ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 29, 2013
“WARTS AND ALL”
Psalm7: 8 – 17; Romans 2: 1 – 8; Matthew 4: 17
My mother-in-law has a great saying, “Every Garden of Eden has its serpent.” In other words, nothing is so perfect that it can escape the effects of temptation and sin. In the most idyllic lifestyle there is always something that taints it; there is always a sorrow, a loss, a challenge, an accidental or a wilful wound that brings us down to earth. In the most holy of souls, a shadow is always lurking. A phantom that whispers temptations; a blind spot; a part of our self that causes shame; an inner urge that loves the darkness more than the light. We are no longer innocent people living in Paradise. We’re flawed. St. Paul said it directly, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3: 23). Every person falls short of the holy, splendid, magnificence of God.
Try as we might, we cannot escape our inner serpent – and we do try. One of the ways we try is by thinking we can discipline ourselves to be holy. Thomas Hopko, a Greek Orthodox priest met a monk in the famous monastery on Mount Athos. He was a dark, bitter, angry man. When asked what was wrong he said, “Look at me; I’ve been here for 38 years and I have not yet attained pure prayer.” One man sympathized, but another said, “It’s sad alright, after 38 years in a monastery you still think you can achieve perfect prayer!” After all that time in the monastery, the monk’s prayer had become an expression of pride and frustration; it had done nothing to bring this man to his knees in awe or humility. Even worse his attempts to be holy had pushed him farther into sin and away from God– he was “a dark, bitter, angry man.” Our spiritual practice is an important vehicle to bring us closer to God but our discipline cannot make us holy.
Another way we try to escape our sin is by minimizing or ignoring our faults. We tell ourselves that we are good people – or at least better than some. The good outweighs the bad so “I’m okay; I’m a good person.” We conclude we don’t really need help. We repress our inner serpent hoping it will curl up and go to sleep. I don’t have many phobias but I am repulsed and fearful when it comes to snakes. One day I was doing the gardening when I happened upon a garter snake under a bush. I screamed. Everyone came running. Mike took the snake and put it in a garbage pail. It was pretty excited but soon settled down. My son wanted to see it. Mike took the lid off the pail and instantly the snake sprung out like a jack-in-the-box or Glenn Close at the end of Fatal Attraction. Pushing down our inner serpent seem to work, but when we least expect it, it springs back into action tempting us in ways we aren’t prepared to face.
We may take a different tactic. We change the rules. Like Adam and Eve we look for someone else to blame. Or we simply lower our standards. A CEO of a large company was greatly admired for his energy and drive. However he could not give his weekly report to the President without wetting his pants. The CEO suffered great embarrassment due to this problem. The President advised him to see an urologist. The following week the CEO came in and his pants were wet again. The President asked, “Didn’t you see the urologist?” The CEO replied, “No, he was out. I saw a psychiatrist instead and I’m cured; I no longer feel embarrassed.”
Since we cannot change our state of being, the question is: How do we live in God’s Kingdom as intrinsically flawed people who are prone to mess up? At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew recorded that Jesus’ first appeal to the world was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17) In Jesus’ statement there is both urgency and assurance. The kingdom of heaven is near. Now is our chance; there’s no time to waste. The kingdom of heaven is near. God is close, reaching out to us, listening to our cry, ready to forgive. Somehow in the Church we have reduced repentance to times of rote prayers or a brief few sentences on Sunday morning. Repentance is not so much an idea, as a pain-filled, frightened call for help squeezed from the core of our being. It is a conviction that we are lost and helpless, not a doctrine. It is an honest revelation of the very heart of who we are, not a symbolic ritual. One of the Dessert Fathers prayed, “Lord, save me, whether I like it or not. Dust and ashes that I am, I love sin.” No one is exempt from the need to seek forgiveness. One of life’s great paradoxes is the only way to survive our sins is to acknowledge our sins; accepting our limitations means we accept them as limitations. That acceptance is the beginning of our healing. A brother who was tormented by shame said to Father Poeman, “If I fall into sin, my conscience devours and accuses me saying: ‘Why have you fallen?’ Poeman responded, “At the moment when a person goes astray, if he says, ‘I have sinned’ immediately the sin ceases. To say, “I have sinned” is not to mouth three magical words, but to recognize the horror of what we have done and, by the Holy Spirit, to let that recognition change us. Two things that keep us from confession and repentance are shame and the fear of punishment. Ironically, they also keep us from finding forgiveness and fresh beginnings. God knows our sin. He sees as we are; there is no hiding. Sin is nothing new to God and I doubt there’s anything anyone here has done or thought that God has never seen before. You are “like everyone else”. If God was out to get us, he’d stay away and leave us to our own devices. God comes near to us out of love, not wrath; out of mercy, not judgment. Paul reminds us, “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2: 4) We can trust in “the riches of God’s kindness and patience and forbearance” (vs.4) shown to us in Jesus Christ.
Spirituality, who we are and how we live in Christ, is not an absolute, it’s a process. It may be more accurate to say that we are “human becomings” instead of “human beings.” Once we have confessed our sin, the act of repenting begins. Repenting is the action of turning away from our sinful behaviour, of resisting our impulses to push God away, and of living with an awareness of our own fragility. We can never reach perfection; we can only progress towards it and that progress is never-ending because our goal is always receding. The theologian Macarius said our spiritual life was a process of falling and getting up, of building something only to have it knocked down again and again. Instead of the lofty goal of striving to equal the glory of God, a more realistic goal is to refuse to lose heart when we do badly and to refuse to be complacent when we do well. It is to live with faithful courage while knowing our faults.
Those on this spiritual journey practice self-awareness. A hermit had a lady friend who lived with him in his sparse hut. When the monks heard of this they went to find her. The hermit hid her in a wine barrel. When they entered the room, one of the monks realized she was in the cask, so he sat on it and instructed the others to search the room. When they couldn’t find the woman, the men left. The monk hopped off the casket, helped the woman out, then turned to the hermit and said, “Brother, be on your guard; pay attention to yourself.” The monk was more concerned with the hermit’s self-deception than his morality. People have a great capacity to lie to themselves and then to believe our own lies. Three youths hid themselves in a barn to smoke cigarettes on the Sabbath. They were discovered by their father who was angry. The first said, “I deserve no punishment; I forgot today was the Sabbath.” The second said, “I forgot that smoking is forbidden on the Sabbath.” “Well, what’s your excuse?” the father asked his youngest son. The son replied, “I forgot to lock the door to the barn.” Paul reminds us, “God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees through our smoke screens and holds us to what we’ve done. (vs. 2)
Humility is another aspect of our spirituality. We are humble in our self-estimation and we are humble in our opinions of others. We remember that we’re dust; we don’t think too highly of ourselves. Some students told their Rabbi, “Rabbi, we are afraid that the Evil Urge will pursue us.” “Don’t worry,” the Rabbi replied. “You have not gotten high enough for it to pursue you. For the time being, you are still pursing it.” We are also slow to judge. A man who had committed a terrible sin was brought before the Session of his congregation who decided to excommunicate him. The man left the room with his head bowed in shame. As he went an Elder stood up, fell into step behind the man and announced in a loud voice, “I, too, am a sinner.”
Every Garden of Eden has its serpent. If we go back to Genesis we see that the serpent although a tempter and a nuisance was not really the problem. The problem was: Adam and Eve wanted to be like God. When we accept ourselves as “not God”, but as part of God’s fallen creation our inner serpent may come around to try us but it doesn’t get too far. When we accept that life as we know it and the people around us are also “not God”, our spirituality takes on new dimensions. We become more peaceful, accepting the uncertainties of life. We develop an inner freedom that does not give way to the demands of perfection which drive us to impossible goals. We become more content; we stop asking for guarantees and learn to live in a world that is full of risks. We stop trying to reach an unattainable piety and we open ourselves to grace.
We are what we are. What we are however, is not more important than who God is. God is love and so what we are is loved. God is merciful and so what we are is forgiven. The solution to our inner serpent is not to impose an ever-stricter code of behaviour or to kill ourselves trying to reach an ever-receding goal of holiness or to continue to try to be “like God”; it is to throw ourselves on the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ and to rest in the assurance that “there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” (Phillip Yancey)
an sty�3moph��:yes’> We are the jury; we hear the evidence and must discern the truth. The trouble is: we weren’t there to witness the events for ourselves. But then again, no jury is. However, we do have the records and stories of key witnesses who were there. These disciples wrote their memories about Jesus – who he was and what he did. They knew what they were talking about. They knew the truth. Yet people today in their pride think they know better, declaring the New Testament to be untrue and corrupted. If only Jesus would show up here and now, in flesh and blood and prove us right. The harsh truth is: it’s good for us that he’s gone. By his death, resurrection and ascension Jesus has claimed his throne and defeated his enemy. Because he’s been glorified, he has sent us his Spirit. The Holy Spirit speaks to our spirits, advocating on behalf of Jesus to prove he is the Son of God. The Spirit guides those who would follow him into that truth. Because of the Spirit we are able to discern the “spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (4:6) making us able to declare in favour of Jesus.
The world is still and will always be the courtroom in which Jesus stands accused. People will spin the story of Jesus to condemn him. They will confuse the jury. They may even scratch away at our faith. The truth is that “the one who is in you (the Holy Spirit) is greater than the one who is in the world.”(4:4) In the highest court, there is no doubt that Jesus is in the right. There is no doubt that Jesus is Lord.