Lest ye repent, says Jesus, you will all perish as they did. It was the first soundbite of Jesus’ campaign trail, his initial mission statement: Repent, for the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Our exhortation to a holy Lent includes an invitation to self-examination and repentance (BCP 265). Self-examination and repentance. They are two sides, really of the same coin. They are two steps on the journey, one foot in front of the other; the journey closer to God, in the footsteps of Jesus.
James Ussher, an early scholar of Trinity College, Dublin defines the parts of repentance as
Two. A true grief wrought in the heart of the believer, for offending so gracious a God by his former transgressions. And a conversion unto God again, with full purpose of heart ever after to cleave unto him, and to refrain from that which shall be displeasing in his sight. (Jame Ussher in Love’s Redeeming Work: the Anglican Quest for Holiness, Rowell, Stevenson & Williams, eds (Oxford University Press, 20014) 156)
Self-examination, penitence, that true grief wrought in the heart of the believer for that which has been done or undone, which grieves the heart of God; then repentance, a conversion, a turning, a new beginning as many times as it is necessary, to turn us towards God, to cleave us more closely to Christ.
If I say that repentance is not the same thing, then, as saying sorry; that it is not the howl of the penitent or the hand-wringing of regret; that is not to let us off the hook for the shortcomings we are afraid to find in our self-examination. But it demands even more. It demands that we turn aside from that which we cringe to confess, and that we do justice instead; not once as a penance for our sins, but always afterwards, as part of our life with Christ.
Repent, then, says Jesus. Pay attention. Look where you are going.
There’s a presumably true story making the rounds of a couple driving in their car, following the directions of their GPS system on an unfamiliar route. The GPS did not know, being non-sentient, that the bridge ahead was out. The couple followed its directions past road closed signs and bridge out warnings and diversions, right off the road into the gully below. They were an ordinary pair. They were not worse sinners, nor more stupid or gullible than any of us: we all rely on auto-pilot, the unexamined life, far too much for our own good. They did not examine their surroundings, their misplaced trust, they failed to turn aside when it was necessary. Everything was offered for their guidance and protection; but they perished.
Lest ye repent, says Jesus, you all will perish as they did. Which is not to say that all self-examination and repentance has to be negative. In the case of the couple in the car, the choice of right or wrong way was not a moral decision but one of wisdom and discernment; paying attention.
Those of us working through Growing a Rule of Life are finding that examination and discernment, praying to find a way to grow God’s kingdom within our own souls and our own spiritual home, may bear good fruit.
Next week, our Vestry will meet for a period of self-examination on behalf of this parish; and discernment about which direction we need to turn in next; and we certainly hope that it will not be all hand-wringing and woe. When we are most deeply honest with ourselves, we know that we are made in God’s image, and called as a church to further God’s kingdom.
I look around and I think of the old saw that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. I look at our beautiful, blended family and I wonder what we are doing right. Is it just that we meet at 10 instead of 11? Or is there something we can find in our self-examination that may be useful to the culture that surrounds us; a culture wringing its hands over all-white Oscars?
We spoke just briefly last week about the epidemic of heroin abuse and overdose deaths all around and within our families. Only through hard self-examination is our culture beginning to ask what is the difference between the reaction and response to this epidemic and the crack crisis of the 80s and 90s. We know what it is: the answer is black and white. The question is how to repent, and reset, and return to God’s call to love.
This community, this country need not look too deeply into its self-examination to find areas worthy of repentance. The people came to Jesus and said, what about these people killed in religious violence, by persecution, by Pilate? And Jesus replied, yes, and what of those killed by workplace violence, negligence, neglect? What of those dying on the streets of Kalamazoo, or killed by a co-worker in Kansas? Unless you repent, says Jesus; unless you decide to do something differently, then you will perish the same way. For two millennia and more we have continued to wring our hands and say our prayers; but repentance not only says its prayers, but when it gets up off its knees it moves deliberately and surely away from temptation; it delivers us from evil.
If turning the world towards the kingdom of God seems like a tall order, that is what Jesus came for; to turn us, to draw us close to God, even if the way runs through the cross.
Our own self-examination, our facing of the places within ourselves that we fear to uncover, that we cringe to confess, comes at a cost. Repentance contains the acknowledgement that we have made wrong turnings, that our desires have been disordered; turned toward revenge, envy, violent emotion. And yet, it is in that confession that we find our conversion, that we find God waiting with the burning desire not to punish but to turn us around and embrace us; to walk us into the kingdom of heaven.
Moses was going about his father-in-law’s business, minding his own. He was keeping a low profile; he was on the run for a murder he had committed back in Egypt. He saw a strange sight. “I must turn aside,” he said. I must turn aside. He found himself suddenly on holy ground, in the face of God, and he was given God’s name, and the command to turn around, and set God’s people free.
We repent not because we are afraid of punishment. We turn aside, we turn towards a God who is waiting for us, burning with desire to make the name of God known to us, to show us his face in the person of Jesus; who is dying to call us by name.
That is why we make our discipline of self-examination in Lent. To discover that spark, and if it has gone cold, or become smothered by sin, to turn, to turn aside, to turn back towards a God whose fire does not consume but which inflames us with passion for God, for the people of God, for freedom, and the promised land.