Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Relational Repentance, A Sermon

“Because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.” (Collect of the Day)
Today’s readings are about repentance. We must first change ourselves before we can make change in the world. In today’s readings, Moses and God dialogue on Mt. Sinai, Jesus tells parables about finding things lost, and the lovely Psalm 51, which is only otherwise used in the lectionary on Ash Wednesday, is a chance for us to recite our plea with God to find us and bring us home in spite of our sinfulness.
We think of repentance as that thing we do once with God in order to become saved in the first place and maybe something we do when we catch ourselves backsliding as an effort to make amends with God and neighbor, but I think it is more an ongoing part of our daily life in relationship with God and each other. 
The coin did not repent, and it also didn’t get itself lost in the first place.  The lost sheep that Jesus told of may have gotten itself lost, but a dumb sheep is not capable of making amends.  The point of these parables is not about blame, it is not about the risk the shepherd made to leave the ninety-nine behind, in search of the one, nor are they about the hard work in seeking the lost, nor is it simply about making amends and seeking forgiveness, the point is about the joy of one repentant soul rejoined with community.  The point is about the joy of returning to relationship after a rift.
Today’s lesson from the Exodus narrative is Israel’s greatest moment of failure.  We could spend all week on this story, days on just the pericope before us.  But since we don’t have time for that, I ask you to bear with me while I focus in on this one point about change.
Moses was on Mt. Sinai, the first time.  This is one of the most important moments in all of history, certainly the biggest moment of his life, and he was talking directly with God Almighty, face to face, receiving the law, when suddenly, they were interrupted by The Lord’s awareness of the people at the foot of the mountain who were making a golden calf so they could worship a graven image, The Lord interrupted The Lordself and said, “Moses!  You better get down there and see about this!  Your people who you brought out of Egypt are acting up again! And I’m thinking about just getting rid of the whole sinful bunch of them and starting over!” 
So Moses, hiked all the way back down the mountain to set the people straight, and then later came all the way back up and spent anther 40 days in dialogue with God.  But the most amazing thing happens before Moses trudges back down to the wicked Israelites and their graven image making, before the rest of the story he and The Lord have a few words. The Lord was ready to smite all of them with fire and Moses was bold enough to talk The Lord out of it. 
I imagine Moses said something like, “Now wait a minute Lord.  You say my people who I brought out of Eygpt?  You started this thing!  These are your people who you brought out of Eygpt!  Then Moses made a great argument that the Lord could not refute.  And here’s the most amazing thing. In the midst of this dialogue  - The Lord changed His mind.
That’s kind of scary stuff.  Because if God can be changed by a human, than where is the sure and certain authoritative, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, God we know, or at least think we know?
Here’s how the scholars have helped me understand this:  Christian theology is often more shaped by an insistence on divine perfection, characteristic of scholastic theology, than it is by the actual Bible itself. Brian Jones
The God of the Old Testament is not impassible; rather, God is passionately involved with us. Nor is the God of the Old Testament omniscient in terms of being unchanging. The Old Testament God freely surrenders Godself to the unpredictable course of events dictated by human freedom and therefore must adjust as history unfolds.  This is not to say that God is not all powerful and all knowing, it is a reminder though that God is all loving.
The Hebrew verb translated “changed his mind” in this passage is naham. It is a term elsewhere translated “be sorry” or “repent,” (at least when its subject is a human). It is an emotion-laden term and appropriate to a context in which one is deeply moved.  So, here, much like in the story of Noah, God repented.
By entering into a covenant relationship with Israel, God chose to risk disappointment and suffering. The Deist God of pagan religions is detached and unmoved, but the Old Testament allows for no such uninvolved view of Yahweh. The God of the Old Testament enters into relationship with us and thereby into the suffering that love entails.
The passionate, persuadable God portrayed in this passage is in accord with “the Crucified God” (Moltmann) of the New Testament. Humans cause God grief and suffering, but God does not withdraw or give up. In costly love God embraces humanity, though pierced in the act. God suffers none to be lost but pursues each wandering lamb, frantically searches for each lost coin. And when the lost turn back, God’s heart is glad.  Our task is to choose to turn back and meet God at least half way on the journey.
I prepared these thoughts during Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement which is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.  This has me thinking of my Jewish friend Avrum Weiss.  Avrum is a psychologist in Atlanta and he recently published a book on change.  He calls it “Change Happens.”  I like the subtitle, “When To Try Harder and When to Stop Trying So Hard.”  He reports in this book that a study was done that reported that about half of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions but only 55% of them are able to sustain the resolution for more than two weeks.  He uses the example of a weight loss program.  You know, you start going to the gym more and eating less, etc. etc.  But you don’t follow through.  He says this is partly because we don’t really want to change on the inside and are merely answering external motivations, which don’t usually work.
To make his point about trying too hard, he shares a story from the classic series Frog and Toad called The Garden.  Toad asks Frog to teach him to grow a garden.  Frog gives Toad some seeds, tells him to plant them in the ground, and he will soon have a garden.
Toad went home and planted the seeds, but he got impatient because the seeds did not come up right away.  Toad talked to his seeds, sang to his seeds, he even yelled at his seeds, but still they did not grow.  Frog told Toad that his seeds were not coming up because he had scared them and if he would just leave them alone for a few days, the seeds would grow.
A few days later, when his seeds still had not come up, Toad decided the problem was that his seeds were afraid of the dark, so he sat outside all night in his garden with lighted candles and read stories to his seeds.  Then Toad fell asleep.  The next morning Frog came by and woke Toad and pointed out that little green plants were coming up out of the ground.
Toad was ecstatic, but exhausted, and said, “Your were right, Frog.  It was very hard work.”
Sometimes in our practice of repentance, we need not work so hard at making the changes ourselves but must rely on the Spirit of Creation to lead the way.  We cannot force God to do things our way yet still we cannot not change, we can only choose to stay in relationship.
I emphasized our collect of the day when I began because it has a similar double negative to this statement; we cannot not change.  It seems a cunning play on words, this prayer:  “Because without you we are not able to please you.” This collect is older than even Cranmer’s prayer book.  It seems a simple reminder that we are nothing without God.  What worth would life have if we could not try to please God?  I couldn’t find the actual author of this collect; I imagine some monk wrote it during the dark ages.  Anther more recent monk wrote a similar prayer and I will leave you with this.  It is a prayer by Thomas Merton.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

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