by Rev Robin Martin
I can’t remember the last time I heard the old ballad about the Martins and the Coys, but I heard it first as a fairly young child. It was written in 1936 and tells the tale of two families in the Appalachian Mountains who were famous for their undying hostility toward each other. The mutual hatred began when old Grandpa Coy sneaked into the Martin’s hen house one day to steal some eggs for breakfast, and was shot dead as he ran away. That event unleashed a vicious cycle of murderous retaliation until no one was left in either family except the beautiful young Grace Martin and the equally handsome Henry Coy. Though each had sworn to finish the long-standing family feud Instead, they fell in love and married each other. But the story didn’t end there because the ballad goes on to record that they continued to fight worse than all their ancestors combined, though without the fatal consequences. I remember thinking this was a true story, and having conversations with my parents about it. I was both appalled and fascinated by the concept of blood feuds. Even if it wasn’t true, it was probably based on the fierce, quick-to-take-offence independence that can develop in some places under certain circumstances. And as you and I learn more and more about our ever shrinking world, we know there are many places and cultures this very day where tribal and religious and personal animosities fuel an unending cycle of violence. It seems as though almost no one in those places is willing or able to let go of past wrongs, even when the root of the animosity is many centuries old. Forgiveness doesn’t seem to be an option when honor has been offended. All this comes to mind for me in this season of Advent when we’re faced yet again with the singular insistence of John the baptizer to repent.
Repentance and forgiveness are crucial components of something basic to human existence. We human creatures were not made to live alone. We need and often desire the community of others to sustain us, to nurture us, to challenge us. The poet Robert Frost said that “To be social is to be forgiving.” I think this is true because the reality of our existence is that you and I regularly misuse our own humanity in ways that harm and deny the humanity of others. The reality of our existence is that we do this both individually and collectively. Our need and desire for one another has not and cannot keep us from doing this. We need help.
In his wonderfully terse way, Mark tells us in the gospel this morning that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And in response to John’s rather forbidding appearance and his unrelenting challenge to change, Mark tells us that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.” Unlike what many a modern preacher, including this one, might do, John doesn’t enumerate what the particularities of those sins might be, or explore the subtle shapes that sinning might take. He simply says we need to repent in order to be forgiven. It’s a clear and forthright call which worked well in John’s ministry, and has worked well in many times and places and situations throughout the millennia since God chose for himself a people. Its clearness and forthrightness are precisely what’s needed when large crowds are to be addressed.
But having said that, it seems to me that one of the peculiar graces afforded to those of us who seek God in the context of smaller, more intimate communities is that we can take the time to explore the complicated relationship between confession and repentance and forgiveness, both as individuals and in community.
The first, and perhaps most critical, thing to note is that for healing to occur and wholeness to be gained, confession and repentance and forgiveness don’t necessarily have to happen in this order. The great truth of the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” is that forgiveness was, and is, offered to us by God before you or I or the rest of humanity ever dream of offering our confession and repentance to God. It’s the desire to possess that gift of forgiveness with all its life-giving possibilities which gives us the will and the courage to accept the sister gifts of confession and repentance. In other words, it’s only by the gracious gift of God that you and I are ever able to say, “This is what I’ve done, I’m sorry.” That’s the way it is with you and me and God. God’s forgiveness always precedes our confession and repentance.
But the way it works between human beings and between groups of human beings is much more linear. We’re not very willing to forgive until there’s obvious and concrete evidence that the one who’s wronged us is clear about what they’ve done and is truly sorry for it. In contrast to the complete “illogicality” of the love of God which offers forgiveness first in hopes of inviting confession and sorrow, you and I most often demand from one another a more logical progression. It’s a process that requires anyone who has offended us to confess the wrong and be truly sorry about it before we will even consider forgiving them. Forgiveness, in our hands, often becomes a reward which must be earned rather than a gift freely given.
The second and perhaps just as critical thing to look at is the relationship between the human and the divine and between the personal and the communal dimensions of confession and repentance and forgiveness. Our Jewish sisters and brothers have historically had a much better understanding than we do of the connection between individual and corporate sin, and how the damage we inflict on our relationships with one another, both alone and in groups, also damages our relationship with God. Protestant Christians in particular, with our heavy emphasis on personal salvation, sometime seem to have all but lost that communal understanding of how sin affects all our relationships.
With the clear-sightedness which distance can give, you and I can see in the many relentless conflicts that make the news every day, we can see in the deep and often violent divisions between people of various faiths all over the earth how the dynamics of forgiveness withheld, of confession and repentance unclaimed mar and destroy the God-given gift of human society.
Too often, the prevailing wisdom is to “forgive and forget” when the more helpful mottoes for restoring healing and wholeness are actually “remember and repent” and “remember and forgive.” For the truth is that sometimes we are perpetrators, and other times we are victims of the death-dealing ways that diminish and even destroy human beings. And the truth is that the good news of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim and to embody for us is that we’re as free to grant forgiveness as the God in whose image we’re made. And we’re empowered by God’s gracious truth to speak the truth about ourselves even when that truth is shameful and distressing. And we’re called to act, not spend a whole lot of time worrying about who should do what first.