"When Repentance Becomes The High Road"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 14, 2004

Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9

     This morning I want to talk about our need to repent of our sins.  Understanding this practice is infinitely practical for everyone on the planet.  Unfortunately, it is a concept that many choose to ignore because they believe it is the discipline of some religion.  One does not need to be a Christian to understand that when we cease changing, our spirits slowly die as a result of their own rigidity and narrowness.  Where there are no evolutionary changes taking place, there is no life.             

     Some time ago I received an e-mail from a friend who made a revealing comment about her immediate supervisor.  She said, "He is a great guy but he is still dealing with a lot of demons."  When I read her words I thought to myself, "How fortunate!  Hopefully, he knows where his cutting edges are each time they make their presence known." 

     All of us need to repent, which literally means to change our minds about how we think.  Repentance also enables us to bring a different point of view to something that constantly evokes our darker emotions, emotions that will often cause people to distance themselves from us. 

     So many of us live from day to day unaware of the attitudes and behaviors that have the power to deny our enthusiasm for the dawning of each new day.  Perhaps we have developed the habit of forming judgmental opinions that, for whatever reason, have been operating in our lives for years.  We may have controlling, unrecognized values that set us up for failure. Everyone of us exhibits attitudes that teach others how to treat us. Many of us walk through our daily routines completely unaware that such responses determine who we are.  

     For example, a friend of mine has had six jobs within the last ten years.  While the theme of her rise and fall in each job remained the same, she still remains unaware of the role she played.  She starts with great hope and enthusiasm.  Within the first year she begins to sense that people are threatened by her competence, and communication with them becomes strained.  Her colleagues appear to become more aloof and less cooperative.  She responds with her own subtle defensiveness.  Her work performance starts to taper off.  She begins searching for reasons to take more "mental health" days.  Finally, the pink slip comes and she moves on.  This pattern has occurred with each job. 

     Anyone hearing this story might ask, "Why do you assume that her perceptions are not accurate?"  The answer is very clear.  Her perceptions are accurate and the way she perceives has cost her six jobs in ten years.  What is worse is that she refuses to change. When I confronted her about this ritual she said I was not being supportive.  I told her that she was absolutely correct. 

     The problem with most of us is that we are always correct. Very few of us live believing that we are operating with incorrect assumptions even when those assumptions are producing our unhappiness.  If we thought we were incorrect, we would repent immediately.  We would create different attitudes that would fill our personalities with joy and make our spirits glow.  

     Our lesson this morning is perfect for Lent. In Jesus' world the notion was circulating that when evil times fell upon the Jews, it was the result of people straying from their faithfulness to God.  This thinking grew from the rich and colorful tradition surrounding their belief in God's numerous covenants with them.   

     If we grossly over simplify their covenant theology, it would go something like this:  As long as the Jews were faithful to God, they would be blessed.  However, if their hearts grew cold or they strayed in our obedience to God's commandments and laws, evil events would occur. It is interesting that Jesus, who was a product of this tradition, pointed elsewhere. 

     There were two tragic incidents mentioned in our lesson that were well known to Jesus' listeners.  The first occurred when Pontius Pilate sent Roman troops to slaughter people as they worshipped, an incident that is well documented in secular annals which detail the Governor's ruthlessness.  The second was when a tower collapsed killing 18 people in the community of Siloam.   

     Jesus used these two illustrations as he preached.  He asked his listeners, "Do you think that the people who lost their lives during these two instances were worse sinners than all others living in Galilee or Jerusalem?  No indeed!  And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did."   

     What point was Jesus making with this statement?  Was he using fear to motivate people to change their living patterns?  Since death is a natural process, the likelihood that this was Jesus' intent remains doubtful. The words we should focus on are these, "you will die as they did."  Does this mean violently?  Again, perhaps not. 

     Jesus' mission was to inspire people to evolve, to grow, to conduct their lives from the awareness of living in the Kingdom of God where love reigns.  This was a very challenging concept for Jesus to teach. Even today a number of us find Jesus' Kingdom more a dream than a reality.  Many of us display our energy as though our perceptions are absolutely correct.  In our passion for justice, we neglect placing the filter of love between our perceptions and our responses. 

     Jesus was teaching his listeners, "If you die having never repented from your sins, you will leave the earth as so many others have before you, people who never developed the desire to grow spiritually beyond where they were."  When we are not changing, when we are not growing, no blossoms will appear.  When no blossoms appear, no fruit will form.    

     Jesus' obvious empathy for the human condition is what motivated him to conclude his lesson with the parable of the fig tree.  The owner of the tree said to his gardener, "I have been watching this tree for three years and it has produced nothing.  Cut it down!"  The compassionate gardener said, "Let's give it a little more time.  Let me dig around the root system, put some fertilizer on it and if we find that it does not bear any figs by next year then I will remove it."  

     The stage for the drama is set. Jesus has the gardener caring for the tree.  The gardener's desire was for the tree to do what it was created to do -- bring forth figs.  The same is true for us.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul gave his readers a listing of the fruits we were designed to produce.  "The spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self control."  (Gal. 5:22)   

     Jesus said, "And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did."  Repentance appears to be the answer when we find ourselves not bearing this fruit.  How many of us are prepared to change our opinions, attitudes and thought patterns, which we believe are absolutely correct, even when they are creating pain and unhappiness within us?  Not very many of us.  This fact of life is what Jesus was pointing to when he said, "Repent or die."  So many people would rather live in the hells they create than change the way they think.  

     There are so many authors today who want the word "sin" brought back into our vocabularies because of what it symbolizes.  Sin is an archery term meaning to miss the mark.  But our tradition has linked the word "sin" to our evil acts, our despicable attitudes and our lying, cheating, two-timing hearts as the country musician croons in a song I heard recently.   

     Our "sins," however, are not always dark and sinister; they may not signal that our demons are in control nor are they always deeds that inflict pain on others.  "Missing the mark" is a far more accurate description of what our sinning does.  We may be engaged in some habit, some response, some activity that is preventing us from bearing fruit.     

     As we engage in self-talk during Lent, let us ask ourselves:  What experience in our lives has its hooks buried so deeply in us that we cannot let go of it?  What conflict appears to be so powerful that it appears to be beyond our power to resolve?  What has caused us to lose interest in our family, in our school work, in our church or in our jobs?  Have we found ourselves becoming more critical of others and increasingly cynical about our world?            

     The gardener looked at the tree for three years and it bore no fruit.  Do we think that others cannot see the absence of our fruit? Even those of us who consider ourselves as being very private people -- we are not.  Who we are is visible to everyone.  When we have fruit on our tree, everyone knows about it.  If we have no fruit, that is obvious as well. 

     Such blockages to our bearing fruit should be a wake up call, a call that we need to repent, to change our minds.  The pain that results from such blockages is spiritual.  It has the identical effect as the pain we feel when our arteries around the heart muscle have become occluded.  If we refuse to understand our chest pains as a warning, our next symptom might be a cardiac arrest. So it is when such a warning comes to our spirits and we ignore it.     

     When our unique life form was created by God, the blueprint for our body, mind and spirit was perfect.  When we create thought patterns that go against the way we were designed, our fruit growing ability becomes dormant.  Unhappy people cannot produce anything but more unhappiness.  What a perfect warning system!  Is our unhappiness caused by conflicts in our environment or within our relationships?   A number of people think so. 

     Through my travels, I have seen violets growing on cliffs in very hostile environments, dandelions that have grown through six inches of asphalt and well adjusted, well-mannered, happy children living in abject poverty in Juarez, Mexico.  If the problem was with the environment or with other people, we Americans should be the happiest individuals in the world because we have quite a bit of control over both.  The sad fact is that many of us are not, suggesting that we need to look elsewhere. 

     Repentance is definitely the high road if we choose life over death and growth over decay. Change is clearly what Jesus was pointing to. He was not teaching "Jesus is the answer" as the Church has taught for centuries; he was telling his listeners to change how they think, how they feel and how they perceive. He said, "Repent or die."   

     What we resist persists. What we hate destroys us.  When we blame others, we are manufacturing a phantom excuse for why our attitudes are poor. To perceive without love places a blockage between ourselves and our ability to bear fruit.  A person does not have to be a believer for this to be so.  This is why the trains in Spain were targeted last week by terrorists.  Unhappy people cannot produce anything but more unhappiness. 

     Albert Einstein once said, "Insanity is when someone engages in the same behavior day after day and expects different results."  We have to repent constantly.  We have to change.  If we refuse, the compassionate gardener has no other choice but to allow us to die a very painful death.  

     There may be no greater judgment for such people then to spend the rest of their lives angry and resentful because their inner world remains completely controlled by outside circumstances and people.  The truth is that such people have done this to themselves.  Even a highly skilled, loving, patient gardener cannot make a tree bloom.       

     When we change how we think, we are taking the high road which allows us to rise above everything that had formerly caused us pain.  Who would not want to do this?  Obviously, those who refuse to grow beyond where they are.  The call during Lent is to repent. Can we do that?  Our design requires it, but as with all our responses, the choice is always ours.


    We give you thanks, O God, for being our constant companion.  When our minds remain open to your guidance, we sense your love surrounding us.  When we place our trust in you, paths we did not notice become visible. Friends, colleagues and strangers often become the instruments of our change.  Experiences we did not choose may become the source of gifts we can use for tomorrow's growth.  Moments of uncertainty have a way of giving us new insights for understanding our faith.  Kindle in us, O God, a desire to deepen our relationship with you.  Inspire us to encourage others to find purpose and meaning for their lives as we make your spirit visible to them.  Amen.


    Ever patient God, this morning as we worship we thank you for our pilgrimage through these Lenten days.  So often there are moments when it appears as though our world has gone insane as we remain bombarded by the news coming from Spain, Haiti and many other places of unrest.  Sundays may be our only reminder that it is Lent. 

    As we watch Jesus' courageous walk toward the cross, we recognize the number of times we have prayed, "Let this cup pass from me."  Too often we forget the rest of Jesus' words, "Not my will but thine be done."  Circumstances sometimes immobilize us from remembering what trusting you feels like. 

    Fear is such an evil force in our midst.  It casts illusions everywhere causing us to feel betrayed, forsaken and misunderstood.  Fear causes us to doubt our faith, the sincerity of our friends and the purpose and meaning of our lives. 

    When these moments come, help us sense our calling rather than feeling sorry for ourselves.  Enable our circumstances to motivate us to develop more fully our courage, faith and trust.  Help us understand that it first took the challenge of a cross before Jesus could give the world the truth that all tombs are empty.   We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .