"When Repentance Becomes The High Road"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 14, 2004
Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9
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
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.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
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.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
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 . . .