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20 January 2011

Repentance, or Why I Never Wash

Into our confusion, our terror and our questions in the aftermath of the Tucson massacre, Sunday's gospel text from Matthew 4 speaks to us with some of the first few words from Jesus' mouth:

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

What is repentance?  The Greek word used by Matthew, metanoeo, means "to change one's mind and purpose". The underlying Hebrew word, shub, denotes a turning back, specifically turning away from one's sins and back to God.

The definition suggested by Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder is better than most:

To repent doesn't mean to grovel in self-hatred or pious sorrow. When you repent you turn around, change directions, choose a different path, or make a radical rupture. Repentance signals an abrupt end to life on auto-pilot or to business as usual.

The urgency Yoder describes is reflected in the Greek word kairos, which in Mark Chapter 1 Jesus uses together with "repent".  Kairos describes something extraordinary and utterly new, a rupture in normal time that demands a response or a reorientation. It seems as though the disciples described in Sunday's gospel almost instantly "got it", completely walking away from their lives and families and security and routines, and becoming "fishers of men".

Repentance is about change, radical change.

Human beings don't change easily, and every theory of human personality is expected to describe how "resistance to change" is to be explained. A colleague, disgusted with the excuses parishioners offered as to why they didn’t attend worship, offered "Fourty Reasons Why I Never Wash"; those "reasons", however humorous and exaggerated, illustrate just how hard change is for our kind. Here are some of my favorite ones:

  • "I only believe in things I can see, and I can’t see bacteria";
  • "I’ll start washing when I get older and dirtier";
  • "People who make soap are only after your money"; 
  • "I know someone who washes every day and still smells bad";
  • "People who wash are hypocrites - they think they are cleaner than everybody else".

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" -- how can we hear these words for our day and time? Even as Republicans are working on their efforts to repeal the 2010 health care reform, I remember a powerful 2010 article by Frank Rich of the New York Times, where he said this:
If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. ... The week before the health care vote, The Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non-Hispanic white births will be in the minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven’t had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three in total since 1935. Their anxieties about a rapidly changing America are well-grounded.

In other words, Frank Rich suggests that ultimately the whole fight (back then and even now) is not about health care or any specific subject at all.

Frank Rich suggests that the whole fight has been about fear of change. 

Even as early as March of 2010, Rich warned that President Obama's “middle-of-the-road bill" had "incited an unglued firestorm of homicidal rhetoric", with the result that "reports of death threats and vandalism stretched from Arizona to Kansas to upstate New York, the F.B.I. and the local police had to get into the act to protect members of Congress and their families":

from “Kill the bill!” to Sarah Palin’s cry for her followers to “reload.” At least four of the House members hit with death threats or vandalism are among the 20 political targets Palin marks with rifle crosshairs on a map on her Facebook page.

Looking at the events of January 8 from this angle, the violence seems even more senseless; my point is that human beings will go to great lengths to avoid change. No, not "Republicans will go to great lengths to avoid changes", but "human beings will go to great lengths", all of us.

President Obama's call for more civility in our discourse sounds good, but I think the problem lies deeper, much deeper.

  • When some people in this nation think they need to stop change by using violence, that's a good indication that some form of dialog stopped somewhere way-back-when; that conversation needs to begin again: about who we are as a people, and about how diversity is part of our identity.
  • And when, as Frank Rich suggests, a lot of the fear of change has to do with the fact that the new face of this nation doesn't look like the faces of those fearful ones, we need to have a conversation about the faulty idea of "other".  For Christians, there is no "other"; we are all one, children of the same Father.   

Many of us are used to singing a section of Psalm 51; some of us are singing these words every Sunday.  I wonder whether we know just how serious this stuff is.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

If God were to start acting like we do with each other, we would have been flung so far away from God's presence we'd never find our way back.  Each of us depends on God's grace and mercy in our everyday struggle, yet it's hard for the folks around us to feel the grace. The writer Anne Lamott names these reasons why she made her adolescent son go to church against his will:

The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want--which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy--are people with a deep sense of spirituality.

The kairos is here.  In this rupture of time, "business as usual" will not cut it, and living on auto-pilot won't work.  As Rumi says, "All the other [doors] are sometimes open, sometimes shut; yet never is the door of repentance anything but open. Come seize the opportunity: the door is open."

Rather than feeling helpless in the midst of the violence, we know how to find "a path and a little light to see by". We can show purpose, heart, balance, gratitude and joy.  We can reflect the grace of our God.  With God, we are always in the majority.

Matthew 4:12-23; Psalm 51

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