Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sermon: "If Life Gave Us Do-Overs..." (Delivered 8-16-09)

Some ministers try to schedule the Sunday closest to their birthday as a Sunday out of the pulpit as a kind of birthday present to themselves. However, I love to preach on the Sunday closest to my birthday because I get to deliver something that I call “The Birthday Sermon.” This is an annual tradition. That is actually not true; it is not an annual tradition. I went back and checked and discovered that I’ve only given a Birthday sermon twice. (Here, Here) Other years I have been in the middle of delivering sermon series on subjects like covenant or the economy.

By tradition, or by lack of tradition as it were, a birthday sermon is a sermon that is not for you, that has no bearing on your life whatsoever because it does not consider a topic of importance to you. It’s my birthday and I’ll preach what I want to!

So, on this Sunday of all Sundays I beg, I implore, I beseech, I command you not to pay attention, because it will not be worth your time. Don’t take my questions and apply them to your own experience or the fire of your own thought. Don’t take them to heart and let them speak to the depth of your experience. And whatever you do, don’t answer my questions this morning with truthfulness and honesty.

So, now that you are not listening, let me tell you what has been on my mind recently. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about regrets. Don’t jump to conclusions. Regrets are not the only thing I’ve been thinking about. As I prepare for sabbatical my thoughts have largely been focused on taking stock and I’ve asked you to help me to take stock. And when we do this there are different kinds of thoughts that rise up. Some of those thoughts are about celebrations, about successes, about fond memories. But with those thoughts inevitably come regrets and disappointments. Fond memories and disappointments combine and help us to imagine the future, to consider it, to commit and recommit to it, to make goals and plans, and to design objectives.

(I’m sure that none of you have had anniversaries or birthdays where these types of thoughts have arisen, just as I’m sure that none of you and none of your children operate on an academic calendar where going back to school means new dreams, new objectives, and new resolutions.)

I’ve not only been thinking about regrets because of my process of taking stock. I’ve been thinking of them because of what seems to be a news period that has been unusually focused on significant individual failings. Until very recently it has seemed like the only thing that can take the focus off of an adulterous politician is another adulterous politician, just as it seems like the only thing that can take the focus off the scandal of an athlete taking performance enhancing drugs is a story about an athlete doing something else that is felonious and stupid.

When it comes to regrets, I am the type of person who can come up with a list of dozens of things, if not hundreds of things, that I would do over if life gave us do-overs. Just as, I am sure, some of you could think of something from your own life experience that you would gladly do over if you had the chance.

Before you worry that your minister is wracked by guilt over all the sordid and dreadful things that I have done in my life, worry not. Most of my regrets rise to the level of the story I am about to tell: When I was in middle school I was canoeing one afternoon when I suddenly had the unquenchable desire to find out if my retainer floated or sank in water. The answer could not wait for me to be back at home, could not wait for me to attempt the experiment in a glass of water or the kitchen sink. The retainer sank. Now, that is not something I go around feeling bad about, but even though it is a very, very small thing in the grand scheme of things, it is something that I would do over if life gave us do-overs.

Just to be clear, my regrets tend to deal with sins of omission rather than sins of commission and they mostly don’t deal with sins at all, but with opportunities missed, with the marrow of life not sucked, as Thoreau might say.

How much greater must be the desire to do over for a person whose mistakes and misjudgments landed them in prison, landed someone in the hospital, permanently damaged another person, or forever destroyed an opportunity! I am the type of person who is inclined to wish that do-overs were possible. However, in my life I have met honest and thoughtful souls who have said, in all honesty, that they would not do things over even if they had the chance. These are the people who claim that who they are is the product of hard lessons learned, of opportunities squandered, and of struggles overcome even when the struggle itself was entirely avoidable. These are the people who, even if they aren’t proud of their literal and metaphorical scars, don’t wish that the scars could be erased. Maybe some of you are like this. To me, personally, I have a tough time understanding this point of view. Who would not willingly undo something that turned out to cause regret?

Of course, this question is purely theoretical. Life does not give us do-overs. Life gives us second chances. A second chance is not the same thing as a do-over. Second chances exist. Do-overs do not. I can say with absolute, 100% certainty that a device that enables time-travel, that is, a device that allows us to go back into the past and literally do something over, will never exist in my life time. I can say this with such bold certainty because if it turns out that I’m wrong I will just jump in that time travel device and change what I just said.

Life does not give us do-overs but life often gives us second chances, and often third chances and fourth chances and tenth chances. Life does not give us do-overs but life gives us the ability to try to make amends and the grace of being forgiven. Life gives us, in the words of Paul Simon, “photo opportunities and shots at redemption.” A second chance is simply the opportunity to learn a lesson from something we don’t have the opportunity to do over. There is a difference. Michael Vick gets a second chance to play football in the NFL; he does not get a second chance at earning hundreds of millions of dollars in endorsement deals. South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford will get a second chance at marriage (although it remains to be seen whether it will be with his wife or with someone else.) South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford does not get a second chance, one would have to think, at being taken seriously as a candidate for President.

Just to be clear, second chances do exist whereas do-overs do not exist and what I’m talking about this morning is the thing that doesn’t exist. I want to argue why it is important to be mindful of do-overs, even though they don’t exist and especially because they do not exist.

Let me try to explain what I’m talking about here by using a story from the Bible. It is a good story. It is the story of Jesus healing the paralytic. The story appears in three out of the four gospels. The story basically goes like this. Jesus is making an appearance inside a large house. He is doing his miraculous healing thing and this attracts quite the crowd. The house fills up and people who cannot squeeze in surround the house, peering in the windows, and standing five or six deep. It is a major fire hazard. When the crowd is at its most crowded, four friends come along and they are carrying a fifth friend, a paralytic, on a makeshift stretcher.

If you recognize this story, you know what happens next. What you expect to happen is for the four friends to survey the scene and think, “We’ll try to catch Jesus another time.” That’s second chance thinking. But no, instead they do something hilarious and touching and courageous. First they climb up on the roof of this guy’s house, which is no small feat considering they also have to hoist their paralyzed friend up on the roof. What happens next depends on which version of the text you are reading. If you are reading Mark the roof is made out of straw and mud so the friends have to dig through the guy’s roof. If you are reading Luke, which is the Lexus of the Gospels, the guy’s roof is made out of tile. But, regardless, what happens next is the same. The friends manage to create a large hole in the guy’s roof and they tie their paralyzed friend to a rope and lower him down so that he can be healed.

Let’s pause right here. You can imagine the four friends attempting to game-plan this. They are debating ideas, coming up with a strategy, and one of them suggests that they all climb up on the roof and knock a hole through the roof and tie their ill friend to a rope and lower him down. And instead of being laughed out of town, his friends buy into this scheme.

Let me emphasize this: the four of them decide to go up on the roof. They decide to carry up their paralyzed friend. They decide to tear a hole in the roof of a stranger’s house. They decide to tie their friend to a rope and lower him through the hole in the ceiling. This is a plan that lacks pragmatism. This is a plan that lacks legality; the four friends are guilty of trespassing, breaking and entering, destruction of personal property, and reckless endangerment. Their decision is the type of decision that can only be made by someone who understands regrets, who understands that life does not give us do-overs.

The story is about the difference between second chances and do-overs. A second chance mindset says, “Well, we did what we could. Crowd is too large. Wait is too long. We’ll try to catch Jesus next time he swings through town. Sorry.” The do-over perspective asks the question, “How much are we going to regret not giving this our best shot?” It asks, “Can we look ourselves in the mirror knowing we didn’t give this one our very best, and very craziest shot?”

I don’t want to deny the power of the second chance, the third chance, the fourth chance. When any of us screw up, the second chance is a fantastic gift. Someone believes in us. We’re encouraged to try, try again. And yet, second chance thinking can grind things to a halt, can halt progress, can excuse inexcusable inertia. It was Martin Luther King who said that justice too long delayed is justice denied.

Along these same lines come the writings from a much more modern source. Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, who joined the Harvard faculty at age 25, has written most recently on the theme of urgency in organizations. Now, I need to say that there is great danger in taking any book about business as the Gospel truth. Just as we reject fundamentalism in our readings of religious scriptures, we must also reject fundamentalism from those offering surefire business advice. But, this guy John Kotter says some interesting things. He says that urgency should not be confused with anxiety, fear, panic, or other reactionary behaviors. He says that urgency stems from a positive and hopeful view of the world in which, quote, “The world out there has amazing opportunities.”

This is the perspective that tells us to seize the day. Carpe Diem. This is the pastoral philosophy of UU minister Rev. Forrest Church who says that living a fulfilled life is a matter of being who you are and wanting what you have but also doing what you can. Do what you can because life does not give us do-overs.

My most recent regret that I am living with is over the loss of one of my most treasured mentors. If you read my blog this past week you know that last Sunday, my mentor, the Rev. Tim Jensen died of lung cancer. At the beginning of his battle I called him frequently, but our communications became less frequent. More sporadic. Last week, Tim sent a message to his colleagues on the UUMA email chat. In this message he said I should call him soon. We had different definitions of the word “soon.” Before I had the chance to call Tim had slipped into a coma and then died. I get the second chance of learning a lesson about being more responsive to loved ones who are ill. I don’t get a do-over. And I regret that so much.

There a term that is often used to critique Unitarian Universalism and theological liberalism, in general. The term is “cheap grace.” Cheap grace refers simply to a quickness to claim forgiveness, a quickness to excuse our errors. If our errors are easily excused, the result can be that we come to take our commitments lightly and taking important values, important institutions, and important relationships for granted. Cheap grace has to do with the flippant notion that we can always put off today what we will have a second chance to do tomorrow.

Whenever I am told that Unitarian Universalism and theological liberalism offer “cheap grace” I reply that this statement is not only incorrect, but that it is slanderous in fact. I reply that grace is not cheap even though it is plentiful. Do not say that grace is cheap because the world blesses us with its abundance, its beauty, its thrust towards life, and its natural wonders. Do not say that grace is cheap because some of us human creatures have learned the art of mercy, of compassion, of understanding and acceptance. Do not think that grace is cheap because the spirit of love is alive, because God is merciful.

And do not say that our theology offers cheap grace when Unitarian Universalism says that the journey towards a mature faith is never finished. Our faith instructs us that we must always keep our minds and hearts open to new wisdom, to new insight, to new revelation and that we are called to be always discerning and ever growing. Don’t say that my theology offers cheap grace when I am constantly being called to a greater understanding and deeper compassion. Do not say that this faith is easy when I am given not a single scripture, but am told that my scriptures are found in the library at Saint Paul School for the ministry and in the Linda Hall Library of Science and Technology, that my scripture is found in the lives of those who worship here and in the traditions of our neighboring faith communities, and that scripture resides as well in the vegetables in the garden, in the birds at my feeder, in this world of rainstorms and rainbows. Do not say that this religion is easy.

Give thanks for second chances, photo opportunities and shots at redemption. We are thankful for such awesome and amazing grace. But also stay alert, for the world is full of amazing opportunities. Let us not fail to move on them. Life is only cheap if we sit back, let it pass us by, and think to ourselves, “Oh, these chances will come around again.”

I thank you for this tremendous honor that you bestow on me. Even though I know that each new week brings a second chance, I treat each Sunday as if there were no do-overs.