Sermon: Repent

Would God’s love for us have any meaning or value if God did not expect something of us in return? The death of Christ on the Cross is proof that Love does not come cheap. So, while the Love of God is freely given to all, there is a price to accepting it. And, that price is Repentance.


There are lots of wonderful old traditions we celebrate this time year: the annual church rummage sale. The men’s pancake breakfast. The live nativity scenes. Going Caroling. Maybe in some churches the youth group sets up a tree in the sanctuary; and the younger children make ornaments to hang on them. Perhaps we have an “Angel Tree” or a box to donate gifts for those who would not otherwise have a Christmas at all. And then there’s my personal favorite: all those Christmas cookies!

These are all beautiful and very worthwhile traditions; they express who we are and what is important to us. And, many if not most of them are centered on Christ’s call to take of each other and take care of those in need. This is a good thing. But, such traditions, as wonderful and good and appropriate to Christmas as they are, are not what Advent is about.

Advent is about who we are about to become, not about who we are now. Advent is about preparing for the gift of God: the Christ Child who is not yet here. It is a call to prepare for what is about to happen.

So, what is Repentance? And, why is it a theme of this, our Second Sunday of Advent? I’d like to begin by exploring what Repentance isn’t.

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Righting a Wrong

The administrators of Catholic Memorial High School are correct: Corporate Responsibility teaches us that we must all bear responsibility when some in our community commit verbal or physical violence against “The Other.” But, we must also remember that using it as an excuse for violence and oppression of others is an evil lie: you cannot blame an entire population or community or religion or economic class for the (real or imagined) actions of a few.

20160356e4a1fec96cbWith regards to the recent furor in our local (Boston Area) news about how students from Catholic Memorial High School [CM] in West Roxbury, MA chanted “You killed Jesus” at a recent Basketball game against Newton North High School (NNHS, which has a large Jewish student population.  Both schools are within 5 miles of the graduate school were I received my Masters of Divinity, Andover Newton Theological School.)

I understand how many students at CM feel cheated because of the actions of a few dozen of their peers.  And some may feel that the slurs shouted at them by students from NNHS at that game were just cause for the hateful speech that was directed at them in return.

It appears that the school administration has made the hard decision of putting morality and repentance ahead of popularity or convenience. And, they are emphasizing corporate responsibility for what happened (which is also at the heart of the #BlackLivesMatter movement).  “Corporate responsibility” is the moral law that says we can’t escape responsibility for wrongs done against others by those who are part of our own community, even when we are not directly involved. (Sadly, based on the student Tweets quoted in this article, the school will be facing a tough challenge on teaching this to some of their students.)

I will be interested to see how this plays out in the weeks to come: the school administration has pledged to make a determined effort to educate their students more carefully and thoroughly with regards to the evils of anti-Judaism and other forms of exclusion of those who are “Other.” And, in addition to a ban on current students attending the championship game, they have already contacted both NNHS and the Anti Jewish Defamation League to make significant apologies and pledges to reform.

But I wonder, will this determination to right the wrong and to change one’s behavior for the better extend to the teachers and administration as well? The students did not do this in isolation; since, as already stated, the absence of personal responsibility for a wrong does not free anyone in that school from corporate responsibility.  It’s a hard lesson to learn.  I also wonder if the NNHS community, whose students shouted similar (though less incendiary) slurs at the CM students, are in need of learning a similar lesson for themselves.

And, I should add, the very idea that “Jews killed Jesus” is a serious misunderstanding of the Gospels, as Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley made clear in a speech at Temple Emmanuel here in the Boston area just the night before the game.  “Corporate Responsibility” does not lead us to conclude that all Jews must bear responsibility for the faults of a few in leadership positions in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, even if it really was exclusively their fault to begin with (which it wasn’t, if at all).

Corporate Responsibility is an important tool for repentance and healing, not an excuse for violence against “The Other”: using it as an excuse for violence and oppression against others is the evil lie that Donald Trump and others in the current Presidential Campaign are trumpeting every chance they get, but they are wrong: you cannot blame an entire population or community or religion or economic class for the (real or imagined) actions of a few.

Which brings to mind this thought: those who are advocating violence and oppression against others in this political campaign are part of our national “community” – even if we wish it were not so.   So, how do we repent or atone for the damage that is being done by them and those who support them; since they are Americans just like we are, and so we must acknowledge our Corporate Responsibility for their words and actions?


Unjust Justice or Just Injustice?

A South Carolina high school teacher who says she was forced to resign after a student took her phone and circulated a nude picture of her has garnered the support of hundreds of students who signed a petition demanding she be reinstated. (NY Times, 3/3/2016)

This New York Times article raises a challenging question.

Absolutely the student did wrong, and should be made to face some sort of consequence for stealing his teacher’s smartphone and then accessing and distributing her personal [nude] photos on it. And, I agree that the school system was way out of line for condemning her, if [as it appears] they rushed to a judgment of her without simultaneously investigating and determining how to address the student’s actions.  (They’ve ducked the issue by saying his fate is being left up to Law Enforcement.)

The deeper question is this: how responsible is the content owner (the teacher) for creating and retaining such content, and then making it accessible – even if inadvertently or illicitly – by others?  Does an expectation of privacy prevail, as she claims?

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Sermon: What About THEM?!!

It isn’t about them. … It is about us. Jesus is teaching us that to change the world, to make the Kingdom of God here on earth a reality, does not require that we change others; but rather requires that we change ourselves. This is part of the great journey of Lent after all, a time when we remove distractions. We look inward, taking a realistic look at our flaws and our failures. We repent, and ask God to help us.

shame-finger-pointing-320x198Do you remember, when we were kids, when someone whom we sometimes barely knew approached us in class, on the playground, or maybe even at church, and said “<So and So> just said something terrible about you!” or maybe “Did you hear that <So and So> just said or did some unimaginably awful thing?!”

Admit it, we’ve all not only experienced this, but have done these same things ourselves. (Hopefully less often now than we did as kids!)  We’ve all heard and then unthinkingly repeated things that we’ve heard someone else said or did, something that confirms what we knew about them all along, something that we feel validates why we cannot support them, or why they cannot be our friend, that proves they really do believe or represent something that is completely against the obviously right and true things that we believe.

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An Ash Wednesday Meditation: Why Bother?

Sermon presented at First Congregational Church, UCC, of West Boylston, February 22, 2012

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In our reading from Joel, we are told “Blow the Trumpet … for the day of the Lord is coming, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”

Sounds depressing. Scary.  … And, it is.

Ash Wednesday is a time when we remember how ephemeral life is; that all good things in our lives, including our own existence, will eventually come to an end. Matthew warns us that all of our treasures will eventually be consumed by moths and rust, stolen from us, nothing will remain.

Thick darkness.  Moths and rust.  Nothing will remain.

As if that isn’t enough, David lays it on even more heavily in Psalm 51, saying “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

So, not only will everything end, but sin and corruption are in our lives from the very beginning.  We’re in a game that was fixed from the start.  We can’t win.  We cannot escape the trap of life.

It seems so hopeless.

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