Repent

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Repent?

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, February 18, 2018, the first Sunday in Lent. “Dissonance” sermon series.

Text: Mark 1:9-15

 

“Good news.”  I want to begin this sermon about repentance with those words: Good. News.

 

The beginning of the good news, according to Mark’s gospel, is John the baptizer preparing the way of the Lord, bringing the good news that one more powerful is coming. That one more powerful is Jesus who proclaims the good news of another kingdom that’s come; and make no mistake, when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God, the first to hear know the game of thrones is on.  The kingdom Jesus proclaims is different, it is a kin-dom, it’s the vision and dream of the prophets, a way of living in relationship and in communion with God and neighbor that runs counter to the dissonant, violent ways of earthly kingdoms. Such an alternative kin-dom and its arrival is good news, the way of the Lord that is life in that kin-dom is good news, the one who incarnates the way is good news, the freedom and power the ever-present God gives us to persevere in following the way is good news. “Repent and believe in the good news.”

 

In the midst of ruthless earthly kingdoms like those of Herod and Rome in the first century and their current counterparts in our own time, can you believe there might be good news?  In the midst of the numbing, manipulative, co-optive powers of empire—powers that sap our sense of agency and threaten to steal our hope that things might change—can you believe there might be good news?  In the midst of dissonance—the discomfort and despair caused by disharmony, injustice, oppression, and violence—can you believe there might be good news?  In the wake of yet another mass school shooting—can you believe there might be good news?  In a world where it is easy to believe that God has left the building, can you believe the counter message?—that God is near and is always at work for good in the world?  That God’s grace enfolds and empowers you to live in the kin-dom?  That Christ is sovereign and the powers of this world are no match?

 

To “believe” (the way it is meant in the gospel) isn’t about intellectual assent to a list of doctrinal statements or head in the sand happy-clappy denial; it’s about trust and commitment. To believe the good news of God’s kin-dom is to trust God and the promise of God’s counter message; it is to commit to try to serve Christ and to live according to the way of the Lord.

 

To repent in the context of Mark’s gospel is to wake up to the ways we’re serving earthly empire instead of God’s kin-dom; it’s to return to God from the exile of life apart from God’s wisdom and way.  To return—an image connected to a path or journey—is one way John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg describe Mark’s use of the word repent.  They also point out that “the roots of the Greek word for ‘repent’ mean to ‘to go beyond the mind that you have.’ To repent is to embark upon a way that goes beyond the mind that you have.”[i]  Or, perhaps another way to say it, repentance is to choose to walk in the way God has in mind. Notice that this is active—to “embark” or to “choose to walk” denotes a journey in itself, a process.  To repent isn’t one moment where you pause to feel guilty and then move on.  It may begin with a moment of waking up, seeing something that needs to change, and feeling pain or regret for what you’re doing or have done—but then it entails an ongoing process of changing things in your life that are out of sync with God’s way of love, compassion, and justice.  What’s the point of getting “woke” if you just roll over and go back to sleep?

 

I imagine for many if not most of us, when we hear the word “repent” or “repentance” the image that pops into our mind is of a yelling, angry, judgmental, ungracious man holding a bible in one hand and a threatening placard in the other…  The rhetoric of sin and repentance has been (and continues to be) used to frighten and to control people, to shame and to silence people.  

 

It never ceases to amaze me the ways we get things so twisted.  Repentance is meant not to bind us or make us shrink in fear.  Repentance is the path to freedom, the path to living with courage and assurance! “Repent AND believe the good news!”  In our baptismal covenant, we begin with renunciation and repentance so that we can then affirm the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression (in order to turn toward life, we need to turn away from death); we are given freedom and power not to serve empire’s kings, queens, presidents, or dictators, but rather to serve the Lord, the sovereign, the Christ, the kin-dom of God. 

 

Repentance does call for change in our lives.  It does require acknowledgement and confession that we are on a path that is not the path leading to life.  But the point is that God desires us to have life, our life, the life we were created to live.  To repent and believe the good news, is to return from the exile of empire and to trust that walking in the way of God’s kin-dom will lead us not only to closer relationship with God, but will set us free to live, really live our lives and, in so doing, to love and serve other people as well.

 

The abusive ways the words “sin” and “repentance” have been used in churches through the ages are painful reminders of the way the greed, control, and negative patriarchy of empire infects the body of Christ.  Barely a day passes when I don’t encounter someone who has been wounded by such abuse, wounded by words and judgments from beloved family, pastors, or friends, those words and judgments seared into the most tender place in their heart.  On the day of the wedding to her wife, the woman who asks, “You’re sure this is OK, right?” The man who loves his rural church ministry and so will not come out, denying his deep desire for relationship and for living more fully the truth of himself. The woman who is told her soul is in jeopardy because she had the audacity to find true love with a Jewish man instead of a Christian one; or the man who’s called a sinner for marrying a woman of a different race. The trans and queer folk who, even in relatively safe places, struggle to be able to fully shake the shame poured into them from their youth.

 

The words repentance and sin have been weaponized for so long…no wonder the past 50 years have found many mainline churches avoiding such talk.  By the time I came through seminary twenty-five years ago, there was a growing sense that, while such avoidance was understandable, erasing the language of sin and repentance may not be the answer for the long haul.  Why not? (after all, who really wants to think about those things anyway?)

 

Well, for one thing, sin, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation weigh pretty heavily in the Bible.  According to our scriptures, from the beginning, we cashed in our original goodness for something else we thought would be worth it—control, power, knowledge, the elimination of other people who challenge what we want… And God’s been after us ever since to help us make a different choice.  For another thing, as I’ve already noted, repentance is a necessary step on the journey toward the life in Christ that sets us free—we can’t change something we haven’t acknowledged and nothing will change if, once we know, we do nothing.  To repent and believe the good news isn’t about checking boxes on a list of doctrinal statements we may not even understand or about having sorry feelings and good intentions.  It’s about allowing the pain of what is wrong wake you up and motivate an active turn toward a way of life that is aligned with the way of Christ. 

 

And the truth is that there are things in our personal lives and in the communities human beings create and maintain that are NOT aligned with the way of Christ.  Willingly and unwittingly we participate in systems of injustice and oppression and white supremacy because we live in an imperial culture saturated with those things.  And our own personal limitations and fears and brokenness lead us to hurt others and ourselves, to fail to love and care for the beauty and gift of this life and of life together.

 

Jesus was tempted to forego the ways of God’s kin-dom for the ways of empire and resisted. John paid the price for resisting and challenging empire—landing in prison. And, because Jesus resisted evil, injustice and oppression, he too became public enemy number one.  We know that turning onto the path that is the way of Christ is not without cost; it requires something from us. 

 

One of those things is a willingness to forego our own comfort for the sake of waking up—to look honestly at our lives and to deal with the pain of acknowledging where we need to change course, where we are doing harm, where we are participating in empire’s injustice and oppression without resistance, where we need to try to become more aligned with the ways of God’s kin-dom.

 

The possibility of our alignment with such an alternative kin-dom is good news, the way of Christ is good news, the one who shows us the way is the good news, the freedom and power the ever-present God gives us to persevere in following the way is good news.

 

What repentance needs to happen in your life so that you might believe the good news?

 

 

 ______________________________

 [i] Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, p. 25.