Noticing, Naming, and Neutralizing

II Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 18:9-14
October 11, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Do you suppose the Pharisee standing in the Temple praying noticed that he was so swelled with pride that he was in danger of bursting?  He certainly noticed the abject state of the man with whom he shared that Temple sanctuary but I’m guessing that he was blind to his own arrogance.

Of course, the Pharisee is just a character in a story so we really can’t attribute thoughts to him at all.  To ask what that Pharisee felt or thought, to ask what he noticed and whether he was self-aware, is to ask inappropriate questions of a fictional character.

So I will ask instead, do you suppose any of the people in the crowd listening to Jesus noticed that the character of the Pharisee looked an awful lot like them?  Did they notice their own potential for smug self-satisfaction?  Were they able to see their own sinfulness, their own faces reflected in Jesus’ parable?

Of course, we can’t go back 2000 years to be physically present in the crowd around Jesus, let alone read their thoughts, so maybe its inappropriate to ask such questions of people of a time long past.

So I will ask instead, do you suppose that we Christians listening today to Jesus’ story notice that the Pharisee sounds a lot like us?  I wonder how many of us are able to see our own self-righteousness reflected on the face of that fictional Pharisee.

A psychologist named Russ Harris tells his clients that the steps required for healing past hurts are these:  Notice it, Name it, and Neutralize it. (I don’t know if he coined the phrase but it is often used in ACT Therapy.)

These three steps could equally apply to the healing that is needed between people, the healing that we seek in our call to be, as Paul tells the church at Corinth, ambassadors of reconciliation.  Well, the very first step in living a life of reconciliation is noticing that there is something in need of reconciliation to begin with.  We have to notice that we are often responsible for our own suffering and the sufferings of others.  Many of us frankly, get hung up on this very first step.  Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, we close our eyes to our own fallibility and simply don’t even notice it.  Sometimes it’s because we are so absorbed with our own problems that we can’t see how we are trampling on the feelings of others around us.  Sometimes it’s because we fill our lives with tons of distractions so that we won’t notice the fundamental disease of our soul.  Often, it is because we blame other people for our problems, we blame circumstances for our problems, we blame our parents, our children, our dog, the weather — anything rather than opening our eyes to our own weaknesses and mistakes.

The manager of a minor league baseball team once became so frustrated with his center fielder’s performance that he benched the player and assumed the position himself.  The first ball that came into center field took a bad hop and hit the manager in the mouth. The next one was a high fly ball, which he lost in the glare of the sun.  The third ball was a hard line drive right at him, but as he raced toward it, he stumbled and plowed head first across the diamond.  When the inning finally ended, the manager stormed back to the dugout, grabbed the center fielder by the uniform, and shouted. ‘You idiot! You’ve got center field so messed up that even I can’t do a thing with it!’ (Don McCullough, Discipleship Journal)

Christ calls us to be ambassadors of reconciliation and the first step toward fulfilling that call is to Notice.  Christ asks us to develop self-awareness and see the log in our own eyes before we harp on the speck in the eyes of others.  Jesus holds up his parables as mirrors, asking, “When have you been the Pharisee in this story?  When have you been the sinner?  When you have been the Prodigal Son?  When have you been the father?  When have you been the older brother?  When have you been the man beaten on the road to Jericho, the priest passing by, the Good Samaritan?”

Jesus told us these stories so that we could find ourselves in them.  Notice.

If the first part of our call as ambassadors to reconciliation is to notice our own mistakes and failures, the second part is to have the courage to name our sinfulness.  The great theologian of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, says that too often we use prayers of confession as a means of avoiding really naming our sins.

“Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God,” he asked, “than to a brother?  … We must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God…  Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception.”  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community)

Bonhoeffer knows how often in the silence of prayer, we say, “God, I am truly sorry for my sins and I humbly repent.  Amen,” and once our guilt off of our chests, we go on with our lives breathing a sigh of relief that no one but God knows what a sorry excuse for a human being we have been.  Instead of Amen, we might as well conclude with, “And God, remember, what happens in prayer, stays in prayer!”

How much harder it is to stand before the ones we have hurt and say, “I was petty and self-absorbed this week and I know I made your life miserable.  I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.”

Naming our sin in the presence of those we have hurt, or sharing our failures and failings within this community of faith, cuts through our self-deceit, prevents our self-justification, and ensures that we will truly admit that the choices we make, and the way that we act, and the things that we say, have the power to hurt others.

First we notice our sin.  We look in the mirror and have the courage to face what we see there, both the good and the ugly, the strengths and the weakness, humble sinner and the self-righteous Pharisee.  We notice it all.

And then we name our sin.  We confess the ways we have hurt others to those others.  We accept blame, and resist making excuses.  We tell it like it is not only so that God will hear, but also so that those we have hurt will hear, and we can honestly accept our responsibility for the wounds we have given one another.

As the Book of Common Prayer says, we confess that that we have the power to hurt through “what we have done and what we have left undone.”  But Christ doesn’t leave us wallowing in our guilt.  Christ reminds us that if we have the power to hurt, so too do we have the power to heal.  Christ calls us to take that final step and neutralize our sin.  Seek reconciliation.

Now, it is time for my confession:  when I first read the psychology article about Noticing, Naming, and Neutralizing, I didn’t immediately make a connection to our faith life.  Nor did I make the connection because of my scholarly research as I prepared this sermon, or because of prayerful reflection in the quiet of my study.  I made the connection at Walmart, or to be more specific, on the four lane driving away from Walmart.

You see, one day last week, I decided to run to Walmart one to use their photo machine to print off an 8×10 of Mathew’s senior picture for my Hall of Portraits.  Before I left, I transferred the photo from my laptop to my iPhone because the Walmart machine allows you to print directly from your phone.  Unfortunately, my computer was being persnickity and what should have taken just a second, took me a half an hour to accomplish.  When I got to Walmart, the photo machine was infected with the same persnickity mood and again what should have taken just a second, took me another fifteen minutes to accomplish.  Finally, however, the machine chirped, “Photo finished,” but instead of spitting out the photo into my waiting hand, it added, “Pick your photo up at the photo counter.”

Of course, there was no one at the photo counter.  I rang the bell and waited another five minutes.  A young clerk arrived who admitted that she was new on the job and several more minutes passed while she figured out the printer.  Finally, the photo emerged from the printer, the clerk walked to the counter, and with the long awaited photo only inches from my hand, the clerk looked at Mathew’s portrait and asked, “Was this professionally done?”

Thinking she was just impressed with the quality of the shot, I said, “Yes.  A woman in Hornell took them.”

“Do you have copyright permission to print this?” she asked.

“The photographer was the one who told us to print them off ourselves,” I answered.

“But do you have any documentation proving you have permission?” she persisted.

I didn’t, so the young clerk went to get her supervisor, which meant another five minute wait, and the supervisor informed me that they could not give me the photo until I got documentation from the photographer, and brought them a copy.

“But,” she said, “we’ll hold the picture here until you come back.”

I said in a very irritated voice, “Oh, for Pete’s sake.  Never mind, then!  Just forget it!  Rip the picture up because I don’t want it anymore,” and I huffed off, leaving the supervisor and the young “first day on the job” photo clerk in my angry wake.

I had some grocery shopping to do so I went over to Wegmans, but the incident remained in the back of my mind the whole time I was picking out bananas and brocolli, and paying the clerk, and loading my groceries into the car, and as I waited for the light on the four lane.  As I pulled into the lane of traffic, the psychology article came into my mind, and I thought about how appropriate it was for the Christian doctrine of sin.  Notice it — we sin; Name it — we confess; and Neutralize it; we seek reconciliation.  And as I drove along, I began to apply it to what had happened there in Walmart.

I noticed that I had taken my frustration out on the clerk, who was in fact, perfectly justified in holding back the photo.

I named it and said to the emptiness of my car, “I was wrong.  Now my bad day has become her bad day.”  And I prayed for forgiveness, and promised God and myself that I would try not to take out my bad days on others again.

But then there was that last step — neutralizing it.  And I realized that I could notice my sin, and name it in confession, but the repercussions of my behavior could not be neutralized unless I did something to try to set it right.  Of course, nearly an hour had gone by now.  Besides, I was already in my car, driving down the four lane, groceries in the back, and I had a lot of other things I needed to do that day.  Maybe the clerk had already forgotten all about it.

Maybe.  But that didn’t matter.  What mattered was that “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”  We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation — to notice our sins, name our sins, and then do whatever is needed to neutralize our sins.

I turned around and went back.

As I walked into the photo department of Walmart, the clerk’s face hardened when she saw me.  She was obviously steeling herself for another showdown.

I quickly assured her, “I came back to apologize.  I behaved badly and was in the wrong,” and before I could say another word, a great smile broke across her face and she hugged me.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said.  “We have people get upset about that all of the time,” and that’s when I knew that there is something to this whole Christian thing.

Because people do get upset all of the time.

We all sin all of the time.

We all make mistakes and hurt each other and do stupid things and take out our sorrows and anger and despair on the people around us.

We are fallible human beings who are all sinners.

But even though people sin all of the time, not all people seek to set straight what they have messed up.  As Christians, we are called to go the extra mile and practice a ministry of reconciliation so that the hurts we have caused may be healed, and the curse may be replaced by blessing.

Although I did finally do the right thing, I don’t consider myself the hero of this story because I shouldn’t have lost my temper in the first place.  The hero of this story is Paul who called us to be ambassadors of reconciliation.  The hero of this story is the church where we gather week after week to hear the gospel message reminding us that though we mess up and stumble and fall, we can also be people who seek forgiveness, who bind up, and work for healing.

The hero of this story is Christ who neutralized our sin on the cross, taking upon himself the sorrows of the world that we may all be made new in his grace, who calls us to notice our sin, name our sin, and then neutralize it by reaching out in reconciliation to those we have wronged.

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”