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A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens March 11, 2007 at the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio,

Dedicated to the memory of Bud Russell and the Rev. Russell Wigfield, my friend and mentor and always to the glory of God!
The Sacrament of Repentance
Part IV of VIII in the sermon series, “The Sacraments of Life”
Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9

Today we come near the midpoint of Lent and the sermon series, “The Sacraments of Life.” Please allow me to remind you that a “sacrament” is defined as a rite or a ritual in which God’s saving grace is uniquely active and intimately revealed to us. In the 4th Century, Augustine defined a sacrament as a “visible sign of an invisible reality.”

A sacrament points us to embrace God’s salvation. While we most often associate Baptism and Holy Communion as our sacraments, in this season - and perhaps for all time - I am asking that we expand our experience and open our hearts and minds to the sacraments of life - those realities in which and through which God’s grace and love is revealed in our lives. How is God working out salvation in the simple and splendid everyday experiences and encounters of your life? Today, the sacrament of repentance . . .

In her book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris tells of her work as an artist-in-residence in parochial schools. Often she reads the psalms out loud to inspire the students who, as she says, “are usually not aware that the snippets they sing at Mass are among the greatest poems in the world.”

When Norris asks the students to write their own psalms, their poems have an emotional directness that is similar to that of the biblical psalter. They know what it is like to be small in the world designed for big people, to feel lost and abandoned.

She writes:

Children are frequently astonished to discover that the psalmists so freely expressed the more unacceptable emotions, sadness and even anger, even anger at God, and that all of this is in the Bible they hear read in church on Sunday morning.

Children who are picked on by their big brothers and sisters can be remarkably adept when it comes to writing cursing psalms, and . . . the writing process offers them a safe haven to work through their desires for vengeance in a healthy way.

Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, wreck his room and finally wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: “then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.”

“My messy house” says it all: with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage, and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in the fourth century monastic desert, his elders might have told him he was well on his way to repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell? (“Repentance,” from Amazing Grace, by Kathleen Norris, Riverhead Books, 1998).

To repent means to feel remorse or regret for what one has done or has failed to do. In this feeling and in our faith tradition, to be Repentant means to “turn to God.” It means to clean up the messy houses of our lives, to “clean up our act” so that God might dwell with us.

To be repentant, one must get in touch with one’s own sin. “Sin,” as you know, is not a word that abides well within our congregational vernacular. In his book, Whatever Became of Sin?, Dr. Karl Menninger makes the case that sin has lost its place in our culture altogether (and this is a book that was written in 1973).

Face the truth: We would much rather blame others for the mess we are in than confess the mess we have created ,or allowed to become toxic, in our own families and locales. We would much rather point fingers at the phoniness or failure of other faith experiences than speak about the phoniness and failures within our own. We would much rather follow the urbane self-centeredness of positive thinking movements and the civic club mentality which have become the heirs of the social gospel movements than listen to John the Baptist crying in the wilderness with the prophets of old: “Repent! Turn your life around! ! Get ready for God!”

We hear Jesus in Luke’s Gospel crying “unless you repent, you will die!” and we think to ourselves he must have had one too many Chocolate Lattes! Instead, we should be asking, how much time do we have to turn around? And we should be confessing our sin, and asking “what must I do Lord, to repent and turn to you?”

Karl Menninger tells the story of a man on a sunny September day in Chicago, stern-faced and plainly dressed, solemnly lifting his right arm, pointing to the person nearest him and intoning loudly one single word - “GUILTY! ” As people passed by, they would stare at him, look away, look back and then ashamedly and hurriedly continue on their ways. One man who was walking with Menninger turned to the psychologist and asked, “But how did he know?”

How indeed did he know? Everyone, guilty? Guilty of what? Over parking? Lying? Arrogance and hubris toward God? Guilty of “borrowing” but not embezzling? Guilty of unfaithfulness to a faithful wife or husband? Guilty of evil thoughts or evil plans against someone? How, indeed, did he know? (Karl Menninger, in Whatever Became of Sin?, Hawthorn Books, NY, NY, 1973, pp.1-2).

In one sense, the man on the street corner was right. We are all “guilty!” We have, in the confessional of the old Evangelical and Reformed Hymnal (words I prayed every Sunday as a child), “We have erred and strayed from thy ways, like lost sheep. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done. Now, O Lord, have mercy upon us. Spare thou, those who are penitent and restore thou, those who confess their sins.”

Besides erring and straying like lost sheep, we also carry confusion about sin which is caused by conservative interpretations of Sin. You know what I am talking about. For those who come from the Bible Belt, you know that sin is very clear. It is defined as a bad deed. While there are many “bad deeds” from this theological viewpoint, the favorite anti-sin sermons are focused on smoking, drinking, gambling, dancing, going to movies, womanizing, and homosexuality (not neccessarily in that order). In this understanding of sin, the definition involves the knowledge of good and evil and the willful choice of evil. Preaching in this world view produces sexism, bigotry and homophobia. It may also drive people to drink and head to the dance floor and movies. The “good ones” (those who do no bad deeds or those who preach about it but do bad deeds mostly undetected) always feel satisfied with themselves and quite justified in excluding the “evil ones” from their world. (Drawn from John Shelby Spong, This Hebrew Lord, Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1993, pp.57-58).

In This Hebrew Lord, Bishop John Shelby Spong presents that Sin is much more than bad deeds done and good deeds left undone. Sin is more about Being than doing. He writes, “The inner dissatisfaction with life, the insatiable need to become, produces, without exception self-centeredness . . . Inevitably we organize our lives with our needs at the center in a vain attempt to meet our own ego needs. We look at life through the prejudiced lenses of our self-assigned value. Meeting our ego needs becomes our primary human motivation. From this universal discontent comes all of the hurt and pain of life” (Spong, pp. 64-65).

We are born into this sin. We pass it on. We pass it on as a lack of security, as fears, as phobias, as inadequate sense of self-worth, and as inferiority complexes (Ibid). The deeds that arise from these conditions of our Being can be destructive. But they are not the causes of sin, rather they are the sinful manifestations of our Being.

When God sees us, from the beginning of time as “beautiful” and “good,” God sees that all the misdeeds of our lives arise from our not seeing ourselves as beautiful and good. Our misdeeds arise from our constant need for affirmation. Whether the abuse of another person or the creation itself; whether taking advantage of the poor ones in our homes, or on the streets of this city; whether venting our rage upon our family members or co-workers or the venting war upon innocents abroad - Sin grows out of our distortion of human life and our inability to accept ourselves as we are. Sin grows out of our inability to live our dreams and visions (Ibid). Sin grows from our inability to live into the way God sees us.

In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he uses three different words for sin - paratoma - which is the alienation of the creature from the creator; hamartia - which means missing the mark. A life that misses the marks is a life separated from God and the love which frees one, leaving us shackled in self-centeredness and insecurity. Finally, there is parabasis - the bad deeds that flow from our fallen state, revealing our sickness and need for healing. While so many people choose to focus on deeds or misdeeds as sin, Paul describes sin as our Being as well as the deeds that arise out of and reflect on our being.

So wrapped-up in sin, we ask, how do we extricate ourselves from this condition of being and the deeds that follow like a trail of oil upon the water?

Simply stated - repentance. In admitting to God the broken nature of our being and the confessing the deeds that arisen from this, we are granted new life and a new chance to live life fully. In Jesus Christ, we live and move and have our being. Jesus points the way to repentance in today’s parable of the fig. He shows the way to turn around and live life in God’s favor.

First, he tells in this parable that nothing which only takes can survive. The fig tree was drawing strength and sustenance from the soil. In return it was producing nothing. As we live our lives, we need to remember we would never have reached the point at which we are living, unless we drew from the strength of others before us. Quite literally, we stand on the shoulders of giants. We need to give back to others every day in gratitude for what has been given for us.

Second, we learn from this story that we have a second chance in the love and grace of Jesus Christ. While normally, a fig tree takes three years to reach maturity, this fig doesn’t make it and thus is given a second chance. Jesus is the Lord of Second Chances. Just ask Peter, and Paul, Mark and Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the woman caught in adultery. They are all recipients of second chances. To fall and rise again is a promise which is fulfilled in God’s love and grace through Jesus Christ - the Lord of Second Chances.

Paul said it well before me. “I am the greatest among sinners. I could never have made it in this world without mercy” (I Timothy 1:15). I resemble these words - from the definition of sin as being and as doing. How about you?

Today, this week, in the near future , as you sit in your messy house (figuratively or literally) and say to yourself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that,” know repentance is a sacrament. Know that God hears the words of your lips and the confessions of your heart and God will grant you the sacrament of love and grace through Jesus Christ our Lord. In Him, you are forgiven and given new life. Amen.

Copyright 2007, The First Congregational Church