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Advent: time for personal and corporate repentance

Posted on: December 11, 2002 3:54 PM
Related Categories: Bp Griswold, sermon

Sermon preached by the Most Revd Frank T. Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA, on 8th December 2002 at All Saints' Church, Margaret Street, London

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Some 42 years ago, whilst reading theology at one of your universities, I was an occasional worshipper in this church. Never did I dream that one day I could be invited to mount the steps of its pulpit to break the bread of God's word and thereby be called upon to bear witness, in some small measure, to what has been conveyed to me of God's grace and mercy through the life and ministry of this Church of All Saints, Margaret Street. I am, therefore, deeply grateful to your vicar for his invitation to be with you this morning as homilist and preacher.

Advent is a season of beginnings and endings. Last Sunday, we were urged to keep awake against the sudden coming of the Lord in the fullness of time, and today we are urged to consider his first coming in the Incarnation, "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." But this beginning, according to our Gospel reading, is marked not by the presence of the Lord himself, but by that of another, John the Baptist.

The details of John's dress, which might at first seem superfluous, identify him with the prophet Elijah who, in the Second book of Kings, is described as "a hairy manwith a leather apron round his waist." This identification was an important one, because Elijah in Jewish thought is to be the herald of the Messiah. An empty place is set for him at the Passover table in expectation of his coming to prepare the way for the Messianic age: "May [God] send Elijah the prophet that he may bring us good tidings of salvation and consolation," our Jewish brothers and sisters continue to pray. This understanding of Elijah's role is reinforced by the concluding verses of the Book of the Prophet Malachi in which God proclaims, "Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the greatest and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse."

The task of the messenger is to prepare the way for the one who is coming not simply by saying, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me," but by turning peoples' hearts - not only those of parents to children and children's to those of their parents, but all hearts - in radical availability to the One who comes.

The turning of the heart is what is meant by repentance. And repentance is much more than thumping one's heart and decrying one's sinfulness. Repentance is a matter of fundamental orientation. In scripture, the heart is far more than the seat of emotions; it represents the core and center of our personhood. The orientation of our hearts - their undefendedness in the face of God's passionate desire for the full flourishing and well being of all creation of which we are a part - determines our capacity for life in all its abundant fullness as God in Christ, who is our life, proffers it to us in virtue of his death upon the cross and his resurrection from the dead.

Life in Christ comes to us, however, not without ambiguity and paradox: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways says the Lord." And because this is so, and because the amplitude of the divine imagination - God's profligate and unbounded inventiveness - so surpasses anything that we can grasp, let alone comprehend, we are constantly trying to fit God and God's ways to our logic if not to our control.

Scripture, the sacramental life of the church and the catholic tradition which has shaped and formed many of us, are means of divine self-disclosure and encounter with Christ, and are intended to crack us open to God's deathless and all embracing love experienced as mercy and truth. These privileged means of grace can, however, become defenses and indeed weapons against the very things they are meant to convey. "Consider the work of God," we are told in the Book of Ecclesiastes, "who can make straight what God has made crooked." And yet it is our nature, largely out of anxiety in the face of God's inscrutability and strange ways, to seek to straighten and fix and fit things to little worlds of our own construction where we live with the illusions of safety from the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, as the risen One is called in the Book of Revelation, who bounds into our risk-adverse lives and pounces, paws first, upon our carefully arranged pieties.

Here I am put in mind of the account of the Desert Father who was visited by a younger monk seeking his advice. After describing his "little fast, his little prayer and his little work" which consisted of weaving baskets, the younger asked the elder, "What more should I do?" To which the older monk replied by raising his hands. As he did so fire shot forth from his fingers and, speaking through the flames he said to the young monk, "Why not become totally fire?" With that, the young monk's self-constructed righteousness was shattered and he was left open to the consuming fire of the Spirit in the full force of its purifying, unimagined, and life-giving power.

This brings us back to repentance as a turning of the heart, a reorientation of the whole self through a stance of radical availability to God in Christ who continually comes among us through the agency and driving motion of the Holy Spirit in ways that confute and confound our understanding.

After a conversation with a Benedictine monk at an Abbey in the far reaches of the American West, the contemporary writer Kathleen Norris offers the following reflection: "Repentance means 'not primarily a sense of regret,' but 'a renunciation of narrow and sectarian human views that are not large enough for God's mystery.' It means recognizing that we have not always seen grace where it exists in the world and agreeing 'to turn away from a stubborn and obdurate position that cannot accept what is new and different and therefore cannot entertain God's mysterious ways.' The word 'entertain' is used advisedly here as the monk goes on to speak of hospitality: 'The classic sign of (our) acceptance of God's mystery is welcoming and making room' for the stranger, the other, the surprising, the unlooked for and the unwanted."

This same notion of repentance as more than a sense of regret and rather an opening to the wideness (and, one might say, the wildness) of God's all encompassing mercy and truth, is put forward by the sometime Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple. "To repent," he writes, "is to adopt God's point of view in place of your own. There need not be any sorrow about it. In itself, far from being sorrowful, it is the most joyful thing in the world, because when you have done it, you have adopted the viewpoint of truth itself, and you are in fellowship with God." To turn one's heart, or rather to allow one's heart to be turned, to be given through grace, is to make room for God's mystery and therefore to adopt God's point of view in place of one's own.

Such is the reality of repentance, such is the heart of John the Baptist's proclamation. And because repentance embraces the whole person, it is a lifelong process of being conformed to the image of Christ. Just as God, as we are told in today's Second Reading, is patient with us, so too we must be patient with ourselves. To be sure along the way there can be dramatic moments of illumination, insight, remorse and intimate knowing and being known, but by and large growing up, "in every wayinto Christ" is a matter of slow unfoldment mediated by the confluence of God's desire for us and the circumstances of our lives with regard both to the choices we make and the things that happen to us.

Repentance is not some sort of discreet spiritual exercise which, once having been gone through, earns us the reward of God in Christ showing up to say, "Well done;" rather repentance, making root room for God's often crooked ways and wild imagination, is the very way in which Christ comes to us, indwells us, and how the mind of Christ over time is formed in us.

"Unawareness is the root of all evil," declared another of the Desert Fathers. One of the principal stratagems of the evil one, whom Ignatius of Loyola quite properly calls the "enemy of human nature" - that is the one who calls us away from our true and authentic selves - is to keep us unmindful and caught up in patterns of thought and behavior which hold God's ever liberating and truth revealing love at bay.

"Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, Guilty of dust and sin," declared George Herbert. How often preoccupation with our own faults and failures - our imperfections - keeps us from sitting down with Herbert and tasting Love's "meat."

To repent, therefore, is to allow a truth larger than our self-judgment to overrule our guilt and sin and shame: that truth, which is God's mystery - a truth we are invited to welcome - is the "truth as in Jesus" who is himself the Truth, the embodiment of the all embracing, all enfolding, gentle yet unyielding love of God, not just for us, but for the whole creation.

Repentance opens us to the world as God's compassion not only embraces us but takes root within us expanding our hearts and making them hearts of flesh which, "burn with love for the whole creation: for humankind, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for every creature," to draw on the words of St. Isaac of Syria. Repentance works in us a cosmic heart, a heart which prays with tears "for the enemies of truth and for those who do us evilthat they may be guarded and receive God's mercy."

The call to repentance, though personal, is also corporate. The church in its various divisions is called to repent: to give room to God's mystery of boundless and reconciling love which alone can heal our brokenness and reorder our passionately held and often oppositional points of view.

The Sufi mystic, Rumi, declared many centuries ago that, "Beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there lies a field. I'll meet you there," he adds. That field - that open space - is the force field of God's compassion where we are called to meet one another; where division is overcome by communion and all things are drawn together in the life and love of God.

Nations also are called to repent, particularly nations such as my own which claim to be "under God." Terrorism affects us all; it is a threat that cannot be ignored, but I am deeply troubled by the stance and indeed the language used by President Bush and members of his administration. The events of September 11 have given rise to a spirit of retribution which, unable to discharge itself upon its primary object, Osama bin Laden, has chosen Saddam Hussein instead. At the same time, an intemperate and highly provocative rhetoric has instilled paranoia across the land and reduced our world view to issues of national security and self preservation. Would that some small portion of the billions of dollars necessary to pursue a dubious war were made available to deal with global poverty and disease, particularly the unimaginable scourge of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa where millions of children are now orphans and almost an entire generation of adults has been lost. What is worse, these drastic statistics are just the beginning. A nation such as mine which declares itself a super power must, if it is truly under God, take on the role of super servant and situate itself in the global community as an instrument of compassion and a wager of peace.

This is not to overlook or discount the reality of terrorism or the need to seek to disarm it, but rather to balance this proper and necessary concern with energies and actions that build up and impart life not only to the privileged few in the pursuit of an elusive and never complete security, but to the millions around this world who, in the words of scripture, "Have no helper."

Repentance, therefore, is not simply a private exchange between God and the believer: it is a way of being in the world and with each other. As households of faith, as nations and as a global community, it is to give range to God's ever creative, ever expansive, always surprising, often unsettling mercy and love which can embrace and enfold all things beyond our wildest imaging from those of us who are gathered here this morning to, yes, even Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. All this is beyond our power either to ask or to conceive and yet it is what happens when Christ the Hound of Heaven nips us in the heel and draws us out of our enclosed worlds of judgment and fear into his own catholic - all embracing and all reconciling - consciousness.

May indeed our hearts be turned, may repentance happen within and among us and may we cry out with St. Paul, "Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine."