Repentance – The Rev. Michelle Meech
March 20, 2022
I have a problem with today’s collect.
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I think it sets up a problematic theology, one that is found at the beginning of today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel – if you’re a bad person, bad things will happen to you. If you’re a sinner, you will be punished, made to suffer, attract some peculiar calamity – like the tower of Siloam falling.
It’s a theology that says God punishes according to sins. That suffering is a direct result of our own badness, our own evil nature. That if something bad happens, it must be because we’ve done something wrong or because we are just a bad person. And so, we must petition God to be kept safe. And if we do it the right way, then we are safe. But what does that say if we’re not kept safe?
Even when Jesus challenges this theology in his parable of the fig tree, he still doesn’t reframe things with an understanding of Holy Grace. He still says that God will cut down the fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit – the fig tree that doesn’t repent.
But at least Jesus is kinder. He says, give it another year and nourish it, take care of it. Because you can’t expect good behavior from a fig tree that hasn’t ever been cared for. But give it a year, take care of it, give it an opportunity to repent. Then, let’s see what happens. If it doesn’t behave after you’ve cared for it, then you can hack it down. Then, it’s expendable.
I don’t believe in a God who is that small, frankly.
But there is some human truth to this, isn’t there? When people’s lives are out of control, they seem to bring catastrophe on themselves. When they don’t behave according to society’s rules, things happen to them. Don’t pay your bills? Bad credit rating. Deal drugs? Get put in jail. Eat too much sugar and fat? Die of a heart attack at an early age. Kill someone? Life in prison or sometimes the death penalty.
Indian philosophy calls this karma.
And when people have hurt us… when we are on the receiving end of another person’s bad behavior and things fall apart for them, we might be tempted to say… “serves them right” and get some small sense of satisfaction from their misfortune.
At the very least, most of us really believe that people need to be punished for the things they’ve done. People need to see the error of their ways so that they can repent from them. That’s what Jesus is talking about in this parable – give people a chance to change. Give the fig tree an opportunity to offer its fruit. Give it a chance to repent.
And this is a human truth too, isn’t it? Bad behavior is more often a result of being a victim and having no one who would or could nourish the vulnerable, younger self. People act out because they feel as though they have no other choice. Their life has been tough and they’ve made bad choices and don’t know how to treat others because they’ve never been treated with respect.
But given the chance, who knows what love and respect can do for someone? Still, we look upon it as an investment… and we want a return on that investment. We want their behavior to change.
But my real problem with all of this is how we frame God. At work in all of this is the belief that God’s purpose is to deliver us from suffering and protect us from danger and that when we repent, God will protect us. As if our only relationship with God is like that of a vending machine of goodness or a well-placed airbag.
Do we really believe that if we pray this collect today, we won’t be killed by someone with a gun on some random day as we attend a movie in Aurora, CO or attend a concert in Las Vegas, NV or a nightclub in Orlando, FL, or even an elementary school campus in Newtown, CT.
Do we really think that if we just believe the right things no one will ever hurt us again? That no one will leave us, that no one will die? That we will never get sick? The pandemic has certainly made that abundantly apparent.
Do we really think that when we finally think the right things and do the right things, we will never again experience pain? Never experience war? Do we think the people of Ukraine have done anything to warrant Russian bombs and rockets being fired upon them.
I’ve experienced unexplained support in the past few years – a kind word is spoken at exactly the right moment, someone shows up and says, “Here I can help with that,” or I receive an unexpected check just when I have a big expense. I believe these things were of God.
But I’ve also experienced untold agony when my brother died of suicide and been incredibly sick and was scared that my wife was going to die. I’ve gained a truly unhealthy amount of weight during COVID… And in my search to find the reason for this suffering, who I am to say that these things are not of God? I’m sure some of the things I experienced were because of decisions I made – good or bad – but not all of them.
So if we are the fig tree – or if anyone is the fig tree – and we are being given an opportunity to repent, what is this what repentance is about? If we are praying the right way and believing the right things, God will provide everything and will protect us from suffering? Is this why we repent? So that we will be spared pain?
What is repentance about?
Moses is an Israelite in Egypt. He’s an alien, a foreigner. Earlier in Exodus, just few verses before today’s passage, Moses names his son Gershom. ‘Ger’ is Hebrew for ‘alien.’ He passes on this identity to his son and says, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.” Moses survived genocide because the baby boys were supposed to be put to death. He was rescued by the daughter of the Pharaoh and, hence, raised in the home of his enslaver and attempted murderer.
When he grew up, Moses killed an Egyptian for beating his own Hebrew kinsfolk and became an outlaw, forced to hide in Midian. While in hiding, Moses defended a group of women at a well and was taken in by a priest. He married Zipporah and fathered a son.
A lot of things happened to Moses. Some were good. Some were bad. He made decisions – some good, some bad. He moved through life as we all do – but with, perhaps, a little more notoriety.
And then one day, Moses went looking. The scripture says he went beyond the wilderness, beyond the competing, confusing, day-to-day wilderness of life. And Moses went to Horeb, to the mountain of God. Moses had become curious, longing to hear God call his name.
And he gets there and God calls him, “Moses! Moses!” And God continues, “Here I am. Come no closer unless you take your sandals off because this is holy ground! I am your God.”
So, Moses went looking for God and found exactly what he was looking for. Or did he?
Because God doesn’t promise him an easy life – free from suffering and pain. Certainly not free from fear. God gives him an enormous task – to lead people out of slavery. And Moses responds with his fear: “Who am I?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”
God tells him: “I will be with you.”
Moses seeks God. Moses understands his calling. Moses feels afraid. God says, “I will be with you.”
You see, Moses repented. But he never made it to the promised land, did he? So I’m not sure he got what this collect is talking about and that’s where the problem lies. We have these texts about repentance and we have a collect that’s about safety. They do not go together.
Very simply, repentance is a turning around. Not a movement toward safety, it very often leads us where we are most scared to go. We associate it with regret and contrition and reproach. But in its very simplest meaning, to repent is to turn around. To turn toward a different life. To turn toward God. To seek God out.
What are we seeking from God? When we pray to God, when we repent, when we turn towards God… what are we seeking? What are you seeking?
Repentance isn’t about seeking protection from bad things. If we think about it, all our lives have been about seeking protection from bad things, or at least from things that scare us. And that usually just makes our lives smaller, more confined and we become less curious instead of more, less fascinated with life and more cynical. And we end up moving away from God and from ourselves, becoming imprisoned by an invented notion of safety and false security.
Repentance is about accepting life in its fullness so that we can connect more deeply, more profoundly with all of life – the good and the bad. We repent because we seek God in all the changes and chances of this life and to know God in a way that, even when we are scared, we know we are not alone. We know the great I AM is flowing through us connecting us to one another.
So then, why do we pray? When we pray we are praying to align ourselves with God not ask for life to bend towards our will. God is not a vending machine or a puppet on a string who will protect us and those we love from harm. It doesn’t mean we stop praying for people. What it means is that prayer itself is repentance. It’s a turning towards God, giving God our heart again and again and again.
God is the very Ground of Being itself. God is the breath of life, indeed, the life-force in all its glory. The home of our souls and author of our heart. When we repent, we are returning to God but we are also returning to ourselves – to the truth of who we are.
To the raw passion and joy. To the curiosity and courage that impels us to leave behind the things we thought would protect us and lead ourselves out of bondage.
And that may be the scariest thing we’ve ever done.