Miserable offenders – and self-denying doormats?

God forgives, spares and restores, for the real essence of God is love and we are called to love.

Sunday 9th August 2015
The Tenth Sunday after Trinity
First Reading: Genesis 1: 26 – 30;
Second Reading: The Confession from Morning and
Evening Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer, 1662
Gospel Reading: Matthew 5: 2 – 12, 38 – 45;
By Leslie Spatt

Miserable offenders – and self-denying doormats?
Well….how on earth did we get from humanity being blessed by God and God proclaiming
all creation – including humans – as “very good” on the sixth day…to being “miserable
offenders?” And ever more complicated…is our notion of believing ourselves miserable
offenders why we seem to feel the need to put ourselves down, to be at the mercy and
beck and call of serving everyone else before we take care of our own needs? To really
feel ourselves unworthy of just about anything nice. And, perhaps worse, often do down
our Christian faith by not being able to defend what we believe!
Can I offer you, in the way of the currently popular Masterchef or Bake Off, a potential
recipe for reflection: Take a good big scoop of Thomas Cranmer, add helpings of Sts
Augustine and Paul and the institutional Church need for control, and spice things up with a
bit of Martin Luther and how words are translated; and how English itself has changed since
the 16
century. And then cover the mixture with the humble crumble of an historical
English cultural tendency which believes that putting ourselves forward, or making a fuss, or
boasting about our achievements is not the nice thing to do. Roast, bake or fry until done,
and judge for yourself what it all tastes like. Not very appealing, would be my guess.
One of the big problems for people at the 11am service at St Mary’s is that we very rarely
hear the Cranmer language of “miserable offenders”; that we – humans – are soaked in
the stain and products of Augustine’s proclamation of original sin however you interpret
that; constantly grovelling to God for endless mercy to avoid the flames of eternal
damnation, because of our human sinful inheritance and subsequent behaviour.
People here who are familiar with the 8.30 service or Evensong will know this language
quite well; even if we now prefer original blessings to original sin; and wriggle
uncomfortably with the mountains of guilt the church and others have heaped on us. The
second reading this morning is in fact the 1662 General Confession at Matins and Evensong.
Before the changes during the 1950s, when the expectation was to attend both, regularly,
every Sunday, what Cranmer wrote was said enough times that far too many people
believed they were indeed “miserable” offenders. And there are indeed some flavours of
Anglicanism and other Christian congregations who still revel in this notion of being sad
wicked sinners, with God perpetually angry at us. The feeling that if I stay long enough in
the dirty water of self-loathing, then maybe God will eventually clean me up and accept me.
Now, Cranmer was a genius in his churchy achievements, his use of language, and his ability
to survive Henry the 8
. He completely reformed and reorganised the medieval Church’s
worship texts and liturgy – how they were put together – and translated them into English
so that people could at last hear and understand what the worship services were about.
And, radically, take part in some of it. Cranmer removed the exclusivity of the priest being
just about the only person to say anything at all during worship. Previous to Cranmer’s
reforms, a normal congregation was restricted to the nave, very rarely received
communion, and were there primarily to listen. If indeed they could hear anything at all,
stuck down there well away from the action. The act of penitence or confession was said
quietly, by only the priest and perhaps a deacon or server, at the foot of the altar before
the service started. There wasn’t a congregational confession, everyone just knew they
were sinners because the Church told them that’s how it was and you had to accept it. The
priest was the one who told you that God forgave your sins.
But…English, like all spoken languages, changes over the centuries. Words alter their
meanings and connotations. The problem with the modern word miserable is that – well,
it’s just miserable. It’s how you feel when you have a really foul cold or ache all over; it‘s
like being drenched through on a freezing, rainy day when you’ve forgotten your brolly and
have to wait endlessly for a bus which might never turn up. Cranmer took the Latin
“miserere nobis” – “have pity on us” – out of the Latin Mass and dropped it into his liturgy
as “miserable offenders”. He was getting the English churchgoer away from the Latin of the
Roman church to the English of the people, and miserable offenders, miserable sinners,
does sound like the words worshippers would have been used to. And in 16
English, ‘miserable’ might well have meant ‘pitiable’. But thou, O Lord have mercy upon us
pitiable offenders.
And could there possibly be other echoes? Cranmer liked using associated words, so we
find phrases in the Prayer Book like absolution and remission, perils and dangers, prayers
and supplications. And, lo and behold…mercy and miserable. Or “pitiable.” ‘But thou, O
Lord, have mercy on us who are to be pitied because of the reality that we do offend’.
Maybe Cranmer was trying to underline the wonder of God’s mercy by putting it together
with his understanding of the word “miserable” instead of having us just sink more and
more into despair at our sinfulness. The confession goes on to ask that God will have
mercy on us, to spare us and restore us; because God in Christ has promised to do just
that when we repent, meaning change the way we behave, and turn to God.
And what about all this putting ourselves down? Could this be in some way a product of
believing that because we are such bad sinners we deserve to actually be and act inferior?
Cranmer was heavily influenced by the Continental protesters, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli;
though Cranmer had to be careful. In post-reformation Henry the 8
England it was as
dangerous to be known as a Lutheran as it was to be a papist. Luther rebelled against the
idea of earning salvation by doing “works”, and insisted that – as with St Paul – it is only by
faith in the saving work of Christ that we are saved from eternal damnation. You couldn’t
buy your way out of hell with the Protestants using either money or good deeds. Their
starting position was that we are utterly sinful from birth (back to Augustine) and only God
in Christ can rescue us.
Strands of this Protestant influence come out strongly in some of Cranmer’s words,
particularly in the 16
century language of the first two Prayer Books which was somewhat
modified in the definitive 1662 version. As the only Prayer Book officially allowed in the
Church of England from 1662 until the mid 20
century, and incapable of change except by
an Act of Parliament, the antique self-abasing language of 1662 was pervasive in the English
culture despite its meaning changing considerably over the centuries.
So, here we are as humans, totally unworthy of getting anything nice, and to be pitied. And
thus we can only overcome our selfish sinful ways by denying ourselves, knowing ourselves
to be incapable of achieving salvation on our own; and putting everyone and everything
before our own needs and desires. We are to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give
up your cloak as well as your coat and love our enemies. But did Jesus genuinely mean that
literally or was there a really radical, coded, agenda? Jesus might actually have been quite
naughty. A Roman soldier in Judea could indeed order anyone to carry his pack for one
Roman mile, but if it was carried for two miles then the soldier would get into serious
disciplinary trouble. If you gave up your cloak as well as your coat then you would possibly
be naked, and the one taking both would be shamed in the eyes of society. St Paul’s letter
to the Romans (predating all the Gospel accounts) says if your enemies are hungry, feed
them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap
burning coals on their heads. If we are self-effacing and retiring, then people will think we’re
weak and doormats. But in fact we shame our enemies by helping them, and make them
feel bad. I suppose this is really a sin, but doesn’t it feel… good….!
However: many things Jesus teaches are radical counter-cultural sayings which reflect what
God’s Kingdom requires and not what selfish humans choose to do. He is shown as
homeless, frequently sleeping rough, dismissive of mother and relatives, without a socially
acceptable trade or occupation, a friend of some very dubious people, scorning material
possessions, a thorn in the side of both the political and religious establishment and highly
critical of the rich and powerful. We can indeed practice Kingdom values by choosing to
live by the standards of God’s kingdom. Not seeking our own good, but searching out
what’s best for others. Not seeking revenge, but forgiving. Not dominating, but serving.
And not being consumed with hatred, but become people who love. The problem of much
modern Christian life has been how to practise this sort of lifestyle while juggling school
fees, childcare, a car and a mortgage; and if you can afford to retire.
Can I offer you a fragment of hopeful press release coming out of the Vatican, from that
remarkable, charismatic, current Pope, one perhaps as revolutionary as Jesus. A source very
close to him believes that what Francis wants to do is “return the church to its true
doctrine – the one it has forgotten, the one that puts humanity back in the centre. For too
long the church put sin in the centre. By putting the suffering of humanity, and its
relationship with God, back in the centre…things will start to change.” We are indeed all
sinners. But we are not “miserable” sinners or, in our own modern evolution of that word,
“pitiable” sinners. And we’re not doomed to grovelling before an angry, wrathful, punishing
patriarch in the sky who hates us because we sin. Or being inferior or doormats for others
and need to continually apologise for who we are.
Instead we have a relationship with God where we are children of God who do sin and get
it wrong and feel bad about it; but a healthy relationship with God where we are always
forgiven. Not just seven times but seventy times seven times. And then forgiveness
transforms us from being miserable offenders into rejoicing in our blessed-ness and
reflecting that blessed-ness outwards, proclaiming the love of God for all creation and the
Good News of Jesus by what we say and do.
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. We hear the miserere nobis
echo of the ancient, historical western church which underlines the mercy we need because
of our sins. “Miserable” as currently defined is wildly negative. “Pitiable” is – perhaps –
better. But we are really neither miserable nor pitiable in so many ways, because God is
merciful; God forgives, spares and restores, for the real essence of God is love and we are
called to love.
And positive love tastes so much better than miserable negativity, doesn’t it.
©Leslie Spatt 2015