Criminal Decency

By Bob Hiller

We have entered the Christmas season full bore in the Hiller household. Lights are up on the house. The tree is decorated. Stockings are hung by the chimney with care. And apart from the 82 degree weather outside, we are primed for the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby danced with Danny…well, you get the idea. My kids love this time of year. Like many of you, one of their favorite parts of the season is the Christmas movies. Lately, they have become addicted to Home Alone. It’s getting to the point where my middle son says, “I don’t want you guys to leave me alone for Christmas—but if you do, I hope someone tries to rob me so I can do all that stuff to them!” Thieves, you’ve been warned.

Because we can’t get enough of the movie, we decided to watch the deleted scenes last week. I’ll save you the trouble. They aren’t so hot. But one particular scene, “Criminal Decency,” did grab my attention. In it, two burglars, Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), are scouting the neighborhood they plan to rob. As they do, they get into an ironic conversation on the failing morals of our society. The dialogue is as follows:

Harry: Remember the good old days? When people used to stay home for Christmas?

Marv: Yeah, now it’s off to Hawaii or Aspen or Paris!

Harry: Whatever happened to sittin’ around the fireplace with your family tree?

Marv: Yeah, roastin’ chestnuts, singin’ Christmas carols.

Harry: That’s why I hate Christmas, Marv. I hate it. People have become too cynical, too jaded. It’s just another sign of the ongoing moral decay of contemporary society. That’s all it is. That’s all it is.

Marv: Yeah…so which house you wanna hit first?

It is actually a pretty funny scene, I think. But I also found it a bit troubling. Here were two men, waxing on about the moral ills of society, all the while intending to harm the lives of numerous families by robbing their homes over Christmas (And then flooding said homes. After all, they are the Wet Bandits!). The whole conversation went off without a hint of irony on their part. We, however, watched and laughed at such foolish hypocrisy. Can you imagine? Criminals, very clearly doing wrong, taking the high moral ground? Hilarious!

Right. Until it struck me that the way I was looking at Harry and Marv is very often the way many people look at the church. I mean, here you have an institution full of sinners that has no hesitation in telling other people how to live. We Christians are very good at diagnosing other people’s sins, while not taking our own quite as seriously. We are very comfortable on our moral high horse, looking down at the rest of this sinful world, telling them about how their actions are contributing to the “ongoing moral decay of contemporary society.” It’s incredible how good we have gotten at speck examination, especially with that enormous plank residing in our eye-sockets!

In a recent conversation with a college professor, we were discussing the decline in church attendance among the millennial generation. She said that many of her students are choosing to leave because, though they grew up in Christian homes, they are disenchanted by a church that promises strong healthy marriages but couldn’t stop mom and dad from getting a divorce. The church promised a safe place from the moral ills of “those sinners over there” only to end up with the same results as “the world.” Except that, because the church was depicted as the place of the morally superior, there was no healing or mercy for those who shamed the flock with their failed marriages, sinful lapses, and addictions. If life in the church is exactly like life outside of the church, only with Harry and Marv’s judgmental attitude condemning everyone else, what’s the point? Why should millennials, or anyone for that matter, take the church seriously when we just look like criminals with a moral axe to grind?

I wonder if our stance before the world shouldn’t be different. It is not that we shouldn’t speak out against the ills of society. But rather, I wonder if we shouldn’t start off by acknowledging, or should I say confessing, those ills in our own midst. Isn’t this what the liturgy forms us to do? To start with repentance? The church shouldn’t be known as a place of moral superiority, but as place of repentance, of turning from the sins that offend God, harm our neighbors, and damage us, and turning towards the only One who can heal us. The vitriolic grand-standing of the right and the left do not shape the rhetoric of the church; the Law and the Gospel do. The liturgy does. The liturgy teaches us to repent before God and one another that we are the most sinful person in our world, that our thoughts and desires are soiled with sin, that there are those whom we have hurt and those whom we have failed to help. All too often, those include the very people we are trying to correct! The Law isn’t there for you to use it against your neighbor to further your causes; it’ there to accuse you!

There is this marvelous scene toward the end of Home Alone in which Kevin (Macauly Culkin) is about to defend his house against Harry and Marv. Beforehand, though, he goes into the local church. There he is met by his neighbor Mr. Marley (Roberts Blossom). In the course of their conversation, Kevin admits to feeling bad about how he’s treated his family. Old Man Marley responds, “Well, this [the church] is the place to come if you are feeling bad about yourself.”

Now, I don’t think Marley had studied the Small Catechism, but my goodness, he nails this one!  The church is the place to come with your shame and your guilt! Because that is where Jesus promises to be with forgiveness for your sins! It isn’t the place where the proud should set themselves over the rest of society. It’s where the rest of society comes for undeserved mercy, healing, and hope. It’s the place where criminals are exposed so that they are readied for forgiveness, and it’s there to get that forgiveness to them!  It isn’t there to make you better than everyone else. It’s there because you are just as sinful as the rest of us. “In this Christian Church [Jesus] daily and richly forgives my sins and the sins of all believers” (Small Catechism, Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed).

With such an undeserved mercy and forgiveness from Jesus, I wonder what it would look like if the church began to speak as the liturgy forms us to speak. What if we, as Christians, stopped using our words to boast or our righteous deeds and views, and instead repented? What if we repented of our sins, our pride, our greed, our contribution to the world’s issues and then began to sing the praises of One who actually came to make things right? What if repentance and Christ were the things the church, that is, what you were known for in your relationships, your conversations, your Facebook feeds? What if we in repentance, pointed away from ourselves with our lives and words, toward Jesus? May ours be a message not of moral superiority, but of forgiveness for the sake of Christ Jesus!