Rector's Blog: When We Repent
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Last week I wrote that throughout the Epiphany Season, I planned to interview parishioners about their vocation for my blog. Then Wednesday, January 6th happened. We watched a violent act of insurrection threaten our republic and endanger the lives of our legislators. This seditious riot was perpetrated on the provably false assertion that the recent election was stolen from the current President. Five people died, including a police officer who was beaten and bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher by rioters. The President’s culpability for this incident has been acknowledged by leaders across the political spectrum and partisan divide who witnessed him publicly goad and encourage his supporters to take extreme actions that day. The group that overran the Capitol building was composed of American citizens who subscribe to White supremacist views and conspiracy theories. Many of them were Christian, and among the anti-Semitic t-shirts, Q-Anon placards, and Confederate battle flags on display were crosses and Christian signs.
As Christians, we need to talk about this. We need to take time and space and energy to process what has happened and is happening in our country. Our belief in Jesus does not opt us out of dealing with the most frightening parts of our humanity. And when Christians shy away from talking about these things in the context of church, we are effectively saying that Jesus does not belong in the conversation. For the Christian, there is no conversation in which Jesus does not belong. Our efforts to understand this world are meant to be guided by our faith, and our faith is lived out in Christian community. We belong to each other and should act like it. So, I would like us to use this space primarily as a way to see our current context through the lens of Christ’s presence in the world here and now.
To that end, the season of Epiphany is surprisingly helpful. The idea behind Epiphany is fairly simple: During this season we focus on who Jesus is, and why his birth, death, and resurrection matter to us. We use this time to more fully understand his character and identity. During Epiphany, we focus on what his life meant and means to us.
And the Sunday readings this year are particularly significant to our time and place: Each Sunday we will hear a story about where in real life Jesus shows up. And we’re Christians: We should have a sense of when and where Jesus shows up in our real lives. We believe in a God who is faithful to us, and that means we believe Love shows up all around us. Developing the eyes to see that Love is a major part of the church’s work. So, let’s look at the reading from Mark’s Gospel this past Sunday:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
John’s baptism is a baptism for repentance, a chance for Israelites to acknowledge the places they’ve fallen short both personally and corporately. And Jesus shows up. He sees the people repenting, and he joins them: He gets baptized too. This week we see that Jesus shows up in our repentance and blesses it, shares in it.
This matters for us because we need to repent.
Like the citizens of ancient Israel, we Christians in America know in our hearts that we are not blameless when it comes to our unhappy divisions. And I’m not just saying that we’ve been mean to each other – though we have. We need to repent because we have allowed the church to be divided on issues like slavery and segregation, voting rights, and the basic human dignity of women, LGBTQ+ persons, and people of color. We have allowed ourselves to shy away from talking about the disastrously evil ideology of White supremacy and its deadly hold on our country. We have held back from having serious conversations about gross inequality in living standards and medical care, about sexual ethics and abortion. We have not sought unity or mutual understanding on things that affect our daily lives. We have not, as St. Paul encouraged us, strived side by side with one mind for the faith in the Gospel.
And now we stand in the aftermath of the historic effort to violently undermine a presidential election. As Christians, we cannot look away, and we must not minimize or equivocate what we’ve seen. We know this is not a just a moment, but a movement with force and momentum, not an isolated incident, but a culminating event, carrying with it centuries of baggage and bad theology: Yes, bad theology, because it’s a meager and malformed misunderstanding of God that allows us to marginalize and disenfranchise people in Jesus’ name, that ignores the cries of the suffering, and fails to see God’s presence and blessing among society’s “least of these.” And it is faulty faith that pretends these are mere differences of opinion, that God does not care whether or not we are of one mind as followers of Christ.
So, we repent. Which does not mean we feel bad, self-flagellate, or wallow in shame or self-deprecation. Repentance isn’t a feeling – it's an action. John the Baptist’s admonition to “Repent!” does not mean, “Hate yourself!” It means, “Actively reject evil and turn towards God!” It means we ask the question – both individually and as a church, “Where have I failed to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself?” And since Jesus shows up in this space, we follow with the question, “How is God helping me to change this reality right now?” This repentance dismantles our behaviors of personal and systemic dehumanization, and brings us face to face with the presence of Christ as it dwells in the hearts and lives of our siblings.
We stand at a crossroads in our shared life as Christians in America. To follow Jesus is to choose the path of grace and accountability, serving and caring for one another as Jesus did for us. As Jesus does for us even now. Because remember, when the people repent, Jesus shows up, not to shame, but to share in our repentance, to adopt us as beloved children and heirs of God, and to lead us through the wilderness of division and hatred into an eternal life of beloved community.
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