Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Change your life! The beginning is near!" - the Very Rev. Mike Kinman

A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, December 8, 2013.

“Change your life! The beginning is near!”

Great new beginnings, great movements of change start small. A connection between two people. A small gathering. A moment in time where the Spirit of God that can alter the course of history breaks through in small ways to show us what is possible.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in Robben Island prison because he believed the sin of racism that divided his nation was not inevitable or intractable but that a new beginning was at hand. But that new beginning wouldn’t have happened without 27 years of conversations and small gatherings within those walls – building relationships with guards he could have seen as enemies but instead chose to embrace as friends. 27 years of looking each other in the eye day after day, learning to speak each other’s languages, uncovering and discovering their common humanity, until finally they stopped demonizing each other, until they became not an us and a them, but a we.

As Desmond Tutu preaches, there is “no future without forgiveness.” That’s because our future is in letting God build a world through us that is made not in our image but God’s. And God’s image is Trinity – not just one God but three in one: Parent, Child, Holy Spirit. Each distinct. Each different. All one.

Our greatest charge, our greatest joy is to live as people the same way God lives as Trinity. Distinct. Different. One. It is why as a church we claim a mission of “restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” It’s why as a Cathedral, we are committed to the hard work of “embracing diversity joyfully.” And we cannot do this without forgiveness, without doing the hard but ultimately transforming work Mandela did in that prison cell: Seeking out those with whom we are in conflict, learning each other’s languages, confessing where we have wounded one another and seeking God’s forgiveness and each other’s.

There is no future without forgiveness because before we can receive the power of Christ, we have to break down the walls that separate us from God and one another. It’s why the baptism of John comes before the call of Christ.

This morning, John stands at the Jordan River and bids the people to come and “repent?” Why? Because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Christ is coming, and we need to prepare to receive him. It is that Advent work of preparation, but really, it is the work we are about all year round, and certainly every time we gather together for the Eucharist.

John cries out to the gathering crowd: “Repent!” Now, we hear John’s voice and maybe our first thought is that he is calling us to fall on our faces and wail. We picture the wild-eyed man on the street corner crying, “Repent, the end is near!”

But the word we read as “repent” is metanoia, which means a transformation or conversion. John isn’t saying “Repent, the end is near!” John is saying “Change your life, the beginning is near!” And it’s not to individuals, John is saying you – plural – change your life -- your common life, together – the beginning is near. Turn – all of you – turn to a new direction, a new way of living. Get ready to receive new life.

People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

And the people do just this. They don’t fall to their knees and wail or individually mumble a few pious words. The word Matthew uses for confess is ἐξομολογέω (ex-om-ol-og-eh'-o), which means “together, acknowledging openly and joyfully.” This is loud, communal, joyful confession.

In order to be ready to receive Jesus, the people have to turn from being individuals with all the things that separate them to being one body. No them and us. Only we. And because this is an act of liberation. Because when we do this, we become so much greater and richer than we are by ourselves, the people actually confessed their sins out loud and with joy.

The time and setting was different, but it was the same action, the same power as in that prison on Robben Island nearly 2,000 years later. Very different people. People who were separated by belief and language, by race and class, coming together, owning and confessing where their relationship was broken. Eventually letting go of the hatred and mistrust that separated them and forgiving one another so they could embrace a much greater vision for them all.

On that riverbank. In that prison cell. The people through their actions and the grace of God became not an “us and a them,” but a “we.”

On that riverbank. In that prison cell. In this Cathedral.

Each Sunday this Advent, we are looking at how our worship leads us each week to prepare to receive Christ in our life. Last Sunday, Amy talked about how we start with the Bible because

“it is scripture that provokes the essential self-awareness that leads us to see the truth of our lives and to seek God’s renewal, repentance and amendment of life, the turning of our hearts to God alone. We can peek inside those pages to see what our renewed selves and self – as a church – might be!”

In the Liturgy of the Word, we glimpse God’s dream for us, and see where we have fallen short of the Trinitarian life of God. Distinct. Diverse. Yet One. This Cathedral is like the Jordan River, and we are the people streaming to it from all directions and walks of life and hearing a word of new life that is our destiny but that seems so far from reality.

That new life, that receiving of Christ so we can become the Body of Christ, that is the Eucharist. Not just the bread and the wine we receive but who we become and the new life we live out there in the world because of it. But that’s for the next two weeks. Today, we stand together at the river with John and hear and respond to his words: “Change your life! The beginning is near!”

And the way we do that is this next part of the liturgy. The Confession. The Absolution. The Peace. And like those people on Jordan’s bank, the attitude with which we approach this is joy.

It begins … in silence.

After the deacon bids the confession, there is silence. With God’s dream for us from scripture still fresh in our minds, we search our memory for where we have fallen short of that dream.

Confession is not a time to work through guilt – that’s what therapists are for. Confession is a time for discernment. The 7th-century monastic Maximus the Confessor calls sin “the misuse of creation.” How have we misused creation? How can we become more translucent to the divine presence? What is my part in us falling short of God’s dream for us. What actions of my own or actions of others from which I benefit, what thoughts words and deeds, things done and left undone are causing me, causing us to live in disharmony? Where am I not reconciled to my sister or brother, to creation, to God?

Where do I, where do we need God to come and heal, to come and reconcile, to come and help me, help us change our lives because the beginning is near?

Gathering up those things in silence, we then offer them up. Not mumbling piously or wailing plaintively but together proclaiming joyfully. Because the confession is liberation. We’re not telling God anything God doesn’t already know. Together we are unburdening ourselves of everywhere we have fallen short. And the language we use is always plural.

Open your red prayer books to page 360 and lets take a look at what we say:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart (Notice that it is all of us together talking about one heart – OUR WHOLE HEART – Many people. One heart.) We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

And then the transition. We have named it all. It’s out there for God and everyone to see. And here comes the hinge. “We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.” Do you see all this, God? We know it’s not what you dream for us. Our falling short makes us weep, and we know our tears do not bring you joy. So with humility, knowing our deep need of you, we repent. We commit to change our life because we know the beginning is near.

But we know that we cannot do this alone. And so we continue “for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ” … for the sake of the one who loved us unto death, “have mercy on us and forgive us.” Receive this burden of our own brokenness we offer to you.

And why do we ask God to take this burden? So we can go back living as before? No! So “that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways to the glory of your Name. Amen.” So we can be what we are about to receive in the Eucharist. So we can be the Body of Christ given for the life of the world.

The confession is us proclaiming with great joy and with one voice: “God, change our life! The beginning is near!” And the shortest time in the entire liturgy should be the space between that Amen and the absolution. We should never doubt for a nanosecond that God’s answer is YES! That God has mercy on us, has forgiven us all our sins, strengthened us in all goodness and by the power of the Holy Spirit will keep us in that eternally deep and rich life of Christ.

At this moment, we are one. We have gone from individuals searching our memories to a people joined together by the Spirit. And this is the moment of the peace.

The peace is a sign, a recognition that at this moment, before we approach the table to lay our lives on it and to receive our new life in Christ, that there is no more us and them, there is only we.

And so it is right that here at Christ Church Cathedral, the peace is this nuclear chain reaction of joy that this space can scarcely contain! But hear this: The peace is not just a friendly greeting, but a sacred bond of deep love and reconciliation. When we say, ‘The peace of Christ be with you,” we are gazing deep into each other and saying whatever has come between us that is unloving – whatever we have just offered up in the confession – we renounce that and we claim one another as sisters and brothers in Christ. That’s why in the peace, we should seek first those with whom we have the most conflict, look them deeply in the eye and pledge once more together to love one another as Christ loves us.

In fact, Jesus tells us not just to seek the people we have problems with but to be so aware of the Body that we know and can seek out those who have problems with us. Jesus says later in Matthew: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” That’s the degree to which we are called to be reconciled to one another. That’s what is happening when we exchange the peace of Christ.

Confession. Repentance. Absolution. Peace. These are revolutionary acts we take together. Small acts which have the power to change our lives and change the world,. And we know this because we have seen it happen before.

John stood on the banks of the Jordan proclaiming, “Change your life! The beginning is near,” and heralded the coming of the Christ of God who would change the world.

Nelson Mandela sat in his prison cell and with a vision of unity none could imagine proclaimed to guard and prisoner alike: “Change your life! The beginning is near,” and within a generation, the prisoner was the president, the guard was standing beside him as a friend as he was sworn in, and an entire political system based on racism was being dismantled

We come together each week at Christ Church Cathedral and hear these words, too. “Change your life! The beginning is near.”

Great new beginnings, great movements of change start small. A connection between two people. A small gathering. A moment in time where the Spirit of God that can alter the course of history breaks through in small ways to show us what is possible.

Each moment we gather in this space can be that moment. If we can come together and heed John’s call to confess and to change, to be reconciled and prepare to receive our new life in Christ. If we can come together and truly live the Trinitarian life of the divine – distinct, different, yet one.

If we can come together and be not us and them but we, imagine what our legacy might be.

Imagine what God might accomplish through us!

Change your life! The beginning is near!

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