Traveling lightly

From the Rev. Joe Hensley, rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 9 Year B,  July 5, 2015.

Repent: Creative Common Photo by David Holmes
Creative Commons Photo by David Holmes

Hear again these words from the Gospel according to Mark: “Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey…So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.”

With no bread, bag, or money, without extra clothes, with just a staff in their hand and some sandals on their feet, the twelve disciples went out and proclaimed that all should repent. Repent! That word carries with it quite a lot of baggage, doesn’t it? Repent. It conjures up images of hellfire preachers like John the Baptist shouting in the wilderness: repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent or perish! Jesus sends his disciples out to preach repentance, but I do not think he means for them or us to preach condemnation. As Jesus sends his disciples out empty-handed, I wonder if he also means for us to travel lightly, without so many assumptions about who is right and who is wrong. Perhaps our mission is to preach repentance in a different way, inviting each other to return to God and experience a change of heart.

That word, repent, in the Scriptures has a couple of meanings. One meaning is about turning around, turning from sin and re-turning to God. Another meaning is about changing one’s attitude, a change of mind and heart. So often, though, we do not think of repentance in either of these ways. We think of repentance in terms of apologizing for bad behavior. When I was in college at UNC Chapel Hill, there was a fire-breathing preacher who used to yell at us from the center of campus: “Repent!” and what he meant was, “Tell God you are sorry! Stop doing bad things like the other bad people. Come be like me!” Repentance has carried with it the connotation of self-righteous people talking down to the lowly sinners.

When Jesus sends out six pairs of disciples, empowering them to heal the sick and to cast out demons, does he want the message just to be, “Tell God you’re sorry!”? I think Jesus is interested in much deeper good news, good news that restores us to wholeness and holiness. Jesus is interested in our total transformation, a repentance that breaks open our hearts and expands our minds. Jesus is interested in our complete reunion with God, not simply in our saying “sorry.”

Confession and absolution of sin is a sacramental part of our tradition. It can be a sign of grace, part of the process of true repentance and forgiveness. One of the main problems of Christian religion, I think, is that we often get stuck in the weeds of whether we did something wrong and how to apologize for it. Repentance means arguing about what scripture says and who broke what rules. We point fingers, cast blame, and insist on apologies and penances. Penance can be helpful but only when it points toward healing. What the church has done, too often, is assign blame and punishment and then shake its head when people do not respond and then wander away. “When they’re ready to do it our way, then we will welcome them.”

Jesus sends his disciples out not to bully people into submission, but to break bread with them. Not to insist on their conformity to holy codes, but to heal. He sends his disciples out empty-handed and vulnerable so that they will have to rely on the hospitality and welcome of others. The message I hear in this is that when we preach repentance, it is perhaps best done around the dinner table, with an empty hand and an open heart. It is best done in a spirit of mutual hospitality, giving and receiving a loving welcome.

The Episcopal Church over the centuries, has done its fair share of bullying. We are in a place now, though, I think, where we recognize that the good news of Christ really needs to be more about wholeness, healing, and love. The good news of Christ is about a true change of mind and heart, a transformation that is deep and profound.

This past week, The Episcopal Church, meeting at its General Convention in Salt Lake City, invited a change of mind and heart when it began a formal process of expanding the definition of marriage in the church. To be clear about what happened, our church changed one of its governing laws (canons) and provided options for services so that Christian marriage could be open to couples of any gender. Many of us are excited about this change. It emphasizes our witness to the value of covenantal love. It removes more barriers so that the couples we believe to be holy can more fully participate in our common faith. Others may be confused or upset. Many people honestly wonder how the church can go against some of the Bible’s teaching about human intimate relationships. At times like this, it is easy to get thick into the weeds, arguing again about who has done what wrong and who needs to repent and apologize. I considered making this sermon more of a Bible lesson, trying to explain how our church can justify its actions from a scriptural basis. I would like to have that discussion, but not from this pulpit. The good news we are called to preach is so much greater than one side or the other presenting its argument.  I wonder if, this time, we can try a different kind of conversation, a conversation about repentance that is truly about transformation and returning to God.

No matter if we celebrate or lament the decisions of the church on marriage, I wonder if we might follow the example of the disciples whom Jesus sends. What would it look like if instead of approaching each other with arguments and points to make if we approached each other empty handed and ready to receive hospitality? What if we left our “baggage” behind? What would it look like if our call for repentance was more of an invitation to wholeness than a demand for conformity? The disciples preach a simple message, that all should repent. We all need transformation. We all need to return to God. We all need a profound change of mind and heart. What if we put every conversation about faith into that context: the desire for God to make us whole again. In that light, maybe we can get farther in our conversations about scripture, about righteousness. Maybe we can live into the words of our Bishop, Shannon Johnston, who wrote this week in summary of General Convention: In and through Jesus, we are committed to one another, not to the idol of like-mindedness.  Whatever we face and wrestle over, we find that all we can celebrate together still trumps the dividing lines.

What we celebrate together is the repentance that is offered to us, the change of heart and mind, the ability to return to God. We are not stuck forever in our sin. We are not stuck forever in our hard-heartedness. With God there is always a way. Travel lightly on the way, brothers and sisters. Travel lightly, so that we will be ready to receive the gifts that God has for us, the gifts we have for one another. Go and share the good news…repentance is offered to us, and so is new and abundant life.

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