Posts Tagged ‘repentance’

Searched and known is better than ‘lost and found’.

January 18, 2015

Scripture offers us a variety of evidence of the mysterious persistence of God; bushes that burn but don’t burn up; visitors (to Abraham & Sarah’s tent) who make wild promises of new beginnings; visitations in dreams and visions, and here, a voice calling young Samuel from sleep to sudden wakefulness. Last Sunday was a reminder that God has a voice. this week, we discover that God (voice and all) is on a mission.
There are several ways to describe this mission – the most common being the theory of “God’s lost and found” – made famous in song and parable (see the Prodigal Son in Luke 15: 11-32). The suggestion in this “lost but now we’re found” attitude is that it’s all about us.; we know better, but we choose not to do better. We are willful and (sometimes) awful where devotion and obedience is concerned. And since we (humans) cannot be relied upon to be solid citizens, God occasionally rummages through the rubbish heaps and dark places and ‘reclaims us’. This may be true, but it doesn’t tell the full story. It presumes that God only looks when we have made a complete hash of our lives, or completely turned from our true purpose. In other words, God waits for us to fail, so God can rescue us. I’m not saying that doesn’t seem to happen, but it paints a slightly cynical picture of God as a redeemer, doesn’t it? (Think – “Amazing Grace’ lyrics) – Does God really sit and wait? wait to be called (in distress) wait until it’s almost too late, and then arrive in triumph (or judgement) to save the day?
In a word – NO.
Yes, we are encouraged to call on God in our distress, and to seek God when we are lost (though we don’t always do that, do we…) – but it’s not because God is waiting for us to act. God’s action is preventative – premeditated and entirely proactive. We are not God’s ‘lost and found’; we have been searched and known.
Samuel is drawn from innocent service to divine spokesman; why? because God reached out in the night, whispering his name and describing the judgement on Eli’s family that would hand Samuel the ‘top job’. Nathaniel is astounded that Jesus ‘saw him under the tree before Philip called him’. Is Jesus just more observant that most people (probably), or is this another suggestion of the desire of God to seek and know even those who don’t give much thought to the things of God…
But it is this morning’s Psalm that make the best case for what I’m suggesting – that God is constantly seeking us out; constantly reaching out to enlighten us and encourage us to acknowledge our own need of God’s presence etc. It has long been among my favourite sections of Scripture – full of images that resonate with my own search for the meaning of all this. The message of the Psalm is simple and elegant; you can’t run – you can’t hide – God is bigger (and smarter) that our desire to escape observation; there is nothing we do that God does not notice (uh-oh), and there is (ultimately) no reason for us to try to give God the slip. Embrace the notion that God want’s us more than we want God. No escape – deal with it.
Now, when I first came to this conclusion, I was terrified; who wouldn’t be afraid – The idea of ‘no escape’ from a being who seemed fierce about the rules of behaviour is not comforting if you spent any time at all on the wrong side of the rules (and there were so many rules) …
but our terror is unfounded – God’s purpose is not to possess us or intimidate us, or even to ‘keep us on the straight and narrow’. God desires relationship. God’s devotion to this relationship is inexplicable; Nothing the Psalmist has tried puts God off his trail. Why? Because the Creator knows his work intimately and completely; nothing we do that surprises God; and the only habit that can damage our relationship is our habit of trying to escape God’s notice.
Why do we think we can outsmart the King of Creation? Why does it seem like a reasonable idea to eliminate God from our thinking (except on Sunday morning during worship, when we feel we must think about God?) It is true, that one of the tasks of the church is to consider better ways to share the good news – but mostly, we talk about why people won’t come to us to hear what we have to say. When you leave this place, do you take the message with you, or do you return to a game of ‘hide and seek’ with God?
I know that people expect me to be ready willing and able to think about, talk about and care about the things of God all the time (You’re a minister, after all) – and I suspect that there are some who can’t believe that I actually enjoy it – but it is the task of all of God’s people (and we are all God’s people) to share the joy, the love and the wonder that we have discovered in our worship together. And it helps me to know that it is not my (our) job to ‘seek the lost’; God has been doing that all along – Our job is to recognize that God wants to find us.
If God knows us – and is actively seeking us – are we ever really lost? That is the good news, friends – a word of hope in hopeless times. It means that desire or ability) to change our ways (aka repentance) is not a condition of our God loving us or desiring a relationship with us (aka salvation)
Our desire to change – to turn from evil and seek God’s righteousness and peace – is a reaction to God’s great love for us in Jesus.
Lost? probably. Found? Eventually; but only because we are so deeply loved and so intimately known by God who will not – who cannot – give up the search for us.
Thanks be to God. Amen


It’s not what you think…it’s better!

March 2, 2013

My purpose in this pulpit is to provoke you to questions, not to provide you with answers.

I have always believed that where preaching and teaching are concerned.

But this morning, I am going to make a liar of myself.

We will encounter the question in a moment,

but I want you know what my answer is from the beginning – nothing to hide – full disclosure.

God’s judgement does not take the form of spectacular (or violently terminal) punishment.  Ever.

Bring me your favourite Old Testament disaster stories – I will do my best to show you

that God is not acting to selectively destroy those who “have not pleased God”

Such thinking is a cheap fix for a costly problem, and I’m not buying it.

I may never change centuries of theological sleight of hand,

and I might not convince you, but you need to know  where I stand.

So, you have my answer – but what of the question?

We don’t hear the question directly in this morning’s gospel,

but the context is clear enough.

Luke offers a series of episodes: parables of watchfulness and faithfulness –

calls to strive for the kingdom of God –

and the crowds ask about current events that seem to tell them something sinister about the character of God, and the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, righteousness and sinfulness.

There is the unsettling report of their countrymen, who have been slaughtered by Pilate

(the gospel is the only place this event is mentioned –

no other ancient authority gives us an indication of what happened here).

Jesus addresses the unspoken with a question of his own:

“Do you think [that these Galileans] were worse sinners that all other Galileans?”

Do you hear this?  Do you recognize the fear in the crowd?

These were our fellow citizens – perhaps our relatives & friends.

These are people who believe (for the most part) the same things that we believe –

and they were slaughtered out of turn by this godless ruler of Galilee.

And so, the unspoken question seems to be – How could this happen? 


How could (our) God allow such a travesty?

Good people – bad things; this needs some explanation.

Scripture does its best to offer insight; we don’t always get it.

Bad things happen –

the rain falls on the just and the unjust

(according to Matthew’s gospel and our own experience of the way life works) –

in fact, Jesus says that accidents happen – (Towers collapse even in the ancient near east) –

and they are every bit as horrible and cruel and untimely

as the activity of oppressive tyrants in Galilee –

“they are no worse (or better, one can infer) than any other.”

Jesus is trying to nudge his audience away from the simple arithmetic of redemption and judgement, and they are not moved – not yet, at any rate.  And his summary statement doesn’t help;

“But unless you repent, you will perish just as they did.”

And how many times have we been told the answer to the eternal riddle is this:

Be good to God, and God will be good to you;

except that Jesus says nothing of the sort.

“they are no worse than any other…unless you repent, you will perish as they did.”

We’ve become convinced that this means “in a hail of heavenly judgement”,

But consider for a moment that all this hinges on one, important word.

It’s not the word you think it is – perish – that’s the word that gets our attention,

and sends us, panic-stricken, to our knees in prayer, or to the tavern in despair.

No, the word upon which all this hangs is REPENT.

The word in Greek is metanoia which refers to the changing of ones mind after the fact “an overturning of thought” – so come our classical ideas of repentance: your mind is fundamentally changed and your future path is altered because of this new position.  And what must happen to change your mind?

Well, as the church discovered very early on, fear can change peoples minds.

Fear of abandonment – fear of separation from God –

and so the church developed rituals and rites that reminded people of their need for change,

then offered them the chance to regain the right path.

But the best kind of repentance is that which causes you to first open your mind to a new opportunity, to refrain from a previous direction and take up (willingly and freely) a new direction of thought.

This is the repentance to which Jesus calls us.

Open your minds to the reality of God, he says.

Consider that your current ideas about why these Galileans were killed

(God willed it?  They had sinned?)  might be incorrect.

These were no better or worse people than yourselves –

and unless you open your minds (or have your minds opened),

you will perish as they did, with your old and inadequate ideas of God intact.

To that end Jesus closes the question with what must be my favourite parable.

The tree has not born fruit – the owner wants to make space for a more profitable venture –

But the gardener begs the owner for another year.

Let me nurture this tree, fertilize it – water and tend to it.

What have you got to lose by waiting one more year?

God, in our old assumptions, takes the role of the property owner;

Demanding productive use of the land; insisting that the planting justify the investment.

But the context for this parable suggests to me (and others) that God is not the owner,

but the patient gardener – willing the tree to flower –

waiting and watering and giving yet another season of grace,

that the garden might realize its potential.

That sounds like God to me.

How much easier would it be to serve a God we believed to be patient, nurturing and …well, nice?

This is the truly good news that Jesus brings us –

he directs our attention to the things we have misunderstood,

and tries to paint for us a truer picture of God;

one that we might desire;

in whom we may delight.

Repentance is necessary – and yes, our time is short.

We can not ignore the urgency of Jesus message,

but we are urged by grace and gratitude – not pain and suffering.

Evil does not come from God, but it has found a home among God’s people,

And God’s remedy is in repentance – a reimagining of our purpose,

our relationships (with one another and with God) –

and a re-ordering of our intentions toward both Creation and Creator.

This approach is found in the oldest of prophets and the newest – from Isaiah to Jesus

Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest

This call to repentance does not threaten –

it should not terrify –

for it is issued by God in a spirit of patient, loving grace –

and that is good news, indeed!  Amen

Never trust your home-town prophet…

February 2, 2013

Believe it or not, Jesus brought this on himself.

His presence in worship – reading scripture – offering opinions on the interpretation –

none of this caused any problems.

“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

For the moment, it seems as though Jesus will be given the heroes welcome –

but he insists on guiding the conversation.

He anticipates their request

“do for us what we hear you have done elsewhere – Physician, heal thyself!”

and astounds them with the reminder that,

though they may claim to be “God’s chosen people”

God has regularly chosen to honour the unworthy with moments of grace.

Jesus did not harbour a grudge against these folks –

some of them may well have been his oldest friends.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus described himself

As being called to correct the expectations of people who were loved by God,

but had wandered off script just a little.

Exclusive claims are easy to make (and easy to maintain) but eventually,

someone will offer an alternative that cannot be ignored.

Any group that declares (with rigorous certainty) “WE are God’s people”

will eventually find themselves up against some who say “wait…WE are God’s people…”

any and all who would make this claim need to remember

that from the beginning, the whole creation was called good –

and now (as then) the whole of creation stands in need of redemption.

So Jesus reminder – Jesus insightful treatment of the Scripture that day –

was a tough pill for the home-town crowd to swallow.

When you praise the local hero – you expect that praise returned –

(we’ll tell you that we’re very proud of you  – you tell us how deserving we are)

and Jesus doesn’t do that.

He calls their attention to their error –

he catches them in a real (and dangerous) misunderstanding of their shared tradition,

and their response to this insight is to run him out of town.  The gospel according to Luke.

I’ve sat with this text on my desk for most of the week –

trying to decide what this means for the church – for you and I –

and some of the thoughts that I’ve entertained are frightening.

The notion that even Jesus had trouble getting his message across is not a comfort to me.

The reaction of the congregation is – to say the least – unsettling.

I’m never sure which side of the story best describes me –

am I offering a message that no one wants to hear,

or am I eager to dismiss the truth that people present to me

because it doesn’t match my dream for the kingdom of God according to Jeff.

This is the problem of the church –

a problem for all of us and each of us –

appointed messengers of the gospel and witnesses to the grace of God.

The challenge that is before us is always “are we on script?”

Is the message we proclaim, and the witness we offer consistent with the promises of God?

Do we really offer folks a chance to see

that the kingdom of peace and love that God proclaims in Jesus Christ

is for them, and not just for a chosen few?

Oh, I know – there are arguments for a very exclusive kingdom; but they are complete hogwash.

God erases boundaries, and overcomes obstacles

and we need to stop creating hurdles for God to demolish.

What we really need to do

is find a place for ourselves in a “kingdom” defined by love, justice, grace and peace –

I assure you that we won’t be surprised by the cultural / social / theological make-up of this kingdom because it will not matter.

The love, justice, grace and peace will have made every other definition meaningless.

This is borne out in Luke’s gospel too – but we usually miss it.

I nearly missed it.

Remember I said that Jesus brought this on himself?

By pushing their buttons – by reminding the crowd that the things of God often come first to those ;outside the fold” Jesus was stepping dangerously close to the line all preachers walk.

Comfort the afflicted – afflict the comfortable.  This is the preachers code

(it is no secret that it is how I approach my ministry).

Jesus took a chance, and his neighbours pushed back – all the way to the actual edge of town.

But at the very end of the story, the light dawns – the people relent – and Jesus makes his way from the edge of disaster to the next town on his itinerary;  “… he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

Angry mobs don’t routinely change their mind about murderous rage.  I think that the truth dawned, and they relented – each of them – and discovered the truth of what Jesus had told them.

The Kingdom of God was revealed to them as larger than their confusion, safer than their tradition, more comforting than their certainty, and they stopped, and parted, and let Jesus go.

That is the good news moment in this gospel reading, and it is a long time coming.

It is a truth that tells itself in the gentlest of ways –

and it is reflected in our experience with one another even now.

Our certainty will not protect us.

Our tradition, our name, our self-declaration as a Christian people, our unshakable sense of call

None of these guarantee a meaningful experience of the new life promised by God in Jesus Christ.

We have been wrong before – we will make mistakes as our journey continues.

And the truths that we tell one another along the way will not always simple to hear;

but God willing, the light will dawn.

And we will abandon our foolish insistence on our own way,

and find the way that God has made for us.  Amen