holy cross sermon for the sixth sunday after the epiphany, year a, february 16, 2014

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the old ritual usage of the Church, today, the ninth Sunday before Easter, and the third before Ash Wednesday, was known as “Septuagesima,” and it marked the beginning of preparations for Lent – which of course is the forty-day period of preparation for Lent. In the days before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council – that is until the late 1960’s – some of the ritual features of Lent would appear today, on Septuagesima. Violet vestments would be worn. The “Alleluia” would be omitted from the liturgy, etc.

I have often said that a good way to prepare for prayer is by praying: “Pray before you pray.” This principle is one that runs throughout the spiritual life of Christians, and we encounter it here. Lent, the season of preparation preceding Easter, itself can use a period of preparation for it. Prepare to prepare. Pray before you pray.

In a sense, today’s Gospel reading is all about preparation. In it, Jesus says some pretty challenging things:

“…every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, `You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”

“Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.”

“…every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

“…every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

And lastly:

“Do not swear at all…. Let what you say be simply `Yes’ or `No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matthew 5, passim)

Adultery, anger, murder, sin, judgment, hellfire, the cutting off of hands, and the plucking out of eyes. These are indeed challenging words to hear from the lips of God’s only Son. But it is good to be reminded from time to time that Jesus ever outpaces our quest for him, that he is much broader than our facile conceptions of him. He is in any case not the wooly, diaphanous hippy, playing with sheep in the meadow and uttering ambiguous platitudes, that popular culture imagines him to be. The God of Israel burns his gold. He is a jealous smasher of idols; and sometimes the idols of our imagination need breaking. Jesus is many things, and among those things he is the Righteous Judge of both the living and the dead. And he is a prophet of Israel – the preeminent prophet, to whom all the others bore witness – who has come to warn us of the grave danger we are in because of sin.

Hearing these words of Jesus this morning, as Lent looms daily larger on the horizon, is a good opportunity to remember this central message of the Gospel, as Jesus says in another place: “Unless you repent, you will all… perish,” (Luke 13.3). If you are anything like me, your spiritual house needs to be cleaned and reordered regularly and frequently. And the Church, in her wisdom, instructs us on how to go about the task.

To be clear “the task” at hand is repentance. And repentance begins with our taking stock of our lives, making an examination of conscience, and doing so, as I say, regularly and frequently. And we should remember that “regularly,” in the strict sense, means “according to rule.” It means examining our consciences according to an established rule – saying to myself something like, “I will examine my conscience, every evening before I go to bed, I will look at what I did wrong over the course of the day,” or “…every morning after I have my coffee,” or whatever. And there are helpful guides to doing this too. The St. Augustine’s Prayer Book has an excellent guide to the examination of conscience. If you don’t have a copy and would like one, come see me.

Jesus tells us to repent of our sins so that we might not perish everlastingly. But we cannot repent of our sins unless we know what our sins are. Sometimes I regret the inclusion of the “general confession” in our mass, because it can delude us into a false sense of security, into thinking that saying the general confession and hearing the priest invoke God’s forgiveness over us is sufficient. But we can’t really repent, in the way that Jesus tells us to, unless we know what we need to repent of. And that is what an examination of conscience is for. It is thus the doorway to true repentance. We only have to work up the gumption to DO IT. And THAT, in turn, is an exercise of the will, and the work of prayer. Father Congreve, SSJE, said it very well in a quotation I return to every Lent:

“As we look up, Lent shows us the way to God and our heavenly country, and right across that way, cutting off our road to God and holiness, lies our sin.  So Lent brings us to face the enemy and prepare for battle.  And hope is the very soul of a battle:  the men intend to win that position now held by the enemy at any cost.  So in your case, suppose there is sloth, or unbelief, or ill will, or some other vice: your Lent battle means your hope to wrest that position from the enemy.  That sin, that indifference, or bad temper, shall be conquered by God’s help.  There is no evading the issue; that sin is going to conquer me, and separate me from God for ever, or I am going to conquer it.”

This is an undertaking that is in the power of every Christian to do. You can choose to examine your conscience. We can choose to repent. You can choose to confess your sins. You can choose to plead guilty before the Righteous Judge, confident in his mercy. You can choose the way of repentance, the way to life, the ONLY way to everlasting and abundant life. You can choose to make yourself empty so that God can fill you with his grace, with his light, with his love, with his glory, his power, his Spirit. And this should be good news. Its not hard: the way to life is right in front of us. We only have to choose it.

Our freedom to choose, the very thing that makes us culpable for our sins, has been given to us by God in order to make authentic repentance and authentic LOVE possible. It is put very eloquently in today’s Old Testament reading from Ecclesiasticus:

“If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water: stretch out your hand for whichever you wish. Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him.” (Eccl. 15.15-17)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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