When Sorry Doesn’t Cut It

I’ve just been through a day where I have felt a lot of anger at myself because my forgetfulness caused a lot of pain to someone else. I want to respect the privacy of the person who I hurt, so I’ll have to speak somewhat cryptically. I agreed to do something that I didn’t have the authority to agree to and I forgot to ask the person who did have the authority until it was too late. What makes it more serious is that because I’m a pastor and the person whom I let down doesn’t have much experience in church, my negligence has likely damaged this person’s relationship with God.

This afternoon, I wanted really badly to resolve the problem I had created. I got permission to do something that I thought would resolve it and I tried to get in touch with the person I had hurt. I called, texted, facebook-messaged, and even left a note on the door of this person’s apartment. Perhaps that makes me sound like a weirdo. Maybe it did more damage than good. In any case, I didn’t get any response and I’m realizing that I probably won’t. I’m hoping that the knot in my stomach might go away by tomorrow, but I’m also hoping at the same time that I will retain enough of the sting from this situation to do something substantial and systematic about my forgetfulness in the future.

This whole incident has caused me to contemplate the meaning of “I’m sorry” in our communications with other people. I’ve often thought of this phrase as a sort of equilibrizing valve that keeps the pressure from building in relationships. When you’re in a crowded bar and you bump into one big, beefy guy after another, you say “Sorry, sorry, sorry…” in order to defuse any possible tension before it comes up. Or when you actually get into a quarrel with another person and it’s hard to untangle who’s to blame for what, you say “I am so sorry,” overapologizing magnanimously in order to solicit a magnanimous overapology from the other person. Of course sometimes the other person takes advantage of you and says back, “You should be sorry,” without offering the reciprocal apology you were hoping to restore the world to equilibrium. Then your tone shifts pretty quickly into anger, and it turns out you weren’t all that sorry after all.

But what about when you really do feel like you’ve been a jerk and you’re not just trying to end a conflict with somebody? Perhaps a measure of whether you’re really sorry is if you don’t feel wronged when the other person doesn’t accept your apology, particularly if s/he doesn’t even allow you the martyrdom of getting reamed out but simply ignores you. Silence is the toughest response to receive when you feel like a jerk. Silence judges a lot more than hysterical shrieking or biting sarcasm could. So I’m trying to figure out what to do with the silence right now. I want it to somehow make me a better person. I guess the positive thing about it is it makes my sorry sorrowful rather than just socially appropriate. Can sorrow over our mistakes somehow sanctify us when it’s allowed to linger without resolution and redemption? Jesus does say, “Blessed are those that mourn,” and John Wesley thought that we should interpret this as referring to the mourning of our sins.

God’s grace shouldn’t be my excuse for saying “peace when there is no peace.” I’ve argued elsewhere that our assurance of salvation in Christ doesn’t exempt us from God’s judgment but rather empowers us to receive God’s judgment as a gift rather than a threat. Judgment is only unbearable when it’s the basis for rejection. God assures us of His unconditional loving acceptance not so that we will persist in hiding our sin from our eyes but so that we will boldly confront the flaws in our character that God wants to correct. One of the major shortcomings of Protestantism is our lack of any notion of penance, the Catholic sacrament by which believers are given a means of processing their sin and truly repenting for it. Just saying “God loves you anyway” doesn’t do much for someone who needs to have a time of sorrow in order to emerge from it as a more grateful, merciful person. When we say we’re sorry without feeling sorrow, we cannot be transformed by our repentance.

Protestants often turn repentance into a very mechanical, will-power-driven resolve not to make the same mistake again. Repentance is way more than that. The Greek word metanoia from which repentance is translated refers to a complete transformation of one’s perspective rather than just a dispassionate commitment to doing better. So I think repentance needs to include sorrow. Spending some time in sorrow helps me to hate the hurt that my mistakes have caused other people. You can’t know the sweetness of God’s mercy without having some notion of the gravity of what He’s forgiving. Sorrow is not a denial of God’s grace; it’s a critical part of how we come to appreciate it. So I’m going to try to accept the sorrow that comes with an unresolved conflict. I pray that God can use it to make me into a more sensitive and merciful person.

Cut to the Heart

Sermon for 5/7/2011
Text: Acts 2:22-24, 36-41

How many of y’all like the band Bon Jovi? I know that some of you were probably in college when the song “Shot through the heart” came out. I was in third grade and I remember driving around with my uncle blaring his Bon Jovi tape through his neighborhood in south Texas. I could actually hit the high notes then. “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame; darling you give love a bad name!” I remember as a kid listening to this song, I thought Jon Bon Jovi was singing about getting shot with an actual gun. But then I had this ah-ha moment a few years ago where I figured out he’s talking about Cupid’s arrow!

It’s a strange phenomenon how we like for our hearts to be wounded. The Italian poet Francisco Petrarch invented the 14-line style of poetry that we know today as the sonnet to express the agony of falling in love with another man’s wife named Laura de Noves. What is interesting is that most of his poems have very little to do with Laura herself. Petrarch was in love with the agony of being shot through the heart. William Shakespeare took up the sonnet form two centuries later, although he added a layer of irony to it. Instead of simply pouring out his emotions, he makes fun of love poetry. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damask’d, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight; Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

There’s something amazing about having a crush on someone. I once wrote a song called PG-13 about the crush that I still have on my wife. But something also feels silly about it. The more deeply I learn to love, the more I feel silly writing a poem about it, because the words are always inadequate. Now I don’t want to hate on love poetry. How many poets do we have here? How many people are willing to call themselves romantics? Well, I’d like to make a contentious claim, so hear me out. I think the reason it feels good in such an agonizing way to get shot through the heart by Cupid is because what we really desire underneath the surface is to be cut to the heart by Christ.

Cut to the heart. It’s such a poignant phrase that hits me every time I read Acts 2. Peter has just given his first big sermon in Jerusalem, capping it off with a torpedo: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” And when the people hear this, they’re cut to the heart. So they ask Peter, “What do we do?” Peter tells them to repent and get baptized and 3000 people come forward to be baptized. It’s every preacher’s dream to get a response like that. Now I realize that some of you might be saying, gosh, I can’t stand it when preachers guilt trip people into coming up to the altar. I grew up in a church where we had altar calls every Sunday after hearing about how sinful we were. I know that one of the things people like about coming to this church is that we don’t do that, but I wonder if we need to find a happy medium.

I can understand people who get beat up by life each week needing to come here for some words of encouragement and grace so they can pick themselves back up again. God wants us to know how much He loves us and forgives us and welcomes us into His presence. But if we never get convicted by anything we hear in church, if we never get cut to the heart, then how can we experience the repentance that brings us to our knees and results in the strange perfect freedom of giving our lives to Jesus Christ?

In English, repentance is often defined as “being sorry enough for a mistake not to do it again.” But it’s translated in the Bible from the Greek word metanoia, which means so much more than that! Metanoia means never being able to look at the world the same way again. It means having your world rocked to the point that it’s no longer recognizable. To have that radically transformative experience, you’ve got to face something that stops you in your tracks, something that cuts you to the heart. In the case of the apostle Paul, Jesus had to literally knock him off his horse and strike him blind so he could have the metanoia that made him the greatest missionary the world has ever known.

I don’t want to preach in such a way that you feel beat up when you leave here, but I’d love it if God could put something in my mouth that would stop you in your tracks, because every time God has stopped me in my tracks particularly when He’s called me out on my sin, I walk away feeling not beat up but liberated. There’s pain when my heart gets cut; but every time it happens, another chain falls away and I can follow my Savior a little more freely. I can’t preach the sermon Peter preached. The people he was preaching to were part of the crowd a few months earlier that had shouted for Jesus to be crucified when Pilate wanted to let him go. They had hurled insults and spat upon Him as He was stumbling His way to the hill called Calvary. They jeered and mocked as He hung up on the cross struggling to breathe. But that was two thousand years ago and you weren’t there.

So what do you need to hear to be cut to the heart so your old way of looking at the world can be shattered and replaced by the vision of God’s kingdom? Is there someone in your life who you need to admit that you’ve crucified whether it’s through gossip, rudeness, negligence, or some other form of disrespect? I was a jerk to people in my family at least half a dozen times in the past week. Or do you need to admit that you’re too proud of yourself? You haven’t hurt anybody in particular, but you’re just a little bit too in love with reading your brilliantly clever status updates on facebook (which would be my sin).

Maybe you don’t need to go looking for ways to be cut to the heart because life has already done that for you. You’ve had some setbacks; you’ve lost someone close to you; your mind has decided to make you depressed even though you don’t want to be that way. And now your old way of looking at the world doesn’t work anymore; you need a new reality. Part of owning that new reality is to call whatever has hurt you a blessing, as strange as that sounds, because whatever has made us empty has made room that the Holy Spirit can fill.

Let me tell you about the time when I was cut to the heart most deeply. Humor me if I’ve already shared this story. I went backpacking in Mexico in the summer of 1998 because it was cheap and I liked the beer. There was a revolution happening in the state of Chiapas, so being a wannabe anarchist punk, I rode a bus down to San Cristóbal de las Casas. There was a little girl about five years old walking around barefoot in the square of San Cristóbal selling dolls of the Zapatista rebel guerrillas for a peso apiece. She came up to me and said, “Cómpralo, señor, por favor, cómpralo!” which means “Buy it, sir, please buy it!” I don’t know how to explain what happened in that moment other than to say that God cut me to the heart. That night, I wrote in my journal, “I can never be a tourist again.” I got baptized when I was 7; I prayed Jesus back into my heart at Young Life camp in high school; but I became a disciple of Jesus Christ when God cut my heart through meeting that little girl in the square of San Cristóbal.

You don’t have to go somewhere far away to have your heart cut by Jesus. You just need to pay attention to the hurt that’s going on all around you and receive it as an opportunity to share Christ’s love which is actually how we experience His love for ourselves. Unless we let Jesus cut our hearts, we can walk through our whole lives as tourists who dabble in a little bit of everything but never give ourselves to anything. If church is just a place we go to feel pleasant, then all we’re doing here is dabbling. Don’t dabble. Repent. This means more than just admitting your mistakes and being sorry, though that’s a start. It means to stop putting up a front like you’ve got your life under control and let the Holy Spirit have its way with you. It might be a rush to drive through the countryside with your windows rolled down blasting Bon Jovi’s “Shot through the heart.” But that’s nothing like the joy you feel when you’ve been cut to the heart by Jesus and His love flows in and out of you as the Spirit carves you into a perfect vessel of God’s mercy.

Preparing the Way of the Lord

Sermon for Advent, 12/4/2010
Text: Matthew 3:1-12

Let me just be honest. John the Baptist frustrates me a little bit. He’s like the crazy uncle you invite to your Christmas party since he’s good for some laughs, and he ends up going on an awkward, angry rant that makes everybody leave. Instead of telling stories about his adventures in the desert eating locusts and honey, John calls the guests a “brood of vipers” and says that God is ready to cut them down with an ax if they don’t have “fruits worthy of repentance.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been putting in long hours this fall, so John’s prickly speech feels like getting kicked in the stomach after running a marathon. What do we do with John the Baptist? According to Isaiah, he’s supposed to be the voice in the desert who prepares the way of the Lord. So how do these words of his prepare our hearts for our savior King to be born in Bethlehem?

Preparing the way of the Lord means that something’s got to get cleared out of the way for God to come through. It seems like that’s what all this talk of axes chopping down trees and winnowing forks separating wheat from chaff is about. Highways don’t just fall down out of the sky and roll out across the earth like a red carpet; somebody’s got to bulldoze some land and blow up a few mountains to prepare the way for a road to come through.

I had first-hand experience with this once on a smaller scale. 10 years ago I spent the summer in a little village called Dolores Hidalgo in the state of Chiapas in southeast Mexico. One day the town gathered to clear brush out of a meadow so they could walk through it. The way they swung their machetes looked so natural and effortless. So I asked for a machete and starting trying to cut with it but it was quickly confiscated. They said, “No sirve, gringo. You’re going to cut your legs off with that thing.” I begged and pleaded until they gave it back, and it only took about 15 minutes for me to get a nice fat blister on the inside of my thumb. Life is brutal in a world without bulldozers where you have to blaze trails by hand.

So I wonder if preparing the way of the Lord is the same kind of vigorous labor on a spiritual level. Do we need to have achy muscles and blisters all over our hands to feel like we’re doing enough to build God a highway? John the Baptist says that the trees that don’t bear fruit need to get cut so that God can come through. Well, what counts as fruit? And what needs to get cleared away? Our interpretation of John’s words hinges upon how we answer these questions. Let me share one way of reading this that is natural to pastors like me who are always trying to get more people here and get the people who are here more involved. What needs to get cleared away is whatever creates scheduling conflicts in other peoples’ lives that keep them from all the things that we want them to do for God’s church. And the fruit is whatever those wildly successful mega-churches do that causes them to grow bigger just as many Methodist churches get smaller.

These past few weeks we’ve been very involved in outreach. We went out to the VRE station at 6 in the morning to hand out hot chocolate the week of Thanksgiving. This morning we hit the neighborhoods around here with door-hangers about everything that Burke UMC is doing for Advent. Several evenings this past week, I flipped through our church phone directory and called anybody whose face I hadn’t seen in worship to invite them to come out to our Advent activities. Does preparing the way of the Lord mean spending more hours doing church work and clearing out the rest of our busy schedules? Maybe it does, but I’m not sure, because putting in longer hours doing church work hasn’t made me more excited about the coming of the Messiah. How is it that we can spend more and more time doing church work but still not feel like we’re spending any time with God? Why do we long for Christmas to be over and done with already rather than savoring the excitement of the birth of our savior?

Maybe the fruit God is looking for is something different than achievements. And maybe the dead plants that need to get cleared away are not so much our scheduling conflicts but our unhealthy attitudes about our achievements. The Pharisees that John attacks in his speech were not slackers. They spent all their time trying to be perfect according to their stringent interpretation of God’s law. If anybody had fruit in their lives, it would have been the Pharisees. If they were around today, they would be the rock star church people who have time for three Bible studies a week and two mission projects and sing in the choir and serve on four different committees. So why did John the Baptist attack them so viciously and suggest that their fruit was unworthy?

John says to bear fruit that is “worthy of” or “fitting for” repentance. The word for repentance in Greek is metanoia. It’s a combination of two Greek words – meta, which means “after” or “beyond” and noeō, which means to “think” or “perceive.” We oversimplify the concept of repentance in English when we say that it means proving we’re sorry by fixing our mistakes. Metanoia is not necessarily tied to a specific sin or mistake. It just means that something has happened to completely change our hearts and compel us to perceive our lives much more deeply than how we saw it before. The fruit of which John speaks is not so much evidence of doing a lot as it is a changed way of being. John is telling us to show with our attitudes that our hearts have really been moved. And if we want to be moved by God, then we have to stop moving first.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once preached that “true religion, or a heart right toward God and man, implies happiness as well as holiness. For it is not only ‘righteousness,’ but also ‘peace and joy in the Holy Ghost’… This holiness and happiness, joined in one, are sometimes styled… ‘the kingdom of God’ [or]… ‘the kingdom of heaven.’ It is termed ‘the kingdom of God,’ because it is the immediate fruit of God’s reigning in the soul. [When God] sets up his throne in our hearts, they are instantly filled with this ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’ It is called ‘the kingdom of heaven’ because it is (in a degree) heaven opened in the soul.”

The four candles of Advent stand for hope, peace, joy, and love. When we open our souls to the reign of God, these are the fruits that it yields. As Wesley said, heaven opens up inside of us. We cannot “work on” having hope, peace, joy, and love; these fruits are gifts of God and the only thing for us to do is receive them graciously. God doesn’t want our achievements; He just wants us; and He wants us to experience the hope, peace, joy, and love that abound naturally from living in complete trust of Him. When we don’t trust God, then all of our efforts to serve Him and bring glory to His kingdom become like barren trees that we need God to be merciful enough to cut down. What are the barren trees in your lives? I’ve been worrying so much about proving myself as a pastor that I forgot to be a vessel of the One whose plan completely exceeds our understanding. The garden of my heart is so cluttered with dead plants that there’s no room for a manger in which a baby king can be born. I need for God to cut off the dead branches and toss my soul around with His winnowing fork until all the chaff has been shaken out from the wheat.

Preparing the way of the Lord is not a backbreaking act of labor for us to do; it is what God does for Himself in our hearts if we trust Him enough to let Him. And so the real question this Advent season is not “How are you getting ready for Christmas?” We should be asking ourselves instead how we have opened our hearts to the reign of God so that the hope, peace, joy, and love that only God can give will be what we feel as we wait by the manger for the birth of our King.