Sunday, March 03, 2013

Repentance: THE profession of faith

Isaiah 55:1-9
Luke 13:1-9

"Your fountain, O Lord, is hidden from those who do not thirst for you."  St. Ephrem the Syrian

There is a fine line, a "hidden boundary" between the patience and the wrath of the Holy One.  When we are young we are taught - or should have been taught - the difference between right and wrong, and as we grow these lessons take shape as we learn WHY something is wrong and WHY something is right.  Yet as we get older and become a little more worldly and think ourselves to be wiser, the rules seem to change - sometimes we even change the rules ourselves according to our own lives and our own needs and desires. 

"Why" something is wrong becomes harder to define especially if that something works well for us and does not seem to hurt others, or it becomes conditional according to the kind of man or woman we grow to be; tempered not only by how we were raised but also by the many choices we've made along the way - and in whose name these choices were made.

Once we become conditioned over a period of time to a certain way of thinking, it becomes very difficult to imagine an alternative.  Words that once stung in church - sin, wrath, repentance, judgment - no longer carry the same weight they once did because another word - grace - has pervaded church thinking.  And it's hard not to think in terms of grace because when life seems impossible, grace is really all we have! 

Yet even grace no longer commands the respect it once did because some elements of the Church have become very careless with that word and the concept it conveys.  Rather than representing a moment when we become aware of our sin and choose to turn away from that sin because we know it displeases our Lord, grace has become more of an excuse we claim for ourselves "just as I am" to continue in sin while still claiming salvation.  "Whatever", "oh well", and "don't judge me" have become the norm, and "sin" has become a foreign word; a strange concept we cannot fully grasp because we've made sin "relative".

It is the strangest twist of irony that our own governor signed a pro-gun bill that crossed his desk as a matter of constitutional priority, but he vetoed an anti-abortion bill that would have protected an unborn child from a gruesome and painful death after 20 weeks.  It's all about money, you see, because that bill would have almost certainly invited lawsuits.  Rather than stand up for what is morally right and take measures to protect ALL people, however, the governor chose the "path of least resistance" to protect the Constitution.  (The Arkansas Legislature overrode the veto)

I don't care about your political affiliation or social beliefs about certain issues, and it is certainly not the point.  It is about that cursed "path of least resistance" that gets most of us - perhaps all of us - in serious spiritual trouble because that path seems so ... normal.  Yet a poet wrote these words as it comes to a "normal" life in the Almighty: "How far can one go on in sin?  How long will mercy spare?  Where does grace end and where begin the confines of despair?"  Where, indeed.

Jesus' whole point and purpose in this passage from Luke is entirely about the necessity (not "option") of repentance - and the Lord's promise to His people through the prophet Isaiah is also a call to "turn around" from that "path of least resistance".  According to Mark, Jesus' very ministry after His baptism and time of testing in the wilderness began with these words: "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel" (1:15)

The most haunting part of that poetic passage is the question, "How far can one go in sin?" because if we are so comfortable with our chosen "path of least resistance" that we cannot tell the difference between "sin" and "righteousness", or if we ignore sin altogether in the name of "grace", how can we even know we are in a state of sin if our lives seem so right?  How can we know what constitutes sin in the first place, since the dominant secular culture has so overwhelmed even the Church under the blanket terms of "tolerance" and "diversity"?  If we do not know or even acknowledge sin, we cannot know what repentance even means, let alone how important it truly is.  That word, "repent", is an intentional focus of Jesus' lesson AND announcement.

So we should rather consider repentance itself - rather than magic prayers and empty creeds - as the genuine act of contrition; it is the only bona fide "profession of faith" because it is the only evidence that "faith" itself even exists!  It is the only act that goes beyond merely saying, "I'm sorry"; repentance makes the intentional and purposeful correction - AND - it is the "profession of faith" everyone can truly SEE rather than simply HEAR.  Repentance compels us to act BEFORE we get caught! 

Repentance is an intentional reordering of our whole life.  Repentance may cost us friends, repentance may cost us money, repentance may even cost us our jobs if we truly come clean and reorder our lives because we cannot simply tell the Lord "I'm sorry" but leave others in the wake of harm we've caused directly or indirectly - and sin always does this!  ALWAYS!  This is the overarching theme of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.  This Day is not simply an "event" that happens; it is actually prepared for in advance with fasting, prayer, serious contemplation of one's life, and making right the wrongs caused in the lives of others by our sin. 

Clearly we cannot undo the past.  As the saying goes, we cannot "unring a bell".  Yet there is nothing that prevents us from making peace with those we've harmed, and there is nothing scriptural or doctrinal that prevents us from making amends where we can.  Some elements of Protestant theology would suggest these acts have a "works" flavor to them; that we would by these acts of contrition try to "earn" favor with our Lord.  Yet we cannot dismiss Jesus' very words to His disciples as recorded in Matthew's gospel: "If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go your way.  First be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift" (5:23-24).

It is, I think, a colossal mistake (and yet a common one) to believe that Jesus' Death on the Cross once and for all time removed our need to reflect and repent constantly.  Think of it this way.  Jesus teaches in both examples in Luke: "unless you repent, you will all perish like they did".  Notice our Lord did NOT continue to say, 'but after I've been killed and resurrected, never mind'.  No, our Lord taught us just as Isaiah tried to teach the people of Israel that the time to come clean and come near is short.  It is implied by the Holy Father's words through Isaiah that the time to repent and draw near is not infinite: "Seek the Lord WHILE He may be found; call upon Him WHILE He is near".  The overwhelming implication is that there will come a time when our Lord cannot be found by us; a time when we will not be able to call upon Him.

Jesus' words are no less foreboding, and He is offering no excuses or alibis; He's not even offering to "save us" from ourselves.  The parable even seems to be "time-stamped"; i.e., "Sir, let the [non-fruiting-bearing tree] alone for one year more, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down."

If our Lord will not even accept our "gifts" to Him while we are consciously aware of harm we've done, how can we reasonably suggest He will accept US?  It's not about "works".  It's not about "getting saved".  It is entirely about "doing right things" and "being righteous".  It is about the demands of discipleship.  It is the difference between a hollow prayer memorized from the mind and a hallowed life emanating from the heart.  Our Lord demands one - and rejects the other.  Which will be ours?  AMEN.

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