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Ash Wednesday
February 22, 2012
The Old Testament: Isaiah 58:1-12
Sermon: "Calculated Repentance"

The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
The Old Testament:

Thus says the high and lofty one
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
"Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?"
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah 58:1-12 

Calculated Repentance

This is Ash Wednesday. Today is a day for confession and remorse; for seeking to put our relationships right others and with God. But here’s a question; does repentance count if there is a big payoff? Put another way, if apologizing gets us off the hook for some of the penalty of our actions, can our contrition be considered sincere? Are we really remorseful or is the apology just a tactic to ward off unpleasant consequences? 

At least some of the apologies we hear these days are calculated. Consider that several major insurance companies now run seminars for their clients on how to best deliver apologies to victims so as to repel lawsuits. Apology as strategy is an actual practice in some business settings. Have you ever had a problem with some electronic device that got you to phone the manufacturer’s help line? Sometimes, when you finally get through to the customer rep and explain your problem, the rep responds, “I do apologize for that.” 

It does feel better when the rep says that, but what if they’re just reading a rote response from a script. From the manufacturer’s point of view, the apology, even if it is canned, makes sense because it deflects a lot of customer anger. But what if it does contain calculation, does it still count in the higher scheme of things? 

That is certainly a valid question to ask in the church, especially on Ash Wednesday. There’s an old cartoon showing a father, mother and their young son exiting a church after a service. The father looks quite irritated and he is saying to his son, “I want you to stop referring to the church as the Repentagon.” But the boy was right, of course; repentance is a critical part of the church’s message. We might think, at least when dealing with a God who can see what’s in our hearts, that our repentance is only effective when it is deeply felt. 

The Biblical evidence, however, gives us a different measure of repentance. Rather than quiz sinners about the depth of their emotions when claiming to repent, God often seems more interested in their intentions and how that issues in changed behavior. 

The Prophet Isaiah gives us a case in point. God expresses his displeasure at the ritual acts of repentance performed by members of the prophet’s nation because the acts are empty and do not result in holy living. The act in question, fasting, is a valid religious practice and is the very one our Lord addresses in our Gospel lesson tonight. But the fasting undertaken by the prophet’s contemporaries is the sort that has one eye open to detect whether the Lord is noticing how contrite the fasting appears. God actually quotes the people’s complaint with him: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” And then God answers: “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day.” Concurrent with their fasting, the people are oppressing others. God says that the kind of fasting that is acceptable to him is the sort laden with true repentance, the kind in which the penitent not only asks for forgiveness but also moves to correct his or her sins and wrongdoing. 

Using this passage as a guide, we find it unlikely that apologizing just to get out of trouble really counts for much on God’s contrition scale. But, if that apology also results in changed behaviors, then it has merit, even if it does get us out of some trouble. 

Our concern today is our relationship with God, and those times when we have sinned against him and others. Thankfully, God offers forgiveness and fresh beginnings, and repentance is the place to start. But as our Scripture passages show, repentance is neither feeling bad nor performing pious rituals; it is intention and follow-through.

And it is both of those things. The traditional words of invitation to the Lord’s Supper call to the table those who “do truly and earnestly repent of [their] sins ... and intend to lead a new life ....” At that point, the intention is enough to make us welcome at the Eucharistic meal. That is probably because intention is a productive state of mind that causes results. Intention, in fact, is the energy of repentance, and drives us to results.

Of course, what happens after we leave the altar, or arise from a penitent prayer, or speak an apology determines the truth of our intentions. The steps we take to “lead a new life” determine whether for us communion, conversion, or contrition is holy or sham. As a small girl once so well defined repentance, “It’s to be sorry enough to quit.” Follow-through is the point. 

Apologizing for our mistakes, when we know that doing so could well bring us some relief from trouble, can make our confession look suspect. It can even cause us to doubt ourselves, our sincerity in our own confessions. But does that mean that we shouldn’t apologize when we feel our motives are compromised? No! Not a one of us can guarantee that our repentance from sin ever arises from totally pure motives. Fortunately, God does not ask for any such guarantees. Rather, God looks for our intentions and the follow-through that our intentions yield. 

Right intentions with appropriate results equal true Biblical repentance. As Lent begins, use this prescription. It is the way to restore and live a holy life.

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