Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fooling Ourselves

1 John 1:1-2:2
Easter 2
April 15, 2012
William G. Carter

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. . . If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 

            On a day of Easter hilarity, we have a text about fooling ourselves. We have heard the line many times to introduce our Prayer of Confession: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. These words from a preacher in the early church remind us that we are capable of deceiving ourselves.

            Sometimes we believe some things in order to ignore other things. Did you hear the one about the Irishman who walks into a pub? The barman asks him, "What are ye drinking?" He says, "Three pints o' Guinness, if ye please."

So the barman brings him three pints and the man begins to alternately sip one, then the other, then the third until they're gone. Then he orders three more pints. The barman says, "Now, I know ye may be worried about running out, but ye don't have to order three at a time. I can keep an eye on your drink, and when ye get low, I'll bring ye a fresh one."

"No, 'tis not that," says the man. Ye see, I have two brothers, one in France and one in the States. We made a vow to each other that every Friday night, wherever in the world we might be, we'd still drink a pint together. So, at this very moment, me brothers are havin' three pints too.  We're drinkin' together as a family."

The barman thought this was very touching.  Every Friday, as soon as he saw the man come into the pub, he started to draw three pints for him.

Then, one week the man came in and ordered only two pints.  He drank them down and ordered two more. The barman came up to him with a long face. "My friend, I'd just like to say I'm sorry that one of your brothers has died."

The man said, "No, 'tis not that. Me brothers are fine. I've gone on the wagon."

            I guess it’s possible to fool ourselves. Sometimes it occurs among men and women. My friend Rob on the West Coast sends along this joke.

            A husband is having dinner out with his wife. She keeps looking at this man at another table. Can’t keep her eyes off of him. The other man, of course, has noticed her. He keeps smiling, nodding, admiring her. Finally it becomes so noticeable that the husband speaks up, and asks, “What’s he got that I haven’t got?”

            She says, “Awareness.”

            Husband says, “What’s that?”

            My friend says his wife gave him that joke. He’s not sure what it means yet.

            Self-deception. Fooling ourselves. All of us are prone to this. It comes in DNA. And we identify it very early.

My little girl laughed out loud. She was really little, about four years old, and I took her to the movie theatre. The film that day was 101 Dalmatians, the live-action version with Glenn Close playing the part of arch villainess Cruella DeVil. Cruella is over the top as she tries to steal Dalmatians, but some farm animals fend her off. They trick her into falling in a vat of molasses, and then a horse kicks her into a pig pen where she is covered with muck.

Just then a British police officer catches up with her. He asks, “Miss DeVil”? She raises her head high and says, “Yes, what it is it?” Katie laughed out loud. It was a ridiculous scene, that proud and contemptuous woman, covered in muck and acting like she was in charge of the world.

“…we deceive ourselves.” Or we go about the foolish work of making ourselves look better than we are. That’s the very human inclination. All of us do this. Most of us don’t want to get caught.

Did you hear about the man who got to church one Sunday? His wife was there earlier, but he was distracted or something, and he got there late. I don’t know what he was doing, and his wife was getting pretty angry at him. He slips into the pew just as the worship leader up front is speaking the scripture verse to introduce the prayer of confession. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…”  

With that, he looks down somewhat confused, see the prayer, and blurts out, “Wait, I haven’t done any of these things!” His wife says in a voice loud enough to hear, “Trust me, George, wait ‘til you actually read the prayer.”

            There’s something about us that says, “I am OK. I have it all together. There’s nothing flawed about me. I can manage on my own.” And from there, who knows what might go wrong?

            One hundred years ago, the most extravagant ocean liner of its time bumped into an iceberg. The captain said, “It’s just a scratch.” Turns out that five lower chambers took on water. If it had only been four chambers, the Titanic could have made it to New York. But you know what happened. Over fifteen hundred passengers and crew died in the disaster.

            With all the anniversary hype this weekend, you’ve probably heard some of the tragic details. A nearby ship, the S.S. Californian, had stopped for the night, noticing the pack-ice and not wanting to endanger its journey. The crew warned the Titanic about the ice, but the warning went unheeded. Not only that, when the Titanic got in trouble, the crew sent signal flares into the air and it seems the crew of the Californian ignored them, even though the two ships were only a few miles apart.

            And there’s more. On the Sunday after the tragedy, a preacher stood in the pulpit of a little church in Switzerland to talk about the tragedy. His name was Karl Barth, and he would later become the best-known religious thinker of the twentieth century. He talked about the pretensions of building a boat that large, of constructing an ocean liner that had a swimming pool, and a restaurant with palm trees. That kind of opulence was unheard of in that day, and people in little towns regarded it as wasteful and arrogant.

            But there was something that troubled Karl Barth even more. He pointed out in his sermon that the captain of the Titanic was under enormous pressure by the ship’s owners to break the speed record for the shortest time from England to the United States. If it was the fastest ship, everybody would want to book passage on it. It didn’t seem to matter to the decision makers that the most direct route was not the safest route, that it was the route that seasoned sailors avoided. The Titanic sank, said Barth, because of “the self-interest of a few.”[1]

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”  This is what an early church leader declared as a general truth about the human race. We don’t know what prompted him to say it.  Maybe he discovered the church treasurer had her hand in the money bag and lied about it. Or perhaps he met a preacher who did not believe a word of his own sermons.

I think he was talking about people outside of the church as much as he may have been speaking to people in the church. There is some primal need in every person to lie, to hide, to avoid exposure – and then to cover up what they have done or refused to do.

When we read in the newspaper about those who steal, or those who exert unjust power, or those who twist the truth, or those who go to elaborate lengths to hide cash in a shoebox or launder public money in personal accounts, we should never be surprised. I think it’s possible to take pity on such people, if only because we recognize them all too well. It’s just in our genetic make-up to reach for what is not ours and then to lie about it. Or we don’t reach for it and we still lie about it.

Did you hear about the ninety-two-year old priest who was venerated by everybody in town for his holiness? He was also a member of the Rotary Club. Every time the club met, he would be there, always on time, and always seated in his favorite spot in a corner of the room. When he stood to bless the meal, everybody listened.

One day the priest disappeared. It was as if he had vanished into thin air. The townsfolk searched all over and could find no trace of him. A month later, he resurfaced at the Rotary Club meeting, sitting in his usual corner. “Father,” everyone cried, “were have you been?”

“I just served a thirty-day sentence in prison,” he said.

            “In prison?” they cried. “Father, you couldn’t hurt a fly. What happened?”
            “It’s a long story,” said the priest, “but briefly, this is what happened. I bought myself a train ticket to go into the city. I was standing on the platform waiting for the train to arrive when this stunningly beautiful woman appears on the arm of a policeman. She was gorgeous. She looked at me, turned to the cop and said, ‘He did it. I’m certain he’s the one who did it.’ Well, to tell you the truth, I was so flattered I pleaded guilty.”[2]

            Now, talk about fooling yourself!

            Brennan Manning is a recovering alcoholic who loves Jesus. He says the best way to save our lives is through honesty, simple honesty. He means honesty about ourselves, and an even deeper honesty about God. Here’s how he says it:

The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves. The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception. It keeps us from denying that though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us. As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those closest to me. When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit I have failed. God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am. Because of this, I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to Him. I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness and neediness . . . My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.[3]

            So the word today is to simply get over ourselves. To laugh at ourselves. To knock it off and give up all pretending. To present ourselves to God, as we are, and not as we imagine ourselves to be. God has to deal with us as we are – and the sooner that we can be honest about who we are, the sooner God can get to the hard work of rescuing us in Christ.

            This is so difficult for religious people to do. We love to manufacture an image, as if the image of God is not enough. Why can’t we simply see who we are, and laugh? Our honesty is God’s opportunity. And the great thing about a sense of humor is that it sets you free – free to be who you are, free to become what God is redeeming you to be. A healthy sense of humor is the best defense against arrogance, pride, and superiority. If we can laugh about something, particularly something in ourselves, there’s a much better chance that we will never be so holy that God wants nothing to do with us. And so, in the name of Christ, we laugh. We laugh at ourselves, and we laugh even more at what God is doing in us.

o   After all, you have heard it said: Jews don’t recognize Jesus as Messiah. Protestants don’t recognize the Pope as the head of the church. And Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store.

o   A woman went to work at a lemon grove and the foreman thought she was much too qualified. The foreman said, “Do you even have any experience picking lemons?” She said, “Sure do. I’ve been divorced four times.”

o   Do you know how to keep a ditzy person at home? Build a circular driveway.

o   What did God say after creating man? “I can do better than this.”

o   Why can’t an engineer tell a joke timing.

o   Some advice for anybody who wants to get married: look for an archaeologist. The older you are, the more interested your spouse becomes.

o   Did you hear about the preacher who stepped into the pulpit, preached the sermon, and the congregation started clapping and yelling, “Once more! Once more!” So he preached the whole sermon again, and the congregation screamed even louder for him to preach it one more time. So he did. And they yelled for him to preach it again. He thanked them and asked why – and somebody yelled, “It’s getting better!”

            Don’t be fooled.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Karl Barth, “On the Sinking of the Titanic.”
[2] Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations (New York: Doubleday, 1988) 113-114.
[3] Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publisher, 1990) 25, 27.

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