Sunday, March 3, 2013

Repent or perish! Or is it crash and burn?

Texts: 1 Corinthians 10 1-13 (tested by God); Luke 13 1-9 (Repent or perish)

When "bad things" happen to people we judge to be evil, do these events reflect God's judgement? If so, why do bad things also happen to good people? These are two questions that leapt out for me from today's readings from Paul and Luke.

Paul writes about God's wrath towards the Hebrew slaves during their 40-year-long Exodus from Egypt in the desert. Despite having been led out of Egypt by Moses, the former slaves often behave in ways that anger God. In response, the Bible says that God kills thousands of them.

Jesus, however, seems to see things differently. When he discusses the execution of Galileans who have come to worship in Jerusalem and the death of others who were crushed by a falling tower, he states that these deaths did not result from the sins of the victims. Jesus does not believe that God uses the Roman state or a falling tower to strike people down for their sins.

Jesus' viewpoint seems more modern to me than Paul's. Today, we assume that all events have natural causes. We don't believe that God is either saving us or punishing us in life's ups and downs. Or do we?

As most of you know, my own "bad thing" happened last Sunday.  While driving from Coronach to Fife Lake, I lost control of my car on a snow-covered section of Highway 18, slid into a field, and rolled the car twice before landing on my wheels. I was shaken up by this crash and I felt sad that my car was destroyed.  But I was also relieved and surprised that I emerged almost completely unscathed. Other than a short-lived bump on my head and a sore wrist, I was fine physically. For the first few mornings afterwards, I awoke expecting stiff muscles or a headache, but they never materialized.

Several people told me that they thought it was not just luck or the design of the car that had spared me any physical repercussions from this crash. They believed that God had protected me. But while I appreciate the sentiment, I disagree with the theology contained in this idea.

To say that God intervenes in a moment like my accident to change natural consequences that would otherwise have left me injured or killed does not describe the God whom I seek to know. For one, if God worked this way, could he not have intervened earlier and prevented the snow from blowing onto the road in the first place? Or could he not have allowed me to regain control of the car before I slid into the field? Further, why would God have not intervened in millions of other such incidents where people were injured or killed? Why would he save me and not them? Personally, I cannot accept such notions.

Or if we view my car crash in the light of St. Paul's words about the Hebrew people during the Exodus, one might wonder if it was God's judgement against my driving ability. Or, perhaps God just didn't like last week's sermon and used the accident to prevent me from preaching it a second and third time! Perhaps. But I also find such notions of God incredible and untenable.

We live in fragile and mortal bodies that are prone to pain and injury. We try to trust life despite the fact that violence can disrupt our day-to-day routine at any moment.

My accident shocked me with its swift violence, but it is hardly unusual. How many millions of people alive today have survived serious car crashes? How many millions of us mourn the injury or loss of loved ones because of such crashes?

Untold numbers of other people have had their faith tested by an earthquake, a hurricane or a tornado. This week, the news media told us of a Florida man killed in his sleep when a huge sinkhole opened up beneath his bedroom. How can we find a trusting faith when such arbitrary violence can disrupt our lives at any moment?

Unfortunately, this is the human condition. We search for faith in lives that are punctuated by disease, natural disasters, or war.

This past autumn, I saw a documentary on CBC TV about Yellowstone Park in Montana. Scientists have ascertained that the park rests on a dormant super-volcano that erupts every 400,000 years or so. When it does erupt, the force is so great that it destroys a vast area and changes the world's climate for hundreds of years afterwards.

One expert said that we should all have emergency plans in place before the next eruption, which is now overdue. In Borderlands, we don't need to worry since we would all be killed within the first hour no matter what preparations we made. But he urged people further afield in Chicago, Toronto or Vancouver to be prepared to live in their basements for months afterwards as the ash settled and the climate started to stabilize.

Really? My thought was quite opposite to his. My emergency preparedness plan is quite simple. It consists of being ready and willing to die at any moment! I know that this attitude is probably easier for me to adopt than a person with young children. But it is still the truth that death is coming for us eventually. Also, the path of Christ is one towards death and the new life that lies beyond it.

Jesus consciously turns towards death when he takes the road to Jerusalem and the cross, and he calls us to follow him. Answering this call does not mean we must be foolhardy. From now on, I will take winter road conditions more seriously than I did before my accident. I will still keep a winter emergency kit in my trunk. And I will still say my prayers, despite not believing that God either intervenes to punish or save me when any particular incident is unfolding.

One might  wonder, though, why we should pray if God does not punish us if we fail to repent or save us if we do. My answer is this: I pray to remind myself of what I most value: family, friends, and neighbours; life itself; and above all, the spiritual virtues of faith, hope, and love.

When I pray for someone who is sick, it is not in the hope that this will change the natural course of the disease. I pray to remind myself of my love for that person and to reassure myself that the sick person, like all of us, is enfolded in God's mercy; that God is with them no matter how the illness proceeds; and that they are safe regardless of the outcome.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says that unless we repent, we will perish. What might this mean, I wonder? Does repentance mean changing behaviour; asking for forgiveness; feeling bad? As for "perish," does it simply mean to die? But what would be the point in warning us about that? All individuals die.

For me, repentance means turning away from distractions and addictions and towards the light of reality – symbolized for Christians by the cross – despite its sometimes fearful nature. Repentance becomes possible when we accept God's help to face our fears and so rise to new life. Sometimes when we do so, we can trust in life and love despite disease, natural disasters, and death.

This is one reason why I appreciate the discipline of Lent. While I am sure that those who don't consciously turn towards the cross are still accepted by God's Love, I appreciate Jesus' explicit call to repent. Hearing his call each year helps me to find and trust Christ's companionship sooner rather than later.

In the light of the cross, our attempts to cling to life are shown to be vain. In the light of the cross, our pride in family, church, or nation dissolve into nothingness. In the light of the cross, our addictions to alcohol, TV or money are revealed as empty and meaningless. In the light of cross, we are freed to turn from our fears and addictions and rise to new life within the Spirit and Love of God.

In a few moments we will celebrate the sacrament of holy communion. It is a ritual in which we remember the ministry, death, and resurrection of the Christ. It is a ritual that makes plain that God lives in us and that we live in God. And it is a ritual that assures us that we are enfolded in God's mercy and love no matter what troubles beset us or how long or short a lifespan we have.

All are welcome at the Lord's table; sinners and saints alike. To partake of the bread of life and the cup of blessing, we don't have to believe anything; do anything; or achieve anything. We just have to be ourselves -- beloved children of God. Even if we have not repented, God will not strike us down or turn us away.

The message of God's Grace as remembered at the Lord's Table is the one we receive from the Bible as a whole, from the stories of Jesus as a whole, and from the best of our troubled and wonderful Christian tradition.

Repent or perish? God's love shines so brightly and with such beauty that, despite the violence of this world and the fragility of life, I am confident that everyone eventually turns towards His love.

All will turn. None will perish.

Thanks be to God.


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