Fifth Sunday of Lent Sermon

March 26, 2022
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

Throughout the season of Lent we’ve been paying particular attention to the General Confession – that bit of the liturgy we pray every week, year after year.

I remember being new to the Episcopal way of worship and the Confession was one of the elements I found so attractive about the liturgy – this weekly invitation to pause… to scan my memories of the week and to name my failings before God. And to know that everyone else in the room was doing the same thing. There was no need to pretend – to put on airs that we were better Christians than we were.

Now, like you, rarely am I confessing some major sin, by societal standards. I’ve never had to confess murdering someone, or stealing something. Generally speaking, I’m a decent, upright citizen. And – every week – there’s something I need to confess because I’m a sinner! because I get cranky and tired and I can only see the world through my own narrow, misinformed way, because I’m self-centered and afraid. Most of the sins I confess every week have to do with how I’ve treated people closest to me – my family, my co-workers, you.

I’m grateful how the liturgy is a sacred space that invites me safely, each week, to be honest before God. And every week to hear God saying, “I know. I know. I forgive you, again and again and again.”

And in the form of the confession we’ve been praying this season, there’s one line that stands out distinctly. (It doesn’t show up in the other confession we use).

We repent of the evil done on our behalf.

This is a big one. It taps into such a vast pit of systemic sins in which we are complicit and often totally unaware, often without any means to correct. So, how on earth, are we supposed “to repent,” if by “repent” we mean, “to turn away and to walk in a new and holy and Christlike way”?

Simply by nature of being human, of being part of this physical/social world, it is impossible for us not to be complicit in any number of systems that are broken, that cause suffering, and that benefit us in some way.

And, by virtue of being first world people, there are a disproportionate number of systems that benefit us. And the higher we rank on the social scale, the greater our complicity is in this web of broken systems done on our behalf. And generally speaking, we are completely unaware of this vast network and structure designed to hand us things that are so enjoyable, so desirable and beneficial.

What privilege we have to go to the store, with its aisles and aisles of fresh food, frozen food, packaged food, with hardly any conception at all of what was required to get it there: of ecosystems destroyed to plant an efficient monoculture; of the carbon footprint to get us blueberries in winter; blueberries covered with pesticides, blueberries packaged in plastic that will never go away, but just break down into smaller and smaller bits, polluting the furthest reaches of the planet; blueberries tended and harvested by people living in horrendous circumstances, who are themselves often scapegoated in their host countries, as if they were the real problem. How many sins were committed on our behalf, so we can enjoy fresh blueberries in our morning smoothies, as we try to maintain healthy diets, as stewards of these bodies God has given us to care for?

When I was newly married and Henry was a baby, I was unemployed for six months. It was awful – the shame, the stress – and FINALLY!  I got a job in a florist. Now, granted, selling flowers is a somewhat frivolous industry, but it’s how my family survived for five years. And I was grateful for the work. And, in our culture, flowers are one of the ways we celebrate and communicate the major events in our lives: flowers for weddings, flowers for funerals, flowers for babies born and boyfriends saying “I’m sorry” when they screwed up. And! in order for us to have fresh flowers, underpaid workers in chemical-filled Columbian greenhouses are stooped over, carrying this burden of our life’s celebrations. And, I imagine – just like me – they’re grateful to have work.

The point is: it’s so complex, how many good things, worthwhile things, honorable things are so intermingled with sinful things and evil things, done on our behalf.

I remember walking once through an upscale neighborhood in Johannesburg, shortly after the fall of apartheid. The political situation might have changed, but the social system was still highly stratified. I remember – beyond the ten-foot walls mounted with security cameras – how beautiful the gardens were. And I remember thinking, “Of course they want to keep it this way.” I could just imagine happy little children, running out of their beautiful homes, across the veranda, jumping into their pools, laughing and playing, while their nannies kept their watch, while their cooks prepared their healthy lunch. Of course, they want to keep it this way. And all the while, these children are utterly oblivious to what was required to support and sustain their pleasant life, oblivious to the sins committed on their behalf.

Now, of course, apartheid was an extreme condition, but it existed on a social/economic continuum on which all of us live. Our circumstances may be less exaggerated, but simply by virtue of being Americans, of being white, of being male, of being educated, of having health insurance, we are all (in our way) like those children swimming in the pools, oblivious to these complex systems sustained on our behalf; sins committed for our safety and comfort.

To say nothing about:

  • wars waged on our behalf, whether we supported them or not
  • Tax policies structured on our behalf
  • education systems bent towards our behalf

Such that, regardless of whatever purity we may espouse – in our politics, our ethics, our theologies – we are complicit in myriad sins committed on our behalf.

And not only is it true on the macro, systemic level, it occurs as well on a smaller scale within the sphere our relationships. And this is how it happens: When we step into a situation that does not require our participation in order to defend or promote or uplift someone else; and we do it in a harmful way.

I remember, years ago, I lived in an ecumenical Christian community that was also a retreat house for people seeking spiritual renewal. There was another member of this community, Bronaugh, who was Catholic. And I had a crush on her. And at one point this Protestant guy came to stay in our guest house, and when he met Bronaugh, he took it upon himself to convert her. And I, trying to be brazen and chivalrous, took it upon myself to defend and protect her. Of course, the real, driving issue for me was my ego and my insecurity as a potential suitor. Bronaugh didn’t need me to protect her. She knew how to handle well-intentioned Protestants. And this guest, who’d come to us for spiritual renewal, ended up leaving early because of the aggression and inhospitality he experienced from me. It was a sin committed on Bronaugh’s behalf.

How often do we justify our bad behavior because of such supposed gallantry: how we mock and demean public figures in the name of political righteousness, as if righteousness ever required the buttress of our sin? How we gossip and enjoy complaining about an in-law, in supposed fealty to a family member, when what they need is our love. And how often such sins are waged for us.

It’s a gloomy sermon, I know. Welcome to the fifth week in Lent!

But all this begs the question: What, exactly, are we praying when, “we repent of the evil done on our behalf,” if repenting means more than saying “I’m sorry;” but is, instead, a pledge to change the way we are living?

Well, the standard advise applies – to keep educating yourselves:

  • to understand beneath the rhetoric the complex realities of our social and economic systems
  • to hear the stories of those who suffer in order to bring us pleasant things
  • where you do have privilege or influence, to use it on behalf of those who are powerless
  • to live a more modest lifestyle – consuming less and blessing more

All of this is responsible behavior. It does reflect a true movement of repentance in our desire to live more like Christ in this world.

And there is a reason we repeat the same confession every week, because – even when trying to do better – we remain entangled by so much sin and evil committed on our behalf.

Such is the world in which we live.

We are as that valley of dry bones, the remnants of battles fought, picked over by vultures and bleached in the sun.

We are as Lazarus in the tomb, smelling of rot after four days, knotted in our web of grave clothes.

And we live in hope, that the God before whom we repent, the God who forgives again and again, will meet us in our brokenness, will greet us with love, and – in the face of such despair and wretchedness – yet cry out, “Take away the stone. Lazarus come out! Unbind him, and let him go.”

For this is our hope. This is the substance of our prayers, week after week, that evil and sin will not have the final word. But that final word shall be “love” and love shall set us free.