Mistakes Were Made

Carla Bailey, March 12, 2017

Scripture Luke 18:9–14

The liturgical season of Lent we are now observing has its foundation in the story of Jesus going to the wilderness for 40 days of fasting, in preparation for his dangerous, confrontational and ultimately lethal work of bringing his people back into full relationship with God—a relationship of justice and egalitarianism, a relationship of love that transcends law and a relationship of grace greater than righteousness. Though such rigorous preparation—that of 40 days alone, camping out of doors presumably and fasting—isn’t something we contemporary disciples would consider a necessary or even a very good idea, we do, if we are honest anyway, understand temptation. The temptations confronting Jesus were not insignificant—like certain kinds of food or the guilty pleasures of airport novels. No, the temptations Jesus experienced at the end of those 40 days, at least as they were described by the Gospel storytellers, were ones that would have seriously derailed him from his life’s purpose.

Because it is a good story, sparingly told, we might think Jesus only experienced the temptations that one time, after 40 days without food. I imagine, however, that the temptations described in the Gospels visited Jesus often during his three years of active ministry because what he was doing was difficult, rarely rewarding, controversial and lonely. What I know about temptation is that it is rarely a one-time occurrence. If it were, if it only came over us once, it would scarcely qualify as temptation. No, temptations are difficult because they are constant, because they swirl around us when we are vulnerable and tired, or emotionally drained. They pester us until we just say “Oh, the hell with it,” and succumb. Temptations creep up behind us and slide over us and finally, when we give in, they make us sit down and rest, as if we had been running to catch a train and finally hop aboard and there’s that perfect seat, facing the right way, next to the window, just waiting for us, and there we are, having given in. Temptations are familiar. We know their contours and technique. There is the temptation to be self-righteous when we know we’re right. There is the temptation to be hopeless as if we don’t believe in God. There is the temptation to be dismissive of ideas that have been tried before. There is the temptation to be too busy. There is the temptation to be resolute. There is the temptation to be so empathetic as to be ineffective. There is the temptation to be indispensable. There is the temptation to win in every power struggle. Worry is tempting. Anger is tempting. Indifference is tempting. Self-delusion is tempting. Dodging responsibility is tempting.

One of my most tenacious, persistent temptations is to believe that I am, after all is said and done, incompetent. It’s why I am a little bit driven. Yesterday in a conversation with an old dear friend who has known me for a long time, after listening to my description of my life these days, warned me, as only old friends can do, not to forget who I am. She was right to say that, because this temptation, the one that visits me regularly, is like ever-chasing the fear that today will be the day I’ll be found out. It is true—I really don’t know what I’m talking about. Of course, I chose the profession in which all those fears are regularly reinforced inasmuch as I have served congregations full of very smart, very experienced, accomplished and independent people—people who are much smarter, much more confident in their own opinions than I, much more certain, in general, about everything.

You may be wondering where I’m going with this. I’ll tell you. I think we all tend to minimize the real temptations that plague us, in order to avoid feeling like we have work to do on ourselves. It’s a lot easier to dismiss the whole idea of temptation by relegating it to that quaint old Christian category of guilty pleasure. I feel guilty when I eat too many Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies. I feel guilty when I forget to write a thank-you note. I feel guilty when I skip worship. And since we intellectualize our way out of guilt, rational progressives that we are, we also intellectualize our way out of facing the real temptations: the temptations that we ought to confess, the temptations that cause us harm, the temptations that hurt others. And the temptation that is perhaps the most pernicious is the temptation to slide out from accepting responsibility for ourselves.

In my former church in New Hampshire, a number of physicians were members. Located as we were in the middle of the Dartmouth campus, one would think there would have been more folks from the undergraduate programs—but no. Doctors were church members, all professors at the medical school in nearly every imaginable type of practice—psychiatrists, urologists, pediatricians, otolaryngologists, neurologists, gastroenterologists, obstetricians, general surgeons, radiologists, cardiologists, oncologists. Once, when Warren had his hip replaced and a steady stream of parishioners stopped in to see him while on their regular pre-dawn rounds, a nurse was totally confused. What on earth is wrong with this poor guy?

Any of you who are physicians here today know that the threat of malpractice suits is a constant reality. More than once I was a confidant, legally and morally protected as I am by privileged communication, to these brilliant human medical practitioners. In every case, the emotional toll the malpractice suit took on my parishioners was great. In most cases in which I was listener, the physician was ready to admit error and to apologize to the patient or the patient’s family. Almost without exception, the mistake at the base of the threatened litigation was simple, small human error that, when unnoticed, grew to be something more serious. Without exception, the physicians who talked to me were heartbroken, deeply remorseful and anxious to do whatever each of them could to make the situation better, make the patient whole again if possible. And in every situation, the malpractice insurance advisors and the hospital lawyers insisted that the physician say nothing—absolutely not one word to the patient or family member. Do not admit a mistake. Do not defend yourself if you are certain you didn’t make a mistake. Say nothing. Offer nothing. Do nothing but go back to work.

One physician in particular found that to be morally untenable. He went to the home of the patient and he apologized. He offered to do everything he could to remedy the situation. The patient dropped the lawsuit.

I’m not naïve. Neither was my physician-parishioner. It could have turned out much differently, but what he told me later was that he knew his patient well. He had cared for his patient’s mother and his patient’s two sons. He ran into his patient regularly around town. He simply could not pretend he hadn’t done something wrong.

Another story—a friend of mine was the general counsel for the United Church of Christ for a number of years. He represented churches and clergy in any number of lawsuits, and he was an ardent teacher of risk-management for churches and clergy. When I was the conference minister in Indiana and Kentucky a number of years ago, he and I led workshops for clergy on boundary issues in ministry—risk-management 101. One story my friend told at those workshops illustrated an important point about a church dodging its responsibility. It was about an adolescent boy who was repeatedly sexually molested by the pastor of his family’s church. Eventually, after several years, the abuse was discovered and the church fired the pastor, but not before the boy suffered significant emotional damage. At the age of 14, he covered his entire upper body, chest, back, arms and neck with satanic tattoos and violent words. The boy and his family went to therapy, paid for by their own family insurance, but soon it became clear that for the boy to move forward in his healing he needed to have at least some of the tattoos removed, a procedure that the family’s health insurance wouldn’t cover. The family asked the church to pay for the medical procedure. The church, thinking that if they agreed to help the family with these medical expenses would essentially mean they would be admitting responsibility for the abuse, said no to the family, at which time the family sued the church for a significant amount of money—far in excess of the cost for medically removing the tattoos—and they won.

My friend went on to say that if churches would act like the Church should act and do the right thing when something terrible like this horrendous situation happens to one of its families, he, this General Counsel for the denomination, would almost certainly win in court when the church is later sued. But if the church tries to dodge its responsibility he would almost certainly lose. In other words, accept responsibility for the heartbreak that happens on your watch and for which you bear responsibility. Be the Church. Do the right thing. Do the right thing.

We know so much more now about clergy sexual abuse than we did when my friend and I were traveling around, conducting workshops, and we know that the long-lasting pain and suffering of victims of the sexual abuse is as much caused by the refusal to accept responsibility for the crimes, the willful ignoring of the scope and depravity of the problem as the abuse itself. My friend believed then as he believes still that if we do the right thing, the right result will be successful for the church and for the children and for their families.

Well, both of these stories involve legal adjudication. Some of you may be thinking about tort reform and the occasional outrageous financial verdicts about which we read from time to time. Some of the more cynical among you are thinking of the times and people who see the legal process like playing the lottery—you don’t win if you don’t buy a ticket. You don’t get the big bucks if you don’t sue the deep pockets. Some of you may wonder how these two stories that are surely extreme examples of accepting responsibility have anything to do with temptation, which is where I began today.

Here’s the thing—we all are prone to ducking under the responsibility bar. We love the passive voice. Shots were fired. People have been saying. Mistakes were made. We fool ourselves into thinking we are being gentle when we use it. We aren’t. We’re being irresponsible. We ignore the fact that the word passive is the beginning of the category passive-aggressive.

Which is why the story Jesus told of the Pharisee and the tax collector is so current, why it is a parable not only for us but about us. The Pharisee was upright and smart, faithful, a follower of the law, a purist, not taken in by the manipulations of the culturally oppressive powers. The tax collector on the other hand had sold his soul by participating in the cultural oppression of his people. I’ll leave it to you to wonder which one of these two archetypes represents you and simply make the observation that one of these two knew his own heart. One of these two accepted responsibility for what he had done and who he had become. One of these two asked for God’s mercy because he knew he needed it.

I am not suggesting any one of us should accept responsibility for those things for which we bear no responsibility. That too is a hazard and actually is its own kind of arrogance—as if we each have that kind of influence and power so as to be responsible for everything. But, since we are in the purple season of Lent, a time that invites some constructive self-examination, confession and course correction, I simply invite you to take a look at how often and in what circumstances you duck beneath responsibility. When have you said, “Well, mistakes were made,” instead of “I made a mistake”? When have you reinforced your own certainty that you are not like other people, instead of, in prayer, offering to God the possibility, however small, however remote, however justifiable the reason, that you might be in need of God’s mercy? I’ll confess this to you, I need to offer that very prayer every single day. Amen.