II Corinthians 5:16-21
Our gospel story this morning is famous, and for good reason – it tells us a lot about God, a lot about us, and a lot about the world around us. It has been used as a basis for many sermons, stories, and other helpful forms of teaching because of the many things that can be gleaned from it. Two of the many topics found in the story are areas we have been hearing and reading a lot about these past few weeks: salvation and repentance. Sometimes the two are confused, as in the often used expressions “get saved” and “repent”. Many people say the two things as if they we the same thing, but they are not. We are saved, because God saves us – salvation is a totally free gift from God that has already been given, and we can do nothing to influence God to save us, because God already has. Repentance, on the other hand, is something that we do – we realize we are doing wrong, and we change our actions in order to stop the wrong and begin doing right. Repentance does not save us, God saves us, but repentance puts us in a position to actually live in and enjoy the salvation that God has given us.
God has forgiven us of all our failings and welcomes us into his own life of joy and peace, like the father in our gospel story. However, until we come to our senses and realize we are on the road away from our true home, like the younger son in our story, we can not enjoy the party that the father has prepared for us. And merely realizing we are on the wrong path is not enough – we actually have to do something to change our path, turn around, and go back home to our father. Repentance involves change in our lives, not merely regret over some of the things we have done, although that is a good way to begin repenting. In order to live as saved people, we need to change our unsaved conduct of pettiness and greed into saved conduct of compassion and gratitude.
Some people say that they can not change their behaviors, but that is not true, for any behavior short of pathology. There are many forms of help available to show us how to change our actions, the easiest and cheapest being the many books in our library with helpful hints on how to change behavioral patterns. Some people say that they don’t need to change their behavior. That is not true, either, because we have all hurt ourselves and others deeply, and will continue to do so if we do not live mindfully in peace and joy. If we think we do not need to change our behavior for the better, that only means we are not aware of our behavior.
Changing our actions for the better benefits us and those around us, and that is good. However, we don’t have to stop at our actions. We can, if we want, also change our thought patterns so that we are not plagued so much by the negative thoughts that drain our happiness and often lead to bad behavior. Many people say that we can not change our thought patterns, but, as with actions, anything short of pathology can be changed – it is merely difficult to do so. Others say that even though we can not actually change our thought patterns, we can learn to become more aware of them so that when they arise we can deal with them in a helpful manner before they do too much harm. Either changing them outright or learning to be aware of them in order to lessen their harm is better than simply allowing our petty thoughts to drag us down into anger or despair. One thing that most people do agree on if they say that thought patterns can be changed is that they are much more difficult to change than are behavioral patterns. But difficult and impossible are not the same thing. As is the case with behavioral patterns, some people think they do not need to change their thought patterns, but that only means they are not very aware of what is going on in their heads. Once again, there are many forms of help available if one wants to change hurtful thought patterns, the easiest and cheapest being the many books in our library dealing with the topic.
Our feelings and emotions can also be changed, but they are even more difficult to change than thoughts. Our emotions are given to us as a means of perceiving and dealing with reality, but so often they instead skew our perceptions and we mistake them for reality. We are called to be the salt of the earth – all-pervasive yet usually only noticed when missing, but instead our off-balance feelings and emotions sometimes turn us into the vinegar of the earth (souring everything) or the saccharin of the earth (coating everything with a false and sickening sweetness). With hard work and a big dose of objectivity, we can change our emotional patterns and responses so that they do not constantly plague us and those around us, draining us of our energy and joy. As with the case of altering thought patterns, there are many sources to help us, the easiest and cheapest of course being the books in our library dealing with the topic, and some people think that although we can not completely change our feelings, we can learn to become aware of their onset and so be ready to deal with them fruitfully. Both scenarios involve hard work and humility, but we are worth all the effort it takes to be freed of our irrational reactions. (By the way, this is not a plug for our library – we don’t make any money off of it – it’s just saying that in almost any situation, the resources needed for growth are there, if we are willing to do the work.)
Change is not impossible, it is only difficult. We are created in the image of God to live in love and peace in this wonderful universe God has given us. We are created to bless and be blessed by all others. Heaven is our home, yet we choose instead to run away from our true heaven and waste our treasure, like the younger son in our gospel story. God is waiting for us to repent – to turn around and come back. It is our choice, and we all know in the long run, we do what we want to do. We owe it to ourselves to repent and travel toward our father’s house. Our birthright as Children of God is a life of bliss, but we do not live in bliss when our feelings, thought and actions are centered upon us and our fears, rather than on God and his grace.
Even though we are saved, we are still humans, and we will all fail in our task of repentance. We will all fall off the path back to heaven at some point, but we can always get back on. God is always waiting, and like the father in our story, already has the party supplies. Change will be slow and will come in small stages, but any growth is better than stagnation. The first step of growth is in itself a return to heaven. So may we always – every day and every moment – stop our running from God and turn towards God. God will help us on the way, no matter how often we fall, and will never tire of waiting, and if we only allow him, God will actually carry us when we think we can go no further. We have been saved by God who lives with us – we know him as Jesus. May we, in gratitude for that salvation, repent – turn away from our tiny worlds of ego and travel into God’s infinite world of bliss. AMEN