Saturday, March 10, 2012
Resist! Repent! Return!
RCL Lent 3B
11 March 2012
Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
In the fall of 1964 I entered grade six at Zebulon Pike Elementary School in Colorado Springs. There had been a surge in the student population of our neighbourhood so our class was lodged in a portable on the northeast side of the school. Our teacher was Mr Schiff and I remember him as one of the more important teachers in my education.
The fall of 1964 was election time in the United States. Just one year prior John F. Kennedy had been assassinated and Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson had become President unexpectedly. He had been chosen primarily to balance the Democratic ticket with a solid 'southern' Democrat with long experience in Congress. He was now running for President on his own merits and the Republicans had chosen Barry Goldwater of Arizona as their standard bearer.
Mr Schiff decided that we should study politics by staging our own presidential debates. Much to my relief I was chosen to represent the Democratic Party, the party my family had been members of as long as I could remember. You may remember that the United States was in the early stages of the Vietnam War and this became an election issue. President Johnson supported providing South Vietnam with military supplies and advisers rather than a commitment of U. S. troops. Senator Goldwater, on the other hand, supported using the full might of the U. S. military to defeat the North Vietnamese even the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
I gave a passionate speech, for an eleven-year-old, pointing out the lunacy of such an approach. I cannot remember my opponent's comments, but the class ended up solidly behind President Johnson. It was my first taste of debate and public speaking and it revealed one of my personal flaws --- a passion that sometimes overcomes my better nature. It is a flaw I continue to battle.
I tell you this story because it marks the beginning of an important relationship that has continued in various ways throughout my life. You see, Mr Schiff was Jewish. He was the first Jew I can remember coming to know in my life. He was quietly observant and his influence on my life continues to this day in ways that I cannot fully discern. My own commitment to an observant Christian life as an Anglican was evident even then and I think that this was an early dimension of my exploration of Jewish-Christian relations.
One of the frequent ways some Christians use to describe the difference between Judaism and Christianity is to characterize Judaism as a religion of law versus Christianity as a religion of grace. This view of Judaism as a religion concerned with external obedience to law has contributed to societal and cultural attitudes towards Jews that have led Christians to persecute Jews and to collaborate in atrocities throughout the centuries.
But in today's reading from Exodus we learn that God's covenant with the Jewish people is not about legalism. The covenant made with the people on Sinai is a covenant of grace-filled response to God's free act of liberation and love.
Exodus tells the story of the liberation of the Hebrew tribes from their slavery in Egypt and their journey towards becoming a people in covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is this God who sends the plagues that compel the Egyptians to let the Hebrews go free. It is this God who parts the waters of the Reed Sea so that the people may pass through safely. It is this God who sends manna and quail to feed the people and who brings forth water in the desert.
God takes the initiative and God acts, not in response to any Hebrew obedience to a set of laws, but because God chooses to do so. God has rescued the people from slavery and now chooses to enter into an eternal covenant with them. The Ten Commandments and all the laws that derive from them are a faithful response to God's grace. To follow the law is an act of gratitude for all that God has done and is doing for the Hebrew tribes.
Did you notice that there are no punishments for disobedience mentioned in the Ten Commandments? God does not say, "If you don't do this, our covenant is over." The Hebrew people as well as you and I are asked to choose obedience freely with no threats for our failure to comply. What God desires from us is not slavish obedience or rote recitation; God desire our love and love can only be given freely not under compulsion.
Neither Judaism nor Christianity hold to a faith based in legalism. We celebrate a faith in the God who enters into covenant with us and who then offers us the choice to follow a way of life that embodies that free covenant of love. Are there consequences for not following the covenant? Certainly there are. They are the consequences that come from choosing badly rather than choosing wisely. They are not God's punitive acts. God is sorrowed when we fail to live out our covenant promises. But God welcomes us back and rejoices when we return to our right minds, a choice that leads to fullness of life rather than its counterfeit.
The second commitment of the baptismal covenant is that you and I will persevere in resisting evil and, when we fall into sin, we will repent and return to the Lord. This commitment begs at least two questions:
What is evil?
What does it mean to repent?
What is evil?
Some years ago I was one of the featured speakers at the annual conference of the British Columbia-Yukon Anglican Youth Movement. I chose to talk about the baptismal covenant. When I reached this commitment, I asked the young people, "What is evil in your lives? In your schools? In your communities?" Immediately one of the youth leaders jumped up and said that we really should not be talking about such things with young people. Before I could respond, there was a chorus of young people who made it very clear that they wanted to talk about evil and that they were going to do so in a serious fashion. And so they did.
In our baptismal liturgy we begin with a three-fold renunciation of (i) Satan and all the spiritual forces that rebel against God, (ii) the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God and (iii) all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. With this renunciation we recognize two important dimensions about evil. The first dimension is that there are forces in the world that actively seek to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. These forces are real, whether we think them spiritual or physical, but they do seek to destroy not to build up. Whenever those who have power work to maintain their control even if it means poverty, loss of dignity and death to others, we are seeing evil at work. Whenever one person is used to further the self-interest of another, then we are seeing evil at work. It falls to us to name the evil and to use all our power to bring it to its knees.
The second dimension is this: Evil creates waves and currents that catch us all and can sweep us away. But the good news of God in Christ is that we are not leaves left in the thrall of powers over which we have no control. We are God's beloved, made in the image and likeness of God. We can choose to free ourselves from these sinful desires and show forth in our lives the love and graciousness of God.
What does it mean to repent?
We free ourselves from the grip of the currents of sin and evil that exist in the world by seeking God's perspective. This is what is meant by the verb, 'to repent', in Christian thought. The Greek word translated here is metanoia, a word which can be translated as 'change of perspective' or, as I like to put it, 'look at the world from God's perspective'.
To repent is to look at the world from God's perspective. And how do we do this? We do this by reading and reflecting on the Scriptures. We do this by participating in the worship life of our community. We do this by deepening our life of prayer. We do this by 'practicing what we preach'. By this I mean we sometimes do something in order to begin to feel something.
Let me give you an example. I find it very hard to take time off. I fall easily into the trap of always working, always doing something. The consequence is that I can become tired and ill and lose my ability to be patient. So what shall I do? I take my day off. I resist all unnecessary pressures to fill it with things to do. Perhaps this discipline will eventually teach me to relax and simply be.
Let me give you another example. I sometimes talk too much. If no one is going to say something, you can make a safe bet that I will eventually break the silence. So I will sometimes attend a meeting and put a 3" by 5" card in front of me which reads: "Listen! Wait until everyone has spoken. Then consider whether you have anything new to say." I do not always succeed, but I am trying!
Resisting evil and repenting is not about fearing God's wrath. It is about learning gratitude and realizing that no one in her or his right mind wants to be known as an ingrate. You and I have been the recipients of so many gifts from the God who loves us. To turn our faces away from such graciousness and to ignore our baptismal commitments is to deny who we truly are and to miss the opportunity to become more fully that person.
On Sinai God speaks ten words to Moses, words we know as the Ten Commandments, and invites the people to observe these words in order that they might become who God truly wants them to be. At the font God speaks words of love to us and invites us to observe five commitments in order that we might become who God truly wants us to be. It is not fear that draws us nor is it any spirit of legalism. It is gratitude for all that God has done, is doing and will do for us and for all God's children.
Come, let us walk in the way of the Lord and be grateful! Amen.