I had an old Hollywood buddy who once told me the trouble with most people is that they don’t know what they want and they don’t know who they want to be. I may not know either, but I certainly know that there are four guys I never want to be:
Self-Pity Guy. I may serve a working class parish in a dilapidated building. I may not make the Joel Osteen big bucks. But I’m proud of my little congregation, and I have chosen to be here. I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me because I don’t feel sorry for myself.
How Soon Can I Retire Guy. I’ve seen a lot of clergy over the years who have just walked to the end of their ministries. They had great careers and did wonderful work for the Kingdom of God, but, at the end, they just kind of slowed down and let the congregation slow down with them. I don’t want to be that guy. But neither do I want to be…
Big Score Guy. You know that guy who wants to hit one more home run before he retires from ministry? He’s the guy who is going to get his parish into a capital campaign to build a new social hall or merge his congregation with another church or start some other fabulous program and then he’ll retire and the whole thing will turn to crap. I don’t want to be him, but I most definitely never want to be…
Stumbling Block Guy. He’s the one who puts a stumbling block in the path of the little ones—the ones who are weak in faith. And this week, the news has been full of stumbling blocks.
You couldn’t turn on the TV in America this week without seeing the face of Bill Cosby, and I can’t help but see tragedy here even as justice is being served. I remember laughing myself silly when I was a kid listening to Cosby’s Why is There Air? album. He was hilarious and, to many, he was a hero. The first African American to star in a network TV drama. “America’s Dad.” A man who showed white folks that there could be a two-parent black family in the upper middle class. A strenuous champion of education.
How utterly disappointing—heart-breaking, really—to see him led away in handcuffs. He had gained so much admiration, respect, and influence and chose to use it in a sick and shameful way. It would have been better that he never possessed such notoriety than that he should have used it to commit the crimes for which he is now being justly punished. And when an idol falls, faith is shaken.
But the bad news continues, doesn’t it? The crimes of Bill Cosby are dwarfed next to the recent report from the Pennsylvania Attorney General about clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church here in the Commonwealth, and other reports are surfacing about this scandal in Catholic church bodies around the world.
Now please understand: I am not trying to re-fight the Thirty Years War. This isn’t a Lutheran versus Catholic thing. I only bring it up because it’s in the news, knowing full well that there has been clergy abuse in all denominations. Nevertheless, when I read the reports of my fellow clerics’ perfidy, I almost want to cry. The eyes which lusted and the hands which groped were better cut off than cause the decades of pain they inflicted. And the stumbling block of criminal behavior was, of course, made into a road-closing boulder by the hands of bishops and other church officials which were used to write letters of transfer rather than reach for the phone to report the crimes.
How can we do anything but stumble, I wonder? From priests to movie and TV stars to pro athletes to candidates for the Supreme Court[i], and even presidents, it seems there is no one in whom we can put our faith and trust. No one we can look to for guidance and moral certainty. No one, that is, except Jesus Christ.
We who call ourselves “Christians,” who bear the name of Christ, have taken on a sacred responsibility to see Christ in others and to be Christ for others. The consequence of our sin is that we shame our family name. Our misdeeds aren’t just about us. Our guilty actions aren’t just that we risk God’s displeasure. Stumbling Block Guy robs others of their sense of belonging to a community and the paradigm of death, hope, and resurrection which grants peace to our souls and helps us make sense of this crazy world.
The stumbling block need not be a heinous crime. It can be as simple as the arrogance of exclusion illustrated by the disciples in the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 19, Year B (Mark 9:38-50). It is anything which keeps others away from the love of Christ.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s name would be made holy—in us. We are praying to receive the honor of bearing that sacred name. Let’s understand that this honor is not for ourselves, but for those around us—our kids, our neighbors, our co-workers, our extended family, whomever. Our honor and our duty is to reveal Christ and give him glory.
I once did a funeral for a Cuban-born physician who served at our local hospital. He had been killed tragically in an auto accident. He was raised under a Communist regime which sponsored atheism as its state religion. He had never grown up knowing Jesus. As a young doctor he went to Spain as part of his medical training and fell in love and married a Roman Catholic girl. When his sons were born, he insisted that they be raised Catholic. Even though he had no conception of the faith, he was so taken by the virtue and decency of his wife that he wanted his boys to be what she was.
Can we all try to walk so in the honor of God’s name that others will see us and say, “I want to have what YOU have?”
God be with you, my friend. Keep the faith.
[i] I’m not going to weigh in on the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings as I feel too ambivalent about this subject. Besides, chasing this rabbit will really lead me away from the Gospel message; moreover, I know this issue will be resolved by politics and not by theology or moral scruples.