Stop Dying - Start Living

Sermon Series: Lent 2004: Bearing the Fruit of Repentance

Stop Dying - Start Living

No Shoes Required

February 29, 2004

Matthew 3:1-11

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Kate Kotfila

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Shawshank Redemption Clip

(where Andy Dufrene escapes Shawshank by crawling through the sewer pipe, emerges in a cleansing rain shower)


There are a lot of prisons out there, most of them of our own making. We don’t have to be behind bars to feel trapped, cramped and trampled on.  We don’t have to be in jail to dream of open spaces and flowing rivers.

Fear entraps some of us - - -

Anger weighs us down - - -

Life choices cramp us - - -

Until a six by eight cell seems expansive.


What attracts people to folks like Dr. Phil with his “get real” philosophy? People who agree to be on his show often find themselves under attack for being phonies. Told take responsibility for their lives, to live authentically, to get their acts together, they walk off stage a bit shell shocked. But they knew that was going to happen when they signed up for the gig. Why do they go? What draws people to the likes of Dr. Phil – or John the Baptist? Certainly not their polyester suits and balding heads, certainly not their culinary choices – sautéed leg of locust in an orange blossom honey reduction. What makes people like these so popular?


I suppose some of it is the show. I mean just watching people being told to change – to get real – to stop dying, inch by inch, and start living - is mesmerizing, then and now. But I think there’s more to it. Somehow we know that there is truth in what they are saying. It resonates deep down. We’re looking for a way out of (you fill in the blank) destructive thing we’re into.


But Dr Phil and John the Baptist’s approaches are similar only up to a point. Whereas Dr Phil has his 10 life laws that help you identify your 10 defining moments, 7 critical choices and 5 pivotal people so that you can develop your 5 step action plan to living an authentic life, John the Baptist’s message is much more to the point. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.”


This word “repent” has gotten a bad rap over the years. The word makes us think of the grim reaper, long flowing black robe with tall sickle in hand, preaching doom and gloom and repentance. Or maybe we think of having to give up all the fun stuff that makes life worth living. Hey, it’s lent; give up chocolate.  Or we think of the caricatures of revival preachers spitting repent until their coffers are full.


Repent deserves an extreme makeover. We don’t need to dress it up. But maybe we need to give it a more casual, everyday look. Repent means turn around. Stop going this way – start going that way. We know enough about geometry to know that even though the distance between this and this is slight here – follow it out 20 miles or 20 years and the distance will be enormous.  Stop dying, start living, reorient yourself, refocus, and return. Repentance is usually gradual, inch-by-inch, pocket-full-by-pocket-full movement toward freedom


Two different kinds of people were gathering at the river to hear John. There were authentic seekers and phony seekers. John preached the same message to both – but in a different tone of voice.


The authentic seekers were the folks who came out to him, feeling trapped by their sins and willing to admit it. They confessed their sins. Confession – that’s another one of those words that needs the “Fab Five.” Confession simply means agreeing. Saying the “same word”. Agreeing with what is true. Confession is admitting what we’ve said, done, haven’t done.


There are a lot of choices that we make that trap us. They don’t look like traps at the beginning –but soon we feel the pressure.


  • There’s the trap of irresponsibility. Not taking responsibility for anything. At first it feels good to blame everybody or everything else. But after awhile we feel the trap. If we’re not responsible – we can’t do anything to change things. We are victims of our upbringing, our genes, our circumstances. We’re trapped.

  • My personal favorite is the trap of responsibility. I am personally responsible for everything. If things don’t go well it’s my fault. If I just try harder everyone will like each other. If I just work harder all the work will get done. It’s a trap. Soon I’m working so hard, trying to keep everyone happy, trying to meet everyone’s expectations that I get lost. I don’t know who I am.

  • Of course there’s the substance of choice trap. Take your pick. Gambling, sex, alcohol, drugs, food, TV. TV. that’s my substance of choice. I sit and watch hours and hours of TV vegetating. They don’t call it being a couch potato for nothing. But it’s a trap. Numbed by the tube, I stop doing the things that give my life meaning – creative stuff, energizing stuff and soon I don’t want to do anything. Name your addiction. What traps you?


Authentic seekers are those that know they are trapped and are seeking something more, something better. Authentic seekers are willing to risk the truth. They are willing to risk turning toward God, to ask God the hard questions, to risk trusting God with unanswered questions. They are willing to open themselves up for change.


When authentic seekers came his way, when they confessed, John offered a curious rite. He took them out in the river and got them wet. We don’t actually know whether he dunked them, or poured water over them, or splashed them. But the idea was that he used water to signal that they were ready for change.


Water is a pretty good symbol for change. It speaks of cleansing. There is nothing better than a hot shower after spending a day in a cramped attic or dirty basement cleaning things out; a long bath after overworking muscles; or a dip in a cool pool on a beastly hot humid day. Water washes away dirt, aches, and sweat.

Water also speaks of dying. We can’t live in water. We can’t breathe. Sailors are buried at sea. With all the great new underwater cameras we get great movie images of people falling into water straining for the surface. That great scene in Pirates of the Caribbean when Johnny Depp rescues Keira Knightly after she faints into the ocean because her corset is too tight. Good thing he’d been to Shanghai and knew what to do!


John baptized authentic seekers so they would know the cleansing nature of God’s ways and so that they would die to the ways that had them trapped.


Ah but all those authentic seekers brought others out of the woodwork. I call them the phony seekers. These didn’t come confessing their sins; they came claiming their rights. They were the religious leaders, the church people of their day. They though they had all the answers. They weren’t seeking – they were there for the show. They were there to see and be seen.


If you think there are hypocrites in the church, you aren’t the first. John called them a brood of vipers. Jesus called them whitened tombs. They were – and are – folks that have all the answers. They depend on the very prisons that entrap them. Back then it was their bloodline. They were the sons of Abraham. Today it’s meritocracy. A certainty about whose side God is really on, which nation God really loves, what rules have to be followed to be an “insider”.  John’s harshest words were for these leaders.


And before some of us dismiss those phonies – be careful. Phariseeism is a spiritual hazard of church life. It’s so insidious that its hard to see until we are trapped.


The good news is that the message to authentic and phony seekers is the same.


            Turn toward the kingdom of God. Let it overtake you like the light of the sun at daybreak. Turn toward the rule of God, flow with the current of the river. Stop living in darkness; stop trying to make the river flow. Prepare the way for the Lord.


Just after this passage, the personification of the rule of God shows up. Jesus is baptized. Though Jesus did not need to turn toward the kingdom of God, He was the one who would usher it in, he entered the water of baptism and showed us the fruit of the kingdom as he taught, and healed. and freed prisoners. Ultimately he died so we could stop dying. And he lives so we can start living.

To contact Kate Kotfila about this sermon, please email or write to: Brunswick Presbyterian Church, 42 White Church Lane, Troy, NY 12180