Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Hardest Words
Mk. 1:9-15[1]
Some people say that the hardest words to utter are the words “I’m sorry.” It is difficult to say those words at times. It takes a great deal of humility. We may have to “eat crow,” as the saying goes, in order to apologize to someone we’ve offended or wronged. And as we all know, eating crow is not a savory dish! But as hard as it is to utter the words, “I’m sorry,” I think it is even harder to say the words, “It’s my fault.” Apologizing for something still leaves room for the possibility that you didn’t mean any harm, that you innocently offended or wronged the injured party. Saying, “It’s my fault” goes way beyond that and accepts responsibility for what is wrong.
What I’m talking about here is a real change of heart. We call it repentance. I think that’s one of the hardest challenges we may face in our spiritual pilgrimage. At some time or other, we have to come to the conclusion that “I have sinned,” and we have to admit that sin to another human being. I find the words of the traditional mass interesting: in the prayer of confession one says, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” Those words have recently been rendered in the mass as “through my fault, through my own fault, through my own most grievous fault.”[2] Those are hard words to say. I think they’re much harder than saying “I’m sorry.”
So I would suggest that perhaps the hardest words for one person to admit to another are the words, “It’s my fault, my own fault, and mine alone.”[3] But it seems to me that as difficult as those words may be to utter, they are essential to the spiritual life. We’ve been talking a lot about the presence of God that surrounds us continually, no matter where we are or what our circumstances. It seems to me that one of the challenges of the spiritual life is for us to actually open our hearts to that presence that is surrounding us with love and life. That’s not an easy thing to do! It’s hard enough to open your heart to trust another human being. How do you open your heart to trust the invisible, ineffable, immortal God?
In a very real sense, I think that’s what Jesus was calling people to when he announced, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1:15). I think he was calling people to open themselves to the presence of God, who is constant moving among us to set things right, to heal and restore those who are wounded and broken, and to bring peace and life into every life. I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said “the kingdom of God has come near.”
But the essential problem remains: how do you open yourself to something like that. Well, this may sound simplistic, but I think Jesus himself tells us how to do it: repent and believe. In a very real sense, repentance is necessary before we can really open ourselves in faith to accept the gift of life and peace and freedom that God offers us all.[4] In order to get to that place, we have to be willing to say, “I’m the one who sinned.” We have to be willing to admit, “It’s my fault, my own fault, and mine alone.” Those are hard words, but healing words.
But the repentance that opens our hearts to that transformation doesn’t end with saying “It’s my fault.” That’s just the beginning. Repentance means actually doing something to make things right. Whether we like it or not, the coming of God’s kingdom of justice and peace and freedom into this world presents us with a “road not taken” kind of choice.[5] If we really want to experience the healing and loving presence of God, then we need to face a hard reality: it means choosing not to continue pursuing the selfish ways of this broken world. In another gospel text, Jesus says that this kind of repentance means “denying” ourselves. That’s a transformation that doesn’t just happen automatically. It is a journey, not a one-time experience. It’s a pilgrimage we make our whole lives.
There’s only one starting point for that life-long journey toward God’s peace and freedom. Like any healing journey, it can only begin when we recognize that “It’s my fault.” It begins with repentance. Experiencing the love and life of the God who is constantly working to heal us all begins with hard things—hard words, hard changes. But it’s worth it to utter those hardest of words, and to take up that hard challenge, because it opens the door to the joy and peace and freedom of the new life God offers us all. That’s why those words are so powerful and so essential to our spiritual life. In order to say them, we have to let down our walls. That’s the only way to really let the healing presence of God into our lives so that we can begin to experience the transforming love and life of God. When we let down the walls of fear and suspicion, and actually open ourselves to the joyful presence of God’s life and peace and freedom among us, then we can experience the kind of personal change that Jesus was constantly calling people to make.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/26/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2]Edward Sri, “Through My Own Most Grievous Fault,” Catholic Education Resource Center, .
[3] Compare the definition of repentance in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 87: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”
[4] Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 433: “Without repentance all the notes of the Christian faith are off-key or silent.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:552.
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:199, where he says that repentance is a decision that is “both comprehensive and radical,” and that it “claims the whole man [sic].”

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