I come to you today as the Reverend Laurie DeMott, a graduate of Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and the pastor of this church since 1983, but if it weren’t for a decision I made in the fall of 1975, for one thing that I knowingly and deliberately chose to leave undone, I might be living an entirely different life. I have thought about that day in 1975 and that thing left undone for over forty years now, not only because I know that the choice may have changed my life but also because I made that choice not out of reasoned deliberation but to avoid possible pain. And it was that fear of short term pain that caused me not to do something that I should have done and left me with a regret that has lasted a lifetime. I mean, if I had not left undone that thing I should have done that day I might today be singing back up vocals for Lady Gaga.
OK, the likelihood of that is in reality infinitesimal; nevertheless, there is no question that my life might have been significantly different had I not left undone that thing that day. You see, back in the fall of 1975, I was a first year student at SUNY Geneseo. In high school, I had sung in choir and was a member of the Select Chorus. I had often sung in All Counties and Area All States, and my life as a high schooler pretty much revolved around the chorus. When I started college, then, I decided to continue to pursue that interest and I auditioned for Geneseo’s Chamber Singers. Unfortunately, I was very shy in those days and lacking in self-confidence, so the audition was excruciatingly unsettling for me. Afterwards, I was certain I had done badly, not because of anything the director had said or even because of any specific flaws that I had committed, but just because I was so self-conscious that I couldn’t imagine the director heard anything positive in my tryout. Consequently, when the director posted the list of those who had been selected to sing with the Chamber Singers, I was so afraid of not seeing my name on that list that I never went to look at it! To this day, I don’t know if I made it into Chamber Singers and looking back on my audition now from the perspective of a more settled adult viewpoint, I suspect that the odds that I did make it are at least 50-50. Nor is it unreasonable from me to believe that if I had gone to look at that list and discovered that I had made it into Chamber Singers, my life would have turned out quite differently. Like Alfred University’s Chamber Singers, the Geneseo group also went on yearly concert tours traveling the world. People in the group became close friends, and the regimen and performance schedules may have jump started my self-confidence, something that took me many more years to learn. Most importantly, if I had joined the Chamber Singers my first year of college, I may not have gone looking for friends in other places which is why in my sophomore year I joined a small campus ministry group called Amaranthus where we talked about spiritual matters and which produced at least six ministers, even though at the time none of us was considering ministry. In other words, if I had joined the Chamber Singers instead of Amaranthus, I might never have considered ministry, might never have come to Alfred, and might not have ended up in this pulpit today telling you about that day so long ago when I left something undone that may have ended up changing my life.
In my case, then, my regret over this thing I left undone is a small one since everything turned out for the best, but I admit it still drives me crazy sometimes to think that I didn’t even go back to check that list. It is a regret of an opportunity missed, one that that I walked away from only because of my fear of the small amount of pain I might have received if my name was not on that list. While I succeeded in avoiding the possibility of disappointment, I can tell you today, it was not worth the years of wondering and that unknown that can never now be satisfied. Psychologists have found in their research on regret that no matter what age, gender, or culture you come from, you will always feel more longterm pain from your regrets over paths not taken than the amount of short-term pain you feel from your failures and mistakes. Maybe you, as I do, have a regret about a choice not made, a path not taken, or an opportunity left unexplored, even if in the end you are happy with how your life turned out. How much harder is it to bear those things left undone that have resulted in true unhappiness and deep regret. Think of the man who gave up time with his family to pursue a high powered career who can’t go back and recover those lost experiences: the first steps of his child, the birthday parties, the plays he didn’t attend, the dinners he missed, even the strained fights when his daughter became a teen that would have taught her how much he cared for her because he was willing to argue with her over what was best for her life. Though every parent dreams of abandoning their teenagers for a quiet resort in the Bahamas, those tense times when we stick it out with them and refuse to give up on them show our children that we are involved in their lives and we think that they are worth our time; but the man who chooses to be absent during the short years of his child’s life cannot get those years back and so these become the regrets that we must carry as we come to understand that sometimes it is not the things we do but the things we don’t do that may have the greatest consequences in our lives.
“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
The prayer of confession in the Book of Common Prayer acknowledges that there are two types of sins: sins of commission, those things we do that are wrongful acts such as lying, stealing, committing adultery, and drooling over our neighbor’s Lexus, and sins of commission, those things that we should have done but didn’t, like the time we didn’t spend with others, the phone calls never made, the risks never taken, the words of love or forgiveness never said. While most of us are careful to live an upright life and and try to avoid the sins of commission, it is the things we do not do that actually may have longer lasting consequences and hurt both us and others more deeply. After all, if we want to protect ourselves from committing sins by what we do, we could simply sit locked in our houses, eating bonbons, and watching NCIS the rest of our lives and manage to fulfill most of the 10 commandments but no one would call that living a fulfilling life. Most of us would not call it living at all.
James Keenan describes the sin of omission as the “failure to bother to love,” and as we read through Jesus’ parables, we discover that he was much more concerned about our failure to bother to love than by the wrongs we do and the mistakes we make. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells us of a man who is beaten by robbers and is left dying by the roadside and yet who is it in that parable that Jesus condemns? Is it the robbers? Is it those men who committed an act of violence against a stranger? No, all of Jesus’ attention is given to the Levite and the priest whom he condemns because they failed to stop for the dying man. I’m not suggesting that Jesus thought that the robbers’ act of violence was okay; I’m suggesting that Jesus recognizes that those of us trying to live good and upright lives as the Levite and the priest were, and as most of us following Jesus are, who would never think of committing the kind of sin of violence that the robbers committed, are still in danger of committing the insidious sin of omission, of failing to bother to love. So too, in his parable of the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus, Jesus condemns the rich man for ignoring the needs of the poor man at his doorstep. Jesus criticizes the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal son who lived an upright life but failed to forgive his younger brother and welcome him home — Jesus condemns him for what he left undone. And in the parable of the talent, Jesus dismisses the man who cautiously saves all of his master’s money to prevent its loss; the man takes no risks, but also passively refuses to look for any opportunities. And in our parable today, who is it that receives Jesus’ judgment? Not the cheeky son who refuses to work for his father saying, “Hell no, I won’t go!” but the good boy, the respectful son who says, “Sure Dad, anything you ask.” Jesus excuses the impertinent son while condemning the polite son because the polite son did not follow through on his intentions while the sassy son did finally go and work in his father’s vineyard.
We all know that the things that we do, and the mistakes that we make, can hurt ourselves and others but Jesus reminds us that the things that we don’t do are often of much graver consequences.
I think that the reason Jesus spent so much time talking about our sins of omission is that while most of us are aware of the multitude of ways in which we hurt others by what we do, we are more oblivious to the ways in which we have hurt others by what we have left undone. After all, one of the main reasons we leave them undone is that we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we don’t even notice the other person’s need. In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the Levite and priest don’t say, “We are deliberately going to ignore the needs of this man because we don’t care about him;” rather they say, “We are going to avoid this man so that we will not become contaminated and religiously impure.” Their minds were so filled with their own pursuit of holiness that they were oblivious to the needs of the dying man. So too, if I asked you to list all of the things you did wrong this week, you’d probably be able to make a hefty list with some pretty specific items. If you lost your temper at your spouse, you noticed it, you will (hopefully) feel guilty about it, you will remember it, and be able to write it down to confess it. If, on the other hand you sinned against your spouse by ignoring him or her because you had your eyes glued to your phone, chances are you didn’t even notice that sin because your eyes were glued to the phone! Sometimes we fail to love by deliberately choosing to avoid situations or people in need but more often we fail to love because we are oblivious to the moment, because we are pursuing matters that feel more important just then. It is only later that we realize that the most important thing we had to do was not whatever was cluttering up our brains at that time but was caring for that person who we barely noticed, and by the time we realize that, we are left only with regrets. There is a proverb that says, “When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.”
Is it too late then for us? Are we doomed to carry these regrets like a yoke upon our neck bearing our hearts down forever with missed opportunities? In the parable of the two sons, Jesus gives us the good news that it is never too late. The impudent son finally came to his senses, put down his phone, and his video games, and all of his own needs that had seemed so important at that moment, and went to work in the vineyard. Jesus says that the realm of God is a place of second chances where it is never too late to lay down your regrets, step out of your stupid obliviousness, open your eyes to the people around you, and care about the world.
“When is the time to plant a tree?” the proverb asks. “Twenty years ago,” it says, but it doesn’t stop there. It then asks, “And when is the second best time to plant a tree? Today.”
We know that there are lost opportunities in our past which cannot be recovered, and chances we missed to care for people that we can’t go back and change; but we can confess those regrets to God trusting that we will be forgiven, and more importantly, that Christ can remake us into braver people whose love is more attentive and steadfast. We will be reminded to get out of our heads for a moment to listen to the people around us, to follow through on that intention, to consider what we might do for others that we have neglected to do in the past, to be quicker to forgive, more willing to listen, and always looking for opportunities to demonstrate the love of Christ to the world.
And when we pray, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone,” we will hear the gracious words of God reply, “I, the almighty God, have mercy on you, forgive you all of your sins through the Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, keep you in eternal life. Amen.