No Problem So Awful (A Sermon)

This is a service I led at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, May 17, 2015.  I have included the readings I used and YouTube videos of the music employed (by the original artists until the live performances are posted).

Prelude:  Wake Up,” Arcade Fire

Meditation:  “I Am Very Bothered,” Simon Armitage

I am very bothered when I think
of the bad things I have done in my life.
Not least that time in the chemistry lab
when I held a pair of scissors by the blades
and played the handles
in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;
then called your name, and handed them over. 

O the unrivalled stench of branded skin
as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,
then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,
the doctor said, for eternity.

Don’t believe me, please, if I say
that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,
of asking you if you would marry me


Interlude:  Hurt,” Trent Reznor

Reading:  “I Close My Eyes,” David Ignatow

I close my eyes like a good little boy at night in bed, 
as I was told to do by my mother when she lived, 
and before bed I brush my teeth and slip on my pajamas, 
as I was told, and look forward to tomorrow. 

I do all things required of me to make me a citizen of sterling worth. 
I keep a job and come each evening for dinner. I arrive at the 
same time on the same train to give my family a sense of order. 

I obey traffic signals. I am cordial to strangers, I answer my 
mail promptly. I keep a balanced checking account. Why can’t I 
live forever?


Offertory Music:  No One Is Alone,” Stephen Sondheim

Sermon:  “No Problem So Awful”

I want to start this morning by reading a nineteenth century children’s story from Germany.  (Some of you can probably see where this is going, just based on that description.)

The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb

One day, Mamma said, “Conrad dear, 
I must go out and leave you here. 
But mind now, Conrad, what I say, 
Don’t suck your thumb while I’m away. 
The great tall tailor always comes 
To little boys that suck their thumbs. 
And ere they dream what he’s about 
He takes his great sharp scissors 
And cuts their thumbs clean off, – and then
You know, they never grow again.”


Mamma had scarcely turn’d her back, 
The thumb was in, alack! alack!


The door flew open, in he ran, 
The great, long, red-legged scissorman. 
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come 
And caught our little Suck-a-Thumb. 


Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go; 
And Conrad cries out – Oh! Oh! Oh! 
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast; 
That both his thumbs are off at last.
Mamma comes home; there Conrad stands, 
And looks quite sad, and shows his hands;- 
“Ah!” said Mamma “I knew he’d come 
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”


Who says those Germans don’t have a sense of humor? 

This particular tale comes from a collection called Struwellpeter.  They were tales to entertain children, of course, but they were created primarily as moral lessons for their young audience.  And there are lovingly gruesome illustrations to match the tales.  I’m sure there were many frightened children in early twentieth century Bavaria, kids who wanted to suck their thumbs so badly but also wanted to be able to grip things when they grew up.  I wonder how afraid, how ashamed those children were if they woke up to find their thumbs in their mouths, an innocent self-soothe during the night, but one their parents disapproved of so strongly that they used the great tall tailor as a threat?


Don’t get me wrong—we need guilt.  Guilt, if it comes from remorse, if it’s internally created, can be a very powerful force for good.  It can keep us from hurting ourselves or each other in the future.  It can encourage us to help others.  But the guilt of Little Suck-a-Thumb is not internal.  It’s imposed on someone by another person, by a culture, and that, I feel, is significantly less beneficial.  As we consider guilt today, know that I am concerned with this latter, unnatural guilt.


These concerns are not limited to a specific place or time.  And they aren’t just the work of sadistic child-hating former thumbsuckers who are secretly jealous of their children’s freedom.  These sorts of guilt-driven ideas permeate our culture.  And since we are in a house of worship, I thought we might look at guilt and religion for a moment.  There are tons of stereotypical jokes about Jewish guilt and Catholic guilt, but I’m not part of either of those traditions, so I’m afraid I’ll have to leave those insights to others, perhaps at coffee hour after the service.  Still, guilt is something I understand,

From the earliest days of Sunday School, I learned that Adam and Eve ate fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil—even though God specifically told them not to—and because of that, sickness and pain and death entered the world.  This is the story of The Fall of Man, when God’s perfect creation was ruined by some overly curious types who took advice from a snake who could walk and talk.  It’s about free will and punishment.  It explains why bad things happen to us—why we get sick and die, even if, like David Ignatow, we do all the right things.  Being the eventual descendants of Adam and Eve, we are naturally damaged goods.  We are sinful. 


The apostle Paul said that “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”  I was taught that, too.  I heard it so often that it comes out of me without any sort of strain or hesitation.  Everyone—you, me, our kids or grandkids—are deeply undeserving of the perfect God who made us. And, being spiritually soiled by our mistakes (and those of our ancestors), we all deserve to go to Hell for eternity.


Christianity did offer me a way out—not of death, but of eternal punishment.  There is Jesus, and if I believe in him, I will still die, but I will go to heaven afterwards, which is surely preferable to the lake of fire. See, I was taught that God is love.  He loves me personally, so much so that he allowed himself to take human form through some sort of cosmic asexual reproduction, and he allowed that avatar of himself to be killed in one of the most horrific possible ways just to show me how much he cares.

As a bonus, I was taught the full, gory extent of Christ’s sufferingthe number of times he was whipped, and how the flesh would have been torn from his back and how he suffocated on the cross for us.  These descriptions were so extraordinarily brutal and visceral that my mother, upon seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, said it wasn’t as violent as it could have been.  And for the record, my mother isn’t exactly a devotee of Quentin Tarantino or torture porn horror films.  She’s a quiet, mild mannered,gentle woman who watches The Waltons and believes that Jesus was ripped apart to absolve her of her sins.

Obviously, the guilt implied by this scenario is intense.  Jesus died for me.  He was perfect; he was GOD.  And because I was weak, because I screwed up, he was beaten into an unrecognizable pulp and nailed to a splintery piece of wood.  This is a lot for an adult to process, let alone a child.


I assume this sounds familiar to a lot of you.  I’m sure that in this crowd are a number of folks who grew up with the same atmosphere of guilt and shame that I did.  Some of you might remember nights of tearful prayer and begging God not to be mad at you, that you’d do better next time, you’d never use the f-word again or explore those lustful thoughts about the girl next to you in math class or yell at your sister.  If you could be forgiven, if your soul could be washed clean, it would never again need laundering.  

I think this is one of the biggest reasons so many Unitarian Universalists recoil when people talk about Jesus.  I, too, do this.  We are a faith born out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and many of us have a hard time grappling with that.  I think most of us would say that the teachings of Jesus are by and large what we ourselves believe.  The Jesus of the Gospels teaches love and forgiveness and does not judge people for their indiscretions.  It’s not Jesus who’s the problem.

We call our aversion to Christianity “cross cringe” for good reason.  It’s that tortured moment of Jesus’ death—and specifically the guilt it implies–that repels us more than anything else.  

I should pause here and note that there are indeed Christian UUs.  I’m sure some of you in the congregation have this philosophy.  Please don’t consider this sermon an attack on your beliefs.  Surely your version of Christianity is a very positive, fair-minded thing.  We as a faith need you!  You are valued and important.  Share your beliefs!  Make people feel less guilty by showing them the joy your faith brings you.

I love the quote from Calvin and Hobbes in the order of service.  “There is no problem so awful that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.”  I think guilt is the enemy, not any specific religion.  It’s an emotion that cannot solve our problems, that only drives us further apart. If I asked you what makes you love your partner or love your parents, it wouldn’t be the guilt trips.  No relationships are built on a foundation of mutual shame.


You know what I love best about my wife?  What I like best about my mother and my siblings and my friends?  Forgiveness.  I am a colossal screw-up.  I talk too loudly, and too often.  I presume that everyone is interested in my opinions, and I have no problem sharing, even when not asked.  I rub people the wrong way.  I hurfeelings.  Too often, my words are alienating to people I care about.  (Those of you who are my Facebook friends will understand what I mean.)

Yet, you stick around.  You ignore what you don’t like and offer positive reinforcement when I say something you enjoy.  My wife spends a lot of time rolling her eyes and sighing and raising her middle fingers at me, but she still hugs and kisses me, and she’s never set my stuff on fire in the front yard.  She loves me in spite of my imperfections.  She forgivesme.

It has not escaped my attention that many Christians love this about God.  He forgives them.  He offers them hope when they feel unworthy.  They aren’t focused on guilt and punishment, but on reconciliation with God.  We, as individuals, may or may not find that idea compelling, but we definitely should be interested in reconciliation with one another.  

Consider this:

Charlotte Foley was sixteen years old when she was stabbed to death at a friend’s party.  Her killer was another girl, Beatriz Martins-Paez, with whom she had exchanged words earlier in the evening.  Beatriz had come to the party with two knives, hoping to settle a score with another girl who had been bullying her.  Charlotte was not her initial target, but she had somehow insulted Beatriz and paid for it with her life.

This is a tragic story, but its outlines are familiar to us.  What makes the story unusual is Charlotte’s mother, Mary Foley.  She has, over time, come to forgive her daughter’s killer. An article in the Guardian recounts her story:


She said:  “When Charlotte was murdered, forgiveness did not enter my mind. For a long time, I wanted to know, who is this wicked girl that took my daughter? Who did this evil? My baby was gone. I was just coming to terms with the loss. I had to weigh things up, to really allow my emotions to take their course.”

She found it difficult to look at Beatriz in court. “She sat there, very defiant, her hair done, makeup done, looking nice. Arms crossed. She was trendy and fashionable, and I kept staring over at her. I wanted her to look at me, to look at the pain she had caused me, for her to see that Charlotte had a mum who loved her. I wanted her to show me how sorry she was.”

The article continues:

…she was not ready to forgive until a pastor at her church approached her. “He had contacted Beatriz and she had written back. She had said to him, ‘Would Mary mind me writing to her?’ And I said, ‘Let her write.'”

“When the letter arrived, I looked at it, with its childish handwriting. I opened it and then took a deep breath. I read it three or four times, trying to see if it felt real. At the same time I was thinking, wow, it takes some courage to write, when you’ve murdered a member of someone’s family.”

In this and subsequent letters, Mary came to understand more of Beatriz’s background. “I learned about all the bullying and intimidation she had received, about all the things that had happened to her at home and at school.

“So I wrote back to her and said, ‘I forgive you, I believe you didn’t mean to do it, although there is a price to pay for the choice you made.’ And then she wrote back – 13, 14 pages – talking about herself, and her problems, asking me what Charlotte was like. And I wrote back telling her about my beautiful daughter.

“The funny thing is, from some of the insecurities she described, I think she and Charlotte would have got on well. They could have become good friends.” Mary has made it very clear that she is now willing to meet her, although Beatriz has yet to complete the necessary formalities.

Now, Mary is a picture of serenity. “When you don’t forgive, you allow that person to control your life. Your anger and resentment are controlling you. When you choose to forgive, you release yourself, to become yourself again.” She says of other family members who have not forgiven Beatriz, “there’s a lot of sadness and regret there – a lot of ‘if onlys’ in their lives.”

Think about that for a moment.  There’s a lot of sadness and regret in the lives of those who have not forgiven.  Let that sink in, and then think about your own lives, your own sadness and regrets that have piled up ov  er the years.  Think of the people you haven’t forgiven and the resentments you carry with you.  Have they improved your life?  And, if not, do you think the anger you feel towards the other person is making them a better human being? Are they becoming more morally astute because you haven’t forgiven them?  I’m no judge, and I haven’t experienced the pain that you have.  I cannot tell you that you must forgive, nor would I presume to do so.  Perhaps your resentment needs its day in the sun.  But I have found, in my own life, that things get better when those resentments are allowed to wither and die.  

The picture on your order of service comes from the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; a movie in which two people are so pained by their disastrous relationship that they undergo a miraculous procedure to have all memories of that relationship erased from their minds.  There have probably been times in your life where you’ve wished you could perform such an erasure.  But denying our pasts—even the painful parts—means denying something that is essential within us.  Those tough times—and those who caused them—have shaped us, even if only as examples of things we would henceforth like to avoid.  And if you can find a way to see those who’ve hurt you as being participants in the creation of who you are, for better or worse, perhaps you can find a way to forgive them.  I am a product of fundamentalist Christianity, one who left that faith behind.  But I cannot condemn those who shared it with me.  They were trying to help, trying to do the right thing.  As Jesus himself is reported to have said, “Father, forgive them.  They know not what they do.”  And yes, without those years of church, I wouldn’t understand forgiveness quite like I do now.  I am shaped by my past, as you are by yours.

And if you are feeling guilty and ashamed of things you’ve done, I would urge you to make that move toward reconciliation as well.  As the song says, “Hold your mistake up.” Ask for forgiveness.  Hiding from those you’ve wronged won’t make you feel any better, either.  The speaker in Simon Armitage’s poem “I Am Very Bothered” can see now, given the passage of years, the horror of harming someone he cared about.  He understands the unthinking callousness of his actions, and he does not make excuses for them.  That doesn’t remove the scars.  It doesn’t erase the memories.  But it’s honest and open.  A wronged person can learn to live with that.

Guilt and anger are burdens that must be carried alone.  I know you don’t want to do that.  We are here today because we dnot want to be alone.   And we are not alone, whatever we’ve done or whatever has been done to us. Remember that.  Honor that.  Let us work together to ease one another’s guilt,to release the pain in those we’ve hurt, to better not just the world around us, but the world within us.  


About semiblind

Bringing you stark existentialism since 1981.
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