A dozen years ago when I served a church in Colorado, I remember the music director—a child of the 70s—suggesting we sing “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” from “Godspell” for the gospel song on this Second Sunday of Advent. Others on the Worship Committee quickly jumped onboard. “I love that song!” one said. Another chimed, “‘Godspell’ is one of my favorite musicals.” With no organ in the worship space—they had a baby grand—the suggestion fit the liturgical style of the place, and so we agreed. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that in the church I grew up in “Godspell”—and its compatriot “Jesus Christ Superstar”—were verboten, or at the very least significantly frowned upon due to their irreverence to the Gospel story. Portraying Jesus as a clown with a painted face and an afro while donning a Superman t-shirt was a bit too much for the powers there. I’m certain some of the teens and young adults of that church saw it and loved it, but I’m also positive there was a lot of head shaking and finger waving as a result.
A sermon based on Matthew 3:1-12.
When I hear stories from parishioners about their church experience, many mention the judgment they felt. There are the ones divorced who could no longer receive communion or those with LGBTQ family members who dealt with significant pain. Some have kids on the spectrum who were given the evil eye and those who didn’t believe exactly the way the church wanted them to on a whole variety of different issues. They understood in no uncertain terms that they were seen as less than when it came to measuring up. That they couldn’t ever really be a “true Christian” because they were perceived as lacking. I remember one person in particular telling me they had spent 15 years away from the church due to their divorce, thinking they would never be welcomed again, and they lamented those years away from God. Many who find their way to worship here are “Christians recovering from Christian judgment,” as my seminary professor David Bartlett put it. We come to a place like St. Mark’s and we discover acceptance for who we are without all the shame. Or, as Robin Williams put it when describing the Episcopal Church, “All of the pageantry, but none of the guilt.”
And then good ol’ John the Baptist comes crawling out from the wilderness to proclaim his message. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight,” which sounds just fine for an Adventy message. But then after some religious professionals show up on the banks alongside the others, John shouts, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come! If you don’t bear fruit, you’ll be chopped down and thrown into the fire!” And we gotta ask John, “You talkin’ to me?” Do you just have those religious types in your line of vision, or is this for all of us? According to Prof. Bartlett, Matthew makes it clear in his gospel “that we all need to be on our toes.” It’s not just the scribes and Pharisees he’s talking to, it’s all of us.
Which makes it seem like John’s getting a little judgmental. And this makes all of us with a history of places where we’ve felt that before get a tad anxious. Like it’s déjà vu all over again. That the guilt is being heaped on once more, and it’d be a whole lot easier if we could just get to Bethlehem and start singing happy Christmas carols.
Theologian John Burgess provides some perspective for us. He writes, “What John—and Advent—remind us is that repentance is not primarily about our standards of moral worthiness, but rather about God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life. Repentance is not so much about our guilt feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image.” The Church has for much of its history tried to corner the market on guilt and judgment, and yet the call to repentance is centered not on those feelings of unworthiness but on transformation. On making amends and finding renewal.
This theme has been explored countless times in literature and film. Characters like ex-con Jean Valjean in Les Miserables who, because of the mercy of a bishop, completely turns his life around and becomes one who cares for others. Or Percy Talbot in “The Spitfire Grill” who makes her way to the small town of Gilead, Maine looking for a fresh start while bringing the burden of her past with her. Both of these characters carry guilt from previous missteps which others try to exploit for their own gain.
But here’s the rub. We can’t throw out the whole idea of repentance because some—including too many in the Church—try to use it as a means of exhibiting power and control. And while what others determine as sin in our lives might not in fact be sinful in God’s eyes—look at how hot under the collar those religious types got when Jesus had a meal with the wrong sorts of people—each of us does in fact have things that we’ve done that require repentance. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg puts it, “We are each, in a thousand different ways, both harm-doer and victim. Sometimes we are hurt. Sometimes we hurt others, whether intentionally or not. The path of repentance is one that can help us not only to repair what we have broken, to the fullest extent possible, but to grow in the process of doing so.”
In her book On Repentance and Repair, Rabbi Ruttenberg describes a letter featured in “Dear Prudence” — an advice column in Slate magazine. The letter writer expresses a conundrum he faces as he enters into a new relationship. A former partner had reached out to express what a monster the man had been, causing them to need counseling to deal with an eating disorder and mental anguish. The man blamed his anger on his traumatic childhood, but now understood his own culpability. He paid for the therapy of his ex, and sought other ways to make amends. He was making good progress.
But, he wondered, did he need to fess up with this new interest whom he had been dating for 8 months? Did he need to confess or could he just continue without telling this person about all that had happened and which still continued to impact him? He explained he didn’t want his past to potentially harm this emerging life-giving relationship in any way. He didn’t want to be seen as a monster.
The advice giver, Daniel Lavery, gently suggested that if the letter writer wasn’t forthcoming that it would be just another way for him to exhibit control over a partner, something he had struggled with before. Lavery goes on to write, “You should also tell him because if you don’t, you’ll feel furtive, guilty, and shameful the moment he move in, as if you’re getting away with something you shouldn’t be, and that will color how you treat him and yourself.” In other words, if the letter writer wants to fully repent and repair the wrongs done in the past, he needs to embrace God’s desire to realign him to accord with Christ’s life. And that is hard, costly, and difficult work.
And yet, as Ruttenberg puts it, “The reason to do repentance work is not because you are BAD BAD BAD until you DO THESE THINGS but because we should care about each other, about taking care of each other.” She concludes, “Facing the harm that I caused is an act of profound optimism. It is a choice to grow, to learn, to become someone more open and empathetic.” Repentance is not just another vehicle for guilt and shame, but of profound hope believing that when we do so, we draw closer to the person God has always wanted us to be.
It’s not my job to heap more coals on you this morning, wagging my finger at you and telling you where you are missing the mark. You know those places in your life already. The Spirit works on all of us—myself included—nudging us to address those times when we’ve hurt others and to seek to repair those breaches. To make amends. To repent. And that is John’s call as well. He invites us to a place of conversion not so he can lord it over us, but so that we can prepare our hearts to greet with joy this one who coming. Let us do so by getting ready. Let us head the call for repentance so that we too can prepare the way of the Lord.