Sunday, December 07, 2003

Whatever Became of Repentance?

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 3:1-6

Repentance, for the first place, means a change of heart.

When Karl Menninger wrote his best seller, a generation ago, “Whatever Became of Sin”, he still had time, back then, to have written a sequel, our topic today. He did not, and since then, through abuse and overuse and misuse, the word "repentance," has become almost irretrievable. Like other great and saving words—vision, for instance—the gears have been stripped, there is no traction left.

This is a part of the tragic sense of life, for our coming to God, our preparation for heaven, includes repentance. This too is part of God’s way of saving us. We come to the manger by way of the river, and to Jesus by the way of John, and to love by the way of repentance.

Whatever became, then, of repentance?

In the Gospel of St Luke we are told. Luke who loves the littlest (poor, women, children, stranger, ill, outcast, foreigner, all) with his left hand, holds Rome at bay with his right. Notice how he begins the story of Jesus’ ministry. As a Gospel writer, he must begin with John, but he circles his way. In the 15th year of Tiberius (no Augustus but a Caesar). When Pontius Pilate was governor (by whom Christ is crucified). And Herod rules Galilee (his spirit caught by our youth). Lest we not forget—the outskirts of north hill country—Lysanias, Philip, Ituraea, Trachonitis. And the temple, Annas and Caiaphas. Even John here is not “the baptizer” but “son of Zechariah”. Luke wants his gospel to fly under the radar of the Romans. He wants at every step to mollify the powers that be. Such an unctuous, oleaginous, Eddy Haskell tone. He is no Paul. No wonder E Kasemann said, “I hate Luke\Acts.” His church is Roman friendly, pacific, traditional, hierarchical. Gone is the Pauline punch: “born of a woman, born under the law”. The Pauline punch is protected but no longer pristine.

But even Luke has finally to tell us: in the wilderness. Notice the point of contact for the word of God. Not Rome, Jerusalem, Power, Temple. But the woods…

I think of years in the woods. The day Earl Friend shot a bear and hung it between two trees to drain. We have a photo of Emily looking dubiously at it. The day the car (red Ford Mustang convertible) froze up between early and late service, at 25 below zero, and sat at the corner of Routes 11 and 103, a sculpted witness to the power of nature. The night we had dinner with Sharon and Donnie (whose son attended her for some years) and went to witness a calf born, between main course and dessert. Here is life: messy, hard, frightening, push, pull, cry—and then, a new creation. Bruce Thompson was there with us.

Birth and death both receive a simpler, more dignified attention in the woods.

John heralds the birth of Jesus’ ministry and his own demise.

The wilderness connects John and us to Israel and her prophets. Israel came through the wilderness, forty years through, on the way from liberation to heaven. They found their way out from Pharaoh, only to wander and suffer in the woods.

The Hebrew word for repentance is “shaub”, to go back again, to return. With the prophets (notably Amos and Isaiah) John recalls that real religion is never very far from justice, no matter how hard the walk to justice. “Are there no graves in the land of Egypt that you have brought us out here to die?” The prophets brought a return, a going back to the memory of the wilderness, of what it meant to be poor and lost. Repentance is a change of heart, a daily part of our walk in Christ, by which we are given a heart for others.

Here is Hill quoting Tittle quoting Rauschenbusch, who wrote the paragraph not ten blocks from here: “Baptism at the Jordan was an act of dedication to a social movement. It was not received to save the individual by himself, but called all to repent of their way of living, to quit grafting, and to begin to live in fraternal helpfulness. Baptism was the dramatic expression of an inward consent and allegiance to the higher standards of life which were to prevail in the Messianic community. It was the symbol of a revolutionary movement.”

Repentance is this change of heart, to our days of poverty, to remember today’s poor and then to do something about poverty today.

ML King died in the wilderness of Memphis, 1968. Gone was the deliverance from Selma 1963. Ahead he could see a “promised land”. He died, where we still live, in the woods.

Kate Millet and others dashed through the Red Sea of patriarchy 30 years ago, a saving deliverance for both women and men. Now we are not in Egypt. Nor are we yet in Canaan, the land of milk and honey. We are forty years in the woods, finding our way, a path strewn with false starts, stone tablets, golden calves, multiple voices, and real losses.

Second graders in upstate city schools call us to repentance, a change of heart, about their need. They deserve to read and work and live, too. One day every valley shall be filled.

Dear God give us repentant hearts, changed in the wilderness by compassion for others.

Repentance, for the second place, means a change of mind.

I grew up in the atmosphere of fairly keen minds, probing for the truth. The interest was not just, “what do you have on” but “what do you have on your mind”, reality as well as appearance, salt as well as flowers. These preachers pushed each other, hard. McCune greeted my father and me saying, “It makes me believe in evolution.” Yes, they jousted. They could because they loved and they would because they cared. And then went off to dinner together.

Here is the spiritual discipline of repentance, to change one’s mind. This is repentance, to have regret, have remorse, show contrition, admit compunction. I was asked recently to name a fruitful failure. What is your most educational mistake?

I learned the hard way that hoping someone will do something does not make it so, that being right is not enough, that good intentions can have bad outcomes, that we all need supervision, that “figures lie and liars figure”. I cannot claim a spotless record in parenting, friendship, staffing, stewardship, communication, or life. Where is that river Jordan when I need it? We learn most from our failure.

This gives us reason for metanoia, “subsequent emendation”, “later knowledge”. On second thought. For the God of unconditional love is also the God of unconditional requirement.

Today I am not so much inclined to ask you for a particular change of mind as to beg us all to live with repentant minds. As Oliver Cromwell said, to no avail, as his head, like the Baptist’s, was being removed: “Pray Sir, consider you might be wrong.”

We come in our church to General Conference next year, debating homosexuality. I wonder why this issue is so prominent for us. Does it function, like an identified patient in a family system, to help us avoid other, more potent issues: evangelism, abortion, justice, stewardship, war, hunger?

Could we approach one another, across serious disagreement, as lovers? I am proud that Marjorie Suckochi is a Methodist: “Ours can be a church where no individual expects to see with absolute purity exactly the way things ought to be. Rather we are to expect a church where we are continuously ready to learn from one another—especially from those with whom we disagree. In this mutual learning, the one thing we should beware is a pretension, whether in ourselves or others, of absolute knowledge.”

It is the forgiveness of sin, the pardon of God itself that empowers us to change our minds. Without a confidence in pardon we would always have, for our safety and salvation, to be right. Pardon frees us to change our minds.

Dear God give us repentant minds, changed in the wilderness by the strength of forgiveness.

Repentance, for the third place, is a change of place.

We are on the way to heaven. What is true for heart and mind is true for body—self, soul—as well.

Repentance is the power that takes otherwise sober adults and gets them up early on Sunday. They come to worship, in the flesh. They bring their body and their children. And they change places.

Our life in the internet age will cause modification of our sense of place, our perception of space. What does it mean to “be there”?

The Latin “conversio” has a spatial dimension. To turn around.

We embody repentance at every Baptism, not because infants need repentance but because we do.

To the edge of the rail come parents. They are questioned in soft tone but harsh grammar. “Do you…” “Will you…” Here is movement of body and soul.

To the high altar, and the cross, we come. By invitation. All our children are marked early with the death of Christ. “Do you not know that all who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death? We have with him that we might be raised to walk in newness of life.”

To the pastor’s arms the child goes. Saving grace, best shown in infant baptism, is God’s gift, God’s action, God’s free bequest. We cannot earn, achieve, gain grace. We can receive, if our bodies will change places every now and then.

The symbolic movement of the child to the arms of the church is a mark of the cross, as, in our current tradition, is the long walk down the aisle and away from home. The children who cry “get it”.

I do not think it is accidental that John lives in the woods. We have to move out of our very predictable bodies of habit to hear him, and perhaps to hear our deepest selves. Repentance (in the light of wilderness, forgiveness, and baptism at least) means a change of heart and of mind and of place.

Elisabeth Sifton, in her moving memoir of summers with her Dad, Reinhold Neibuhr, writes about unrepentant hearts as she describes the ethos in which the Serenity Prayer was born, in the wilderness of Heath, Massachusetts:

“God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

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