REPENTING AND SHARING
A sermon preached by The Very Rev. Bill Maxwell
The Eastern Orthodox pay more attention to John the Baptist than we do. On the iconostasis, the screen between the sanctuary and the nave, the icon of the Lord Christ seated in glory is over the doors. On the right is the icon of the Theotokis, the God-Bearer, the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the right is the icon of the Forerunner, the Desert Angel, John the Baptist. He constantly calls the faithful to repent, as the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
We know more than John did. We know that the Kingdom has come and is coming, that it is established in our Risen Lord. We also know, if we are paying attention to the realities of our world and ourselves, that we manage to obscure that Kingdom in our selves and in our societies and in our governments. So John’s message is still relevant, sounding loud and clear on this Second Sunday of Advent. Repent. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!
So let’s look first at repentance. The New Testament meaning is much stronger that a mere wish that I hadn’t lost my cool and sworn silently at the driver who cut me off. It involves much more than saying the words we’ll say in a few minutes: “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” Those words are a summary of what presumably we have identified in ourselves before we say them.
I have a small devotional book from the 1940’s that has a ten page list of sins, beginning with “I have not loved God with all my heart” and ending with something to the effect that “I have coveted my neighbor’s hot convertible.” The idea was that I would go through that list on Saturday evening, check off the applicable misdemeanors, and recite the General Confession on Sunday morning with some awareness of what I was sorry for. That was better than nothing, but it was pretty superficial, no matter how long my list. It didn’t push me into myself and call me to an honest look.
To repent is to turn around, having looked honestly at who I am. Evelyn Underhill, the great English spiritual writer, said this:
We should ask the Lord to penetrate those murky corners where we hide the memories and tendencies on which we do not care to look, but which we will not disinter and yield freely up to him, that he may purify and transmute them. The persistent buried grudge, the half acknowledged enmity, which is till smoldering; the bitterness of that loss we have not turned into sacrifice, the private comfort
we cling to, the secret fear of failure which saps our initiative and is really inverted
pride; the pessimism which is an insult to Christ’s joy.
Underhill did not produce a handy checklist of sins. Rather she invites us to acknowledge those habits that draw us into ourselves, that divide us from each other and from God. I don’t think for a moment that it is useful for me to spend all my time and energy digging up the dark parts of Bill Maxwell. I do think that she calls me to repent, to turn on a new path that leads toward God, God’s love, and Christ’s joy. There are distractions on that path, that driver who cut me off, the politician who says something so demeaning of poor people or Muslims or women that I want to shake him, the fundamentalist Christian writes off me and my church as enemies of Christ because I teach that the Bible is open to some interpretation on occasion. I get irritated and angry and self-righteous, and wander off the path to God and get tangled in weeds and mud. But repentance, that fundamental turning around, is always just a step away. And our Blessed Lord, nicely assisted by John the Baptist and Evelyn Underhill and a whole host of sinners who know the way back to the path, are there to help. Repent! And remember you and I will have to repent again tomorrow.
So, we have repented and been enfolded again in God’s generous forgiveness, forgiven not because we’ve earned it but because we are able and willing to accept it. Then what?
Share the Good News. And that doesn’t mean grabbing our neighbor by the throat and threatening to do them serious harm if they don’t join the Episcopal Church. Like the Forerunner, we are called to make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Sometimes that may involve an invitation to come to church with me. More often, in the beginning, it involves something more basic. I love the words that Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, where Adam speaks of Eve’s offering him “Those thousand decencies” that daily lie at the base of their relationship. I like “decencies”, not a word we use often. But suppose I am speaking with someone who has often irritated me in the past. What does it mean for me to offer quietly whatever decency, kindness, welcome that is available and appropriate at the moment? Maybe the time will come when I can invite that person to join me at Just Soup. Maybe I can talk about the churches of Port Townsend joining hands to enable the Homeless Shelter to function. Maybe I can mention that I am delighted that my parish can welcome Beth Shira, or that I have enjoyed the LGBT potlucks. Maybe I can say something some time about my appreciation of my church’s willingness to treat me like an adult human being. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe it’s possible to be a forerunner with John the Baptist.
There is a cumbersome word someone invented a while back — pre-evangelisation. It means setting the stage for the Gospel. Perhaps I can help another person to see that we have needs that can be addressed intelligently and gracefully, and that God can be part of that equation. This is a non-threatening gift that forgiven people can offer quietly and with hope.
I don’t know exactly how all this works. But I believe it. I thank God for it. And so I’ll turn again toward forgiveness and joy, and I’ll thank God for all of you who walk with me.
St. Paul’s Church, Dec. 7, 2014