A Lenten Sermon
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, March 2, 1997
Ezekiel 18:21-32 Repent and turn from your transgressions
Luke 15:1-10 There is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
Apocalypse Explained #585a.3 The meaning of repentance
I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)
Today is the third Sunday in Lent, which means it is about time we got into the spirit of the Lenten season. Lent is a traditional period of forty weekdays that begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter. In Christian churches that observe Lent, it is a time of fasting and penitence for sins in preparation for the events of Holy Week. It provides a period of buildup climaxing in our Easter celebration of the Lord's resurrection.
As far as I can tell, Swedenborg does not say anything at all about Lent. As a result of this, the Swedenborgian Church has not had as strong a tradition of observing Lent as many other denominations. Swedenborg's silence on the subject reflects the fact that Lent is an observance based more on tradition than on the Bible. It does commemorate Jesus' forty days of fasting in the wilderness; but since this event is not linked with the events of Holy Week in the Bible, the connection with Easter is indirect. Swedenborg says plenty about such Biblical events as the Lord's birth, life, death, and resurrection. But he says very little about events on the church calendar that do not have a direct Biblical basis.
As a result of Swedenborg's silence on the subject of Lent, when Swedenborgians do celebrate Lent, we look to the traditions of other churches for a pattern to go by. And as usual, we can't help tinkering with what we find! For Lent in particular, our Swedenborgian observances usually have a different focus than traditional Christian ones.
As I said, the traditional idea of Lent is as a time of fasting and penitence. Especially in the traditionalist parts of the Catholic church, this penitence has a definite flavor of penance. Lent is a time to pay a penalty for the sins we have committed so that we can be absolved of them and be prepared for the celebration of Easter. Those who follow this tradition will often give up something pleasurable during the days of Lent as a penance for their sins.
Our church does not put so much emphasis on paying the penalty for sin. We focus instead on recognizing sin in ourselves and overcoming it with the Lord's help. From our point of view, the penalty for sin is built right into the sin itself. Under civil law we must impose penalties for crimes in order to protect innocent people. But under spiritual law, there is no need for externally imposed penalties because sin brings its own pain with it. It is the pain of lost friendships and fear of those we have wronged; it is the pain of anger and distrust directed against us instead of love and understanding; it is the pain that comes with the shrinking of our spirit as we turn inward toward ourselves instead of expanding outward toward others in love. The Bible calls this "penalty" for sin "death"--and it is indeed a death of the spirit.
Our focus on sin, then, is a practical one. We are not concerned as much with avoiding the penalties for sin as we are with facing and overcoming the sin itself. To use a mundane example, if we are in the habit of running red lights, we could try to avoid the penalty for this traffic "sin" by continually keeping our eyes out for police--and pay the occasional "penance" of a traffic ticket when we get caught.
This is not a very good solution. For one thing, sooner or later we are likely to get caught. And the more times we get caught, the stiffer the penalties become--until we lose our license. Another problem is that when we are busy scanning for police we are not paying as much attention to the traffic. It will not do us much good to avoid getting pulled over if we get into an accident because we were trying to see if there was a police car behind that clump of bushes . . . and didn't notice the car coming through the intersection.
A better solution is to tackle the "sin" itself. After all, the traffic light is there for a reason. Sometimes it seems silly to wait for a red light when nobody is coming in the other direction. Maybe sometimes it is silly to wait. (At least we can now take a right on red at most intersections!) But stopping at red lights is part of using our road system, and when everybody observes that rule, there are fewer accidents than when some of us decide those rules apply to all the other drivers but not to us! Only when we recognize that this law does apply to us, and begin to observe it, will there be a real solution to our habit of running red lights.
Running red lights is an obvious example. Many of our struggles, though, are with deeper issues within ourselves. Issues such as not respecting others or believing others should serve our needs or being jealous of what others have. These things are more slippery than civil and social rules of conduct; we have trouble grasping them and noticing that they are real problems. Yet these inner feelings are the root source of all of our outward behavior. Everything we say or do comes from some motive; some desire; some feeling within ourselves.
How do we get at these harmful motives within ourselves? How do we see them and do something about them? We know that when we lash out at someone or make a belittling remark, it does hurt. And of course, we know that if we cheat or steal or injure someone, that hurts as well. However, it is not so easy to see where these hurtful words and actions came from--and it is still more difficult to eliminate the bad feelings toward others that prompt us to such things.
The Bible does tell us that we need to repent from our sins--from our wrong actions, and even from our wrong feelings such jealousy and greed and contempt for others. Our reading from Ezekiel is an especially clear statement of the situation with regard to sin and repentance. If we have been living in wrong and sinful ways, and then turn away from our former ways of living and do what is lawful and right, then our former wrongs will not be remembered in the Lord's sight. But if we have been living in a good and righteous way, and turn toward wrong and destructive ways of living, that is what will determine our spiritual course--and we will be headed toward spiritual death.
However, for more insight on just how to go about that repentance, we have a special resource in Swedenborg's writings. Swedenborg gives us step by step process through which we can identify and overcome the wrong things within us that prompt our wrong words and actions. In traditional Swedenborgian language, it is the process of repentance, reformation, and regeneration. Now it just so happens that today is the first of three Sundays before Palm Sunday. This gives us a perfect opportunity to observe Lent by taking a closer look at each of these three steps. They are steps that lead us away from the wrong parts of our lives toward a new life more in harmony with the Lord's path.
Swedenborg saw "repentance" as different than penitence in the traditional sense. In a nutshell, repentance means recognizing our wrong thoughts, feelings, and actions and truly regretting them. In simpler language, repentance means saying, "I'm sorry!"
We say "I'm sorry" to someone to let them know that we realize we did something wrong, and that we regret having hurt them. But as we all know, some apologies are genuine, and some are not. If we tell someone we are sorry, but keep doing the same thing that we claimed to be sorry for, our apology is worthless. It is only genuine if, after saying we are sorry, we stop doing what we apologized for! Otherwise, we aren't really sorry; we are just trying to avoid the consequences of our actions.
It is the same with repentance from a spiritual perspective. Genuine repentance is regretting our wrong thoughts and feelings so much that we resolve to stop acting on them. If we do this, eventually we will stop taking any pleasure even in the thought of doing the hurtful things that used to give us a weird kind of pleasure.
But we are skipping over some steps.
Before we can even begin to repent from--or regret--the wrong things in us, we need to learn from the Bible and from the church what things are wrong. This is exactly why eight of the Ten Commandments say "Thou shalt not!" If we do not know that it is wrong to be jealous or to look down on others, we will never begin to overcome those faults in ourselves. One of the main reasons for reading the Bible and coming to Sunday School and church is to continually learn more about what is right and wrong so that we can identify these things in ourselves and continually bend our paths in the right direction.
Most of us have learned enough about right and wrong to get started on that path. The first step is to look at ourselves--at our thoughts, our feelings, our actions--and identify some specific fault in ourselves that we wish to overcome. (Here, our Catholic friends may be in better shape than we are because of their practice of confession.) A word to the wise: If we try to tackle everything at once, it will be too much for us! Better to pick out one or two things we can handle, and focus on them. The important thing is to make a good start. The practice we get will help us move on to other, more serious issues.
Once we have identified some fault in ourselves, we must admit that yes indeed, this is wrong, and then take responsibility for it. We do not accomplish anything if we see something wrong in ourselves but promptly excuse ourselves by pinning the blame on our parents or society . . . or all those other drivers on the road! No, we have to recognize that we were the ones who ran the red light; we were the ones who said or did something wrong, and we did it because something needs fixing in our own attitudes and motives. As long as we blame it on someone else, we will never do anything about it. But as soon as we take responsibility for our own attitudes and actions, we also gain the power to face and overcome the attitudes within us that are wrong.
There is a final part to repentance, and it is perhaps the most important one of all. We must recognize, admit, and take responsibility for our faults, not just by ourselves, but in front of God. We must recognize that our wrong desires and actions are wrong not only because we get into trouble for them, but because they are contrary to the loving and righteous laws of the Lord. If we avoid saying or doing the wrong thing only to stay out of trouble, or to be respected and popular, or to do well financially--or for any reason besides knowing that it is wrong in God's eyes--then we are not really repenting; we are only covering over our real motives, which are probably centered on ourselves.
This business of repentance is not easy. In fact, it is hard work. It is hard to admit to things we may have been doing and excusing all our lives. But it is worth the effort. For it puts us on the path toward life. Toward real life. Toward a life of fuller, deeper, and richer relationships with each other and with the Lord than we could ever have conceived of before. As Jesus says, "There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." Amen.
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