THAT kind of repentance

The Third Sunday of Advent

Good morning St. Paul’s, and a joyful Gaudete Sunday to you all! This is one of two Sundays when wearing pink is liturgically appropriate, and for that we say, “Hallelujah!” We rejoice because after two weeks of Advent, a few weeks of cold weather, and a season of apocalyptic visions, we know that Christ is nigh.

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!” Zephaniah says. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart!”

“Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things,” says Isaiah.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,” says Paul to the Philippians.

BUT…every party has a pooper, and John takes us from a five to a fifteen calling the crowds to repent, calling them with the tax collectors and the soldiers a “brood of vipers.”

“’Even now,’” John says, “‘the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ So,” the gospel concludes, “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

This begs the question: what state of mind would you have to be in to hear any of this as good news?

Perhaps the crowds are in desperation for some good news when they ask John, “What then should we do?”

…which just happens to be my go-to prayer: “What should I do?”

This is where John pivots a bit from what sounded a bit doom-and-gloomy for the last eight days before Christmas. When the crowds ask what they should do, John responds that they could start with sharing the staples of life with those who need them.

If you have two coats, and the person next to you has none, give your extra coat to that person. That makes sense. I’m guessing we all have more than two coats, and that if we were going to give one away, we’d go find one at Burlington Coat Factory, but we understand John’s logic.

He also says that if you have enough food to need Tupperware, give that container of extra food that you’re probably going to forget about for a month to someone who has none. That’ll be a good start.

It’s pretty simple folks—there are people all around who aren’t afforded some of the most basic things that we take for granted; so we should do what we can to make it right.

This all sounds well and good, but the tax collectors don’t exactly consider themselves part of the crowds; they are set apart and are in a specific position with a particular purpose, and they contribute to the betterment of society by collecting taxes to pay for, I dunno, aqueducts or something. So, they ask John, “What then should we do?”

“Well,” John says, “start by only collecting what you’re supposed to,” hinting at perhaps some unethical behavior, if you can imagine that.

“Okay,” say the soldiers, “but what should we do?” the soldiers ask.

“You could begin,” John says to the soldiers, “by cutting out the extortion, by not threatening people with violence, or maybe by being truthful when you accuse people of wrongdoing and you could start serving a model of justice that treats people equitably and isn’t grounded in maintaining the status quo and bolstering the political power of current leadership but actually seeks a more fruitful world in which everyone can thrive and participate and have opportunity and freedom…maybe?”

John’s advice to the crowds, regarding giving clothing and food, resonates with me more than his council to the tax collectors and soldiers, but ultimately what I hear across the board is an invitation to repent of the ways that I, in my daily life, participate in self-centered behavior while so many people are in need of the bare necessities.

But telling me to repent is about as effective as telling me not to worry when I’m worried or not to be sad when I’m sad—I have never repented because I was told to. I only really repent when it’s an honest reflection of what’s going on inside me.

The Rev’d Cricket Park is quoted as saying that,

“To repent is not primarily to confess: I am so bad; I really blew it, I’m such a loser, and I’m so sorry! To repent, rather, is to say [and think] just this: I never saw it like that before! There is so much more I need to take on board than I had previously imagined. My own expectations, I now see, were seriously constricted. I now see more possibilities, in a newer light than I did before—thanks be to God!” And the kicker, “And I intend, here and now, to begin the practice of living and acting more fully in that light.”

If there is any good news in John’s message of repentance, it is that we actually have the capability of that kind of repentance—the kind that grows our heart three sizes larger, the kind of repentance that makes misers into miracle workers, and the kind of repentance that turns myopic communities into breeding grounds of generosity and imagination.

If that is the kind of repentance that prepares our hearts to greet Christ in the people we meet and readies our society to ensure that all are cared for, then count me in.

The only question left to ask is, “What then should we do, as individuals with jobs and families and friends and as St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Fairfield?” How then will we bear fruits worthy of this kind of heart-growing, life-changing repentance?

Image by Marek Czarnecki