Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 3, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Exodus 3:1-151 Corinthians 10:1-13
Psalm 63:1-8Luke 13:1-9

Repent or perish

Here on the Third Sunday in Lent we have reached the center of this season of penitence and self-examination, and it is fitting that today’s Gospel passage conveys Jesus’ urgent call to repentance.  We hear the message twice, in fact: “Unless you repent, you will all perish” (Luke 13:3,5).  Let’s pause for a moment to consider the word ‘repent’ and what images it conjures up.  Mention the word ‘repent,’ and most of us flash instantly to an image of an angry, Bible-thumping preacher – no doubt a man – who stands in a pulpit or at a street corner, angrily accosting his listeners with threats of judgment and doom.  Most of us probably associate the word ‘repent’ with folks who claim with self-righteous self-assurance that they, and they alone, speak for God when they condemn whole groups of people outright, and when they threaten other people with hell-fire and damnation.  The cry “Repent!” has often been used – and is often still used – as a cudgel to bully people into submission and to force upon them a particular worldview and set of values.

So when we hear Jesus say, “Unless you repent, you will perish,” many of us probably wince and pull back.  We don’t want to be party to a religious faith that seems to promote self-righteousness, on the one hand, or abject fear, on the other.  We don’t want to be like that imagined street preacher who has an angry, judging mind that is perpetually finding fault with other people and insisting that they repent and shape up.  And we certainly don’t want to be his listeners, either, the people who cower before his words and who shiver with the anxious, glance-over-the-shoulder uneasiness that maybe there really is something basically wrong with us, that maybe we are not good enough, and will never be good enough, to please an angry God. 

It is ironic that Jesus’ call to repentance is so often proclaimed and heard within that tight little framework, for his call to repentance means something else entirely.  As Marcus Borg explains in his book, The Heart of Christianity, and as Cynthia Bourgeault argues in her own fine book, The Wisdom Jesus, repentance does not meaning closing in on yourself and being gripped by introspective guilt.  Repentance doesn’t just mean “feeling really sorry for what you have done or left undone, [or] feeling really bad about the horrible person that you are.”1 The Greek word that we translate as “repentance” is metanoia.  Meta means “beyond” or “large,” and noia means “mind.”  The repentance – the metanoia – that Jesus is talking about means to go “beyond the mind” or to go “into the larger mind.”2  In other words, Jesus’ call to repentance is a call to a change in consciousness – a call to step out of the small frame of reference in which my ego dominates my perception of things and my ego determines what’s valuable and what’s not, what’s good and what’s not, depending on whether I like it or not, on whether it promotes my survival and security or not.  The small self, the ego-based self, is all about me: What about me?  What’s in it for me?  Repentance, metanoia, is when we move out of that small operating system and into the larger mind of Christ, when our consciousness expands and we experience our larger Self in Christ, the consciousness that views ourselves and everyone else with compassion, the consciousness that does not divide this from that, but that views things everything whole.

Take a look at today’s Gospel passage and you’ll see what I mean.  The background to the passage is this: it was assumed in ancient times, just as it’s often assumed today, that sin and suffering are directly correlated.  If something bad happens to you and you suffer, that must be because you did something wrong and God is punishing you.  If Pilate massacred some Galileans, the Galileans must have had it coming – right?  If the tower of Siloam fell down and killed eighteen people, they must have deserved it – right?  No, Jesus says in reply, people who suffer because of human violence, because of accident, natural disaster, or any other cause, are no more sinful than anyone else.  A similar question arises in the Gospel of John, when Jesus’ disciples notice a man blind from birth, and they ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:2-3).  And then Jesus heals the eyes of the blind man and opens the eyes of the people who were judging him.

The ego-based operating system wants so much to be able to say: good things happen to good people, and bad things to bad people.  If other people are suffering, it’s their own damn fault.  If I’m financially secure and comfortable and in good health, then I’m safe and God loves me; if I’m poor or ill or blind or going through a really hard time, then it’s my fault, or someone’s fault, and God is punishing me.    

I remember a moment years ago when I was sick and about to faint, and just before I lost consciousness, I heard myself say to myself, “Hey, this can’t be happening! I’m a nice person!”  I laughed about it later, after I came to: obviously at some deep level of my psyche, I believed that if I were a really nice person, nothing bad would ever happen to me.  My ego likes to be in control – that’s what egos do – and it must have assumed that the way to stay safe and to survive was to be a good person and be nice.  The ego is all about promoting and protecting itself, and it likes to think that it’s in charge.  But – surprise!  That is not the way the world works.  That is not reality.  Life is actually precarious.  In real life, accidents occur, tragedies take place, innocent people suffer, and things don’t go the way the ego planned.  As my stepdaughter Chris posted yesterday on her Facebook page: “The universe must not have gotten the memo about my agenda.”

The good news about disappointment, loss, and failure is that it can shake us loose from the domination of the ego and can lead us to trust in God alone.  Sometimes only great love or great suffering has the power to break open the doors of perception so that, in the words of William Blake, “everything appears… as it is, Infinite.” For, as the poet goes on to say, “man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”3 

Into that closed-up world in which we see through “narrow chinks,” a world in which each of us tends to be out for ourselves, anxiously looking out for Number One, quick to make ourselves the center of the universe and to blame ourselves or someone else if we feel threatened or if things don’t go our way, Jesus comes to say “Repent or perish.  Step into a larger consciousness, or else stay stuck in a small, fearful, and death-obsessed world.  Repent and discover that the Kingdom of Heaven is within you.  That is what I’ve come to share with you,” he says.  “Let’s step into that larger mind, where we let go of fear and blame, of self-seeking and self-concern, and discover that everyone and everything, without exception, is sustained moment to moment by the ongoing love of God.” 

Here at the center of Lent, I encourage you, and I encourage myself, to step more deeply into our own metanoia, to repent and day by day to put on the mind of Christ.  As Paul writes in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).  How do we encourage that metanoia, that change of consciousness?   I’ll make just two suggestions. 

First, we can take time for solitude and silence.  We live in a noisy world, a world of bustle, frenzy, and haste.  Only if we become like Moses, only if we spend regular time alone and in silence, will we come to see the bush that is aflame with God – come to see that in fact every bush is filled with God’s presence and lit up with God’s radiance.  A quiet mind is a spacious mind, a mind that begins to perceive what we might call the hidden vastness or hidden depths of things.  The change of consciousness that Moses experienced on the mountain, that opening of the doors of perception, is available to everyone who takes time to pray in silence and who learns some practices for quieting the mind.  I encourage everyone to come to the Monday night contemplative prayer group, not just in Lent, as we prepare for the Paschal mystery, but also through Eastertide and beyond, as we explore together how silence can open us to the vast, living mystery of God.

Second, we can find a way today, and every day, to do something kind.  Why do something kind?  Because when the doors of perception are cleansed, we see that everything is connected.  When Moses sees the burning bush, when he sees the divine Presence shining out toward him, when he hears the divine Presence addressing him intimately by name, he discovers that he is called to become, not only a mystic, but also a prophet, a healer, a liberator.  The message he receives from God isn’t meant just for him alone, but for his beloved community – indeed, for all creation.  Moses discovers – and we discover the same thing, too – that being close to God is not just a solitary, ecstatic experience, but also an experience that brings to awareness the suffering of other people and of the earth itself, and that calls us to engage in the liberation struggles of the world. 

So – is there someone you know who is hurting or lonely?  Is there someone you know who could use a kind word, an invitation to coffee, or a friendly phone call?  Do something kind every day – volunteer at Craig’s Doors or spend time with a child – and look and see if that self-centered grip of the ego doesn’t begin to let go just a bit.  Like that barren fig tree in today’s parable, there are people right now who feel bereft and empty, people who need the tending of a loving gardener.  Maybe you are just the person to offer strength and support until the other person is able to bear fruit.  

Repent – step into that big mind that is ours in Jesus Christ – and we will not perish, but right here, right now, we will have eternal life.

1. Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 180.

2. Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus (Boston & London: Shambhala, 2008), p. 37.

3. William Blake, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, Plate 14.