March 20, 2022

Repenting the news

Passage: Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-5

Hey, Jesus, did you hear about those guys Pilate killed and had their blood mixed with their sacrifices? What did you think about that? 

That, more or less, is how our Gospel lesson begins. Some unnamed people have brought up what is apparently a current news story—and a pretty awful one at that. Pilate is apparently up to his regular tricks of killing Jews and insulting the Jewish religion.  

I don’t know what response these inquirers expected. Did they want Jesus to condemn Pilate? Did they want Jesus to condemn the victims and say they got what they deserved? Did they expect Jesus to lecture on the evil system of the Romans, or the superiority of Judaism? Whatever they expected, Jesus apparently is not obliging. Instead, he points out that the victims were not worse sinners than  anyone else, but that if his listeners don’t repent, they too will perish “just as they did.” 

And Jesus goes on, bringing up another news story, apparently, this time about what must be an engineering disaster involving a collapsed tower that killed eighteen. And again Jesus points out that these victims were not worse sinners than any others, but that if his listeners (if we?) don’t repent, we too will perish just as they did.  

In some Bibles, the story of these five verses is entitled “Repent or Perish.” I have to admit, I shuddered when I realized that was my lectionary reading to work with! 

But what if we read the news like this today, through the lens of “repent or perish”? I was surprised what I came up with. 

Hey, did you hear about the shooting at the hookah lounge across from the Burger Baron? Six people were shot! What would Jesus say? Do you think those six people were worse sinners than you are? No, but I tell you, if you don’t repent, you too will perish just as they did. 

But, I think we can dig deeper than that, because to be honest I’m not entirely clear what Jesus is telling his listeners to repent of. I think I know what “to repent” means. It surely does imply a sense of being sorry, but it is more than that. Because it is a resolution to change as well. I think we can all understand that distinction. Jesus is calling his listeners to not only regret, but to resolve to change. 

So I want to invite you to join me on a trip through some recent headlines while thinking about the theme of “repent or perish,” and ask ourselves what might it mean for us to repent, to resolve to change, in response. In other words, what do these news stories tell us as individuals, as a church, as a community, as a country, as a world that we need to repent of?  

So, what about this one: 

Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston breached code of conduct with inappropriate behaviour towards two women 

- Australian Broadcasting Corporation 

Do you think these two women were worse sinners than we are? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you too will perish.  

My usual reaction to these types of stories is to shake my head and roll my eyes in judgement… another powerful, self-righteous man abusing his power to mistreat women. But, reading this with a thought to what I, to what we, might need to repent of, I think about the systems of patriarchy that have tolerated this type of behaviour for generations. In fact, I would say my own experience growing up as a teenager was that inappropriate behaviour towards women was not only tolerated, but to an extent even encouraged. I don’t think I am exaggerating that there was a sense that to be a man meant treating women in inappropriate ways. Perhaps many of you who identify as men have had the same experience. But all of us, regardless of our gender identification, are mostly like participants in perpetuating patriarchy. We need to repent. And while we could argue that the two women in this case have not perished, and nor has the pastor—in fact in a way all three have, I imagine, experienced perishing in a psychological or emotional way. And I can remind you that there are well over 1,000 missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls in this country—the vast majority of which have literally perished as a result of patriarchal systems we have collectively refused to repent of. When a system like this exists in our society, I suggest we all, in a way, perish spiritually, if nothing else. 


Here is another one: 

‘Nowhere on earth are people more at risk than Tigray,’ says WHO chief 

… even with war in Ukraine, the world must not forget the crisis unfolding ‘out of sight’ in Ethiopia’s northern region -  The Guardian 

Do you think the victims of the Tigray crisis are worse sinners than we are? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you too will perish.  

This is a tragic story, and I think many of you in this church are aware of what is going on and has been going on for some time. By some accounts half a million people have died from the violence in Ethiopia. And there can be no doubt that here in Canada this conflict and its tragic results are in no way getting the attention or humanitarian concern that the conflict in Ukraine is getting. For me, reading this from the perspective of a need to repent, I can only suggest that racism is to a large extent what is going on here. Somehow refugees and a humanitarian crisis in eastern Africa seem to matter to us less than refugees and a humanitarian crisis in Eastern Europe. Do black lives not matter? The Western, white world’s lack of repentance of racism risks at minimum, allowing black people in the horn of Africa to perish. And when we as a world largely stand by and ignore a crisis like this, and refuse to repent of racism, I would suggest that all of us, at least spiritually, also perish. 

I have another one here. 169 potential unmarked graves found at St. Bernard’s Indian Residential School in northern Alberta 

-  Global News 

Do you think these 169 children were worse sinners than we are? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you too will perish.  

Many of you can probably predict where I will be going with this one, because I have gone here before. Broken treaties, ongoing colonialism, dispossession of Indigenous peoples—friends, settler siblings, Presbyterians, Canadians—repent! Indigenous children literally perished in the residential schools we set up. And Indigenous children continue to perish in the child welfare systems that continue to separate Indigenous children from their families and communities and land. Tragically, in Alberta in a six month period in 2021, 41 Indigenous children in care died or were seriously injured. And even for those who might survive until they are 18, too often they leave the system alone, disconnected from their families and communities, struggling to understand their identity and where they belong. Indigenous children have perished and are perishing because Canada will not repent of its colonial ways. And when we refuse to repent, we, also, perish, spiritually, if nothing else. 

Last one: Canada's opioid crisis: How families of overdose victims are coping - CTV News 

Do you think these victims of opioids are worse sinners than we are? No, I tell you, but if we do not repent, we too will perish.  

What do you need to repent of in the face of the opioid crisis? The opioid crisis has consequences outside our very doors, and perhaps within our very doors—do we ever think what greed or complacency we need to repent of, such that the systems that allow this situation to continue are changed? Do we think that perhaps we need to repent of how we have voted, or how we get involved politically? Do we need to repent of our complaints about taxes being too high, or social welfare systems too generous? Do we think that perhaps we need to repent of our tendency to blame the victim, and say “well, they made bad choices” or, our arrogance that leads us to puff ourselves up because we would never be in that situation? Do we recognize that our failure to repent as a community results in the literal perishing of our relatives? Our relatives are perishing literally—my wife and I see this in our own back alley, and it is happening in the streets all around this building. And, friends, by not repenting of this sin, we are perishing spiritually, too. 

Repent, or perish. 

I could go on, of course. Headlines about climate change, war in Ukraine, and COVID-19 could all give us more opportunities to reflect on our need for repentance. The world is an ugly place and most of the time it is ugly because we as individuals, a church, a community, a country, a world all have ugliness inside of us, and we need to repent and change our ways. 

And while Jesus’s message in the verses in Luke are very dramatic and harsh, we also have in our lectionary this morning Isaiah’s message of hope. Interesting, isn’t it, because we often associate “fire and brimstone” with the Hebrew Bible prophets, and the messages of love with Jesus. But in this case it's a bit turned around and it is Isaiah emphasizing that God is calling out in love: “let them return to the Lord, that God may have mercy on them, and to our God, for God will abundantly pardon.” Abundantly pardon. Friends, repent, and be pardoned! Repent, and experience the love of a God whose ways and thoughts are far beyond ours. No matter how ugly the ugliness inside of ourselves, God is there, God is always there, loving us and offering us abundant pardon. And I think it is only in accepting that love and abundance that our repentance can in fact lead to the meaningful change our world so desperately needs. 

In Harry’s sermon from several years ago based on this passage in Isaiah, Harry emphasizes how Isaiah uses the imagery of an abundant and welcoming meal: 

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live. 

Friends, this is what God is offering us today, and this is what we can aspire to create here and now. A world, a country, a community, a church, in which all who are thirsty and poor can come and be welcome and safe and have abundant life. And that is us. We are the thirsty and the poor, the ones who need to repent. God is waiting to give us free wine. Page Break 

I was thinking about this this morning… I used to work at McDonald’s when I was in university, and some of you might remember McDonald’s occasionally gave out free coffee. And I was thinking that that was pretty much the closest I can think of to someone giving something away for free where it really did seem like all were welcome without question. We gave everyone free coffee, no matter who you were. We didn’t give larger coffees to the men or to the rich or to the white people. We didn’t take away the coffee if we found out someone was Indigenous. We didn’t give smaller coffees to the black people, or tell those who were using opioids that they had to get clean before they could have a coffee.  And we didn’t even tell the self-righteous Christians that they weren’t wanted here. We didn’t ask you how many gods you believed in or if you went to Sunday School when you were a kid or how often you went to church. We gave coffee to everyone, any size, and you could have as many sugars and creams as you wanted in it. We’d even give you free refills.  

Maybe that silly example is a tiny glimpse of what God is offering us, only now it’s free wine! Imagine that. and free milk for the kiddos, and rich food, and abundant life. Friends, let us repent and accept that offer, and may we learn each day how to share that love with all the others in this world who are also thirsty and poor, and needing abundant life.  

Let us pray: 

God, although we do not always want to hear words like “repent or perish,” we acknowledge that we need to hear them. We acknowledge the role we individually and collectively play in perpetuating systems of patriarchy, racism, colonialism, capitalism, and so on that create so much pain and brokenness and cause people to perish, literally and metaphorically. Give us the humility and courage to repent. Help up us not just resolve to change, but in fact enact change both in ourselves and in the world around us. Thank you for the metaphor of a free, welcoming meal where all who are thirsty and poor can come and free wine and rich food and abundance. May we all experience that abundance, and in experiencing it ourselves share that abundance with others.  Amen.