Repentance ELC / bwk March 24 2019
There’s a powerful scene in a novel written by the South African writer Alan Paton. The story centers on a young police lieutenant, husband, and father named Pieter. Pieter struggles with depression, he has what we would call “father issues,” and he’s on the verge of an affair with a younger woman. His wife and children are out of town so he goes to see his good friend, a man nicknamed Kappie. Among other things the two friends share an interest in the hobby of stamp collecting.
Pieter shows up intending to humble himself, to repent, and to make a full confession of his struggles, his temptations. As Alan Paton writes, Peiter knows what he should say: “[Kappie], I am here to tell you of the deep misery of my life, and you must help me … before I am destroyed … you must tell me something in God’s name.” But he said none of those things. Instead, Pieter nonchalantly lies about why he really came: “Kappie, I’m sick of the empty house, and I’m wanting to see some stamps.” So they listen to music and look at stamps. Kappie knew that his friend had something deeper on his mind. So when Pieter started to leave Kappie said, “You can come every night if you wish.” But Pieter walks out and does not return. And Alan Paton writes, “Ah, if he could have told … And yet he could not tell.” Pieter wants repentance without risk, without cost, without vulnerability.
Do bad things happen to good people?
Why do they happen?
What should our response be?
When people of Jesus’ day tell Him about bad things happening to certain people, the question they seem to be asking is “did they deserve that?” “Was God punishing them?”
That is a question I hear on a regular basis. It is a question our culture asks. And, unfortunately it is an assumption that even some religious teachers promote. You might recall Hurricane Katrina and the conservative pastors who said it was because of the sinful people in New Orleans and the areas hit by the hurricane.
Righteous retribution is what some call that. It was part of Job’s friends’ thinking in the book of Job. Bad things wouldn’t be happening to you Job, if you had not sinned. Confess you sin and God will heal you! But that proved wrong.
The people Pilate killed while they were sacrificing to their god, and the people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them were not being punished by God. God did not cause the evil to happen. The fifty people killed and the fifty injured by the white supremest terrorist in New Zealand were not being punished by God. God is not the author of evil. We are.
We cannot even blame it on the devil. Those of you my age might recall Sammy Davis Jr’s famous line, “the devil made me do it.” Satan might be behind evil, but we cannot avoid our responsibility. We humans are the ones at fault. Sin came into the world because of us. Human greed, human discontentment, human pride and abuse, etc. are all our problem. We cannot pawn it off on anyone else.
So, what should our response be?
Jesus said, “unless you repent you too will perish.”
Does that mean Jesus considered God was punishing because of the evil they did? No! What He is telling them, and us through them, is that repentance needs to be a part of our spiritual posture. We need to always be examining ourselves before God; “constantly turning” as some might say. Turning away from ourselves and turning towards God.
But more than that, Jesus, through the story He tells about the fig tree not bearing fruit, is reminding us that we need to bear fruit.
Jesus, speaking to the crowds, speaks to them collectively, “unless you—plural—repent…” It is good for us to remember that we not only repent for individual, private failures and faults, but that we also repent for our collective sin. Repent for our lack of caring for the foreigner and alien in our midst, our inadequate care for the poor, our collective abuse of power and inaction in protecting the vulnerable and at-risk in our world.
What sort of fruit might God be looking for in us?
The fruit of repentance itself. The fruit of faith—our God focus and God conscientiousness. Maybe more than that, God might be looking for our ability to see others and consider others and not just ourselves. None of us live in a vacuum. Everything we do and say, or don’t do and don’t say does impact others.
Are we kind and generous? Do we pay it forward? Do we care for the marginalized and disenfranchised? Do we see how we are privileged beyond others? Are we willing to help share that privilege with others?
Over and over again Jesus and Scripture charges us to see and think past ourselves. Don’t give in to fearful thinking. Don’t let politicians push you into fearful thinking and voting. Don’t give way to protectionist politics and posturing. Don’t build walls. Build bridges. Learn how to care and communicate with others different than ourselves. Reach out. Reach over. Learn to be welcoming and inclusive.
If we really believe in the Good Friday and Easter, if we really believe in the Incarnation—that God became one of us in order to live and die for us, to give us hope and life and freedom and heaven—then we need to follow Jesus and be like Him in His attitude and work by reaching out and loving others the way He loves us.
Maybe that is the repentance God is looking for in us. That might be the fruit God seeks.
Remember the words of Isaiah 55. God’s ways are not our ways. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. We need to give up on our assumptions and narrow minded thinking and open ourselves up to God’s thinking and God’s ways—as terrifying as that might be. That is the call of grace. That is the call of the Gospel. That is Jesus’ clarion call to us today.
In Jesus’ name. Amen!