June 10, 2018

A HEART OF PENITENCE

BIBLE READINGS
Genesis 3:8-15
Mark 3:20-35

Psalm 130

REFLECTION

There is a story about a Minister who comes across a man he knows from his previous church. The man used to be very active in that church and served as one of the leaders there. But he doesn’t go to that church any longer and the Minister asks why.

“Oh, something happened in that church so a group of us left and founded another church,” he says.

“So, that is where you worship now?” asks the Minister.

“No no. It turned out that the group was no different, so a small group of us left and met in a rented hall,” he says.

“So, that is where you worship now?” asks the Minister.

“No,“ the man says.

“My wife and I were not happy with the leadership in that small group, so we left. We began to worship together in our home.”

“So, have you finally found peace now?” asks the Minister.

“Oh no,” says the man, “My wife and I had disagreements. She now worships in the northeast corner of our living room and I in the southwest.”[1]

Friends, shifting blame is almost as natural as drinking and eating to us humans. Nobody likes to take responsibility for a mistake or a fault. If something has gone wrong, it must be someone’s fault, but it’s definitely not my fault.

This tendency must have come from our ancestors. We hear it today in the story about the first man and woman in the book of Genesis.

Our story from Genesis is a part of a larger story. God created the first man and put him in a garden called Eden. But God ordered the man not to eat the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden. God then created the first woman to befriend the man. But the woman listened to the serpent who tempted her from eating the fruit. She ate it and gave the fruit to the man who also ate it.

Our reading today is the climax of that story. It is the time of reckoning. God, the owner and creator of the garden and everything in it, comes into the scene. God knows what the man has done, but God wants him to come clean. The man is put on trial with God as the investigator, prosecuting attorney, as well as the judge.

But instead of responding with a proper remorse, the man shifts the blame to the woman. And the woman passes the blame on to the serpent. Unluckily for the serpent, it does not have anyone else to pass the blame on. So it becomes the first one who receives the punishment.

But the man and the woman do not get off scot free either. In the next part of the story, which we don’t read today, the man and woman also receive punishment.[2] They cannot pass the blame any longer. All of the perpetrators must take responsibility for their actions.

This story in Genesis is often known as the story about the original sin or the story of the fall. But what is the original sin in the story? Well, the most obvious sin in the story is the sin of disobedience to God’s commandment. But inherent to this sin is our tendency to shift blame.

In the story, the Hebrew word for garden is translated into Greek as paradeisos: paradise. The story is also known as the story about the loss paradise.[3] And none would take the blame for it.

Indeed, this story in Genesis is a story that describes human tendency to blame when we are threatened. The man and the woman’s nakedness in the garden represent our own vulnerability. When we are under threat or feel vulnerable, our common reaction is to blame.

Yes, we like to blame other things or other people for anything that goes wrong in our life or in the world.

  • We like to blame people who don’t look or talk like us.
  • We like to blame people who hold different views.
  • We like to blame people whom we don’t like or whose personality is so much different from ours.
  • We like to blame our parents.
  • We like to blame our children.
  • We like to blame our neighbours.
  • We like to blame our upbringing.
  • We like to blame money or the lack of it;
  • education or the lack of it;
  • sex or the lack of it.
  • We like to blame alcohol or drugs.
  • We like to blame anyone or anything else, but ourselves. And that will only lead us deeper and deeper into the kind of difficult situation that we find ourselves in.

We see the same kind of attitude in our reading from Mark’s Gospel. Jesus had caused a stir amongst the religious establishment of his time. The crowd gravitated towards him. They followed him and swarmed around him wherever he went. He was like a magnet to them. He preached with the kind of authority that none of their religious leader had ever done. He also healed the sick, the lame, and the blind with a power that none in the establishment possessed. No need to say that he was a threat to them. Their influence and popularity dwindled every day because of his presence amongst the people.

And their reaction was quite predictable. Instead of examining themselves and their action and repenting, they went on the attack. They blamed Jesus for their own lack of authority and integrity. They accused him of being possessed by a demon.

But being accused by the leaders, for Jesus must have been nothing compared to witnessing the reaction of his own family. He was back in his hometown and he must have been expecting to get the support of his family. But his own family seemed to side with the establishment and thought that he had lost his mind. They thought that Jesus was literally beside himself.[4]

Here we see all too human Mary. Perhaps out of fear for the safety of her own family, she failed to stand up for own son. She blamed Jesus for the trouble that he found himself in with the religious authority.

But Jesus was neither mad nor was he possessed by the demon. His authority and power came from the Spirit of God who rested in him. And by blaming and accusing him of all sorts of things, the leaders missed an opportunity to better themselves. They missed an opportunity to be healed and liberated by the power of God that was at work in Jesus.

From here, we can see why Jesus saw blaspheming against the Spirit as an unforgiveable sin. By accusing Jesus of working with Satan, the leaders actively denied the Spirit’s power working in him. They refused to open their eyes and accept the possibility of healing that the Spirit offered. How could people like that be ever restored? How could people like that ever receive the renewal in life that only the Spirit could give? These people would never receive forgiveness because they didn’t feel that they needed one. They shut themselves out of God’s grace and would not allow the Spirit to touch their life to transform it. In Jesus’ words, they had committed an eternal sin.

What people like this need is a heart like the heart of the psalmist who wrote Palm 130. The psalm had inspired countless of musicians. No less than 37 works by major composers like Mozart, Handel, Mendelssohn, and Bach are inspired by it. It is one Psalm in a group of Psalms known in the Church as penitential Psalms. The psalmists who wrote these psalms expressed regrets for their sins and asked for God’s forgiveness.[5]

Indeed, the psalmist of Psalm 130 didn’t blame anyone or anything else for his predicament. He didn’t look outside, but inside. He admitted his mistakes and asked for God’s forgiveness.

He longed for God’s forgiveness like a night sentry who longed for morning that marked the end of his duty. No one likes to patrol in the dark. Something or someone dangerous can lurk in the midst of darkness. The psalmist thus longed for God’s forgiveness just like a watchman longs for the light of the day to break in. The psalm may end with the psalmist still waiting for God. But in his life, he must have finally received the forgiveness and restoration that only God could give.

Let me tell you a story about a man, a father of a family with children, who was an alcoholic. When he was sober, he was a kind and gentle man. But when he was drunk, he was something else completely.

His children feared him and were neglected. His friends abandoned him. His employers were disappointed. And his landlords were often cheated.

One day, he began to take his children to Sunday school. And week after week, he was exposed to the light of Christ until, finally, he gave himself to Jesus. He accepted that he alone was responsible for the mess in his life and asked for God’s forgiveness. He asked God to take control over his life and free him for the power of his own sin.

And things began to change. Alcohol had no control over him any longer. Mistakes still happened, debt still had to be paid, and amends still had to be made. But his children had stopped fearing him and they got his father back. The kind and gentle man had reappeared and, this time, he came to stay.[6]

Friends, healing can only begin when we take responsibility for what happens in our life. The buck stops with us. Don’t pass it on to anyone or anything else. Don’t hide yourself either. Hear God’s voice. Answer God’s call to find healing and forgiveness in God’s boundless mercy.

Amen.
Toby Keva

[1] King Duncan, quoting Eugene Brice, Collected Sermons, on www.sermons.com (Sermons for Proper 5)

[2] Genesis 3:16-24

[3] Vanesa Lovelace, Commentary on Genesis 3:8-15, on www.workingpreacher.org (June 10, 2018)

[4] Matt Skinner, Commentary on Mark 3:20-35, on www.workingpreacher.org (June 10, 2018)

[5] Mark Throntveit, Commentary on Psalm 130, on www.workingpreacher.org (June 10 2018)

[6] Richard J. Fairchild in www.sermons.com (Sermons for Proper 5)