Is the Church Still in the Business of Repentance?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 01/26/2014
Based on Matthew 4:12-23
Last week I touched on the Hebrew understanding of what John the Baptizer’s phrase, “here is the Lamb of God” means, not an acknowledgement of “atonement” in the sense of a sin sacrifice, but rather an acknowledgement of a person who was going to give us a fresh contact with the presence of God. This week we are confronted with the invitation from Jesus as he starts his ministry saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Repent! For many people this is a red flag word. It is like a matador displaying a red cape with a hidden sword in front of a bull, just begging the bull to charge and then when the bull is near enough, plunging his sword into the bull, killing it. This understanding has developed because of how the word “repent” has been hijacked and misused by T. V. Evangelical ministers. Many people when hearing the phrase, “repent” feel much like the bull who is being challenged by the matador to come forward to be slain by the sword of God in order to enter into the Kingdom of God.
This past Monday was the national recognition of Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday. All across this nation there were public displays, rallies, and marches that commemorated Rev King. Not because he was a preacher, but because of the truths that he stood for. The truth of equality, not just in how we see the color of one’s skin, but equality in pay, in sexes, in disabilities; equality in the areas where any prejudice and denial of access exists. We had 12 or so members from Mountain View join in Denver’s Marade, which was a march from City park down to Civic Park. For those 12 who walked, I doubt that you think of your participation as being an act of Repentance. Yet that is what was going on. “Repent” is an act of turning around 180 degrees. It is our recognition that the direction in which we are traveling is not taking us closer to God, but rather taking us further away. Racism is one of those actions or frames of thinking that takes us away from God’s kingdom. Through the courage of people like Rev. Dr. King and all those who throughout the life of this nation who have spoken out about racism and have acted in ways that defy that philosophy, we as a nation have been in the act of repentance, which is still being worked out today. Like a large ship that is being turned; it takes time.
When Jesus was calling to those around the Sea of Galilee to repent, for the kingdom of God was near, he wasn’t talking about a way into heaven above, but rather was speaking about a way in which God’s dream and God’s truth was near, was within their grasp and dealing with the present. In just a few verses following this morning’s scripture Matthew tells us how Jesus understands the working out of this repentance and how the kingdom of God looks through the story of what we now call The Sermon on the Mount.
Pope Francis has been embraced by the world as the peoples Pope; meaning I suppose, a person who speaks out for the plight of the common person. There are all sorts of warm and fuzzy feeling pictures of Pope Francis holding children and of his care toward the poor and those who are suffering. But when Pope Francis starts to speak about economic justice, he starts to receive a backlash from those who hold the power and have influence over the resources of this world. I just read earlier this week a great commentary on the need to get back to basic bible principles, written not by some famous theologian, but from the comic strip Peanuts. Linus and Lucy are having a discussion about biblical Christian principles that goes something like this:
Lucy says: America should get back to biblical Christian principles!
Linus: So we should feed and shelter the poor?
Lucy: No, I’m not paying for a lazy person.
Linus: We should visit and comfort the prisoners?
Lucy: No, they don’t deserve that.
Linus: We should pay our taxes without complaining?
Lucy: No, that’s my money and I want it.
Linus: We should show love and mercy freely?
Lucy: No, that has to be earned.
Linus: We should avoid violence?
Lucy: No, we have to take out the “bad guys.”
Linus: We should be gracious to foreigners?
Lucy: No, they shouldn’t be here.
Linus: We should seek to end social injustice throughout the world?
Lucy: No, that’s not our problem.
Linus: then what principles are you talking about?
Lucy: Opposing gay marriage!
What Lucy is saying in the Peanuts commentary focuses around “what it will cost us”, especially in the affluent West, to drop everything and follow what Jesus was asking for – a repentance from materialism, militarism, unbridled capitalism, and classism.
We see in this morning’s text, how Jesus moved north from Nazareth to Capernaum as he starts his ministry. This happens once John the Baptizer has been arrested. Capernaum happens to be near the crossroads of trade between Egypt and Damascus, but more importantly, it is located in an area where there is more freedom of thought. In other words, Jesus has gone to an area that isn’t stifled by traditional sets of values or bogged down with dogma, but has exposure to multiple points of view. I think this is a significant message to us in the church today, that in order to “repent” we need to be looking beyond what is currently comfortable and acceptable.
When we see Jesus walking along the shores of Galilee and inviting Simon and Andrew to “follow him” and then giving the same invitation to James and John, we are seeing four people who seemingly stop what they are doing to turn to a new life. A life of discovery, of uncertainty, of not knowing where they will end up. Jesus says to them, leave what is comfortable and known to you and take a chance to grow in ways that would be uncomfortable and unknown to you.
How well have we been able to turn loose of the “old” ways, the traditional ways, in order to share the good news with others? How many marches have we undertaken to protest or support change of human conditions in our community? How many letters of protest about unjust laws have we written? How often do we chat with our elected representatives and ask “why”? Latin American church leader and theologian, Dom Helder Camara, said “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”
John Buchanan wrote: The world and the church are changing more rapidly than we can comprehend…some things are the same: the world and the church desperately need our energy, imagination, passion, impatience, intelligence, and love…one of the great biblical themes is that God calls…all of us to walk into the future without knowing exactly where we are headed, to let go of old securities and certainties and trust the God who promises to be with us wherever we go.”Sermon seeds, UCC Jan 26,2014 This is the call to repentance and the building of Gods kingdom not in heaven, but here on earth, today and for tomorrow. Amen