September 16 Sermon
In the very first season of The West Wing, as Jed Bartlett is still figuring out how to be president, he and his wife Abbey have their first White House fight.
The fight has to do with naming a new Fed chair, and it turns out that, years ago Abbey dated the guy Jed wants to name, and instead of confronting this complicated history, they both attempt to outmaneuver each other by using their staff, and the press. Towards the end of the episode, they eventually have it out. Abbey is furious that Jed tried to “handle her,” and Jed is furious that she tried to circumvent him by expressing support for the as-yet-unnamed-Fed Chair on the morning talk shows. Abbey eventually admits she was “wrong about the thing.” She pauses, and then she continues, “however…” Jed rounds on her an utters one of the more memorable lines of the entire show. “No. No “however”. Just be wrong. Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it.”
Just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong. But that’s hard to do, isn’t it?
In 2011, Kathryn Schultz, a staff writer for the New Yorker gave a Ted Talk called, On Being Wrong. In it she asks the audience, “how does it feel—emotionally—…to be wrong?” Dreadful? Embarrassing? Thumbs down? Okay? These, she says, are all answers to a different question. These are the answer to the question: how does it feel to realize that you’re wrong? Realizing that you’re wrong can be devastating, or revealing, or funny….but that’s not the same as being wrong.
Because you were already wrong, even before you realized it. So, being wrong…she says, doesn’t feel like anything…Or wait, that’s not accurate either…being wrong does feel like something…it feels like being right. Remember the Roadrunner cartoons? When the roadrunner runs off the cliff, and the coyote follows…but doesn’t fall immediately…just hangs there in the air…? She says being wrong is like that. We feel like we’re on solid ground, but we’re already way off the beam.
That’s where Peter is, today…out in mid-air. He hears this talk about the Son of Man undergoing great suffering and being rejected, and killed, and rising again…and that’s not right. That’s not what’s supposed to happen. He’s sure of it…he’s sure he’s right. But he’s not. Somewhere along the way, as Jesus is talking, he ran off the cliff and is standing there in mid-air…being wrong, until Jesus points it out.
He’s wrong. And so are you. So am I. So are all of us. Right here. Right now. We are wrong….about something…about a lot of things undoubtedly. But we don’t know it…because it feels like we’re right. We are wrong an awful lot of the time. We look out at the world through these little particular windows…”through these glasses darkly,” and we think that our thoughts and beliefs about the world perfectly reflect the reality that we see…but it doesn’t. And we have trouble even comprehending how anyone could possibly see things differently. Until it gets pointed it out…”Get behind me, Satan.” And that’s when we look down and notice that we’re not standing on anything, and start to scramble.
What if we could just stand there in our wrongness and be wrong and got used to it? If we could do that, would we eventually learn how to fly?
“All of us make many mistakes.” It’s how we learn. It’s how we grow. It’s how we move closer to one another and closer to God. It’s actually something sort of wonderful, and positive. Being wrong, and making mistakes and learning from them is part of what makes us deeply and uniquely human. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
The cover of Kathryn Schultz’s book “On Being Wrong” has a picture of a target, and an arrow way off to the side. It’s a very theological image, because what gets translated as “sin” in English, is really a Greek word which means, “to miss the mark.” And we do it all. The. Time. We miss the mark. We hurt one another. And often— instead of scrambling back to our imagined solid ground—we’d be better off standing their in mid-air…standing in our wrongness …and just being wrong…and try to get used to it…and then begin the work of reconciliation. Of getting back on solid ground…together.
Our Baptismal covenant—those vows we make and reaffirm whenever someone is baptized—tries to help us understand this. In them we promise to “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” Did you hear that? Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin…not “if” we miss the mark, but “when.” Not “If I happen to completely go off the rails and trip and fall on my face, then I’ll come back…” No. When I do that. And I will do that…a lot…
“Look, I don’t want to say and do stupid stuff, but I’m walking around in mid-air most of the time without a net…I’m going to trip, fall, stumble, and come crashing to earth on a very regular basis, so I’ll use prayer, and scripture, and coming to church…whatever tools I’ve got to get back to walking closer and closer to my fellow travelers and to God.”
This is going to become especially important for us this year, particularly next week as we gather to discuss the book Waking Up White, and begin our year long series of deepening conversations about race and racial justice. These are not comfortable conversations to have. It will be important to remember that that we all will miss the mark. Not “if if I happen to wander off the cliff…” but when I do. Anyone who does this work, knows that we will all unintentionally say things that cause hurt…we will all do things out of the subconscious biases that we all have. And when we say and do these things…When we miss the mark…in those moments when we’re out in mid-air…feeling very “right” but being very wrong, and others point that out…(hopefully, with something gentler than, “Get behind me, Satan”), when others point it out…it’s important to remember to allow yourself to just be wrong. To just sit there in your wrongness and be wrong. It’s ok, and natural, and perfectly acceptable to feel uncomfortable when entering the real work of reconciliation…when beginning the hard and grace-filled work of having our filters and our assumptions and our certainty challenged. It is Gospel work. And Gospel work is not easy work. That’s why it comes in the shape of the cross. It is not comfortable, or especially easy…but it is vital. And we have the example of Jesus to follow. And we have the promise of Jesus to be with us…through it all. Calling us back when we go astray, picking us up when we fall, feeding us and sustaining us to keep going. We are—and will continue to be—wrong a lot of the time, but we know the one who can and will guide us in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.
This is a draft text of the homily, and may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.