Here’s what I said this week.
“I’m sorry, so sorry” sang Brenda Lee back in 1960, making it to no 1 in the charts in the US. Well, sorry she might have been, but saying sorry is never easy. Elton John was clear about that when he sang “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”, as were Chicago with their song “Hard for me to say I’m sorry.” Connie Francis, though, put the blame on someone else when she sand ‘Who’s sorry now.” There are so many songs that are about people saying sorry.
“Sorry” is such a small word – so why is it so difficult to say. We can sing about it – but saying it is a different matter.
If you’ve ever had the challenge of separating two children following a disagreement – perhaps one has broken a toy belonging to the other, for example – you’ll know what I mean. You make an attempt to get the child who is at fault to apologise to the other, “Say sorry”, you find yourself saying. After a great deal of coaxing, with a bit of luck, you might be rewarded with a rather grumpy and sullen “Sorry”. It’s never enough, though, is it? And you inevitably find yourself saying “Now say it as if you mean it!” At which point it was probably better to have given up. I don’t know why, when our children were young, I never learned! Hope never triumphed over experience. You can’t make a child – or anyone else, for that matter – mean they are sorry when they manifestly aren’t. Even when we know we are at fault we don’t like saying ‘sorry.’
Not only is sorry such a small word – so often we don’t really mean it when we say it. Take the prayers of penitence that we use near the beginning of every parish mass. Do we ever think about the words we are using? Do we really mean what we say? Do we really regret – repent, to use the theological word – of what we have done. Are we really sorry? God knows what we’ve done that we need to be sorry for, yet it’s as though we think by not admitting our faults God won’t notice!
This morning we are thinking about John the Baptist’s call to repent. Now I bet you all think you know what that word means – but the keen gardeners among you may be aware that it has another meaning. Because there are two completely different and unconnected meanings to the word repent. The one with which we are all familiar comes from a French word and means to be sorry – truly sorry. To regret the sins, the wrongdoings of our past and to return to God. It’s more than simply wishing we had behaved different – it also includes within it a decision to behave differently in the future. When John talked about repentance he clearly used the word in this sense. The other meaning of the word comes from Latin and refers to a plant that creeps along the ground and takes root – rather like some weeds, especially bindweed which the gardeners among you will be only too aware of. Bindweed grows at a phenomenal rate and just takes over the garden, wrapping itself round other plants and choking them to death.
The problem with bindweed is that you cannot ignore it. Spend half a day clearing the wretched stuff and then relax for a week, believing that it is destroyed once and for all, and it will return more vigorous than ever! If it is to be completely wiped out, every fraction of the root must be destroyed. In practice this is simply not possible. We had loads of the stuff in one vicarage we lived in and the gardeners of the parish were full of suggestions on how to get rid of it, none of which ever worked. In the end we gave up and lived with the stuff. We can only do our best with the tools and time we have to eradicate this enemy of our gardens so that the fruit and flowers may grow to healthy maturity.
John the Baptist emphasized the need for weeding out: Luke – following on from today’s passage – reminds us of how uncompromising John’s message was: “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire”. His words seem harsh and uncompromising. He is preparing the way for the Lord and it is time to follow a straight path.
So what to do? “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he says. The fruit from each of us will be different, according to the gifts God has given us, but we share similarities.
First we need to see those failings which are holding us back. Walking through our garden with our head in the air admiring the blooms of the climbing roses will not reveal the bindweed at our feet. We must get down on our knees for a closer look. So we need to learn to examine ourselves closely and honestly. We need to foster the desire for repentance and ask God into our lives so that, not overnight, but gradually, over the years, as we mature mentally and spiritually, we can become better people – the people God wants us to be. Like a gardener tending to plants, it may be necessary to get back on our knees more often. This time in prayer. Repentance may be a turning away from sin but, more positively, it is directing our lives towards God who gives us the help we need. Reaching out to him in prayer, sharing the details of our lives, accepting God’s concern and love for us, further developing that deep belief that God is always there and always worth turning to.
Praying is like sitting on a bench in the garden, feeling the warmth of the sun on our face, eyes half‑closed against its brightness. We need and deserve the time to relax in the balm of God’s presence. When we do this God will take care of the half‑destroyed bindweed at our feet – the things in our life that we do wrong. Brenda Lee sang, “I’m sorry, so sorry.” John the Baptist reminds us that we need to be able to say that to our Father and mean it. And we can begin today. Acknowledge the bindweed of weakness and failure and begin to root it out the best you can with God’s help. Then sit calmly in the presence of God and let love’s healing sunshine restore you and deal with what you cannot handle. Now IS the time for repentance ‑ but now is also the time for love, the Father’s love as he reaches out and raises you up..