Sunday, March 07, 2010

Turning and Returning to God

The Return of the Prodigal, Rembrandt, c. 1662, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 7, 2010. The lectionary readings are Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, and Luke 13:1-9.

George Herbert entitled one of his poems, “Repentance.” It begins with a confession, it asks for God’s mercy and then at the end there is a wonderful kind of statement of faith.

[God] wilt sinne and grief destroy;
That so the broken bones may joy,
And tune together in a well-set song,
Full of his praises,
Who dead men raises.
Fractures well cur’d make us more strong.

That last phrase is the one I love the most, “Fractures well cured make us more strong.” We fail and fall. We break and sometimes break other people. But through repentance and forgiveness we are built up. We are made even stronger than before.

Repentance runs through the scriptures for today, just as it runs through the season of Lent.

In today’s Gospel there seems anxiety about a number of things, but in the face of each, Jesus calls for repentance.

There’s a report that Pilate has murdered some people from Galilee for offering sacrifices. People seem to have been wondering whether God was showing partiality by allowing the massacre to happen, while protecting others. Jesus says not to worry so much about trying to figure out why some suffer and others do not. We need to repent.

Another concern has to do with a tragedy in which people are killed—a tower falls and innocent people die. But again, Jesus says those who died were no worse or better than others. “Unless you repent,” Jesus says, “you will all likewise perish.”

The church often reminds us that the word “repent” comes loaded with meaning. When Jesus uses the word, it often has to do with turning around, with changing one’s mind. It’s like when the prodigal son “comes to himself” and changes his mind before he is able to change his behavior. In the Hebrew scriptures and the tradition inherited by Jesus, repentance includes even more. It has to do with turning and re-turning, and carries with it the idea of being sorry for something and the desire to put things right.

Repent, Jesus says. As with most of his teaching, Jesus urges us to stop judging other people, to stop trying to figure where we are in the pecking order of God’s favor, and to stop living for ourselves alone. We are asked to turn and to re-turn. Turn to God and follow in the way that Jesus leads.

In the first Lesson today Moses makes a turn, if not a U- turn. Remember that Moses had killed an Egyptian, he was seen as a bully by his own people and so he ran away. When God speaks to him in today’s reading, God is asking Moses not only to turn to God, but to return to his people, to the place where he was rejected, to the place where he had been enslaved. For Moses there is tremendous risk in repenting, in turning to face and follow God. Moses is afraid. He is confused. He feels unworthy of leading this people, especially in that the people he is to lead have already rejected him once before. But Moses is able to hear God’s word and to believe God’s promise.

Moses turns and it is from his returning that we trace our own salvation, “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” For Moses there will be times when he will be tempted to give up on his people. There will be times when the people of Israel will be tempted to give up on Moses and on God. But through the grace of God, they move ahead repentant, freed and forgiven.

We are called to repent. But repentance can take many different forms.

For some, repentance may involve a very first turning to God. Maybe you didn’t grow up going to church. Maybe you’ve never gotten around to being baptized or confirmed. It may be that you’ve never really been bothered by the question of God before, but recently, something has shifted. Perhaps you’re getting older. Perhaps there are children in your life now. Perhaps you’re dealing with mortality for the first time. It may be a good time to turn to God.

Repentance might mean re-turning to God. Perhaps you’ve been away for a while. It may be that the church threw you out, or that you felt thrown out. But you’re back. Welcome. You have been missed and it is a good time to re-turn to God.

Sometimes our turning to God means doing something like what Moses was called to do—to return to some of those difficult places of family, origin, and places where we began. Sometimes spiritual growth comes only after we have dealt with some of our own personal history: being honest, speaking the truth, and laying it all on the altar of God to be transformed, to be hallowed, to be turned into an offering and a blessing.

And finally, perhaps we are called to repent in the old fashioned way: to say we are sorry and to move in a new direction.

In one of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Father Greg Boyle, S.J. (a Jesuit priest) has been offering repentance in a very tangible way to former gang members. Father Greg’s organization, now called Homeboy Industries, has long had the slogun, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” And operating with that slogun, he’s done everything he can to help young men and women get what they need (education, skills, support) in order to find work. But early on, Father Greg noticed a big problem. Many of the former gang members had tattoos that clearly identified their gang associations. This put people off, kept them from getting jobs, and prevented the young man or woman from truly moving on, from turning in a new direction. And so, Homeboy now offers free tattoo removal, typically providing an average of some 250 free treatments a month. The program is called, “Ya’Stuvo,” the Spanish slang for, “that’s enough, I’m done with that.”

For most of us, the sin that clings to us is invisible to others, but when we look in the mirror, or when we pray, it might feel like a tattoo that has been burned into us and there’s no way for it to be fixed. But in confession (whether we confess in silence, or to a friend, or to priest, or in community), confession is our way of saying, “Ya’Stuvo.” – ‘I’ve had it. I’m done with it. I’m moving on.” And in forgiveness, the forgiveness that God assures us is ours for the asking, we get a kind of spiritual tattoo removal. We are made clean. We are washed. We are restored to our baptismal state. And we’re ready to move on.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of a fig tree that is not producing. It’s not changing, it’s not growing, it’s not doing much of anything. The owner suggests that it be cut down and thrown out. But then the gardener has another idea—why not wait a season, give it some time, nurture it, and see what happens. It may yet produce.

God waits for us. There is grace in God’s waiting. But when we turn to God, when we re-turn to God, there is rejoicing in heaven, for we were lost, and are found, we were dead, but are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Through God’s grace we learn and live into the truth of George Herbert’s words that “fractures well cured, make us more strong.”

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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