The Myth of Innocence
I preached last Sunday at the Guemes Island Community Church. Guemes is the closest of the San Juan Islands, just a half mile or so from Anacortes on the mainland. My sermon was titled “The Myth of Innocence.” I’ll share a few excepts. But first . . .
I noted that a growing number of churches have shifted from Palm Sunday as a stand-alone to Palm/ Passion Sunday, where the entire story of the Passion from Last Supper to Crucifixion is read in the latter part of the service. Such a change is, at least in part, to fewer people attending Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, once a kind of norm. Without those days and services we go from Palm Sunday’s “triumphal entry” to Easter’s glory, thus missing what makes Easter glorious.
Here then, several excerpts from that sermon, “The Myth of Innocence.”
“When a church does Palm/ Passion Sunday, the Passion narrrative is often read dramatically with various people reading different parts. Someone is Peter saying, ‘I do not know the man.’ Another Pilate, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. See to it yourselves.’ And often the whole congregation is bid, at a crucial point to be the crowd that cried out, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ We are not innocent by-standers, the good guys on Jesus’s side. We too are implicated. That can be hard to swallow. It shatters our myth of innocence. It locates us among the guilty.
“A clergy friend shared this story. ‘I remember a woman in my first parish who took great pride in not participating in the shout of “Crucify him!” ‘I just couldn’t say it,” she announced at the coffee hour afterward. “I couldn’t possibly say those words!” ‘I knew this woman well,’ said my friend. ‘Her whole life was organized around the myth of her own innocence. I felt sad for her; her self-righteousness cut her off from the truth — the truth about herself and the truth about our Lord Jesus Christ.’
(Me again): “I think there’s a little of that person — her whole life organized around her own innocence — in many of us. How much easier it is, when we find ourselves in the midst of conflict, to protest our own innocence and another’s fault rather than looking at our part in the mess. How easy, in conflicts in church or community, to divide seeing our side as wholly right and good, the other side as wholly wrong, even evil.”
Earlier in the sermon I had noted that we are now, as a nation, struggling with our American myth of innocence.
“In these present times in our own land, we too are wrestling with our myth of innocence. I was raised like many of you to see America as the good guys, as a righteous nation. In many ways, I think America has been a force for good in the world and still is. But that’s not the whole story. Things like the 1619 project on slavery or historical efforts re-examining the betrayal and exploitation of American Indians have disturbed us and divided us. It seems difficult for us to give up our American myth of innocence, for a clear-sighted recognition of both our virtues and our vices. As an example, while I know there is a point made, and a truth, in the phrase ‘White Privilege,’ I also want to object to it, to assert my virtue, my innocence.
“Jesus did not come to divide the world into the righteous and the sinners, the innocent and the guilty. He came to bring God’s pardon and healing to all . . .”
I concluded by saying that there really is no good news for the innocent . . . only for the guilty, for the broken and the screw-ups. I mentioned a worship service I had attended at a seminary recently where we were urged to get in touch with our warm and compassionate hearts and open them again to one another in the post-pandemic era. Referencing that service I closed my sermon as follows,
“It was all very nice, so far as it went [that seminary service]. But it was a gospel for the innocent, for the good people who only needed a reminder to get in touch with their goodness and express it. That’s a lot of the message I hear in churches these days as well, moralism not gospel. It may be good advice (or not), but it’s hardly good news.
“And while many people think that something like this is the message of Christianity — you should be more loving — it really is not. There are many gospels and spiritualities for the innocent. But there is only one gospel for the broken, for the perps. Only one gospel for those of us whose hearts can be both warm and cold, forgiving and mean-spirited, open and holding secrets we want no one to know. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the good news for sinners. There is forgiveness. There is grace. There aren’t two fixed sides, the good people and the bad, never the ‘twain shall meet. In God’s sight there is but one, all of us implicated, all sinners in need of grace.
“There is grace for the failed, for the times in life we feel utter failures. There is a balm in Gilead for those who are besieged by a sense of regret. There is a mercy for us caught, as if bound in chains, to the wounds we bear, the defects in our character that undermine us despite our best intentions.
“Perhaps you are here this morning weighed down by a broken relationship in your family? Or maybe you’ve said some words to a spouse or to a child you wish you could pull back? Possibly you have broken a promise to another and are filled with self-loathing? Or maybe you are burdened by the moral injury we all carry, in one way or another, from the legacy of slavery.
Has an addiction reared its ugly head again? Or maybe you’ve busted your butt to get everything exactly right, striven for perfection (again), and what you find yourself left with is simmering resentment as, whatever you do, it seems never to be enough. There is grace for you here. Jesus Christ is for you. He died for you and he rose for you. He will come again for you.
More can be mended than you know.
“Go out from this place in joy and at peace, for the grace of God is for you, God’s forgiveness and blessing are upon you, and despite it all, God’s healing power is ever at work in the world, and today is at work in you. Amen.”