Meeting Ourselves on the Road to Repentance


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 5, 2017.

The Publican stands on the threshold of mystery. He has arrived at the doorway of repentance. The things that have been carefully hidden inside him have begun to break free and he goes to the Temple to express his sorrow at a life lived poorly. ”At the end of our life our questions are simple,” Jack Kornfield writes, “Did I live fully? Did I love well?” The Publican did neither. Today the Publican reaches the end of the life he has lived and he is ready to begin to awaken to a new one.

Tax collectors in Roman times were crooks plain and simple. Worse, their crimes were legal. According to Roman law, tax collectors were allowed to squeeze as much money out of people as they could as long as they paid a flat fee to the government. So, many were unscrupulous thieves taking advantage of their own people to benefit only themselves. The Publican hauled around a heavy burden of guilt underneath his rich lifestyle until its weight could not be borne any longer. So we find him in the Temple ready to open up and reveal and unload his pain.

The Pharisee has hidden his pain in a different way, behind strict observance of laws and the religious trappings of a man of public piety and devotion. And he did all of it well. Fasting, praying, tithing, obeying and teaching others to do the same. He appeared for all intents and purposes to be a good man, albeit a very egotistical one. Of all the differences there are between the two men, they are only superficial. They both carry burdens. Only the Pharisee was unaware. He had not woken up. His pain was still hidden and hidden well under robes, phylacteries and laws.

He took a different road, the road of spiritual bypassing. His religious devotion meant to lead him to a real and interior purity actually allowed him a means of hiding his sins. Fr. John Namie told me once, “Be careful. There are many demons in black robes.” Outward piety especially the most extreme versions, often hide the greatest pain. A friend of mine in the military told me that the paratroopers who pumped everybody up to jump out of planes with chants and fist bumps were usually the ones who were most afraid.

Opening up takes a lot of courage like leaping out of a plane. So much lies so deep. We bury our pain and disappointments, our failures, our embarrassments, our tears, our traumas where we think no one (including ourselves) will ever see them and we will never have to deal with them. Of course, this method doesn’t work. What we don’t want to know about ourselves actually ends up influencing our thoughts and our actions in ways we don’t see. It often takes someone else to point it out and that is rarely a pleasant experience, or a tragedy, failure or disappointment may lance the wound. Something will happen to break our hearts. And thank God that it does.

Rumi wrote that “You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.” It is significant that the scriptures says the same thing in a slightly different way. “A broken heart, O Lord, thou will not despise.” It is a broken heart that reveals the truth of us, a broken heart that allows the poison to drain, and a broken heart that allows the light to shine through.

This little parable does not show the end the Pharisee’s or the Publican’s life. It shows in detail and contrast two men at different places in a process every one of us is part of. It is the process of enlightenment. “Blessed is God who illumines everyone that comes into the world,” we pray in the service of Holy Baptism. The Holy Trinity is intent upon deifying us and everything that occurs in life is part of the divine plan to free us, to heal us and to deify us. Every success, every failure, every joy and every sorrow, every challenge to our belief system and every time we are affirmed, every time we are acknowledged and every time we are rejected. Every part of life exterior and interior is necessary even the hardest parts. Every one a treasure. St. Symeon the New Theologian speaking of the hard parts puts is like this:

and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light.

So, we must go deeper. We must risk the journey. We must open up and that takes great courage. We must come out of hiding. Repentance means meeting our hidden selves with honesty and compassion. That is why the most transformational kind of repentance always comes from a broken heart.

A Zen saying comes to mind when thinking of the great leap into the unknown that real repentance is, “Leap and the net will appear.” God is the net and he is waiting to catrch us.