Saturday, 20 August 2016

I'm back!...I think...

Hi all, it's been a long time since I've posted here. Ministry has been busy! 

Recently I've had a request for some of my sermons in script form, so I'm bringing this blog back to life as a place to share those words. My sermons, like most, are meant to be preached to a particular congregation, in a particular time and place. They may not always make sense outside of that context. They're also meant to be communicated orally, so they're not always awesome pieces of writing with well-edited grammar, formatting, and references. You have been forewarned! 

This summer our congregation has been exploring one word from our vocabulary of faith to wrestle with each week. The word is chosen by the preacher, and it's usually a word that gives the preacher some discomfort, or a word that they want to explore in greater depth.  

Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church
August 7, 2016
Vocabulary of Faith – Repent!
Text: Luke 3:2-9, Isaiah 30:12-18 

Up until the middle of last week, this sermon was supposed to be about blood. However, I began to realize that if I was going to wrestle with all of my feelings about the language of blood in scripture and Christian tradition, you wouldn’t have a sermon until sometime next year, if ever. So I decided on a much simpler word, Repent. And of course, that was really not simpler at all. Though I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had to explore it.

Our text from Luke today is an Advent text. And I must admit that every time I see it come up as the text for worship or for faith formation, I cringe. Is this really what Christmas is about? How do I hold this angry man alongside a precious baby and twinkly Christmas lights? All I see is a bearded guy on a street corner screaming at people to repent. All I hear is “you are bad, you are wrong, you have sinned.” While I didn’t grow up with hell and damnation sermons, this text always brings them to mind and I wonder, “Should I be slamming my fist on the pulpit. Is that what you do to communicate the message of John the Baptist?”

The other impulse I experience when I hear this text, particularly around the Advent season, is the impulse to watch everyone else who seems to be doing Christmas better, or holier. What are the rules to a just, merciful, and loving Christmas? Should I be buying nothing, or is too rigid to not give gifts at all? Should I be making all my own gifts? Is the chocolate I’m bringing to this potluck fair trade? Which organization is the most ethical in terms of donations? I feel guilt, regardless of the decisions or changes I make, there is guilt. I’m just sure I’m doing this all wrong. If I wasn’t, why would John be yelling at me?!

Is that what repentance is about? Is repentance about guilt? I think I’ve always assumed that to repent was the same thing as being sorry, or confessing. Confess or repent of what you’ve done wrong and you will be forgiven. But is that what repentance really means? Is it that basic? Is it just about finding my faults and wrongs and saying I’m sorry?

I know that I’ve been told in the past that the Greek word that we translate as repent is metanoia which literally means a turning or a change of mind. This always seemed a more fulsome response to wrongdoing. Saying sorry isn’t enough. You have to change as well. So, is it about me seeing my bad behaviour, confessing, and then deciding to be good? Is it an act of will?

But when I looked at both of these understandings of repentance – guilt followed by confession, and change made possible through willpower – I found myself profoundly dissatisfied. Something was missing. The Divine was missing. I can feel guilt, apologize, analyze my behaviour and decide to change, completely apart from God. We do it all the time. Yet repentance is a term rarely used outside of religion. It is a term with deep roots in our faith tradition and many others. Jesus calls us to “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and when I hear those words I wonder, what is this repentance that Jesus and John, calls us to?

In Luke 3:2 we find John the Baptist in the wilderness when the word of God comes to him. The wilderness isn’t simply an escape from the hustle and bustle, it’s not a holiday. In scripture, whenever the wilderness is mentioned, it is specifically a place of searching, wrestling, testing, seeking God. And yes, it’s quite fascinating that Matthew and Mark tell us that John’s this scruffy guy in camel’s hair who eats honey and locusts. But he’s not just living that life because it’s the hipster thing to do. John has taken himself away to the wilderness to listen for God, and maybe hygiene, cuisine, and fashion weren’t particularly high on his list of priorities.

It is there in the wilderness that John hears the word of God and it’s a word that stands side-by-side with the words of the prophet Isaiah. Words about the transformation of the world 

Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. 

And this transformation, this salvation will come about through repentance. And this repentance is brought forth from God.

I was caught in particular this week by Isaiah 30:15 in which Isaiah tells the people of Israel “In repentance and rest is your salvation.” The people of Israel have been rebellious, carrying out plans that were not from God. In their fear, they had been negotiating with Egypt, seeking protection from Pharaoh. Basically, frantically running around trying to fix things and in the process they placed their trust in oppression. It is, perhaps, our natural tendency to run around doing works that we hope will lead to our salvation. But repentance comes to those who rest in the presence of God, who empty themselves of agenda and worry and make space to receive, to have their eyes and hearts opened to the glory and grace of God.

When we rest in God we begin to truly encounter God as vast, intimate, creating and redeeming. We begin to see God clearly and that can be frightening. We may be afraid to encounter a God who is righteous and just. Yet, we may be equally afraid to encounter a God who is only compassionate. Yet, the whole of God, longs for the whole of us. And it is through seeing God clearly that we begin to see ourselves clearly as well, the incredible beauty and the brokenness. When speaking about Isaiah’s call from God, theologian Marlene Kropf says, “In God’s bright, hot, shining light, what Isaiah sees is the truth about himself: he is incomplete, unwhole, unholy”(Preparing Sunday Dinner,  33). In meeting God, God is revealed to us, and through this revelation we are revealed to ourselves. And there God waits with grace.

None of us on our own has the courage or strength to face our own woundedness. None of us on our own has the power to make metanoia happen. It is God who is capable of this transformation. John says, “for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” There is so much hope in these words. No matter how hard headed or hard hearted we are, our redeeming God can even transform stones in the bringing about of this new world.

Repentance begins in the revelation of God. And that revelation is only possible if we seek God. Walter Brueggemann says, “Israel will be saved and strong when it lives in trust, that is, in returning, rest, and quietness. The four terms bespeak attentive adherence to Yahweh…This assertion clearly intends to contradict the activities of feverish anxiety for which Judah has been condemned in verses 1-14. Judah’s shalom depends upon and stems from life with Yahweh” (Westminster Bible Companion vol. 1, 244).

If is out of this life with Yahweh, this revelation of God and self, that we are moved to confession. Confession is simply truth-telling. It is not done in fear; it is not an act of groveling. It is the simple act of coming before the fullness of a loving and just God to name what God already knows. We give voice to the limitations, failures, sin, and incompleteness that has been revealed to us and thus create space within for grace to flow, cleanse, and restore (Kropf in Vision Journal: Transformation, 48). The presence of the Holy Spirit, given to us through life with God, enables us to speak that which can be so difficult to name. We name not only our own personal sin, but that of our people. And again, we speak these words in the presence of God who longs for us, who desires to make us whole.

And John is quite clear that repentance, seeking God’s revelation and confessing our sin is required of each one of us. The Jewish people were claiming virtue based on their lineage and John makes it abundantly clear that we cannot rely on our family trees. He says, “do not begin to say to yourselves, that we have Abraham as our ancestor.” It does not matter if your father or mother, or grandparents or siblings have repented, been baptized, become members of a church, been faithful followers of Christ. John is calling for the repentance of all. Each life must be one of divine transformation in order to fully bring about the kingdom of God on earth.

What follows our confession is an outpouring of grace. Because we have seen God, and seen ourselves with clarity and honesty, because we are confessing in the presence of a God who loves us intimately, we are bathed in God’s healing light. Truth telling is followed by truth receiving.

In my previous understanding of repentance as confession, or simply an act of will, I was often left confused by the weight that remained within me. Kropf notes that “When the prayers of confession in worship leave us feeling dispirited or morbid or guilty, we haven’t met the true and living God” (Vision Journal, 48). I suspect this is equally true for personal confession. It seems that when our confessions are based solely on guilt because we’re caught in sin or because we are comparing ourselves to others, we are left with what one writer refers to as, “worldly sorrow.” And that sorrow only leads to death. It is not metanoia. In Acts chapter 11, Peter shares of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. We are told that when his listeners heard this, “they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Repentance is meant to lead to life. Revelation, confession, and the grace of God frees us and transforms us sufficiently that we are empowered to live changed lives.

All of this is necessary to repentance. All of this is necessary for us to bear good fruit. I intentionally did not have Luke 3:10-14 read today. If you look ahead at those verses you’ll see that the crowds ask John, “what then shall we do?” And John offers them some specific examples. But their “what then”, is based upon the entire message they have received. I wonder if we are far too quick in Mennonite churches to leap ahead to the instructions of what we are to do as if we can do these things in our own power. We can be excellent power-house workers. Perhaps, not unlike the people of Israel who often focused on immediate problem-solving, rather than seeking God. It is upon receiving grace that we are given hope and strength to repair wrongs as we are able and to engage in God’s vision for the world. The truth telling, and truth receiving give us clarity of vision, they allow us to see and hear God’s call on our lives and so to bear good fruit.

John’s words about bearing good fruit sound harsh. He says “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” He basically says that a tree that is not living and growing and changing, will not shelter others in the storm, it will not feed the hungry. So it might as well be tossed into the fire, what other purpose does it have?

So yes, we are to bear good fruit, but that good fruit doesn’t come about through our extraordinary abilities, rather it is the outcome of divinely inspired repentance.

Over the last year or so, I have witnessed a weariness in the hearts of many people. A weariness at the anger, the injustice, the hatred, the oppression, and sometimes the sheer stupidity of the actions of humanity. I have also witnessed so many weighed down as they do their best to confront and confess their complicity in unjust systems and unjust actions. A lot of that confrontation and confession of guilt seems to happen online through blog posts and rapid-fire commentary. And yet it appears that many of us remain mired in guilt, unable to discern God’s vision or how God would have us act in light of these situations. It feels hopeless. And so I wonder what repentance has to say to this weariness. I cannot speak for others, but I wonder for myself, if I have been acting without seeking, confessing without clarity, frantically producing whatever fruit I can manufacture from my own fractured spirit. Like the people of Israel, I wonder if God is calling us in the midst of racism, politicking, war, climate change, refugee crises, poverty, and oppression to a space of repentance and rest – to seeking God in the wilderness. Not so that we might avoid the pain, but so that we can be God’s transforming presence in it.

I expect for many of us, taking off to the wilderness is not easy. So if you are seeking wilderness space in which to seek God, our sanctuary will be open each Saturday night until Gathering Sunday on September 11 from 7-8 pm for silent prayer. Let us continue to seek the God who longs to make us whole. 

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