A sermon preached on February 26, 2012, at St Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, by Christopher L. Webber.

“Repent and believe in the gospel.”

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, which we are told is a season of self-examination and repentance, repentance and renewal.  We have forty days to repent and be renewed, but repent of what?  What are we doing that we repent or ought to repent?  The Prayer Book invites us to a season  of self-examination and repentance. And we need self-examination first of all  to answer that question: Repent of what?

I may be wrong  but I think most Christians would answer that in very self-centered terms. Well, after all, “self-examination” is  about self isn’t it?  Yes and no. Self can mean my own life,  my own failures, my own lack of faith, but I think we shouldn’t forget that there’s more to it than my own short-comings: my envy and anger, and all the other seven deadly sins, lust and greed and sloth and arrogance and pride.  They’re deadly alright and they afflict us all but I want to suggest that sin is not just about me;  It’s also about us.

Here’s what I mean.  In my biography of James Pennington  I came across the pastors of the two large Congregational churches  in Hartford in the middle of the 19th century,  Horace Bushnell and Joel Hawes. Remarkable men, both of them,  deeply committed to their ministry and trained in the old Calvinist theology of predestination in which we are all destined for heaven or hell  before we were born and only need to live like the people God made us to be: if destined for heaven, to live good lives,  and if destined for hell to live good lives anyway and hope for the best. I’m not a Calvinist.  I don’t think Congregationalists are any more either.  Christianity, as I understand it, is about God at work in human lives to change lives.  I don’t doubt that God knows what we will make of our lives  and already knows how we will do when we stand at the judgment seat, but nevertheless up until then we are free to choose:  to choose to respond to God’s love and serve God or refuse to serve God. We choose.  God judges.  But in calling their congregations to respond  both these men focused very narrowly on self: on the individual.  Religion, to them,  was a personal thing.

When we look back at that period of time  what we see is a gathering storm over slavery that would culminate in the bloodiest war  in our history, a fight to abolish one of the greatest evils you can imagine, the holding of other human beings  in bondage, involuntary servitude, forced to work without pay, without reward,  and sold like cattle, families divided  and sold away from those they loved.  Both Joel Hawes and Horace Bushnell  thought it was an evil system and wrong but they did almost nothing about it  and never asked their congregations to do anything about it either.  Joel Hawes never preached about slavery  because he said, That’s a social matter and religion is a personal thing.  When they asked him toward the end of his life  how Hartford had changed in his years there he said he thought there was less swearing  than there had been.  Here was perhaps the greatest moral evil  in our history – but not his problem – as if God had no concern in the matter  or any interest in changing it.

Looking back, I think it’s a shock to realize  that the Christian church played so small a role in speaking to the growing crisis. There were those who wanted to act  but far more who saw it as something  outside the role of faith, not a concern for Christians.  And many of them would have said, as Joel Hawes said, and as many people still say, “Religion is a personal matter,  a private matter. There’s no place for politics in the pulpit.  The clergy should stick to the Bible and the things they know about and not get involved in controversy.”

But the Bible itself is controversial  and deeply involved in politics. From the time when Moses went to Pharaoh  and told him to free his slaves on down to the Book of Revelation  that envisions the kings of the earth bringing tribute to God’s throne and a tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations the Bible is a political document and you can’t really read it and come away with the idea  that God is indifferent to political matters.  Pharaoh might well have said to Moses,  “That’s a social issue and not your concern.” But he didn’t.  He knew better. But he wasn’t about to change.  Isaiah was a royal advisor  and counseled the king on his foreign policy. Amos denounced the 1%  who heaped up riches  while the poor were starving.  Jesus told the rich that their chances of getting into heaven were about as good as those of a camel  to go through the eye of a needle.

You can’t really believe  that religion is about personal matters if you read the Bible.  But people do like to believe it all the same because it fences off an area of life  where we are vulnerable to criticism. If you are rich, you don’t want to hear  the prophets read when you come to church.

But there’s another whole dimension  of this issue and it’s corporate responsibility. Yes, religion is a personal matter;  God cares how we act and think moment by moment. But it’s also a corporate matter.  As John Donne once said, “I am involved in mankind.”  As St.  Paul said, “You are the body of Christ and members one of another.”  And that’s especially true in a democracy.  My vote affects others and I have a moral responsibility to remember that when I vote. If I vote in a way that makes life harder for someone else, how can I justify that?

But it’s not just my vote. Every one of us has an influence far beyond what we ordinarily realize. I remember seeing a television program  four years ago in which the interviewer went inside a coffee shop somewhere in middle America  and talked with a man who thought  Barack Obama was a Muslim  and the interviewer said, “No, he isn’t.”  And the man in the coffee shop said,  “Well, that’s what I’ve been told.”  Well, yes; we are told all kinds of things because our friends and our neighbors say all kinds of things and we pass them on and that has an influence.

There’s been a flap just lately  about European health care  because one of the major candidates heard something about it  and spoke about it without checking and what he said isn’t true, but thousands will have heard what he said  and pass it on and it will influence thousands of voters. And that’s irresponsible  and it’s not just a personal matter. We’re engaged in a national debate about health care  and ought to be because other countries get better health care  for less and there are fellow citizens of ours, even fellow Christians,  who can’t afford the help they need  or come too late to the emergency room which we all pay for.  It’s a bad system and as Christians we have a responsibility to discuss the situation  and find solutions. Maybe the solution is a government program  and maybe it’s not but it won’t go away. It’s costing all of us money;  it’s hurting people who need help. We need to work out answers. Just as much as 19th century Christians  had a responsibility to find solutions to the problem of slavery so we have a responsibility to act  to see that those who are sick can find help and those who need jobs can find them  and those who want an education can get it.

Jesus said we will stand before the throne and be asked, “When I was sick why did you not visit me and when I was in prison, why did you not come to me, and when I was hungry,  why did you not feed me” and it’s no excuse to say,  “Well, you weren’t living in Bantam” or, “Well, I didn’t notice.” We can’t help noticing.  World hunger and unemployment and health care are on the news every night and there are mite boxes at the front of the church  and a food basket at the back as specific ways of responding.

But even Joel Hawes would have taken a food basket to the hungry. What he never understood and that we ought to understand  is that individual suffering results from social policy and we can respond,  need to respond, should repent, need to repent for not responding as a society, a nation, a corporate entity.

And especially we as Episcopalians have no excuse  for not understanding that. Our heritage, you know, is English and up until the Revolution  we used a Prayer Book that prayed for the King, George III, and the royal family. After the Revolution the Prayer Book was changed  and ever since we have prayed for the President. We haven’t quite caught up with the fact  that the President isn’t a substitute king and that we have a tri-partite government  with a Congress and courts so the Prayer Book generally stops with the President  but we do include the congress and courts here at St Paul’s.  But have you ever realized that we’re unique  in praying every week for the President? You can go into Protestant Churches and never hear prayers for the President and government  and I think it’s one reason that Joel Hawes saw religion as a personal thing and that evangelical Christians today still think of religion as purely a personal matter. They don’t have a Prayer Book that includes weekly prayers for the government. In fact, they come from a tradition that came here to get away from intrusive government  and just as we haven’t caught up with the fact that we have a tri-partite government  so they haven’t caught up with the fact that we have a democracy with a government that reflects who we are  for better or worse, that we are responsible for what our government does, for good or for evil. And it is, like us, not all one or all the other.

A faith that doesn’t include the whole of life  ignores a Creator who is involved  in the whole of life. And why would you worship a God  who isn’t so involved? Would you imagine that a God who created, as the very first book of the Bible tells us, the land and sea and plants and animals  and then created human life and gave us dominion doesn’t care about pollution of that land and sea and the climate change that has me tapping the maple trees in January and far more seriously threatening low lying cities and islands on the one hand  and drying up the water supply of American cities and turning agricultural land into desert? Are we not responsible?  Can we ignore these things in the pulpit and say God only cares about our swearing?  Some, I know, believe that there is no climate change,  that it’s a temporary fluctuation and no need to worry. But we can’t eat fish out of the Housatonic any more  and major cities in the southwest  are running out of water and there are island nations in the Pacific that are making plans to abandon ship and I can’t help wondering whether it’s smart just to wait and see what happen.  If we can find better ways  to power our cars and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, if factories can reduce the emissions that  poison our air, if we can take concrete steps to improve our environment,  don’t we have a responsibility to do it?  Won’t God hold us responsible  for our stewardship of the resources left in our care?

The same Prayer Book that calls us to use Lent  as a time of repentance and renewal is very specific.  It says: “For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,  Accept our repentance, Lord.”

Personal repentance is important, of course.  We all have bad habits we need to break. We all need to be more faithful in prayer and Bible study and worship. But we need to look around as well  and face the issues politicians talk about and try to set them in context of a God who calls us to be not just faithful individuals  but a faithful people. No nation has been so blessed  but blessing brings responsibility and we as a nation, a people, a society, blessed as we have been  have much to repent of as well. It’s all to easy to blame Washington  or politicians or someone else, but it’s our country, our blessing, our responsibility,  our need to repent and ask God’s forgiveness and the grace and help and healing and strength we need to serve God better,  to be the body of Christ  for the healing of the world.

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