When I preach, I preach without a manuscript so that I can connect with people. What does that mean? It means I write out the whole sermon and then I try to absorb and ingest it and then I leave it behind when I preach. I have chosen to do it that way so I can look people in the eyes and have it feel more like a conversation because I can see how they react and respond. The downside to preaching that way is that sometimes I have written something into the sermon that I end up forgetting to say in the moment!
Yesterday I preached from Luke 3:1-22 and I raised the question of whether John the Baptist really knew Jesus since the Jesus he portrayed in Luke 3 was not exactly the Jesus of the gospels we have come to know. John describes Jesus as a kind of Harry Potter sorting hat who is going to sort people into good and bad, worthy and unworthy. John’s language and imagery is way more scary than J.K. Rowling’s, though. It’s one thing to end up in Slytherin, it’s quite another to be thrown into the unquenchable fire. As I often do, I questioned the theology in the text and I even made a statement that I knew would raise some eyebrows about how God is less concerned about our individual salvation than about our collective salvation. Okay, maybe I also questioned the notion of salvation and what we have been taught about it versus what it can be when we approach it from a community standpoint. It’s also possible I undid a few threads related to original sin and suggested original goodness might be a better way for us to form identity.
But the one thing I forgot to say anything about was repentance! John the Baptist preached about repentance for the forgiveness of sin. It’s true I don’t love the theological words that imply we are anything less than Beloved. It’s also true I don’t love the theological words that are hard to access for people outside of the church. Honestly? The word repentance is just loaded. I believe part of my job as a preacher and pastor is to reframe some of the words that have been used as bully words. Repentance is one of those words. When someone else suggests you should repent, they are telling you in some way that you are not enough, that you are missing the mark, that you are not okay, that you should feel a particular way (regret, remorse, contrition). The word repentance is deeply connected to individual salvation in that repentance (asking for forgiveness and expressing sorrow or guilt) is necessary in order to be saved. If you believe in original sin, the idea that sin is in our very being, then the idea of repentance makes sense as you become conscious of and able to identify all of the ways that sin might manifest itself.
What if you don’t subscribe to original sin, but instead believe original goodness, the idea that we were each created in the image of God and that we each have that of God in us? What if you believe you are fundamentally good and that everyday is an invitation to live into God’s image in you? What part, then, would repentance play if any? I like the image of repentance as a turning away from and a turning toward (the greek concept of metanoia). When I think of what I might want to turn away from and turn toward, I think of turning away from overwhelm and anxiety and toward mindfulness and priorities. I think of turning away from fear and toward honesty and integrity. I think of turning away from shame and toward loving acceptance. I think of turning away from hopelessness or apathy and toward hope and community action. In other words, I understand how important it is to change the way we think, the way we move in the world, the way we behave sometimes. Whether or not we are able to turn ourselves around has a real impact on the communities in which we live – our families, our churches, our cities, our chosen families. I still don’t love the word repentance and I rarely use it. In the right context, though, with reclaiming some images, I like to think my intention is to live it. How about you? What do you want to do turn from and then turn toward? How would you like to change your direction in order to live into God’s image in you?