s154e01 Somerton Park 11/3/01 Lent 2
"He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself." Philippians 3:21
Just a while back I was in a support group and the subject of repentance came up. One member of the group was quick to define repentance as not being when one is sorry the police have caught you speeding. Repentance is when you decide not to speed anymore. And I suppose that there is some truth in this, especially for those who manage to make that transition. I suppose it is a legitimate expression of Jesus' words for today about looking for fruit on a tree. And yet, while the words are indeed wise, they seem rather barren to me.
And indeed there is some sadness that the new lectionary has replaced the wonderful celebration of the Transfiguration which used to be today, with these words about the Galileans who were killed by Pilate, and the eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them (Luke 13:1-6) - finding good news here is like extracting the proverbial hen's teeth :-) But we have echoes of the transfiguration as Paul talks about the transformation of our bodies, in our epistle for today ... I am encouraged to continue trying :-)
The illustration of being caught speeding is actually rather instructive. For me it shows how frequently repentance is perceived as a personal thing. It is, of course, anti-social to speed. The laws and the traffic regulations are in fact all designed to try to make sure accidents do not happen. But when we are caught, particularly if it is by a speed camera, not actually having caused an accident, it is my fault, with no real reference to others, except in a rather nebulous way. It's really only me and the police representing, as they rightfully do, the state and the rest of our community, whose safety (as well as ours) they are only trying to maintain.
The reality is, of course, that we will all perish. The old saying is that there are only two certainties in this life - death and taxes. So if we are repenting in an effort to avoid dying, we are engaged in the ultimate exercise in futility. We might go before our time, or we might go on it seems (to the chagrin of those looking to benefit from our estate) for ever - the end result is the same. No amount of repenting will change that. So what is Jesus saying here? - and if we look at the words, I think the meaning is not too obscure.
Jesus said these words in response to being told about some people who died tragically. Were they worse sinners than other people? So we can conclude that for Jesus, repentance is turning away from categorising people as better or worse sinners. It is not that these Galileans or the eighteen died in a particularly unexpected or gruesome manner that was important. No, Jesus was addressing the people who questioned the causes, who like ourselves so often live our lives, comparing ourselves to others, pointing the finger at others we consider "beyond the pale". They saw in the fate of these Galileans and these eighteen - reasons to blame others and excuse oneself - reasons not to make some changes in their own lives.
And this for me is close to what I described as the barrenness of the definition of repentance given earlier. For me it doesn't actually touch the real heart of repentance, for those successful at not speeding can as easily point the finger at those who continue to do so. How often are those with "P" plates reviled for their seeming continual flouting of the speed limits? Sometimes those of us who are older forget others of the even older generation who (less than blithely) cross "Jetty Road" at Glenelg - completely oblivious to the presence or the absence of any oncoming traffic. All traffic has to stop for them!
Pointing the finger doesn't help anyone. No one's lives are transfigured. Repentance therefore is not just consistent socially acceptable behaviour - it is living life crossing the boundaries of acceptability.
My mind immediately turns to that classic American novel by Harper Lee: "To Kill a Mockingbird". Since my mind has been lead to this book, it is what I shall re-read as my Lenten discipline, though I find a copy studied in High School has both the first and last pages missing! I am delighted that the book has obviously seen better days, it's obviously been read several times in the meantime. When I opened my copy, there on page 161 (p173 in the Arrow 1960 edition) were the powerful words of Atticus to Jem, after Atticus had stopped the mob lynching Tom with a little help from Scout: "You'll understand folks a little better when you're older. A mob's always made up of people, no matter what. Mr Cunningham was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man. Every mob ... is always made up of people you know ..." If you want an example of a person (even if only in fiction) who knows and shows us what repentance is really about, here can be no better example.
And as an example of the transforming power of this sort of repentance, I turned to page 215 (Penguin edition), when after failing to gain an acquittal for Tom Robinson, Atticus "left the court room, but not by his usual exit. He must have wanted to go home the short way, because he walked down the middle aisle towards the south exit ... I looked around. They were all standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes's voice was as distant as Judge Taylor's: "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'."" (p233 Arrow edition.)
The Penguin edition must have been produced about 1970 and was priced $1.20. My edition was printed in 1997 and was priced $19.95! Sixteen and a half times the price! It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. 5,000,000 had been sold in about 1970. 30,000,000 had been sold by 1997.
Some time back, a number of us were at a meeting where another person made the statement that some years back the Lord had given her a passage of scripture relevant to others in her faith community. It was a word from Isaiah. I am not sure if it was 40.31, but if not it was very similar to these lovely sentiments. "Wait for the LORD" ... you ... "shall renew (your) strength, (you) shall mount up with wings like eagles, (you) shall run and not be weary, (you) shall walk and not faint." Because this person perceived that they had in fact not done this, she said that the members of her faith community were now apart from the Lord and beyond God's blessing.
But I point out that this word from the Lord is as easily interpreted that she had to wait, that she was not to do anything - that she personally was called to wait and see and acknowledge, in the things that others were doing the work not of humans, but the work of God. What a different perspective this might have been for the person and the others! Instead of others feeling "put down" by this person and alienated from God, others would have felt affirmed and been encouraged by her message.
The question I put to you is just what concerns the Lord. Here was I "given" a passage of an American novel, which I guess I as much as anyone else can learn from, to include in this sermon. It may not be a passage which is immediately relevant to your lives and existence and that is fine. But it is a message of acceptance of the other in all circumstances. The other message "from the Lord" served to alienate the other and to magnify the messenger - even when it comes from a more "orthodox" authority! If we get a message from the Lord, it behoves me, as well as everyone to check that the message is not in fact a word to us personally, rather than to anyone else.
I was most impressed with our missionary preacher a couple of week's ago, on the feast of the Transfiguration celebrated on the Sunday before Lent. I don't know if any of you picked it up from his sermon, but I certainly did. He said words to the effect that our lives are transfigured when we look beyond ourselves to others.
Transfiguration will come to us in this life as we do not categorise ourselves and others, but look at others as people who have a contribution to make to our lives. Even our own moods are telling us something valuable. Someone said to me a while back that they had had a headache all weekend. They weren't complaining - they realised it was a sign that they were facing some issues in their life.
We can indeed live like everyone, categorising people into greater or lesser sinners. We can indeed live our lives saying that one person deserved all they could get whereas another did nothing to deserve their lot. Again, in the words of Harper Lee: "The Haverfords ... insisted that the son-of-a-bitch-had-it-coming-to-him was a good enough defence for anybody. They persisted in pleading Not Guilty ..." (p11, p5) One of my internet correspondents passed on twenty instructions to outsiders contemplating moving to his part of the world: "7. Be advised that "He needed killin'" is a valid defence here." :-) My correspondent has a wonderful sense of humour!
But Jesus would have us realise that categorising and laying blame is not life but death, for ourselves as well as for others. If we choose to live this way we will "die" even though we still eat, drink and be merry, like it seems everyone else.
How often when we find ourselves thinking about someone else who is HIV positive or a victim of AIDS - and we immediately assume it's a result of immoral living or drug taking. If the person were to die, how often do we pass it off, saying in some sense he or she deserved their fate? Yet they are a real person, a sinner just like us.
It was the English Protestant martyr John Bradford (1510-1555) who said on seeing some criminals taken to execution "But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford".
However the grace of God seemed to run out for Bradford, most likely because during the reign of Mary he described "the mass" as "blasphemous idolatry" as well as speaking against "Protestant idolatry, which runs rampant in public worship today, (e.g. as in the public preaching of women, the use of dance, the singing of uninspired songs, the use of musical instruments, and whatever else is not appointed by God for public worship." (From the Internet) Oh well, you can't win them all :-)
If we want to live transformed lives we will need to follow Jesus and resist categorising people and laying blame on others. And there is no end to the transformation possible for the numbers of people in whom we can find the divine is endless, for we can, if we look, find something of the divine in everyone.
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