Missing the Mark, Improving the Aim

According to the marginal notes, Psalm 51 is a Psalm of David when the prophet Nathan came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.  You know the story. Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, whom David took for himself, after seeing her taking a bath on the roof of her house. He failed to practice what St. Francis called, “Stewardship of the eyes,” and one sin led to another.  When Bathsheba got pregnant, and David could not coax her husband, Uriah, to sleep with her—because his troops were still on the field of battle; David had Uriah sent to the forefront of the battle against the Ammonites that he might cover up his sin, and have Bathsheba for himself.

In verse 3 David writes, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

David made this confession not just because he had a bad conscience; but because Nathan the prophet confronted him, exposed his sin, and predicted all the misery that would come upon him because of it. Poor David. He started strong, and he was a man after God’s own heart, but he knew his share of self-induced tragedy.

In the Bible sin takes several forms:

Sometimes, sin is the willful transgression of the known law of God. David said that he had sinned against God and God alone. Of course, we know better. Like us, David was an equal opportunity sinner. He certainly sinned against God, but he also sinned against Bathsheba, and against Uriah, and against the people of Israel who trusted him to be a just and honorable king, and, of course, like us, David also sinned against himself.

The Bible teaches that we are all sinners, and it does not take much to remind us of this. In his book, Whatever Became of Sin, Dr. Karl Menninger tells the story of a homeless man who occupied a place on a cold and windy street corner in Chicago.  Every-time someone approached him, he raised a bony finger, pointed it at the  person who just happened to be walking-by, and called out, “Guilty!” Menninger said, “Without exception, every person so addressed, hung their head in shame.”

The best definition of sin I ever heard came to me from a friend who had just experienced the deflation of a really good life. He said, “Worth, sin is anything we do, by which we hurt ourselves or another.” I said, You are right, just add one phrase, “Sin is anything we do, or fail to do by which we hurt ourselves or another.”

Most of us are keenly aware of our sins of commission, against God, against one another, and against ourselves; but we are often blissfully unaware of our sins of omission. It is only after we have achieved a degree of moral and spiritual sophistication that we are able to see that the good we fail to do can be even more costly than the bad things we have done.

There is another definition of sin in the Bible.  Sometimes sin is simply “missing the mark.” The language which describes this kind of sin suggest a archer, with a bow who aims an arrow at a target, lets it fly, and misses the mark. We miss the mark when we make promises we cannot or will not keep. We miss the mark when we set out to do what we think is right and good, only to discover that our good intentions have gone astray.  An easy example is loaning our car to a friend, not knowing he has been drinking, only to have him crash the car and hurt himself and others.

It is no coincidence that the sin of missing the mark perfectly describes the angst of anyone who has to preach or teach before a diverse group of people, whether that group is large or small. The first law of medicine is do no harm.  That same law applies to teaching and preaching. Our teaching and preaching ought to do good, not harm.

Now, it has been rightly said that there is not one sermon, but three: 1) the sermon that is preached;  2) the sermon people hear; and 3) the sermon the preacher wishes he or she had preached. When we miss the mark, we always want another chance.

That second chance occurs in a variety of ways.  In a long pastorate it occurs over a period of time.  More importantly, it occurs when someone approaches the preacher after a sermon, and suggest an alternative way of seeing things. A smart preacher appreciates the dialogue, and the correction.  She appreciates the dialogue, because people don’t talk back unless they are listening!  He appreciates the correction, because he knows that one good critic is worth a dozen doting admirers. Actually, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great 19th century English preacher, said that one good critic is worth “1,000 doting admirers.” I’m not sure I have ever had even one doting admirer—but I have been fortunate to have a number of good critics, including most of you here at Fries. I have really enjoyed our dialogue! So, thanks to my good critics, I would like to correct the aim of three sermons I have preached over the last month of so.  I can do this rather quickly.

1. A little over a month ago preached a sermon on habits. Habits are what we do. Perhaps you have heard the story about the big fish who swam by two little fish and said, “How’s the water?”  When he had passed, one of the little fish turned to the other and said, “What’s water?”  That’s it.  Habits are so much a part of our lives that we hardly notice them. Researchers at Duke say that more than 40% of everything we do everyday, we do by habit. I cannot over-stress the importance of habits.

A wise person rightly said, “Beware your thoughts, for thoughts become words. Beware your words because words become actions. Beware your actions, because actions  become habits. Beware your habits, because habits become your character. Beware your character, because your character becomes your destiny.” Ouch. In ways too painful to mention, I have seen this unfold in my own life.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that the moment we become aware of a bad habit, it become incumbent upon us to change it!  If we do not the consequences of continuing that bad habit are on us.There is no external exoneration.

Changing our habits takes discipline, and discipline requires will power. Will power is like the muscles in the body, it becomes fatigued. Over the years, many of us have exercised so much will power just doing what we had to do,  that we foolishly allowed ourselves to “relax” in other areas of life.  This is especially true for me when it came to eating a healthy diet, and in getting enough sleep. That was the wrong approach. Instead, I ought to have built my will power muscle by forming better habits. When the willpower ran low, the good habits would have carried me through. Research has proved that new habits can be formed in as little as 21 days. Old, long established, bad habits, can take as much as 9 months to change. But even nine months is a finite amount of time.“This too will pass.” If we recognize a bad habit in ourselves, we ought to change it now. Remember, the same power that took Jesus out of the grave is available to us, today, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life.

2. Two weeks ago I preached a sermon entitled, “Remembering the Prisoner.” I suggested there are several reason we ought to do just that. The primary reason is found in Matthew 25. Jesus puts himself in the way of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick and the prisoner, when he says, “If as much as you have done a kindness to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.” He also says, “In as much as you have failed to do a kindness to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have not done it unto me.”

Some scholars think that, in speaking of, “my brothers and sisters,” Jesus was just asking Christians to serve one another. Other scholars think that Jesus was calling every needy person on the planet his brother and sister. In other words, Jesus put himself in way of those who are powerless to help themselves, so that those who have the power to help others will do just that.

In preaching this sermon. I did not mean to imply that each of us can be all things to all people. Some people have gifts for one kind of ministry, but not for another. I think people like Rodney Stillwell, and Robert Wolf and Jeff Carter, have a unique talent for helping the prisoner. Other people have other gifts for other things. The New Testament teaches that the Spirit has given us a variety of gifts for the service of the body. I have always felt my particular gift was taking care of a congregation so that the members of the congregation could go out into the world and put their gifts to work. Many of you have gifts and you are using them. At the very least, all of us can send our money where we cannot go, even into homeless shelters, hospitals and prisons. The important is that we don’t forget those who live there.

John Wesley once exhorted a Methodist congregation to “Remember the poor!” After the service, one Methodist came up to him and said, “I don’t know any poor people?”  And Wesley said, “Of course you do not, when one approaches you on the street you cross the street to the other side to avoid speaking to them.”

I suppose that in preaching my sermon on “Remembering the Prisoner,” I ought to have said that the first duty of a Christian is not to “cross the street” to avoid those who are in need. Instead, we ought to “cross the street”—or do whatever, to meet them, because in meeting them we are meeting Jesus.”

3. That brings me to last week.  Last week I preached a sermon in which I pictured the ideal life of a young urbanite. This composite person does not need a lot of physical property, because he has learned to enjoy the commonwealth of our age. He moves through life unencumbered and weighed down with a lot of things. He lives in a small apartment, but makes good use of the public library, the YMCA, hotels and restaurants. His apartment is nicely furnished, and he owns a TV and a computer, but he doesn’t own a lot of movies and music and books, because he can rent or borrow as many as he likes. He owns an old car—but when he travels, he rents a red Mustang convertible, or a really nice SUV, like the one Elayne and I rented in Boston for a trip to Main. Most importantly, from my point of view, he has very little to dust, and never has to mow the grass. You may have guessed by now, that, in many ways, I wish that I was this young urbanite.

However, at the end of the sermon, I was careful to say, “One size does not fit all.” Sometime ago I was talking to Br. Bishop Wayne Burkett about trying to downsize and simplify. Wayne said something that I will never forget.  He said, “Worth, every time I try to simplify my life, it cost me time and money.”  Wayne is right! What is idea for a young person at the beginning of life, might be a huge ordeal for an older person at the other end of life.

The most important thing I want to say is that we exercise our stewardship in different ways. One size does not fit all. Jesus ask different things of each of his disciples, because he meets each on of us where we are. He knows what we need before we ask for it; and he values our uniqueness as much as we do. I think it is safe to say we never really know how special we are, until we know how special we are in him. A wise person once said, “One person, plus God is a majority in any situation. One person, plus God can change the world, if not the whole world, at least, the whole world of one person.” Often, through a single act of kindness. Thank’s for letting me correct my aim.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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