Repentance, a Dirty Word?
Happy New Year! I decided to preach about repentance today—to which we react as if repentance were a dirty word. So to make my sermon more palatable, I thought I would start with an unrelated Biblical joke that a young parishioner of mine told me a few years ago. Qu: How does Moses make coffee? A: He brews! (That is in honor of our second readings during the Christmas season from the book of Hebrews).
It is New Year’s Day, when we put the past year behind us—or try to at least—and prepare ourselves for the new year and fresh start by reflecting on our lives and our behaviors, and identifying aspects we want to change by adopting resolutions that will make us healthier, better, richer, skinnier, happier, etc. For many, 2016 has been a year of disappointments and frustrations that are setting us up for carrying our negative feelings, including anger, into the new year. I think it is fitting then, to start a New Year’s Sermon with some popular advice. 8 things you should never do when you are angry.
"Never go to bed angry”—sleep consolidates your emotional state and makes it harder to move through.
“Don’t drive when you are angry—especially in LA”—anger makes you aggressive and gives you tunnel vision….so you don’t see that car turning left in front of you and Wham!
“Don’t vent if you are angry.”—it actually makes you angrier and makes you feel validated in your anger—And spreads anger around.
“Don’t eat when you are angry.”—It gives you indigestion and makes you fat.
“Don’t continue an angry conversation.”—take a time out and come back to it when you can be calm in order to achieve an effective outcome.
“When you are angry, don’t send e-mail (or tweet or post on Facebook”—you will probably regret it. (If writing helps you process anger, put it in a journal or type in a Word doc, but don’t send it.”)
“When you are angry, don’t drink alcohol.”—it lowers your inhibitions and makes you more likely to act out your anger in ways that will do more harm than good.
“When you are angry, don’t send soldiers to kill all children under the age of two because you were tricked by three magi and you are angry that your power and authority are being challenged by a poor baby born in a remote village that you fear will be worshipped as King of the Jews.”
I guess no one told Herod that last one. We have come a long way in a short week since Christmas. A week ago, we celebrated how God has become flesh, sent us our savior in Jesus Christ in the form of a sweet, beautiful little baby who is venerated by angels, shepherds and cows alike. And now today we are forced to confront the consequences of God’s generosity and grace toward us: the violence and oppression by those who feel threatened by God’s righteousness and justice.
There is an adage that came out of the recovery movement and then used by American feminists and other activists that summarizes the power of God’s grace through Jesus Christ: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
And that is where we find ourselves on this New Year’s Day at the start of 2017. We rejoice in the truth of God’s grace, righteousness and justice—and we wrestle with the anger that it evokes. If we are angry—whenever we are angry, we are required to discern the nature of our anger: is our anger a legitimate and necessary and motivating response to injustice that contradicts God’s vision? Or like Herod, are we angry because God’s vision and action contradict our power and authority—personally or publicly?
To discern the true nature of our anger, we need to know and understand what God’s vision is. And the best way to do that is to study how God acts through Jesus Christ in our scriptures. (That’s why we read the Bible—to deepen our understanding of God’s vision). Of course, like any text, you can find proof in the Bible for both sides of most arguments. [That’s called proof texting.]
I believe that if we read the Gospel—the stories of Jesus’ action and teaching-- in our Bible comprehensively and honestly and free of our own self-interest—we will know that God is on the side of the vulnerable…and on the side of the repentant sinner….always.
The question for us this morning is: whose side are we on, fellow children of God?
Saying that “God is always on the side of the vulnerable” is another way of saying Emmanuel, God with us. God is always with the vulnerable. Now, in this new season in our nation, “vulnerability” doesn’t have much cache—quite the opposite: muscular Christianity, which promotes physical strength and masculine authority, and muscular politics, which divides the world into “winners” and “losers,” seem soon to be ruling the day. But the reality is that we are all vulnerable—whether we mask that vulnerability with power, bluster, hate, or wealth. We are all vulnerable—we are all born naked and squealing and small. And we all age, and we all die beyond helpless. And when we forget that we are vulnerable, we become most vulnerable ourselves, as Luther would say, to sin, death and the devil. We do well to recall the practice in the Roman Republic that when a victorious general was celebrated, a civic victory crown of laurel and oak was held above the general’s head while the attendant repeated continuously: remember, you are mortal. We are all mortal, we are all vulnerable, and that is Good News to the children of God because in our acknowledged vulnerability we are not alone. God is with us, seeking our healing and salvation, just as God has throughout the ages, from the days of Isaiah to this very moment: God offers salvation for God’s children through God’s active presence in our lives: (Listen to the words of Isaiah again: In God’s love and in God’s pity God redeemed them; God lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” And God promises us that same salvation today and into the new days of the future.)
God carries us in our vulnerabilities, and so God empowers us personally and as the Body of Christ to be God’s presence among the vulnerable. At St. Matt’s, we are practiced at being God’s presence among Deaf people, and vulnerable LGBTQ youth and adults who fear or experience rejection and sometimes violent opposition including from fellow Christians. We are increasingly practiced in being God’s presence among vulnerable homeless persons, helping to care and protect them. We are exploring ways we can be God’s presence among our Latino brothers and sisters, Muslim friends and other immigrants and non-European people who are feeling vulnerable this new year. But on this Sunday that is sometimes referred to in our church calendar as the “slaughter of the innocents” I would challenge us to remember other vulnerable persons we are less inclined to defend—unborn children, veterans—especially those who have returned from war more vulnerable than when they left—and young victims of sex industries like trafficking and pornography—vulnerables more regularly protected by the religious right than the Christian left. Because God’s concern for the vulnerable isn’t limited by our human political divisions.
God is on the side of the vulnerable, and God is on the side of repentant sinners—think of all the parables—the prodigal son in Luke, the adulterous woman in John, even the “outer darkness and gnashing of teeth” meant as a wake-up call in Matthew. Again and again we see that God is on the side of repentant sinners. Now, I am not much of a “fire and brimstone” preacher, but New Year’s Day gives us the pop-cultural opportunity to talk about sin and repentance. Because what is a New Year’s resolution if not repentance tied up with a bow. A pig with lipstick is still a pig. And I happen to like pigs….and repentance. New Year’s Day is a day that we can thank God for giving us a process to grow and to become more fully divine as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. And that process for growth and maturity and divinity is repentance: where we own up to our mistakes, we ask for forgiveness, and with a repentant heart ask the God who is with us to transform us into more complete instruments of God’s love, righteousness and peace.
So as we enter into this new year, I would challenge us to use our New Year’s resolutions to recognize that “repentance” isn’t a dirty word—it is a gift, and we are called to commit ourselves to that beautiful and powerful and renewing act of confessing and being forgiven and maturing as God’s children—and not just this one day, but every day of the year. Because every time we repent, we are made new. And that is what will make this year, 2017, NEW and Happy.