Date: October 8, 2017
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-12
Repentance… it’s a tough concept and a difficult word for many of us. It reeks of a rigid theology of judgment, and brings to mind scenes of familiar street preachers, yelling at us to “Repent!”, making us feel like we are being religious bullied more than being given good news.
It is little wonder we sometimes struggle with the whole notion of repentance. So what exactly is it? The Hebrew word for repentance – shub – occurs 1058 times in the Old Testament, so obviously it is a concept considered of some importance in the Biblical record. And “shub” literally means “to turn, or to change direction in lifestyle or behavior.” In the New Testament the Greek word translated as repentance is metanoia, and it means literally to have a change in mind and in heart.
So repentance is more than simply saying “I’m sorry”. And I think it requires four things. First, true repentance requires honesty. Now children may understand this better than adults. Kathleen Norris tells this story:
When I have asked children to write their own Psalms, they often exhibit an emotional directness similar to that of the biblical Psalter. Once, a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry”. He began by admitting he hates it when his father yells at him. In the poem, his response is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. And the poem concludes… “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’”
“My messy house” says it all. With more honesty than most adults would be willing to risk, the boy admits the depth of his rage. And in that honesty, the boy is well on his way to repentance. He is not a monster at all, but only being human. The truth is, we all live, at times, in a “messy house”, where rage and frustration, loneliness and brokenness cause us to hurt ourselves and others around us. And the only way we can begin to clean up our mess is to admit that it exists. Biblical scholar Louis Newman puts it this way:
Repentance really is about coming to terms with who we really are. We have to claim our own mistakes – not run from them, not hide them, but actually claim them. When we try to run from our transgressions, or hide them, or lie about them… we essentially are putting ourselves in bondage to the thing that we’ve done. We let it dictate our next move and the move after that as we try to prop up the lies we have told. To repent is to free ourselves of all of that.
Honesty is the first step toward cleaning up the “messy house” we have created. And then, fast on the heels of honesty is humility. Try as we might, we are not going to be able to restore our own wholeness all on our own. True repentance requires the kind of humility that is not afraid to ask for help, and not afraid to give into healing. Did you know the practice of kneeling in church was inspired by ancient military cultures? Think about it for a minute… to kneel is to surrender. You can’t fight if you are kneeling, and you cannot pretend you will be able to save yourself from that position.
We seem to be getting better, in this nation, at truth-telling. Perhaps the challenges we are facing are big enough to force us admit our faults and our failures as a nation. We may be taking the first really honest steps toward cleaning up the mess of racism and classism, sexism and homophobia and all the rest of our faults and failings. But where is the humility to accompany this honesty? I do not see us kneeling before one another or for that matter, I don’t see us kneeling in front of the world. I do not see us kneeling, surrendering to God’s mercy or seeking the restoration of our wholeness. Humility is essential to repentance and is the obvious response when the truth of who we are meets the truth of who God is… and the darkness is split with love.
Honesty and humility are required for true repentance. And then there is acceptance. It makes no sense to repent if we are not willing to accept God’s healing forgiveness. In the movie The Mission there is a powerful scene when Captain Mendoza begins to repent. Mendoza has spent his life as a mercenary and a slave trader in South America. At the beginning of the film, he kills his brother in a fit of jealous rage and then is consumed by guilt. Father Gabriel visits Mendoza in his “messy house” and convinces him to accompany the Jesuits on their mission to the indigenous peoples far beyond the South American Spanish settlement.
Mendoza agrees to go, but he drags along a huge burden of his former life – the weapons and the armor and the hate and the regret both physical and metaphorical. He drags this huge, heavy burden up one mountain and then another, and you wonder if he will even be able to make it to the top. Mendoza is only freed from his burden when the very Indians he has been enslaving look at him with incredulity, wondering why he is dragging this burden. And one of them comes forward with a knife, leaving you thinking “here it is – retribution” – only to be surprised by forgiveness as the rope is cut and the burden sent crashing down the mountain. Mendoza is free only as he accepts forgiveness and the freedom it implies.
Which leaves me wondering – what are you dragging around this morning? What burden are you carrying, what forgiveness do you need to accept in order to return to the freedom and the wholeness God wants for you?
Repentance requires honesty. And humility. And the acceptance of forgiveness. And finally, repentance requires change. True repentance invites us to re-orient ourselves, to re-boot, re-start our lives. To repent is to take a new direction, maybe even a new road altogether. It is to move from public displays of piety toward personal and prophetic acts of justice
- Caring for the oppressed
- Feeding the hungry
- Sheltering the homeless
- Clothing the naked
To repent is to turn toward God and to return to ourselves … I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases Isaiah’s promise…If you do this…
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
Rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
Restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
And make the community livable again.
We can, you know. We can make the community – and our own lives – livable again. We can do it with honesty, with humility, with acceptance, and with change. We can do it with repentance. Thanks be to God! Amen.