A sermon preached at St. George’s Anglican Church Calgary, by the Rev. Clara King, February 19, 2018.
First Sunday in Lent - Year B
1 Peter 3:18-22
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
All the way across the Atlantic Ocean, most of the way across France, in the middle of beautiful, lush, rolling countryside, perched on the side of a little hill is the Communaute of Taize. What started 75 years ago with one guy praying in a tiny hamlet church has grown into a monastery of hundreds of brothers and a program that attracts hundreds of thousands of young people, and a tens of thousands of adults, from every continent on earth, every single year.
I first went to Taize when I was 24, at the recommendation of my parish priest. And it was at Taize that I finally was able to open my heart to God, and acknowledge the deepest sins of my life, and be forgiven, and be transformed.
Three years later, I went back to Taize, to live in the community as a volunteer for four months. It is an odd thing at Taize, but sometimes random strangers approach you, wanting to talk about something very deep in their lives; and one night this young woman came up to me after the prayers. She told me she was in deep distress, and asked if we could speak.
When we met the next evening, she almost fell apart, for she was carrying a tremendously heavy burden, a memory of something she had done, and she didn’t know how to let it go.
I never even found out what that burden was. But I didn’t need to. We don’t need to know the details of one another’s stories before we can relate. And in her presence, I remembered all the years of fear and shame that I carried the burden of my own sin, before I finally came to God and laid it down, trusting in God’s love.
It’s not necessary for me to tell you the details of my sin, just as I didn’t need to hear the details of hers, because right now many of you will be thinking about that thing that you’ve done, and wondering, perhaps, if God’s grace is big enough to handle whatever it is that you’re carrying.
And I can tell you, without hesitation: God’s grace is that big.
Here we are on the first Sunday in Lent, and there’s something I need to say to you before we get any further into it: the purpose of Lent is not to make us feel miserable about ourselves. The purpose of Lent, this season of repentance, exists to help us be liberated to find new life.
We are not perfect beings. God has known that about us for a long time. We make mistakes; we make bad choices; we act before we think. There are consequences - sometimes extremely serious consequences - even sometimes when we do things by accident. God knows all of this. Yet, miraculously, God continues to believe in us, and God continues to want us - each of us - to be his partners in making a just and beautiful world.
God continues to want us to learn from our actions and grow. God continues to want us to make good choices. God continues to call us to turn toward the good.
Repentance is how we do that; and forgiveness is how God does it with us. God knew that our plot line would have dark and difficult acts, and so, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “God has written forgiveness into the script.”
But sometimes it is not just our actions that need repentance; sometimes our thoughts do, too. Sometimes our thoughts have consequences, year over year.
That’s why that girl at Taize needed to speak to someone on that day, many years ago. Because she was suffering, not so much from an action with terrible consequences, but from a thought; a thought which whispered in her ear, day after day, “you are unworthy of God’s grace”.
It was that thought which bound and oppressed her. It was that thought that shielded her from liberation; that trapped her in a story in which all she saw was every reason she was unworthy. Because of that thought, there was nothing that could be done to liberate her from her original action, and make way for the new life God wished for her to have.
I bet that many of us have a similar kind of image in mind when we hear the word “repentance” - or better yet, “repent!” For me, it always conjures up an image of hands clasped, weeping, kneeling in desperate supplication before a vengeful and angry power, who might strike at any moment. But that’s an image I’m learning to repent from. The word “repentance” means simply to turn away, or rather turn around. “Repent!” means basically, “whoa, turn around, you’re heading the wrong way!”
So let’s imagine a lovely winding path, down the side of a hill into a valley. Down in the valley, there’s no way to get out, and night is coming. And behind us God is calling, “turn around! Come back up here! That’s not going to get you anywhere but stuck.” And if we don’t listen, we can end up down in that valley for a long, long time. Like that girl in Taize. Like me, before I repented. Like all of us who are stuck with patterns of behaving and ways of thinking that damage our lives, that interfere with our relationships, that harm ourselves or others, that shrink the horizons of our lives, and limit how we can participate with all that God dreams of for us.
Repent. Turn around. God never ceases calling; God never ceases holding out his hand in welcome. We can never be so stuck; so mired in sin; so deeply messed up that God is not ready to forgive us, and help us find a new way forward.
For God continues to believe in us. God continues to want us on his side, as co-workers in his work. God wants to do incredible things through us, but he can’t while we’re stuck in the valley saying things like, “I am unworthy of God’s grace”; “nothing is ever going to change”; “I’ll never be better than this”.
God can’t wait to forgive us and bring about new life in our hearts. All he’s waiting for is for us to turn. And then, the beautiful part happens: we get to see that the path going up, though it’s a bit more work, is more beautiful than we can ask for or imagine. And ahead: liberation, and new life in abundance.
So may this Lent be a time of repentance and beauty, in our lives and in our parish.