Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Wild Ride of Repentance

Sermon notes for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany.
Audio of the sermon delivered at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California

Someone remarked to me this week that I had chosen – in this particular vocation of serving the Church – what he called the “wild ride.” I hesitated for just a moment, tempted as clergy are all too often to see our calling as elevated or separate from most other Christians. On the one hand, it’s true: being subject to the uncertain future of a relatively modest not-for-profit budget that relies almost wholly on others’ generosity; social forces well beyond my control that might make churchy business popular, unpopular, or indifferent tomorrow; being on call when people are facing life-altering events that few witness with any regularity. . .well, it is a “wild ride” at times, indeed!

But then I recognized that few, if any of us, can say with any validity that we are not subject to the uncertainties of the present state of the world, or that we are secure enough to weather social forces no matter which way they trend, or that our particular line of work will sustain us in two or five years, let alone ten. Truth is, all of us are confronted with a “wild ride” of one sort or another. And so I say again, paraphrasing Wesley in The Princess Bride: Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something!

On Facebook this week, I came across the perennial article remarking on how the institutional church is faltering: How it has failed and hurt many over the centuries, and whether or not it deserves to survive. The curious thing was that I read one article like this and then another popped up on my Facebook news feed, and then another, and then another! I wondered for a moment if everybody was starting to write again about the demise of institutional Christianity (a familiar and depressing thought for a guy like me). Maybe we really were going to at last go under. But then I realized Facebook was only doing what it was supposed to do – posting articles on my news feed similar to ones I’d already read. It’s the same kind of consumer-driven content selection that all our media and social outlets now employ at every turn, every mouse click.

What struck me about that is the rapidly distorting effect this has on our perception of reality. We can quickly find ourselves in an echo chamber hearing only voices that think about the same things we do, and think that therefore the whole world is discussing what we are; or worse, that a majority of the world thinks the same way we do! What makes this doubly troubling is the modern myth that with all our access to information these days, we are getting a more “unbiased” view of reality than did our ancestors.

The first piece of good news, then, in today’s gospel, is that we are in this way, at least, similar to Peter, Andrew, James, and John living on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. They didn’t have mass media or access to mobile devices to distort their view of reality with consumer-driven content. But it was still probably hard for them to imagine much reality beyond that which they already knew and talked about all day. Fishing was and remains another all-consuming “wild ride” subject to forces well beyond human control: weather and the almost complete mystery of the biology beneath the waves. Whether their catch would be big or small must have been a combination of seasonal guess-work, intuition, and fate into which a faithful fisherman might have injected a good dose of prayer. But no matter the size of the catch, there would always be the endless work of disentangling and mending the nets, countless hours of dropping them here or there in the waters and hauling nothing, and the gnawing uncertainty of whether even a good catch would sustain their livelihoods for another cycle of moons.

These first disciples, doubtless, talked, breathed, and dreamed fishing. It was what they knew best to their very bones. And so, when this itinerant teacher, filled with the Spirit of God from his venture in the wilderness, shows up and commands them to follow, I can only imagine their perplexity when he told them they would now “fish for people.” They will spend the next few years on this “wild ride” with Jesus, learning better what he means by that from the greatest teacher of them all: experience. They might even come to learn that this is no ordinary mystic, prophet, or teacher they are following. This might just be Someone who reveals God’s presence with us in the flesh.

For Jesus, his time has come, and none of the signs are good. John has been imprisoned, and no sensible person would believe anything other than Jesus was next on the hit list. It will take time for Peter, Andrew, James, and John – even a lifetime – to learn what Jesus has just learned in the wilderness through his confrontation with temptation: by rejecting the offer of the powers this world recognizes – the power to satisfy ourselves and lord it over others – Jesus has planted the flag of a new kind of community that will involve radical self-offering, radical non-violence, and, therefore, radical vulnerability.

This will not be a wild-ride in a chariot or alongside a marching legion or the grit of a violent insurgency. It will be a wild ride of profound vulnerability to people’s love or painful rejection; it will be a wild ride in the midst of a confrontation between the ways of a God who lovingly made all that is with a world that is too often hell-bent on distortion, dissension, division, domination, and destruction.

No doubt, Jesus saw this likely ending with a cross. Had Peter and Andrew really understood the reality they were stepping into, would they have dropped their familiar nets and followed? Would you? Would I?

Repentance for them was not simply getting it right with God so things could go back to the old and familiar. Paul must confront this very human temptation bearing bad fruit in the little clutch of Corinthian Christians today, and while his message is at times amusing (just how many people did you baptize there, Paul?) it is steel-edged with worry that the faith he gave them is being quickly sandblasted by the dry winds of familiar factionalism and quests for domination and control. They haven’t gotten repentance yet, and so they are at the same risk every formalized Christian community and every half-converted heart has been since: just going the way of thousands of other spiritualities and religious institutions across the millennia. And that is nowhere at all really, except back into the familiar teeth of a power-hungry and hell-bent world.

So when Christ calls us to repent, he is not merely telling us to be good Christians working on our own righteousness, finding the right cause and standing up for it, and then hoping to end our short lives having done good things. If that were the case, we could see Sundays as only a time to gather, utter faithful words, mend our nets, collect our rations at the altar, organize a bit, and then go out and simply do “it” better.

No, repentance is more like Jesus coming to the shore of our familiar lives and calling us out of our familiar but distorted, insular view of reality, and us daring to follow him into a wild ride that is truly unfathomable — a ride with God that, inevitably, will overturn everything we thought we knew about ourselves, the world, and even our most cherished values and beliefs.

Didn’t you learn that somewhere along the way? Maybe in Sunday School? No? Then the institutional Church, you see, is still trying to get its job right, and two thousand years later is still falling far short. Paul is addressing us as much as he is that quarreling little sect in Corinth all those centuries ago!

But not to worry. Our little community is rooted in grace, not institutional righteousness. And the school of repentance for Jesus was not confined to the synagogue. It was ever engaging its students at the side of the sea, at the booth of a tax collector, in the kitchen, seated at table with friends and enemies, under a tree, or even up a tree! For us, the school of repentance is found, too, out there in the world at least six other days of the week, when we each must grapple with our own “wild ride” and perhaps find ourselves called yet again out of the familiar, the predictable, and the ever budding arrogance of our own narrow judgments about reality. Here we gather in the hopes of being reminded of this humility and re-fueled for our journey by the life-blood and strength of our Savior, exhorted by word and sacrament not merely to do better, but be affirmed again that we are on this wild ride together with one another and our God.

And so we can truly repent by pursuing that journey that Jesus’ first disciples were on: where the flag of a new kind of community, a new kind of people, a new kind of world is carried...

A world built not on the foundations of power, but of radical self-offering and self-emptying...

So that we each may be filled with the love that God made us to have, a love that even promises to bring life beyond all death.

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