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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lenience vs. Leniency

2011-02-21 Matthew 5:38-48
"Lenience vs. Leniency"

You may have wondered why the Prayer of Confession has an asterisk by the word, "lenience." There's a reason. Patty was proofing the bulletin, saw the word, "lenience" and asked me if I didn't mean, "leniency," instead. Wanting to be precise (and to prove myself correct) I immediately looked up "lenience" on www.dictionary.com.

Patty, on the other hand, went to the antiquated hard-copy of the site, with its curious, thin sheets made from wood pulp, to look up "leniency."

Lenience is a noun describing the quality or state of being lenient.
Leniency is a noun describing the quality or state of being lenient.

I properly insisted, facts set aside, that "lenience" more fully captured the concept's essence. Patty, on the other hand, insisted "leniency" is more common.

"Precisely!" said I.
"Buffoonery!" said she.

Hearing the hullabaloo, Custodian Kathey pointed out that the Thesaurus would replace both with the word, "tolerance."

"Poppycock!" retorted we.

This caused one of the workers installing the hardwood floor to suggest we quell our tomfoolery with a call to a reference librarian. But by then I had tweeted my peeps, who alerted each other that the very fundamentals of "lenience" were at stake. Meanwhile, a pedestrian from the walking path had come inside to quench her thirst and posted on mobile Facebook that a local Presbyterian minister disagrees with "leniency" and must, therefore, be a merciless bigot. This caught the attention of a TV news station who dispatched a crew to cover a developing case of workplace oppression.

By the time I returned to my office, pro-leniency supporters were gathering in the parking lot. Police in riot gear formed a cordon between these and opposition pro-lenience demonstrators. The news feed was picked up by Fox, which called on all lenience-loving Americans to "refudiate." This, in turn, inspired Keith Olberman to deliver a diatribe on leniency on some network nobody's ever heard of. Hosni Mubarak called to express his sympathy, which prompted an expose of American imperialism on Al Jazeera. President Obama held a news conference to say he believes equally in "lenience" and "leniency," but that Sasha and Malia both prefer Moosetracks.

Hearing this, Cheryl summoned us all to the kitchen, where we unlocked the church's emergency supply of ice cream. In a miracle rivaling the Loaves and Fishes, everyone immediately shouted, "Hey! Ice cream!", halted hostilities and formed an orderly line. All were fed, with twelve cartons left over. Supporters of both lenience and leniency then ended the day by joining hands and singing songs of unity and rainbows.

International crisis... averted. Check.

And that's why the Prayer of Confession has an asterisk.


The part about Patty and me is indeed a version of the truth. That both words not only mean exactly the same thing but also describe being lenient has to be the Holy Spirit. The rest is offered as a parable about how arguments over the silliest things can escalate. Of course you already know this, if you have children. If you have brothers or sisters. If you have a spouse. If you have an ex-spouse. Or if you've attended a Presbytery meeting.

Some people really like arguing. It's kind of a hobby. Other people hate arguing so much that they stage the entire argument in their head.

"Why are you so quiet?"
"Oh, I'm having an argument with my mother."
"But, your mother's in Florida."
"Not to me, she isn't."
"What are you arguing about?"
"Something she said."
"Oh, you mean yesterday when you were laughing with her on the phone?"
"No. When I was 12."
"But you're 57."
"And she's still wrong."

Arguments escalate. Arguments extend. Arguments can go on for generations even if nobody remembers why. I grew up in West Virginia, the land of the Hatfields and McCoys. Hatfields were Saxons. McCoys were Scots-Irish, probably Presbyterian. No surprise. We're people who watch "Braveheart" and go, "So? What's the big deal?"


Around 1700 B.C., King Hammurabi of Babylon got tired of watching people poke each other in the eye, and then knock each other's teeth out, and then murder an entire family because their honor had been insulted. So he changed all civilization with one decree: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." The Bible picked it up. Hammurabi meant it as a way to end escalation and extension of arguments. You poke me in the eye, I poke you in the eye, it's over. It looked good on paper.

But even the best ideas can get twisted. People read the law and discovered a new interpretation. Instead of restraining, it became enabling.

"You mean it's in the Bible that if someone pokes me in the eye, it's OK for me to poke him back?" Ten year-old boys everywhere are going, "Sweet."

And maybe it's not just physical. If someone hurts my feelings, do I get to hurt theirs back? If someone insults me, do I get to insult them back? If someone tells a "Yo Mama" joke, do I get to make fun of their mother?

Hey, it's not my idea; the Bible tells me so.

If only it ended with eye-pokes and Yo Mama jokes. If only ice cream could make everything better.

A lot of people, maybe you, have scars that can't be covered up. Can't be forgotten. Maybe can't be forgiven. How do you get justice when there is no satisfactory retribution for abusive harm or senseless crime? Once you've been hurt that badly, can you ever reclaim a sense of lenience, or leniency, or peace?

That's where Jesus picks up.


"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." -- Mahatma Gandhi.

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." -- Jesus.

And then, Jesus takes it way farther, beyond the physical into the heart and into the soul. Takes it into the deepest, darkest hiding places of resentment and hate.

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...."

The King James Version makes it even more pointed:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

A couple of weeks ago, we were reminded that Jesus told us to be the salt of the earth; not the sugar. Jesus is being the salt in the wounds that we keep from healing. His words are supposed to sting. His sermon on the mount is supposed to make us uncomfortable.

He does a good job.


There's the saying, "Let go and let God." It's a blessed idea, and people in AA say it all the time. Over, and over, and over. It's easy to say, but it's not a quick solution. It's a practice, a spiritual discipline that's just one part of one step in a walk that lasts a lifetime.

Science tells us that our brains can wrap themselves around memories, rewire themselves into grudges so that not just mentally, but physically, we can't let go. That's why God gives us help. God gives us help in the form of people that it's safe to let go with, gives us churches who practice spiritual disciplines even when it's hard, gives us 12-step programs, and counselors, and psychiatrists and medicines that make life, maybe not great, but livable, so we can let God carry us, a little bit.

Jesus said, "Be perfect... as your Father in heaven is perfect." Notice, he didn't say, "Be perfect, like me." He could have. But he directs us to One we've never seen. Notice, too, he doesn't say, "Get perfect... right this minute." As if perfection is something you can achieve on your own, instantly. "Be perfect," means being, and it implies that perfection is something you practice, not something you are. Maybe if we practice enough, someday, we'll get it right, for a few minutes.

I used to have a coach who said, "Practice does NOT make perfect; Practicing RIGHT makes perfect." I have a feeling that an even better coach like Pat Summitt might say that practicing right... makes you see how much more you need to practice.

Jesus said to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. Jesus came to earth to show us that above everything else, Our Father in heaven is perfect at forgiveness. That's the good news. The hard news is that God calls us to practice our forgiveness in the same way. God calls us to practice our lenience, our leniency, as much as or even more than our sense of justice. God could not have called us to anything harder. But if it were easy, we'd all be God.


The Presbyterian Church (USA) is considering adding to its list of statements of faith a document called The Confession of Belhar. The Confession of Belhar was published in 1986 and adopted by the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, which is a sister denomination of ours. If ever there was a place where injustices could justifiably turn into grudges it would be South Africa. Instead, the churches there came together to be an example of loving your enemy and praying for (and with) those who persecute you.

Part of the Confession of Belhar reads...

We believe • that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker,

[We believe] that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.

[We believe] that God's lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God's lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world;

[We believe] that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways:

in that we love one another;

that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another;

that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another;

that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind;

have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope;

together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ;

together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity;

together know and bear one another's burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another;

that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness;

pray together;

together serve God in this world;

and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity;

IF THE SOUTH AFRICANS CAN DO IT... we in this great land of freedom and opportunity ought to be able to do it, too.

Every one of us, however imperfect we are, are called to practice the perfection of God, in the hopes that someday, we'll get it right.

Someday, God will put an end to the grudges, God will put an end to the hurts, God will put and end to the imperfection that makes people fight and harm and take eyes for eyes and blood for blood. But in the meantime, we are to practice God's perfection. Even when it's hard. And especially when it's hard.