Repentence is Good, But Prevention is Better – Rev. Eva Cameron

Exploring the relationship between repentance and preventation. To listen to this service click here

Sermon in Conversation Form by Rev. Eva Cameron and Del Carpenter, Worship Associate

Eva: Today’s sermon title comes from a sign I saw on a church one time. It read “Repentance is Good, but Prevention is Better.” This really got me to thinking: Did I agree with this message? What does it really mean to repent, and what exactly do they mean by prevention?

Prevention is one of the ways I get to help save the world, to help save you from yourself. I can do things that prevent you from what could be called sinning or at least help prevent you from hurting yourself or from hurting others. My friends and I can organize together and get laws passed that prevent some destructive behaviors. Prevention can be better. When organized through governmental action or societal mores, prevention can be more effective than personal attempts at repentance. Maybe someone can’t quit smoking, but we can reduce smoking by preventing people from smoking in certain conditions. (Incidentally, an agreement like that with Christine [Carpenter] is how I originally reduced my pipe smoking and then fully quit 34 years ago.)

Eva: Yes, it’s funny when you put it that way; I realize that there are some kinds of ‘preventions’ I really agree with, and others that I find more troubling. It’s an interesting list of things that people feel they can and or should prevent people from doing: public indecency, alcohol use (the temperance movement), drug use, abortion, a.k.a. right-to-life, polygamy, domestic violence, homosexuality. I could go on. But what does it say? That I am okay with preventing some of these things and not others? Who gets to pick? We all know that people can speak quite eloquently and strongly on both sides of these issues, whether or not we agree with what they are saying. They believe it.

Del: Your prevention list was full of behaviors that are not allowed. Another kind of prevention is to require certain behaviors: seat belt usage, mandatory education, driver’s license tests, elevator inspections, minimum age for marriage, deposit fees on pop cans, environmental impact statements, building permits _ we are leery of too much prevention. We see the possibility that preventive coercion instead of coaxing us into saintliness may just become coercion. We highly value our freedom. Yet, we know freedom can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes we can have too much freedom. We do make mistakes. Sometimes freedom can give us too much license to do things that are likely to hurt ourselves or others. Prevention in the form of societal mores, rules and regulations, highway laws, and sanitation laws, can save us from ourselves. Many forms of prevention really do give us less to repent.

It’s so true. Laws, which help encourage us to be our best selves and get along, are a big help. Just last night as some teenagers were prowling the neighborhood with beer cans, I was glad to think that I had the recourse of call the police to come and talk to them if they got too loud or disorderly. But sometimes, it’s hard to understand just where these ideas came from. In a society so focused on capitalism and free-trade, we forget our roots.
I recently heard that many of us have a very skewed view of our own history: that there has been a movement in the teaching of history, to do it with the lens of economics. That economic lens was so effective, many people don’t know which issues were raised in our Declaration of Independence, except for the economic one of ‘taxation without representation.’ Or as my daughter put it, when I asked her what she knew of the Declaration of Independence: “That whole tea-party thing.” Some of the other issues were about personal values in areas totally removed from economics. People do often take actions based on personal values even when the actions hurt them economically.

Del: What does this have to do with ‘Prevention’? We so often are amazed at the attempts of others to do what seems to us as totally nonsensical, and really infringing out our rights. They try to get laws passed that make no sense to us. And I think our confusion comes from our failure to really grapple with what it means to be a member of this United States while maintaining our often differing personal values. I think this is why lots of liberals are surprised by the effectiveness of the conservative movement.

Much of the conservative call to action comes from an understanding of the connection between wanting to see their personal values activated in the world, and knowing that needs to happen through governmental means. It is easy for a liberal who believes in a woman’s right to choose an abortion or not, to look at a bumper sticker that reads something about the millions of lives lost _ and write off the emotional impact of that statement as foolishness and using undue emotions to cloud the issues. This is a disconnect. For the person who’s got that bumper sticker on his or her car surely does believe in their cause. They believe with all their heart that prevention is important to avoid horrible death of innocent life.

The heart of the decision about issues of prevention can be very deep and very strongly felt. It can be a very frightening way to insist on achieving your moral ground.

Eva: How prevention is done is important . . . . Let me tell you a story that speaks about teaching prevention:

“There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence. The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper.

“The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, ‘You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out; but a scar is left.’”

Del: A verbal wound is as bad as a physical one. Friends are very rare jewels, indeed. They make you smile and encourage you to succeed. They lend an ear. They share words of praise. They will to open their hearts to us, and we need to hold this trust as sacred. Prevention is a very good thing to practice, for just this reason. And as we can see from this story, with discipline and encouragement, we can learn to grow ourselves into better human beings.

Eva: We’ve all heard the loud booming voice of the preacher man, shouting at us from the front of the church, “YOU MUST REPENT!!!” This is not a quiet and solid request for introspection, firm actions based on the introspection, and simple family time in ritual repentance to open oneself to the oneness of the universe, the forgiveness of God. This is a hammered out threat. Done with the best of heart, that the preacher might save you from some imagined bad-guy god, who is crueler than he even asks us to be. For he asks us to Love our Neighbor as Ourselves, and to Turn the other Cheek, yet this same god cannot find it in himself to be so loving, so gracious. AND he comes with a big stick, to make you feel bad about yourself, even if as far as you know, you have done nothing wrong. Repentance is good, but like prevention, like everything in life really, it sure does depend on how it is used.

Del: You can be prevented, but you can’t be regretted. It’s not only bad grammar: You have to do regret for yourself.

Eva: Regret is different from Repentance. In Regret there is the clinging, or carrying of the burden forever. In the Repentance, you get to let go. You experience forgiveness. The universe is vast enough, strong enough to carry your sins, your troubles, your sorrows. You get to leave them, when you repent and in the words of our old Universalist tradition, rejoice that we all are saved. Repentance is an important as a religious person, because it puts you in right relationship with other people. It helps you understand that just as you will make mistakes, and will want to be forgiven for them, will hope that there is still love out there for you, the same is true for every other human being. This is part of the nature of what it means to be human. We make mistakes. We can stay in right relationship with others if we do see ourselves as very fallible, yet also very worthy of being forgiven.
Divine or not, it doesn’t matter. There is a movement from regret to repentance.

Del: Getting from Regret to Repentance isn’t easy. There are two obstacles between Regret and Repentance. Moving from Regret to Repentance requires a promise or willingness to change behavior. Seeing the pain caused by the regrettable behavior doesn’t automatically create a real desire to change behavior. Saying, “I wish you hadn’t been coming through the intersection when I ran the red light,” may qualify as Regret. Getting from Regret to Repentance requires a desire to actually stop at all of the red lights. Regret is like a lamp that focuses on feeling bad that its light bulb is burnt out. To get to Repentance, the lamp has to really want to change the light bulb.

Repentance can be a form of prevention. We may think of acts we want to do or we may have desires which if fulfilled would require repentance.
Jimmy Carter talked about lusting in his heart but repented before carrying out those thoughts. We may be angry with someone and think about hurting them or want them to be hurt. We may repent from those thoughts and prevent ourselves from taking action on those thoughts.

Sages tell us committing an unjust act leads to committing another unjust act and another and another and another and on and on unless we repent. Our repentance for our transgression in one unjust act is not only for that act. Our repentance is intended to improve our behavior and prevent future transgressions.

Eva: The story of Jesus and the adulteress in the New Testament is an interesting collision of prevention and repentance. The story starts with the Pharisees testing to see if Jesus is going to participate in their laws that are designed to prevent people doing things deemed harmful to society. In this case, they are supposed to prevent adultery. The rule is clear: Adulterers are to be stoned. It’s a trap they’ve set for Jesus. What will the man who preaches about God’s love and forgiveness do in this clear case of a violation? According to the story, he is clever, and rather than say, “Oh, we shouldn’t do this, it would be cruel.” Or perhaps, “Let us forgive her, and god forgives all of us” _ instead he answers only with the line, “Let he among us who has not sinned, throw the first stone.” We know how the story ends. No one throws a stone. All know they have sinned. And Jesus says simply, “Go, and sin no more.”

Del: But just wanting to change, just wanting to go and sin no more isn’t enough. We have to have the strength to change. We have to have the optimism to take another step. We can’t do that while still hanging on to the Regret that sees us as a klutz or fool or failure.

We have to have Forgiveness. We need Forgiveness that sees us as able to do better next time, Forgiveness that gives us another chance, Forgiveness that gives us the strength to take the step into repentance. This Forgiveness may first come from within, or may first come from someone around us, or may first come from an appeal to that which is greater than ourselves.

Eva: This is why Yom Kipper is such an important religious holiday. It allows us to see forgiveness from a larger source _ call it god, the
Universe, source of life and love, the interdependent web . . . .

To the adulteress who was almost stoned to death, Jesus said simply,
“Go, and sin no more.” This is was a moment of forgiveness. This woman, hopefully will repent of what she has done, and will not only be less willing to act in similar manner again, but to be forgiving of others who have erred, made mistakes, sinned, jerked on the interdependent web of which we are all a part. “Go and sin no more.” He wasn’t saying that only to the woman. That was for everyone. The forgiveness was for everyone.

Honoring Yom Kipper is a way to set time aside to make sure you get around to this important part of being human. The Jews teach that it is at this moment of repentance that God writes your name in the Book of Life for another year. Okay, think Radical Acceptance translation here _ this means that we are not really living if we don’t have room in our lives to feel genuinely sorry, to make amends (not a hasty, “I’m sorry,” but a genuine knitting back together of the fabric of life), and allow your heart to open to forgiveness. Without these acts, whether or not we are living and breathing, we are not really ALIVE.

Del: A wise man one once said: “Forgiving is giving up all hopes for a different yesterday.” Forgiving doesn’t change the loss. Forgiving doesn’t end the grieving. Forgiving accepts the loss, gives up all hopes for a different yesterday. Forgiving allows the focus to shift from yesterday to today and tomorrow.

Eva: We began with the question: “Is it really so, that prevention is better than repentance?” As we worked together on this sermon, it occurred to me that both prevention and repentance have an internal level and a societal level. In the case of prevention, it is probably ‘better’ than ‘repentance’ on the internal/personal level_ because, internally, it would be much better to feel like you can manage your life the way you want to, rather than have to deal with the emotional distress of facing your mistake and making it right with other people. But, in the case of the external/societal level, repentance may be ‘better,’ because you are made aware that everyone makes mistakes; and forgiveness is available for everyone with repentance at this level. As we’ve mentioned this morning, prevention can be very oppressive or controversial at the societal level.

Del: The quote you started with this morning: “Repentance is Good, but Prevention is Better,” values both repentance and prevention. As we have wrestled with the ins and outs of these concepts, it is quite clear that both prevention and repentance can have real usefulness in our lives.
All of us want to lead better lives. Repentance and prevention can help us whether we are seeking salvation or whether we are focused on the here and now.

Eva: As you leave today, we hope that you depart with renewed confidence.

Del: Confidence to take the time to work to prevent yourself from taking actions you’ll regret or from saying things you’d rather not say, like the boy with the nails.

Eva: And, confidences to work to enact public preventive acts that you feel are truly beneficial to aid humankind and our planet.

Del: We wish you confidence to take the time to truly repent of all
that you feel you have done wrong, or poorly, or unwisely. And with that repentance, seek forgiveness from those you have harmed, from the oneness of the universe, and from yourself. May we answer the call to become more of our better selves.

Eva: And, finally, we wish you confidence to open your heart to all the pain and brokenness that exists in the universe, in your family, your mate, your co-workers, your fellow citizens, and complete strangers. Remember that no one, in that story of Jesus, was willing to cast the first stone. Open your heart to be a part of the universal spirit of love, which loves in spite of brokenness, sorrow, sin, and pain.

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