A New Heart & A New Spirit

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Proper 21, Year A, September 25, 2011
Ezekiel 18.1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25.1-9; Phil 2.1-13; Matt. 21.23-32
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

Grace and peace to you from the One who grants us a new heart and a new spirit, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Before I was called Pastor Renee, I was referred to as Miss Renee by girls ages 6-11. After I graduated from college I moved to inner-city Denver and volunteered for one year at a non-profit organization called Girls Incorporated of Metro Denver (Girls Inc.). It was an after school program for girls and I was a teacher there. I learned a lot that year about inner-city life, poverty, homelessness, and how varying ethnicities and cultures interact. I also learned a ton that year about blame.

There was one incident where I walked into the bathroom after doing a finger-painting project with the girls only to find all of the walls and sinks covered in black finger paint. When the girls were confronted about the situation, no one fessed-up at first, and then the finger pointing soon began. We finally narrowed it down according to color of paint on the girls’ fingers, which made things quite easy. Even when everyone knew which seven year old decided to be creative on the bathroom walls, she still sought a way out by blaming others and not taking responsibility for her actions.

Our reading from Ezekiel today speaks of blame. Ezekiel is speaking for God to a people who are suffering greatly and they believe they are suffering because of the sins their parents’ committed. There is a sense among them that no matter what they do, things will not change for them because they are being punished for something their parents did. There is talk of unfairness among the people. They say that God is unfair and their situation is unfair.

I would guess that all of us here, especially those of us who have brothers or sisters, have blamed someone else for something we have done. As human beings we are really good at not wanting to suffer consequences for our actions and can be pretty good at convincing ourselves that the situations we are put in are not our fault.

Our earliest record of this is with the first human beings, Adam and Eve. After they both eat fruit from the forbidden tree, God asked Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat (Gen. 3.11)?"

Then Adam said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate (Genesis 3:12-13)." Neither Adam nor Eve wants to take responsibility for their disobedience.

What is so interesting to me and often times what we forget, is that God already knows. God knew they ate the fruit, God knows when things are our fault when we try to blame others. Instead of this being a scary thing and something we need to hide, it is meant to be something that brings freedom and life. God, through Ezekiel says, “Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.” What is meant here is that if we keep blaming others and fail to recognize our own sin, it will keep eating away at us and prevent the healing that needs to take place within us.

Healing first and foremost begins with God. It begins with God’s invitation for us to examine ourselves and confess how we alone have hurt others and have messed up. It is not for God’s sake in which we confess our sin, it is for our sake and the sake of the family and community in which we are a part. Without admitting our wrongs we are not able to embrace new life.

For those of you familiar with the 12-step program or for those of you currently involved in it, you know about the fourth and fifth steps:
“Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

There is hardly anything in life that is more difficult than taking a good and honest look at oneself, but this is what God asks of us in the reading from Ezekiel. It is in the taking responsibility for our own sin and actions that we can finally be open to what God already gives to us: a new heart and a new spirit!

Now, while it is true that we all have blamed others, the past, or God, I am going to reverse this a little bit because I know some of you in here struggle with blaming yourselves for things you had no control over. To help in understanding what I mean by this, I am going to share with you what someone once shared with me. Many of you know that I was in the earthquake in Haiti nearly two years ago. My husband, Ben, died in the earthquake and for a while I struggled with blaming myself for his death. I kept saying, “What was I missing? Why weren’t we right next to each other? How could I have saved him?” One of my mentors always gently listened to me, but one day he looked me in my eyes and said, “Renee, what makes you think that you have power over someone else’s life?”

I finally had to admit to myself that there was nothing I could have done and blaming myself only caused me to be stuck in the past in something I could not change. Many of you know people (even perhaps yourself) who have attempted suicide or have made decisions that have hurt others or themselves. Hear this clearly: You do not have power over someone else’s life or decisions, even your own children.

If you are blaming yourself for something in the past, let it go and let God begin to heal you. Find comfort in the Word of God from Ezekiel: “Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine (18.4).”

In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells the story about a father and his 2 sons. He asks them both to go and work in the vineyard. One says no, but goes anyway. One says yes, but doesn’t go. The one that goes does the will of the father. I cannot help but wonder what the sons might have said if the father asked, “Why did you say no and then go?” or “Why did you say you were going to go and then didn’t?” Would they blame the father? Would they blame each other or someone else? Or would they both take responsibility for their decisions and actions?

In our reading from Ezekiel, God says, “Therefore I will judge you…all of you according to your ways (18.30).” Again, this is not meant to be a threat, but a call for us to repent and take responsibility for our actions and decisions. Remember that God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyway. Turn, then, and live (18.32).”

We are not God and we do not have power over other people’s lives. We can only let God turn us again and again towards God for forgiveness, hope, and new life. Trust that God loves you, your children, and all others with compassionate love.

The past has the potential to make us angry and bitter, but God desires to give us a new heart and a new spirit. The past, present, and future are all intertwined. While we can’t change the past, we can turn to God in the present in order that we might have a future filled with hope.

Now back to my little seven year old from Girls Inc. Even though she was notorious for doing naughty things and blaming others, there were a number of times she genuinely apologized and was wonderful to be around. One of my strongest last memories of her before I left Denver happened at a field trip to a rock climbing wall. She was having a really tough time facing her fear of falling and climbing the wall. She cried some and didn’t want to do it, but she eventually gathered the courage and started climbing. I got to hold the rope for her and cheer her on. I felt like I got to witness a new heart and a new spirit in her through her incredible excitement and fear as she climbed.

The thought of a new spirit and a new heart can be scary because we can be familiar and comfortable with our old ways or with blame. But it is in our facing of fears and in our self-reflection that God gives us new life.

I pray that God will help you in your own self-reflection and the taking of responsibility for your own actions. God will keep turning you towards new life. This Sunday morning receive what God offers you…a new heart and a new spirit.

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