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First, a story. It was the summer of 1959. At a resort in Northern California. Just out of college a young man gets a job that combines being the night desk clerk at the resort and helping with the horses in the stable. The owner-manager is Swiss/Italian with European notions about conditions of employment. The young man and the boss do not get along. One is 22 and pretty free with his opinions; the other is 52 and has a few opinions of his own.
One week the employees were served the same thing for lunch everyday: 2 wieners, a mound of sauerkraut, and stale rolls. To compound the insult with injury, the cost of the meal was deducted from the pay. The young man was outraged.
On Friday night of that week, the young man was at his desk job around 11 p.m. when the night auditor came on duty. The young man went to the kitchen to get a snack and saw a note to the chef that the employees were again to eat wieners and sauerkraut on Saturday.
"That does it. I quit."
For lack of a better audience, the young man unloaded on the night auditor, Sigmund Wollman. He declared that he had it up to here, that he was going to throw the wieners and the sauerkraut right in the face of the owner. In his own words, he said, "I am sick and tired of this misery and nobody is going to make me eat wieners and sauerkraut for a whole week and make me pay for it and who does he think he is anyhow and the horses are nags and the guests are fools and I'm packing my bags and heading for Montana where they wouldn?t feed wieners and sauerkraut to the hogs."
He went on for some twenty minutes. He ended with a call to arms, freedom, unions, uprising, and the breaking of the chains of the working masses. As he pitched his fit, Sigmund Wollman sat quietly on his stool, smoking a cigarette and watching him with sorrowful eyes. Survivor of Auschwitz. Three years. Thin. Coughed a lot. He liked being alone at the night job. It gave him peace a quiet and time to read sometimes, and even more, he could go into the kitchen and have a snack anytime he wanted to | all the wieners and sauerkraut he wanted. To him, a feast. More than that, at night there was nobody around to tell him what to do. At Auschwitz he dreamed of such a time.
"Are you finished?" he said to the young man.
"No. Why?" the young man replied.
"Lissen. Lissen me. You know what's wrong with you? It's not the wieners and sauerkraut and it's not the boss and it's not the chef and it's not the job."
"So, what's wrong with me?"
"You think you know everything, but you don't know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you have a problem. Everything else is inconvenience. Life is inconvenience. Life is lumpy. Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer. And will not annoy people like me so much. Good night."
In a gesture combining dismissal and blessing, he waved the young man off to bed.
The author of this story, Robert Fulghum, continues: "Seldom in my life have I been hit between the eyes with truth so hard." Years later I heard a Japanese Zen Buddhist describe what the moment of enlightenment was like, and I knew exactly what he meant. There in the late night darkness of the Feather River Inn, Sigmund Wollman simultaneously gave me a swift kick and opened a window in my mind. For thirty years now, in times of stress and strain, when something has me backed to a wall, I think of Wollman: "Problem or inconvenience?" (Uh-Oh by Robert Fulghum, 1991).
I relate this story because it illustrates how one person was jolted into re-examining his behavior, attitudes, and presuppositions. As a result of what felt like a swift kick, he saw things in a new way. As a result of the swift kick, he changed and grew in understanding. As a result of the swift kick he lived his life differently. For more than 30 years.
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus calls his disciples together, and invites them to re-examine their behavior, attitudes, and presuppositions. He invites them to see things in a new way. He invites them to live their lives differently. We see Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry. Like John the Baptist before him, he proclaims: "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news." In other words, Jesus says, "Wake up; look sharp; the time is now. Repent. Re-examine your presuppositions and attitudes and perspectives and behavior. Open your hearts and minds to the good news I am proclaiming."
Now many of us think of repentance as a dour, hair-shirt, kind of Lenten experience in which we confess our sins and pray to God that we will be spared the fiery torments of hell we probably deserve. Repentance, as it is used in the Bible, however, is less this kind of hair shirt exercise and more an invitation to change, grow, and develop into the full human beings God intends us to be. Repentance, refers to being receptive to what the swift kicks in our lives can teach us. It may mean making a 180 degree, life-changing turnabout. Matthew's gospel tells us: "Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God." Unless we are as open and ready to learn and change and grow as children, we will not enter the kingdom of God.
In a sermon on this passage, John Claypool says repentance of this sort is the whole thrust of Jesus' ministry. Jesus saw repentance as an absolute necessity, the way God means for human beings to grow toward fulfillment. He also says that there is a notion that busy, active people cannot afford the time to re-examine their basic presuppositions about this life. He quotes Lyndon Johnson, who, after he left office, reflected on his handling of the Vietnam Crisis. He said, "I never felt I had the luxury of re-examining my basic assumptions. Once the decision to commit military force was made, all our energies were turned to vindicating that choice and finding a way somehow to make it work." I suspect that many of us sympathize with the President's predicament; we too are buys and we have started down one path or another. It is difficult to stop, take stock, and reassess; like President Johnson, we may feel this is a luxury we cannot afford. Jesus, however, seems to regard repentance, re-examining our lives, not as a luxury but as an absolute necessity. From the very start of Jesus' public ministry, Jesus invites us to repent: to reflect, reconsider, reassess, reexamine our lives in the light of the gospel.
Fortunately for us, as the work of repentance is not easy, God sometimes takes the initiative and leads us into repentance. God may not be the one to give us the swift kick, but God does help us to learn from it and risk changing our lives as a result of it. God hopes, it seems, that by trial and error, by falling down and getting up again, by letting our mistakes and detours and dead ends teach us something, that we will come to our full and true selves.
Perhaps you can recall a time when you were kicked and a window opened up in your mind, when all of a sudden you understood something in a new way. Perhaps a time when you let some irritation at work really get to you. You fretted and chewed over the trouble for months; you couldn't let go of it; you stopped exercising; you were short with the children; and you lost sleep over it. Then you got sick, maybe an ulcer, maybe a heart attack. A royal wake-up call. Your entire perception shifted in an instant. Wait a minute, you said. This life is uncertain and fragile, and I'm not going to let this misery at work rob me of time to love my family and friends, rob me of my health, rob me of giving attention to the things I enjoy and care about. Is this misery at work a real problem or merely an inconvenience I have blown all out of proportion?
Or perhaps something like this happened to you, as it did to me. I was rolling through the supermarket, tossing item after item into the cart, the usual hurried flurry of consumption. At the checkout counter, I was impatient because the line was moving so slowly. I kept eyeing the other lanes to see if they were moving faster. They weren't, so I peered around to see who on earth was holding up my line. I saw an old couple with a few items already scanned People thin as wisps, conferring over her opened purse, looking into it like it was a wishing well. And they don't have quite enough to make it. And there I stand, cart loaded to overflowing. A kick in the rear and a window opens. "For God's sweet sake, what on earth am I doing with all this stuff when they are so thin?"
Or perhaps something like this happened to you. You failed in public, or you were caught in the act of doing something not good, and you humiliated yourself. Perhaps you found that people acted differently towards you afterwards: some avoided you, some were scornful, some judgmental. You felt isolated and ashamed, maybe angry. Then the phone rang and you heard:
"Hi, Buddy; want to have lunch?" And all of a sudden you knew right down to your toes how life-giving friendship and acceptance are. And you determine you will try to be that person to someone else.
I give all these examples in the hope that they will encourage you to re-examine your behavior, attitudes, and presuppositions the next time you are given a swift kick. Or maybe re-examine some old experiences that you have glossed over. Look for the ways God may be leading you to grow and change. God, it appears, is less interested in our past guilt or innocence, and, more interested in our ongoing spiritual growth. Repentance is one of the gifts God gives us to help us grow into the full stature of our humanity. Jesus, always our guide and advocate, tells us the time is now: accept the invitation to repent and grow in faith. Amen.
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