed to be brought low. I needed to come to God as a child, to be able to receive the help that was always there, waiting for me. I needed to beg for God’s forgiveness, and then to be willing to accept it, not because I deserved it, but because that is what God has chosen, that is what God has done for me, and for all of us.

And therein lies my hope. Not in myself, because I can’t count on myself. Look where my own best instincts got me! I fell down, and it hurt, and it still hurts and probably will for a long, long time. But I have hope, because of a concept so simple, every Christian has heard it a thousand times: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Because the answer to that plea is always, “Yes.”

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