Third Sunday in Advent, Year B, December 11, 2011
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
Windy and I spent time in Thailand some years ago. I was working on a book for a Thai dissident and Windy was expanding her massage education and learning about Thai culture. There was a major election going on for the Governor of Bangkok, a very powerful political position in the country. One of the candidates was named Chewit, and his claim to fame was that he was the brothel king of Bangkok. No small feat. Well, his campaign slogan was “It is not how good you are, it is how good you want to be.”
“A light Shines in the Darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”
So last week we heard tell of the man in the powder blue windbreaker with the words “Jesus Saves: Repent and Believe” written on the back. We talked about John the Baptist, too. We talked about sin, because if we do not have a good sense of sin, then the whole idea of repentance is moot. And we had some homework over this past week, we were supposed to think and pray on the things that get in the way of our relationship with God and Neighbor; things that distract us, that pull us away from being the person we are meant to be, that we are capable of being. Any report back on sin?
Jesus Saves: Repent and Believe.
Everyone knows that we have the sacrament of confession in the Episcopal church, right? Does anyone know the official name of that sacrament? The Reconciliation of a Penitent. Reconciliation. Have we all heard of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa? Could someone explain what it was? —–
Right. The point of reconciliation is that the relationship that was broken, was damaged, was violated, is restored, and that the conditions that allowed for such breaking of relationships no longer exist. Having the opportunity to tell your story, the whole truth; having to listen to the stories of others with no rebuttal, no punishment… this process saved South Africa from turning into Zimbabwe. Truth and Reconciliation brings light to the darkness. It shines truth on horror. It holds everyone accountable to everyone else not by force or threats of force, but with the desire to get on with living the lives we have been given. It is this process that can save us, too.
Now I am not saying that I am clearing my Fridays from here on out to hear confessions. I am willing to, but when it comes to the rite of reconciliation I proscribe it in the spirit of Queen Elizabeth, “All may, some should, none must.” What I am saying, though, what I am saying with as much spiritual force as I can express, we all must repent. We all must do whatever it takes, every day of our lives, to pull the logs from our eyes, to cut off that offending hand, to reconcile our beings and our lives with God in Christ. And we must try day in, day out, to create the conditions so that we may thrive in the blessed lives that God Almighty has graced us with. This is the only purpose of being Christian. John the Baptist cries in the wilderness across the ages. Jesus Saves: Repent and Believe.
Repentance is setting ourselves right. It is realigning ourselves with the trajectory that God has set our lives on. Paul Tillich said that the arc of the universe is long and it bends towards justice. The constellation of relationships you live within, that is the arc of your life and it is long and it bends towards God. Repentance is the process we use to reconcile our lives with this arc. It is the primary work of the faithful, because if our relationship with God and/or our neighbors is left untended, we are of little use in fulfilling God’s mission to the world.
I can see that you are all following me theoretically. Notions of reconciliation just begs for good theology, and I do love my theology. However, theology is about religion, it is about God… what we need to approach a life reconciled with God and Neighbor, to be the human beings we are meant to be, to go beyond Chewit, and to be as good as we want to be… that takes actual religion. It takes practice, it takes instruction from those who have followed before us on the road upwards and inwards into Reality. How do we repent?
It is very simple. Paul gave us our prescription this morning. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” That about sums it up. You want the keys to the kingdom? You want to see God face to face and know that that face is God’s? You want to live a life characterized by truth and reconciliation? then listen to Paul: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances. If you do that, you will be saved. Any questions?
Prayer is the answer. To what? Everything, but most importantly, to repenting. To reconciling our relationship with God and everything. Well, it is not just prayer, but I need to introduce this next word delicately: mortification. I bet you haven’t heard that in church for a while. Prayer and Mortification… these practices are the root of the spiritual life, the ancients in our church tell us this time and time again. Evelyn Underhill, the great Anglican writer and mystic who died in 1941 has a lot to say on this matter. Underhill’s direction to prayer and mortification is not a call to return to horsehair shirts and kneeling on dried peas. By prayer she means attending to God. By mortification she means dealing with ourselves. She writes that prayer is, “…first turning to Reality, and then getting our tangled, half-real psychic lives – so tightly coiled about ourselves and our own interests – into harmony with the great movement of Reality. Mortification means killing the very roots of self-love; pride and possessiveness, anger and violence, ambition and greed in all their disguises, however respectable those disguises may be.”
In prayer, we face ourselves towards God and… we do all sorts of things. Some of us seek silence. The deep, inner silence of apophatic prayer, like that taught by the great Carmelite masters, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross, and the modern Centering Prayer movement. Vipassana meditation of Southeast Asia is an apophatic prayer form. Hindu Transcendental Meditation is, too. Some of us find the cadence and imagery of the rosary to be meaningful. Some practice intercessions, praying for others, this is the metta meditations of Loving Kindness of Mahayana Buddhism. Others of us rejoice in chant, alone or in Taize forms of worship, or find stillness in the journey in and out of a labyrinth. There are other physical prayer forms like yoga, tai chi and chi kung. And if you do not know where to start, pick up your BCP in the morning and turn to page 80. Saying Morning Prayer is a superlative form of prayer, a communal spoken form of prayer, and when the words “us” and “we” come up in the service, remember that countless others around the world are saying the very same words.
Prayer is all about holy habits. Having a little corner to yourself, twenty minutes of your own in the morning, the wherewithal to remember to do the rosary on the little bumps on your steering wheel, or to say the Jesus prayer when you are standing in line at the grocery store. (Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. That is an ancient prayer. Say that unceasingly, and you will be called the child of God.) The other thing about prayer is that it is extremely hard to do by yourself. We need direction, instruction, encouragement. This is a goal of mine here at Resurrection: to build a practicing church. Let’s be observant Christians together. We have started saying morning prayer on Fridays. Keep your eyes open for some more opportunities to learn to pray well together.
Then there is Mortification… dealing with yourself… Mortification is all about building healthy habits and we do that by grace alone, because attending to ourselves, making better, healthier decisions for ourselves, it is not easy. Windy and I have dropped coffee from our lives. Wine, too, but for special occasions. No fun, but, but, better. Our life is better (crankier in the morning, but better). We stick to it by grace, as Flannery O’Connor wrote that “all human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” By grace we find the strength to live better than we might, certainly better than we want to. Eat better, develop some disciplines around food like Mark Bitman’s vegan before 6 idea of eating meat only at dinner. Exercise more, or at all. See a therapist. See a dentist. A doctor. Get enough rest. Try to learn how to do something new. Start being the person you want to be. This is mortification of the highest spiritual order. It is dealing with your own nature, with the express purpose of growing closer, to aligning our lives and our beings with the arc of God.
Repentance is all about returning to God. It is all about coming with a contrite heart and a plan to do things differently. This is the definition of reconciliation. Our sin hurts us more than it hurts other, largely. Sin is usually some form of breaking our own hearts. And that breaks God’s heart. Join me, please, in turning back to God in these coming years we will be working together. Let us work on praying together, and better. Let us learn mortification, dealing with ourselves, our bodies and our souls. Let us rejoice always, pray ceaselessly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. AMEN.