Meditations on repentance
Week of Sunday Feb 28 - Lent 3
Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
(There is a short newssheet piece at the end of this post, and a sermon draft here.)
At the funeral, it's too late to repent. Here is part of my last funeral homily.
As we sit here, sobered by … death, and by the thought of our own frailty, it is my job to preach you the Good News. In the face of death I am supposed to say, "But here's the good news!"
Well, here it is, straight up:
You are not going to hell. God leaves no one behind. Not you. Not me. Not the worst of us. God's unconditional love covers you, and me.
Even some parts of the church can't get their heads around this amazing love. They might tell you that if you don't believe their slant on things, then somehow God can't love you enough to save you. It's not true. The best we have learned from the life of Jesus, is that God loves all people, forgives all things, and leaves no one behind.
So why do we do all this religion stuff, then? If I'm not going to hell, why would I bother with God?
Well, imagine Fred is on his way up to the pearly gates— you know there's no such thing, right? It's a way of talking about stuff we barely have the words for.
So, let's imagine:
Fred's a bit nervous. He hasn't been to church since he got married… and that was the shortest wedding service anyone could remember.
He gets to the pearly gates, and St. Peter goes down the list of all the Freds until he finds this particular Fred Smith…
"Ohh. There's a note here says Jesus wants a word with you." And Fred really starts to sweat.
Jesus comes out and says, "Fred Smith— where have you been? What have you been doing— I've been trying to get your attention for years!!"
I mean… what do you say at a time like that— I've been in the Squatters Arms!?
Fred says, "Well… um… I've been at the footy a lot."
"Crikey, didn't Carlton have a crap year?" says Jesus, and Fred begins to realise that, actually, Jesus isn't cranky at him.
"You know, Fred, I had so much joy for you, but you kept avoiding me… I had so much to give you in life, but you kept not paying attention. You're not going to nick off again now, are you? You will come in, won't you?"
Now that's all imagination— except for Carlton, of course— but there's a truth in it: Paying attention to God is not about keeping rules; it's about finding more of the joy in life… …
God is not out to punish us. True, much of the bible can be read that way. Even some New Testament authors seem to think God will judge us harshly if we don't do the right thing. But here, in Luke this week, God is the one who gives us more time, and who lets the gardener improve the soil in which we live.
Matthew Skinner says Jesus
… refuses to use bad news as an occasion to speculate on the deep secrets of the universe; he gives no explanation for why a loving God doesn't prevent or magically repair all the world's pain and injustice. (Either Jesus doesn't know the answer, he's not sharing, or, more likely, probably God simply isn't a puppeteer.)
I think Skinner has this right. The text this week is not about "the deep secrets of the universe." We can see that things would be better if we were better people, but the honest answer to what remains after that— malaria, zika, tsunamis— is that we don't know why the universe works the way it does. About the best we might say is that terror and horror happen… but God still is…
We have to live with the unplumbable mystery that the God who still is does not seem to address much of our distress. God does not stop the disasters.
Our desire to blame the Galileans killed by Pilate by saying they were sinners, or those on whom the tower fell, seems to me to end up being an attempt to spare God the blame. It's easier to say it's our fault, and much easier to say someone deserved it, than deal with the frightening questions of why God allows such things, or the terrifying questions about whether God can't stop them, or whether God isn't like we imagined, or just isn't. As David Lose says
Better imagine the calamity comes from a punishing God… than believe it comes from nowhere and is a harbinger of a chaotic and even meaningless world…
Instead of dealing with the deep secrets of the universe, the text is bluntly warning us that we are no more deserving of protection, safety, good fortune, love, success… than anyone else. That's the flip side of grace: put most bluntly, if we are to be saved, so are Hitler and Pol Pot and that horrible person in the third pew. But
… unless you repent, you will all perish as they did….
… If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down…
The key issue in each of these verses is repentance. Only then is "perishing" mentioned.
Matthew Skinner has more wisdom for us.
… somehow most people hear "repentance" and think first of behaviour and guilt. As if Jesus' primary goal was to reform personal morality.
But this is to misunderstand repentance. The word translated as "repent" is, at its root, about thinking and perception. It refers to a wholesale change in how a person understands something. It implies an utter reconfiguration of your perspective on reality and meaning, including (in the New Testament) a reorientation of yourself toward God. Your behavior might change as a result of this new perception, certainly; but repentance first involves seeing things differently and coming to a new understanding of what God makes possible.
Jesus, then, is promising an alternate perspective on the cycles of violence, pain and meaninglessness. To miss out on this way of seeing -- to neglect to "repent" -- is to miss out on other dimensions of our existence. It is to pass by one's purpose.
Jesus' summons to repent is not escapism or a minimization of life's hardships. It means coming to discover God as the source of sustenance, belonging, meaning and hope in this difficult life and into future existence. Repentance names the change that occurs within us when God meets us and reshapes our understanding.
This is an incredibly important insight. The experience of God can be an "utter reconfiguration of [our] perspective on reality and meaning." For me, this has meant the problem of Herod's human violence and the problem of the arbitrary violence of the universe— the falling tower, are completely recast.
My experience of my early schooling was incredibly destructive. I survived by being clever, and by being a good boy who was appreciated and praised by the teachers. Of course this did not much endear me to those who were abusing me, so in some ways it reinforced the problem! I entered adulthood with a deeply imprinted message that I was not deserving of good. But also with the expectation that if I did the right thing, I would be rewarded by those in authority and— unstated but no less real, that life and the universe would be good to me. Of course, I soon found that being good and honest did not always lead to reward; in fact, it could even lead to persecution. And found the question of my minister unanswerable: "But what about all the other mothers who prayed faithfully like Hansi's mother, but their children did not come home?"
Because I was clever, and had been taught to doubt and probe, and to think for myself, I could not avoid the very real probability that life was indeed lived in a chaotic and meaningless world. There were times when merely staying alive just about sucked all the energy out of me.
There has been a change. Yes, I am equal parts outraged by the injustices of those in power, and distressed by our apparent small ability to do anything. On Saturday, a branch fell off the tree where I often wait to cross the road just around the corner from our house. It could have fallen on me, but this time, did not. I suspect that what we call God is not involved with our protection at this level.
But somehow these things have lost their bite; they no longer consume me. I am not talking about some "escapism or … minimization of life's hardships…" for my horror at our capacity for barbarism grows. But there is a deep sense of being, somehow, at home in this. An acceptance that this is how life is— not with resignation, but with a calling to be a part of changing things, a part of co-creating.
This has been accompanied by a loss of the fear of God. The idea that anyone would be left behind now seems a total contradiction of a God who loves all people and forgives all things.
But I have also a deep regret of not being earlier open to the reality I now experience, and much frustration at my inability to give myself more deeply to it, even now. I suspect that my lack of repentance blinds me to more of the richness of life, and that I injure myself by insisting on carrying that which is not mine to carry.
After writing First Impressions, I have the great privilege of leading a bible study on the text and, at the moment, writing a piece for the news sheet at Pilgrim Church. Here is this week's post:
Some folk wonder how the God who can forgive all sin is not able to forgive those who sin by not repenting. And wonder how, if Luke's Jesus was just a man of his time in believing God would let or cause some to perish, we can trust him about other things? If we seek Jesus' experience of repentance rather than focus on his fear of the consequences of not repenting, we may find an answer.
Repentance is not to feel sorry, or even to reform our personal morality. It means to change our mind; it's a wholesale change in how we understand something. "It implies an utter reconfiguration of [our] perspective on reality and meaning, including (in the New Testament) a reorientation of [ourselves] toward God." This will certainly change our behaviour, but the change is a consequence of seeing the world in a different way. Matthew Skinner says "Jesus' summons to repent is not escapism or a minimization of life's hardships. It means coming to discover God as the source of sustenance, belonging, meaning and hope in this difficult life and into future existence. Repentance names the change that occurs within us when God meets us and reshapes our understanding."
Skinner emphasises that repentance results from an encounter with God and refers his readers to Luke's stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin in Luke 15. There is something about our repentance which is the "passive experience of being found and reclaimed by someone who seeks [us] intently." We come here seeking this morning because, in some sense, we have already been found by God; we have experienced God.
There is something in this process which can't be hurried, a mystery which, 40 years ago, led me to say, "I will come back." Which led me to read, and to try to pray, and to seek understanding of what was happening in me, first in this place, and then at Scots Church. I often wondered if I was simply refusing to face facts when I stayed in church, but now suspect there was more being done to me than I knew; certainly, I cannot account for what has led to the wholesale change in how I understand life.
Repentance is the ongoing trust of the hint of God in our lives which, from our end, we prove by acting accordingly— include the sense of "test" in this word prove. Sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes in spurts of insight, we see the world differently. And now, like Jesus, I urgently desire that more of me is found. I read the words and think, "Yes! That's what I feel, too! I know what you are saying." And then, like him, I tell my own stories about God, and about me, with all their insight and with all their shortcomings, to make more sense of my experience. My story doesn't include people perishing, but I do have moments of horror about who I could have been. Repent— trust the hints of God that find you! Andrew
(Matthew Skinners article can be found at: http://huff.to/1SRpkFF)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!