Sermon for February 17, 2019
Hero or Villain?
A British politician was asked this week whether he considered Winston Churchill to be a hero or a villain. Now before I even mention or address the politician’s response to that question, let me just take a moment to point out that this is the Devil’s question. The question is a setup and the intention of the question is to be divisive. The question represents a world-view where everything is black or white: you are either good or evil, you are either for me or against me, you are either this party or that party and that’s it. It is an either/or choice or question and if you will allow me to be philosophical for a moment: be very careful when presented with either/or questions, because sometimes they are a trap. This question was a trap and boy did the politician jam his foot right in it.
He said that Winston Churchill was a villain, a judgment he came to based upon his evaluation of mistakes that Churchill made earlier in his career, before he became prime minister. Well predictably, that little comment created quite a kerfluffle, with people on both sides rushing to either defend Churchill’s legacy or to catalog his shortcomings. Now my personal feelings about Churchill are fairly well known here….after all, my dog is named Winston. I am, or course, a fan. But my respect and admiration for the man, doesn’t come from a whitewashed or sanitized view of him. My fandom has not blinded me to his shortcomings. Quite the contrary; my respect for Churchill comes from a recognition that he, like every human being was deeply flawed, and yet, despite his flaws he was still able to accomplish great things.
Human beings are complex creatures. They are rarely just heroes or villains; we have the capacity to be both, sometimes at the same time. We can do amazing and wonderful things, and then we can turn right around and be selfish and cruel. But we are always being challenged by the devil into categorizing people into just one column or the other. We celebrate people and build them up and cheer them, and then we find out that maybe they did something wrong once or made a mistake, then we proceed to tear them down and ridicule them. This plays out on a daily basis in social media. We want people to be either heroes or villains, because that makes life and relationships neat and tidy. We put ridiculous expectations on leaders and celebrities to be our heroes, and then when they make the inevitable misstep and disappoint us, we take a sadistic glee in tearing them apart publicly, even long after they are dead.
Why do we do this?
I think that the answer is misplaced hope. We like to put our faith, our hope, and our trust in human beings, in mortal men and women. I think deep down we want our leaders and our celebrities to save us. We want them to have the virtues we lack. We want them to be the source of all that is good in the world, and then, when they fail to live up to that impossible standard, we assume they must be villains. The devil has told us that people are either heroes or villains. If they are not a hero, then they must be a villain. But what has God revealed to us?
The prophet Jeremiah rarely minces words, he makes it very clear:
“cursed are those who trust in mere mortals, and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.”
Human beings who put their ultimate faith and trust in other human beings, have set themselves up. They are bound to be disappointed sooner or later. And Jeremiah used terrific imagery, he says they are like shrubs in the desert. They have nothing to drink from, they have no source of real nourishment, vitality or life.
But humans who learn to put their trust in God before their trust in their fellow man, well those are like trees planted next to living waters, whose roots run deep into the soil and draw nourishment and vitality from a well that never runs dry. When hard times come, when the sun shines hot and the land is parched, those trees can still live, those trees can bear fruit, because they are connected to living water. People who look to God as the source of what is good in the world, people who look to God as the fountain of virtue and blessings, those people will not be disappointed.
In church circles I have what is called a “low anthropology.” Now that is a churchy phrase, but basically what it means is that deep down I believe and am convinced that people are sinners. Us human beings, men and women, we are broken. We are capable of doing good things, but we are not capable of being consistently good without fail. So few things are as boring to me as having someone’s sins placed on public display, as if the fact that human being’s are sinners is in some way newsworthy. It is not. Every week we come together here and read scriptures that are thousands of years old, and what I walk away with every week is further proof that human nature has not changed. Our technology has changed, our instincts have not.
One of the great things about the bible is that the characters we find there are not one dimensional. Even the greatest heroes are depicted with their sins and flaws. King David was an adulterer. He had huge sins, he made mistakes. If you think that just because someone is mentioned in the bible or that their image has been carved in marble or set in stained glass that they are somehow free of sin, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. What inspires me though when reading the scriptures is how over and over again, God manages to do amazing things with incredibly flawed people.
I would say the same thing is true of our modern day leaders, celebrities and heroes. If you think that someone must be free of sin in order for God to be using them in the world, or working through them, then you are missing the point. No human being is ever consistently good all the time. If we can accept that, then we won’t need to clutch our pearls, be overcome by the vapors or ask for the smelling salts every time we learn that someone famous might have at some point made a mistake. If we can accept that, then maybe we can stop putting ridiculous expectations on each other.
Life gets a lot easier when you learn to accept that people aren’t perfect. They never were and they never will be. Once you accept that, once you learn not to put all of your faith in the flesh, in mankind, in men and women, in other human beings, once you learn that God is the true source of goodness and salvation in the world, then you can really be amazed at what God is able to do with some sinful human beings.
The devil wants you to separate everyone in the world into heroes or villains. The devil wants you to see everyone as either perfect and lovable, or flawed and unloveable, but if having flaws makes you a villain then we are all in deep trouble. What my God has revealed to me and to countless others in the gospel that the church proclaims, is that we worship a God who loves and uses sinful, flawed people. Our God can make a hero out of a villain and ultimately only God and God alone can know which camp we really belong to.
I have lots of heroes; I do not expect them to be perfect. In fact, most of them are deeply flawed in some way. We don’t need to whitewash history and pretend our heroes never did anything wrong, nor do we need to catalog their faults and pretend that sin is news. I think the approach that is most reasonable is what God has revealed to us: accept that only God is the true source of goodness and salvation; place our faith and our hope in God, and then rejoice in how he uses and inspires and loves, sinful human beings.