When was the last time you put your foot in your mouth? It’s a great idiom we use to describe situations when we unintentionally say something embarrassing or downright tactless. We’ve all done it at some point, and some of us seem to be more prone than others. We could all benefit by paying closer attention to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, “Silence is golden.”
Bishop Ed Salmon used to tease his wife, Louise, about frequently finding herself suffering from “foot-in-mouth disease.” Louise tells the story of being on a trip to Massachusetts years ago with Ed that, among other things, included touring churches. As their group was concluding the tour in one parish, the docent asked her what she thought about the design. And she said, “Since you asked, I need to be honest and tell you it’s the ugliest church I’ve ever seen.” And, of course, he said, “I’m sorry you feel that way. My father was the architect.” Feeling particularly guilty, and wanting to make it better, Louise tried to recover, saying, “Actually, I shouldn’t have said that. The ugliest church I’ve ever seen is in Peoria,” to which he replied, “Yeah, he designed that one, too.”
These foot-in-mouth moments often occur when we are caught off guard or when we’re anxious, embarrassed, or afraid.
On the Mt. of Transfiguration, St. Mark tells us “Peter did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” So, he ended up blurting out, “Rabbi, let us make three booths…” That doesn’t sound particularly wacky at first blush, because it’s certainly not wrong for any disciple to delight in the presence of the transfigured, glorified Christ.
But, upon further review, it’s a classic foot-in-mouth moment – a completely impulsive interjection rooted in Peter just being Peter – in being the patron saint of “foot-in-mouth disease.”
I really don’t want this to be a typical, or predictable, give-Peter-a-hard-time homily, because St. Peter’s character is too often the subject of unfair pulpit attack. But, surely you’ve noticed how he blurts out comments only to regret them.
Remember when Peter saw Jesus walking on water and immediately said, “Master, call me to come to you on the water.” And Peter leapt out into the water, but he immediately lost his nerve and began to sink! And let’s not forget his foot-shaped mouth in the Upper Room when he tells Jesus, “You’ll never wash my feet,” and Jesus responds, “Unless I wash your feet, Peter, you have no part with me.” Can’t you just see Peter sitting in self-imposed isolation over in the corner, thinking, “Why did I say that literally in front of God and all the other disciples?!?” And, of course, we’ll never let the guy live down this regrettable comment: “Lord, I will never deny Thee.”
And today it is that same Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, with Saints James and John seeing firsthand the transfigured Jesus – the full glory of the face of God in Jesus Christ…brighter than the sun – and Peter can’t help but offer some form of commentary.
And it’s not so much the words of the comment that bother me – it’s not the syntax. The words and structure are fine. The slipup is more subtle. It’s not the desire to capture the moment that’s the problem. It’s the reflex – the fact he feels almost required – to contribute something to the situation that causes me concern.
There is an exceedingly dangerous heresy that has been around from the beginning, really. By the fifth century, however, it became known as Pelagianism – named after a British monk, Pelagius – and it can be summed up with the following cliché: “God does his part, and I do mine.”
The contemporary author Tullian Tchividjian warns us, saying:
In [Pelagianism] Jesus is eventually eclipsed. We become the center of the story. Our faith is no longer about Christ’s performance on our behalf, but our performance for him.
Now, let me pause and unequivocally state that I’m not claiming a new revelation that St. Peter was the first Pelagian!
I’m simply saying I see that kind of impulse underneath his comment – just as I see it all the time, frankly, in my own life and in yours – in how we are utterly exhausted by, yet keep on trying to satisfy, self-imposed demands to measure up, to bring something of our own to the table – and how this really wrecks our relationship with God.
The most flimsy foundation upon which one can build a life, especially a spiritual life, is the one that equates nirvana with personal performance and self-determination. It always results in disaster and the loss of all stability. Yet, I have watched myself, and all my friends, at some point, be completely and totally overcome by this false and merciless god.
Have you ever heard of The Swimmer? It was a short story written by John Cheever and first published by The New Yorker in 1964. Hollywood made a film out of it with Burt Lancaster in the lead role. In the literary version, which you really have to read this week, Neddy Merrill is relaxing with a cocktail in a friend’s beautiful pool in posh Westchester County on the perfect summer day, and he gets this rather wild, but doable, idea to make his way home by swimming through a string of neighborhood pools instead of taking the usual path.
It is abundantly clear that you and I would recognize Neddy as one who has invested his whole life’s energy in personal achievement – as one who worships only at altars he can construct. And this is clear because in the first few pools through which he swims, the neighbors are thrilled to see him in their backyard. They all rush out and fawn over him, offering adulation and another cocktail, because, well, he’s Neddy Merrill – a man who brings something to the table.
But, with each successive pool, the short story turns dreamlike – and tragically dark. It’s an epic Greek tragedy condensed to just twelve pages. And it becomes obvious that Neddy isn’t really swimming at all. He’s looking back over the course of his life with sobering remorse. As he starts to get tired from all the swimming, he realizes he’s not so youthful, handsome, and athletic anymore, and some of the pool owners snub him, mentioning his financial problems and issues with his wife and family.
Clearly in denial that the idols of his own strength and effort could let him down, when he finally reaches what he thinks is the safety and comfort of his own pool, the gate handle is covered in rust, and his home is abandoned. Gone even are his wife and children. Cheever writes:
He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.
And so the story ends for Neddy.
But when Christians face the facts – when we finally realize many of the doors we’ve tried to force open with our own strength only open to an empty house – we ask ourselves a question. What has the greater power: our own righteousness and performance or the blood of Jesus?
Sermon preached by the Rev. Charleston D. Wilson
Church of the Redeemer
Last Sunday after Epiphany
14 February 2021