From the Worldwide Faith News archives

ACNS3228 Advent: time for personal and corporate repentance

From "Anglican Communion News Service" <>
Date Thu, 12 Dec 2002 23:30:33 -0000

ACNS 3228     |     USA/ENGLAND     |	  11 DECEMBER 2002

Advent: time for personal and corporate repentance

Sermon preached by the Most Revd Frank T. Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the
Episcopal Church in the USA, on 8th December 2002 at All Saints' Church,
Margaret Street, London

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Some 42 years ago, whilst reading theology at one of your universities, I
was an occasional worshipper in this church. Never did I dream that one day
I could be invited to mount the steps of its pulpit to break the bread of
God's word and thereby be called upon to bear witness, in some small
measure, to what has been conveyed to me of God's grace and mercy through
the life and ministry of this Church of All Saints, Margaret Street. I am,
therefore, deeply grateful to your vicar for his invitation to be with you
this morning as homilist and preacher.

Advent is a season of beginnings and endings. Last Sunday, we were urged to
keep awake against the sudden coming of the Lord in the fullness of time,
and today we are urged to consider his first coming in the Incarnation, "The
beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." But this
beginning, according to our Gospel reading, is marked not by the presence of
the Lord himself, but by that of another, John the Baptist.

The details of John's dress, which might at first seem superfluous, identify
him with the prophet Elijah who, in the Second book of Kings, is described
as "a hairy man with a leather apron round his waist." This identification
was an important one, because Elijah in Jewish thought is to be the herald
of the Messiah. An empty place is set for him at the Passover table in
expectation of his coming to prepare the way for the Messianic age: "May
[God] send Elijah the prophet that he may bring us good tidings of salvation
and consolation," our Jewish brothers and sisters continue to pray. This
understanding of Elijah's role is reinforced by the concluding verses of the
Book of the Prophet Malachi in which God proclaims, "Lo, I will send you the
prophet Elijah before the greatest and terrible day of the Lord comes. He
will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children
to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse."

The task of the messenger is to prepare the way for the one who is coming
not simply by saying, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after
me," but by turning peoples' hearts - not only those of parents to children
and children's to those of their parents, but all hearts - in radical
availability to the One who comes.

The turning of the heart is what is meant by repentance. And repentance is
much more than thumping one's heart and decrying one's sinfulness.
Repentance is a matter of fundamental orientation. In scripture, the heart
is far more than the seat of emotions; it represents the core and center of
our personhood. The orientation of our hearts - their undefendedness in the
face of God's passionate desire for the full flourishing and well being of
all creation of which we are a part - determines our capacity for life in
all its abundant fullness as God in Christ, who is our life, proffers it to
us in virtue of his death upon the cross and his resurrection from the dead.

Life in Christ comes to us, however, not without ambiguity and paradox: "For
my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways says the Lord." And
because this is so, and because the amplitude of the divine imagination -
God's profligate and unbounded inventiveness - so surpasses anything that we
can grasp, let alone comprehend, we are constantly trying to fit God and
God's ways to our logic if not to our control.

Scripture, the sacramental life of the church and the catholic tradition
which has shaped and formed many of us, are means of divine self-disclosure
and encounter with Christ, and are intended to crack us open to God's
deathless and all embracing love experienced as mercy and truth. These
privileged means of grace can, however, become defenses and indeed weapons
against the very things they are meant to convey. "Consider the work of
God," we are told in the Book of Ecclesiastes, "who can make straight what
God has made crooked." And yet it is our nature, largely out of anxiety in
the face of God's inscrutability and strange ways, to seek to straighten and
fix and fit things to little worlds of our own construction where we live
with the illusions of safety from the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, as the
risen One is called in the Book of Revelation, who bounds into our
risk-adverse lives and pounces, paws first, upon our carefully arranged

Here I am put in mind of the account of the Desert Father who was visited by
a younger monk seeking his advice. After describing his "little fast, his
little prayer and his little work" which consisted of weaving baskets, the
younger asked the elder, "What more should I do?" To which the older monk
replied by raising his hands. As he did so fire shot forth from his fingers
and, speaking through the flames he said to the young monk, "Why not become
totally fire?" With that, the young monk's self-constructed righteousness
was shattered and he was left open to the consuming fire of the Spirit in
the full force of its purifying, unimagined, and life-giving power.

This brings us back to repentance as a turning of the heart, a reorientation
of the whole self through a stance of radical availability to God in Christ
who continually comes among us through the agency and driving motion of the
Holy Spirit in ways that confute and confound our understanding.

After a conversation with a Benedictine monk at an Abbey in the far reaches
of the American West, the contemporary writer Kathleen Norris offers the
following reflection: "Repentance means 'not primarily a sense of regret,'
but 'a renunciation of narrow and sectarian human views that are not large
enough for God's mystery.' It means recognizing that we have not always seen
grace where it exists in the world and agreeing 'to turn away from a
stubborn and obdurate position that cannot accept what is new and different
and therefore cannot entertain God's mysterious ways.' The word 'entertain'
is used advisedly here as the monk goes on to speak of hospitality: 'The
classic sign of (our) acceptance of God's mystery is welcoming and making
room' for the stranger, the other, the surprising, the unlooked for and the

This same notion of repentance as more than a sense of regret and rather an
opening to the wideness (and, one might say, the wildness) of God's all
encompassing mercy and truth, is put forward by the sometime Archbishop of
Canterbury William Temple. "To repent," he writes, "is to adopt God's point
of view in place of your own. There need not be any sorrow about it. In
itself, far from being sorrowful, it is the most joyful thing in the world,
because when you have done it, you have adopted the viewpoint of truth
itself, and you are in fellowship with God." To turn one's heart, or rather
to allow one's heart to be turned, to be given through grace, is to make
room for God's mystery and therefore to adopt God's point of view in place
of one's own.

Such is the reality of repentance, such is the heart of John the Baptist's
proclamation. And because repentance embraces the whole person, it is a
lifelong process of being conformed to the image of Christ. Just as God, as
we are told in today's Second Reading, is patient with us, so too we must be
patient with ourselves. To be sure along the way there can be dramatic
moments of illumination, insight, remorse and intimate knowing and being
known, but by and large growing up, "in every way into Christ" is a matter
of slow unfoldment mediated by the confluence of God's desire for us and the
circumstances of our lives with regard both to the choices we make and the
things that happen to us.

Repentance is not some sort of discreet spiritual exercise which, once
having been gone through, earns us the reward of God in Christ showing up to
say, "Well done;" rather repentance, making root room for God's often
crooked ways and wild imagination, is the very way in which Christ comes to
us, indwells us, and how the mind of Christ over time is formed in us.

"Unawareness is the root of all evil," declared another of the Desert
Fathers. One of the principal stratagems of the evil one, whom Ignatius of
Loyola quite properly calls the "enemy of human nature" - that is the one
who calls us away from our true and authentic selves - is to keep us
unmindful and caught up in patterns of thought and behavior which hold God's
ever liberating and truth revealing love at bay.

"Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, Guilty of dust and sin,"
declared George Herbert. How often preoccupation with our own faults and
failures - our imperfections - keeps us from sitting down with Herbert and
tasting Love's "meat."

To repent, therefore, is to allow a truth larger than our self-judgment to
overrule our guilt and sin and shame: that truth, which is God's mystery - a
truth we are invited to welcome - is the "truth as in Jesus" who is himself
the Truth, the embodiment of the all embracing, all enfolding, gentle yet
unyielding love of God, not just for us, but for the whole creation.

Repentance opens us to the world as God's compassion not only embraces us
but takes root within us expanding our hearts and making them hearts of
flesh which, "burn with love for the whole creation: for humankind, for the
birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for every creature," to draw on the
words of St. Isaac of Syria. Repentance works in us a cosmic heart, a heart
which prays with tears "for the enemies of truth and for those who do us
evil that they may be guarded and receive God's mercy."

The call to repentance, though personal, is also corporate. The church in
its various divisions is called to repent: to give room to God's mystery of
boundless and reconciling love which alone can heal our brokenness and
reorder our passionately held and often oppositional points of view.

The Sufi mystic, Rumi, declared many centuries ago that, "Beyond ideas of
wrongdoing and right doing, there lies a field. I'll meet you there," he
adds. That field - that open space - is the force field of God's compassion
where we are called to meet one another; where division is overcome by
communion and all things are drawn together in the life and love of God.

Nations also are called to repent, particularly nations such as my own which
claim to be "under God." Terrorism affects us all; it is a threat that
cannot be ignored, but I am deeply troubled by the stance and indeed the
language used by President Bush and members of his administration. The
events of September 11 have given rise to a spirit of retribution which,
unable to discharge itself upon its primary object, Osama bin Laden, has
chosen Saddam Hussein instead. At the same time, an intemperate and highly
provocative rhetoric has instilled paranoia across the land and reduced our
world view to issues of national security and self preservation. Would that
some small portion of the billions of dollars necessary to pursue a dubious
war were made available to deal with global poverty and disease,
particularly the unimaginable scourge of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa
where millions of children are now orphans and almost an entire generation
of adults has been lost. What is worse, these drastic statistics are just
the beginning. A nation such as mine which declares itself a super power
must, if it is truly under God, take on the role of super servant and
situate itself in the global community as an instrument of compassion and a
wager of peace.

This is not to overlook or discount the reality of terrorism or the need to
seek to disarm it, but rather to balance this proper and necessary concern
with energies and actions that build up and impart life not only to the
privileged few in the pursuit of an elusive and never complete security, but
to the millions around this world who, in the words of scripture, "Have no

Repentance, therefore, is not simply a private exchange between God and the
believer: it is a way of being in the world and with each other. As
households of faith, as nations and as a global community, it is to give
range to God's ever creative, ever expansive, always surprising, often
unsettling mercy and love which can embrace and enfold all things beyond our
wildest imaging from those of us who are gathered here this morning to, yes,
even Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. All this is beyond our power either
to ask or to conceive and yet it is what happens when Christ the Hound of
Heaven nips us in the heel and draws us out of our enclosed worlds of
judgment and fear into his own catholic - all embracing and all
reconciling - consciousness.

May indeed our hearts be turned, may repentance happen within and among us
and may we cry out with St. Paul, "Glory to God whose power working in us
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine."


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