Discovering Repentance

Tuesday in Proper 10C – July 16, 2019 – Matthew 11:20-24 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

It seems Jesus’ ministry isn’t going so well. 

All the ground he’s trod, all the sermons he’s preached, all the miracles he’s performed, and folks in Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum still don’t get it. He is understandably frustrated, perhaps because he knows that his earthy ministry wanes with each passing day. 

Don’t you get frustrated when, despite your best efforts, things don’t go according to plan? My friends who are school teachers help me understand classroom woes from their perspective. 

How many times do I have to tell you not to touch that?!

How many times do I have to remind you to keep your hands to yourself?!

How many times do I have to say, “No talking in the hallway!”? 

How much worse must the Son of God feel when, after giving God’s people glimpses of the Kingdom firsthand, they turn away from God’s saving grace? 

We cannot imagine what it’s like to be Jesus, but we do know a thing or two about what it means to be human. It turns out, Jesus knows a little something about that, too. He knows that it includes getting angry. 

For this reason, passages like this one can be difficult to hear. It’s hard to make sense of an angry Jesus. We are taught that God is good, loving, and merciful. So, why is he condemning the people of these towns to hell? 

Perhaps we need to think on it some more. What is Jesus’ anger—or any anger, for that matter—really about? Deep down, why does the teacher get angry when the students don’t follow the rules? Is it frustration because they just don’t seem to listen? Sure, but why? 

I’d bet that a big part of it is sadness. Sadness that other human beings—especially cute, young, impressionable human beings—are capable of willfully doing wrong. 

To experience the Gospel, yet turn away from it unrepentant, is tragic. In today’s gospel Jesus mourns that. “Why must my father’s children put themselves in this position?!” If we could answer that question, I guess we’d finally stop doing it.

Alas, we still separate refugee families at the border. We still elect blatantly racist leaders. We still celebrate the founder of the Ku Klux Klan in the great state of Tennessee. 

Why do we persist in sin? Because we are children of Adam’s fallen race? Because we are weak-willed and can’t help it? Because it’s just plain more fun to be bad than good? 

I’m honestly not sure I have the answer. As a preacher, I’m humbled to find myself in this position quite frequently. This may be disconcerting to some of you, while others might find it comforting, a sign that we really are all in this together, that no one is perfect. 

At any rate, while the motivation for our sin is not always clear, what is clear from today’s lesson is that Jesus mourns the fact that we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our sins. Perhaps the better thing for us to focus on today is not why we sin, but what it looks like to hold ourselves accountable when we do sin. In other words, what does it look like to repent?

I’m not talking about self flagellation. I’m talking about amendment of life. Repentance is built into our liturgy, but the question is, is it built into our daily lives? It should be! We need to acknowledge where things are broken, admit our culpability, and take steps to fix them. That’s what God created us to do. 

So, what’ll it be? Apologizing to an old friend? Investigating sustainable living practices? Eating better? Divesting from companies that harm the general welfare? Thinking critically—instead of alphabetically—at the ballot box? 

Those are just a few examples. Only you and God know what’s next for you, but whatever it is, first you’re going to need some strength. So before you get started, come to the table, take, and eat. 

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