“Worthy of Repentance?” 01/13/2019 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

January 13

“Worthy of Redemption?”

            You know — this post-Christmas time, I find, can be one of the loneliest and most barren.  The wrapping paper gets recycled. The decorations get put away.  The tree is dragged to the curb.  The kids go back to school.  The ground is hard.  The air is cold, and it still gets dark way too early.  

            After the delightful distraction of December, January can seem particularly cruel as it settles on us again that we are pretty much on our own and that what is — is pretty much all that is going to be.   There may be a season or two when we enjoy and distract ourselves a bit by moving the deck chairs around, but then soon afterwards we remember that we, nonetheless, are still aboard the proverbial Titanic.

            Gosh this is a really depressing way to begin a sermon that is supposed to be about proclaiming the good news but this is how it feels, no? 

            For those of us, who may be feeling this way too, hold on  — for in  poem,  Rev. Howard Thurman, African American theologian and Pastor to the civil rights movement speaks it so beautifully when he says that it is precisely in this place of disconsolation that the work of Christmas beings.

So let us pray  – Now that the song of the angels is stilled and the star in the sky is gone.  Now that the wise ones have returned home and the shepherds are back with their flock. Now in this time, make your presence known in the very center of our beings so that we may be forever centered in you.  And the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you oh God our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

             “Change your life!” John shouts at them.  “Change your life!”  I am sure he means well, but how many of us (I will not call for raising of hands) have ever succeeded in changing our life because someone has shouted at us that we needed to do so?  So I have empathy for those who are coming down to the river today. They come with all their longing and brokenness, only to be met by a camel hair coated, locus eating, wild man who starts calling them a “brood of vipers” and looks more like he wants to end their lives in that river than baptize them into a newness of it.

            John may be waking the crowd up to a problem and there is certainly value in that, but telling them to “make themselves worthy of repentance,” what is that all about?  Isn’t the fact that people are seeking repentance evidence enough that they are feeling unworthy?  So now is he disqualifying them from repentance for the very reason that that they feel called to seek repentance in the first place?  How is that helpful?  For if they felt like they had the power to change their lives, don’t you think they would already have done so? 

            So I imagine that after hearing John’s stinging words down by the waters that day, many started to walk away. I surely would have! I imagine that many that day turned from that river bank and retreated back into the mire of their loneliness — Heavy with the leaden certainty that they were pretty much on their own and that what is — is pretty much all that is going to be. How many went home that day and began packing up the Christmas decorations and filling the recycling bin with the tatters of that which once seemed beautiful.    


            On Christmas Eve, people came into this place. So many that there was not a chair to be had.  Why did they come?  Why did those who descended from Jerusalem there to the banks of the Jordan come?  Why do we come?  Is it so that we can be drawn into a moment of hope and promise?  And it was so close on Christmas Eve, was it not?  Something so present that we could almost touch it, or even better — be touched by it? 

            But then, the hour was up and it was over.  It was time to go.  And as they poured out into the night and into the cold, I wondered then and still do so now, was that enough to sustain them? Who were those that filled these pews that night?  Where are they now?  Are they out there bent under the blow of whatever the modern day equivalent of being called a “brood of vipers” would be?  Are they feeling alone in their own emptiness, unworthy of repentance, forgotten?  Are they, packing up the Christmas decorations and filling up the recycling box with the familiar heaviness of loneliness descending and the lick of despair quick at their heels?


            For the charge of unworthiness is so easily weaponized.  Take a moment to consider how the very structures of our society and our world have been sorted through this filter of worthiness.  How worthiness is often code for condemning those who do not, cannot or do not wish to conform to societal expectations.  When and how is it that some feel entitled to be the judges and arbitrators of the worth of others?


            There is a story that goes like this.  For years an enormous statue of the Buddha sat on the grounds of a monastery that had fallen into disrepair, protected from the elements by nothing more than a modest tin roof.  The statue was over 3 meters tall and weighed 5.5 tons and was covered with a dirty looking stucco.  It was not much to look.   One day, word came that all of the statues of the Buddha were to be moved to what was a more well-kept and modern monastery.  As this enormous Buddha was being heaved onto its new base in the new monastery, a rope broke and the statue tumbled to the ground.  Workers rushed in to see what the damage was only to find that what was thought to be the material in which the statue was made, turned out to be thick cover over the true substance of the statue which was — solid gold. 

            What historians have pieced together is that this statue which was made in the 13th century was covered over with thick stucco in order to protect it from being stolen during the threat of the Burmese army invasion in 1767.  Those who covered the statue had been fearful that under threat and under violence the statue would have been lost.  Those monks that had covered the statue with hopes to protect had died in the violence leaving no one able to testify to its worth until that day when it cracked open and revealed what it truly was.

            We too, I believe, tend to cover ourselves up fearing that something of ourselves will be lost if we let it be exposed to the threat and the violent condemnations of our days.  But in doing so we too can lose, or lose track, of the very thing we were seeking to protect.  This is why the divine and the human met and grew together in unity in the person of Jesus, — this is what Jesus came to show us:  He came to show us that the glow of the divine is within each of us, calling us beloved, and seeking to embrace us and help us to come out of hiding and reveal the fullness and beauty of who we are.

            For just as they were turning to go, to return to what was, there was another sound that broke into that dessert air.  A sound of a voice.  A voice that they heard not heard in a long time, a voice they heard more in their hearts than their heads.  A sweet voice, that perhaps reminded them of the voice that sung them when they were young, a voice that said “this is my beloved in whom I am well pleased.”  And in that moment, I imagine, their hearts leapt and they lifted their downturned gaze up to the heavens wondering “could such a voice be meant for me?”


            So how do we get there? How do we get to that place within us that we come to realize that not only have we already arrived but that truly we never left?  This is the work we are to do?  Not to chase down a mirage of proving our own worthiness, but to tune our ear to hearing the voice that is forever claiming us as beloved.  Within each of us lies the kingdom of God, the divine indwelling within the full humanity of us all. 

            The first, perhaps is to cultivate a practice of being present to presence which is what prayer is all about.  How will we take time to be present to presence this year?

            The second way, is about coming home to belonging.  How in this new year can we deepen our connection with others.  We need to belong and connected to something that is generative and good and that is giving back to the world.

            And third, I believe we need to recover a sense of all at the grander of all God provides for us each and every day and amplify that wonder in every aspect of your life.

            Why is this important? Because imagine what could happen if we looked at ourselves and all of the people and creatures around us as being the place where the creator and the creature meet.  What if we spent our energies not judging or condemning or stunted under the pronouncement of unworthiness, but instead stepped out as Jesus did, fully at peace with who he was and fully participating in the power of God that was at work in and through him?  Think about how much energy and time we have wasted on wondering if we are worthy?   Can we create here, a place where people may start to feel that it is possible to live one’s lives from such a place of affirmation and blessing?

            Now as a coda, I still see this sanctuary full to the last pew.  I see it as it was on Christmas Eve and as it will be.  I see it thus, let me be clear not because there are bills to pay and a bottom line to make. I see it thus, because there are people out there who are hurting and who may be thinking they are unworthy. There are people out there for whom the Christmas message is already dying. 

So will you join me in:

finding the lost,
healing the broken,
feeding the hungry,
releasing the prisoner,
rebuilding the nations,
and bringing peace among the people,
to make music in the heart?

For truly, we are not moving chairs around on the deck of the Titanic.  If I had to choose another metaphor I’d say we are midwives on a labor and delivery ward wiping the eyes of the newly born who are like us even now are emerging from the waters of baptism and being welcomed into the blessedness of who we truly are and into the generative power of what that can mean for the world.  So may it be.