Jesse James & Me & (maybe) You

A Rabid Fundamentalist Column


John W. Cowart

On Valentine’s Day, February 14,1866,  Jesse James held up the Liberty Missouri Bank and became America’s first – and most famous -- bank robber.

Soon afterwards, Jesse, his brother Frank and their gang robbed the banking house of Nimrod & Cin in Russellville, Kentucky.

Over the next few months they robbed a Richmond, Missouri Bank; a bank in Columbia, Kentucky; and the Daviess Savings Bank in Gallatin, Missouri. The James gang also robbed trains, but bank robbing was Jesse’s hallmark.

For 15 years Jesse James and his gang galloped into towns guns blazing, shooting at anyone in the streets to frighten away those inclined to interfere with their holding up the bank.

Jesse enjoyed his work.

He ought to; after all he was a minister’s son.

I have never held up a bank – not yet anyhow.

But once I stole the leg from under somebody’s dining room table.

Does that count?

I don’t know about you, but I feel able to resist big temptations.  It’s the little ones that get me every time.

I’m probably not alone in this. I mean, how many bank robbers do you know? How many petty people?

When it comes to sin, most of us are a weak, insipid, sorry lot.

It’s a cultural thing.

Seldom do we shake our fist in Gods face, call him dirty names and defy him to do anything about it.

We just don’t do that.

Not polite.


In our culture most of us recognize and avoid the biggies when it comes to temptations. There are so few of us who murder relatives, mug old ladies, molest children, blow up buildings or rob banks that when some creep does do one of these things, it makes the evening news.

But the tinny tiny temptations snag us daily.

Our race has a long history of falling to tinny tiny temptations. Satan tempted Eve with a piece of fruit, not a million dollars.

And she bit.

And would you just look at the repercussions.

The cumulative effect of people succumbing to tiny temptations for years have made our world what it is today. Take pollution for instance. No one guy polluted the air and water; but, like a school of piranhas after a fat cow in the river, each one of us has taken our own little bite out of God’s creation. And you see the results – overflowing landfills, ozone layer, pollution index, Greenhouse effect, sludge in the water, smog in the air, burning rivers, highway litter, toxins in mother’s milk …

You cain’t blame me.

All I did was change my lawnmower’s oil and pour the old stuff in the storm drain at the curb.

I am not a polluter.

Save that accusation for the Exxon Valdese guys.

I am not a sinner.

Not a big one anyhow.

Jesse James is the one who robbed banks.

I just do piddling little stuff, same kind of thing you do. Not really bad, just a bit naughty. Nothing to get arrested over. No reward offered for me. The SWAT team never raids my house. I hardly ever fall to big temptations; I just trip over little ones.

Jesse James is the one who held up trains.

Not me.

I’ll never make it to Sin’s Hall Of Fame.

Neither will you.

Our sins are too little. Too petty. Too small-time.

But we can’t feel virtuous about that.

Truth to tell, it’s just that we’re not very good at sinning.

Once I heard a young man testify, “Before I was saved I never did any big sins -- but I was an obnoxious little snot”.

Thank God for an honest man!

Yes, sinners who are really good at it become famous and make their mark in history. Jesse James died in 1882, shot in the back at home, but Hollywood still makes hero-movies about him. Will they make one about you? Will your name be remembered for your sins for hundreds of years like  Casanova or Messalina?  World-wide, who is better known, Adolph Hitler or Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

And here 2,000 years later, every Sunday millions and millions of people chant that something or another happened “Under Pontius Pilate”.

How’s that for name recognition?

Big sinners get damned to Hell; most of us just dribble there.

Big sinners gain status almost heroic in nature.

Petty sinners remain unknown.

Jesse James is the one who shot it out with the law.

All I did was steal a table leg.

Years ago --late ’60, early ‘70s I think -- I drove a furniture van delivering goods to a warehouse somewhere or another out west. As I unloaded, the warehouse manager gave me grief. He hassled me. He made my life harder than it needed to be. He even said unkind things about my ability to back the semi to the dock.

That did it!

I picked up that table leg, told him to back off, and when he said one more word, I whacked him side the head and beat him to a bloody pulp. I blacked his eye and broke his teeth and kicked him when he was down. Then I spit in the blood pooling around his body there on the warehouse floor…


No, I didn’t.

That’s what Jesse James might have done.

That would have been a bold, manly sin. A sin I could be proud of. A sin that I think would have been temporarily satisfying. But I didn’t do any of that.

What I did do was to hide one of the table legs in some castoff packing material, got the man to sign the invoice accepting a complete shipment, then I snuck off with his table leg. Threw it in a dumpster in the next town. He wouldn’t know about my revenge, that I’d cheated him, till weeks later when he’d come up short on inventory.

I did not succumb to the big temptation – whacking the … er, gentleman like I really wanted to.

Instead, I chose the tinny tiny temptation – the sneaky, squalid, cowardly, petty one.

Am I typical?

I hope not.

But I wonder.

The thing is that tinny tiny temptations and sins are so little, so insignificant, so petty, that they just form white noise in the background of our lives.

They’re so small most of us hardly even recognize them as temptations to sin.

They are no big deal; they are just drips in the bucket.

Hey, you don’t embezzle millions from your company. There’s only one Kenneth Ley. But leaving at 4:45 instead of 5 o’clock. That’s just convenient. No big deal. Another drip in the bucket.

You don’t star in porno films. Just a harmless flirtation with that person at the office. No big deal. A drip in the bucket.

A little bit of festering revenge.


A morsel of juicy gossip.


A mocicum of envy.


A touch of anger.


Drip. Drip. Drip after drip. All night long. Night after night. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year.

Those add up to an awful lot of tiny drips.

And your life is a very big bucket.

All those squalid, shameful, petty, slimy, little nasties accumulate.

One of those gloomy Old Testament prophets announced, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die”. Morbid? No. That means there’s an end in sight, that one day  your faucet gets turned off. The drips stop.



Jesse James in his coffin          John Cowart in his coffin

When it comes time to pick up that bucket and stand before the High and Holy God for judgment, who is able lift it?

I sure can’t lift mine -- besides all that other slimy stuff in there, there’s this table leg poking out of my bucket.

What a weight!

What a burden!

It’s just too heavy.


Look again.

That’s not a bucket.

 It’s a 50-gallon drum!

And it’s full up.

If anybody anywhere ever needed a Savior, it’s John Cowart.

O God, please be merciful to me, a sinner.

But -- There’s good news: Christ died for us petty sinners too.

At the Cross, me and you and Jesse James and Al Capone and Ted Bundy – we all stand on level ground.

Jesus didn’t leave Heaven for earth and sacrifice his life just for the big-name, celebrity sinners.

The Bible says that the Jesus Christ, the Infinite Son of the Almighty Eternal God, died for drips.

The Bible says that He “carried the burden of our sins in his own body on the tree”.

He carried the burden -- the cumulative effect of all our sins -- in his own body on the cross.

Why do you suppose He did that?

You’re right!

You’re absolutely right.

And that’s fundamental.


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