September 28, 2014
People sometimes ask me how my previous careers as an English teacher and in theater feed into my being a pastor. I can tell you one thing for sure: they have provided me with a wide collection of authors and poets to draw on for expressing theological truths. Not to say that the Bible isn’t source material enough, but when I was considering Ezekiel’s tirade against his unapologetic listeners, I was grateful to remember a little poem by William Carlos Williams. I have no idea whether or not William Carlos Williams ever read the book of Ezekiel, or if he had any religious thoughts at all, but I do know that, for me, he captured perfectly the essence of today’s OT reading in a little poem:
This Is Just to Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
This little poem is an “apology,” but not really. It doesn’t actually sound like the speaker’s very sorry for having eaten the plums. It sounds like he was glad he ate them, and like he might do it again in the future, given half a chance. This is the very kind of “I’m sorry” that the prophet Ezekiel is railing against in our first lesson. The people are blaming each other, their ancestors, their parents, even God! for what has gone wrong in their lives—anyone but themselves. Ezekiel is calling them to repent for what they, themselves, have done.
Do we ever do this? Do we ever apologize for “eating the plums,” whatever they may be, knowing that we are likely to do so again, if presented with the opportunity? Do we ever speak the words of the confession without genuinely acknowledging that we have, indeed, done things that separate us from God and from one another? And when we do recognize our own sinfulness, do we ever feel that our sins are not as big a deal as someone else’s sins? Do we fail to hear the prophet calling to us to stop the blame game? To turn around and to walk in the other direction?
That is all that the word repentance means, after all. It’s a fancy church word for “turning around and going in a different direction.” Ezekiel is calling his hearers (including us—not just our parents, not just our society, not just that mean person who ate plums that didn’t belong to him—but US) to stop. To see. To take responsibility. And to turn. Once we’ve faced a new direction, we are to try again, differently.
This was what Jesus was trying to communicate to the scribes and Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading too. They are arguing with Jesus, absolutely sure that they were not responsible for what happened to John the Baptist. They also want to be clear that they aren’t responsible for any faulty teachings about the Word or work of God that the people have come to believe. They ask Jesus a question, but they didn’t come to Jesus actually seeking information. They came to Jesus to trap him, employing the same attitude as the voice in the poem apologized for eating the plums. “We think we know more than Jesus, and we’re going to catch him in his own words, but we’re going to sound humble while we do it.”
Jesus, however, won’t play that game. Jesus chastises them, saying that they are asking the wrong question. And then he tells them a little story about two sons. Their father asks them to go do something for him. One grumbles and complains, but does what he is asked to do anyway. The other says, “Oh sure!” but doesn’t do a thing. Which of these, Jesus asks, is doing what the father needs? Do you side with the person who wrote an apology for eating the plums but wasn’t really sorry, or the one who never bothered to say “I’m sorry,” but who never does anything like that again? Jesus tells the religious leaders that the prostitutes and tax collectors are closer to God than they are because they heeded John the Baptist, and have taken steps toward repentance. Actions speak louder than words, he says.
Our actions speak louder than our words too. St. Francis of Assissi once said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” What sermon is your life is preaching? What do people learn about God from the way you do business, the way you spend money or your time? What message do they get from you about forgiveness, about generosity, about compassion? When they see you with your family, what do they learn about God’s love and grace in action? I hope you have some moments you are proud of—moments when you knew that what you did or refrained from doing sent a clear message about your faith. But I’m guessing we are all about to remember at least one moment when we’d wished the cameras were off, and that no one saw that moment of selfishness or heard those mean words. We are all sinners, as Ezekiel and Jesus both remind us today. We have eaten the plums that weren’t ours and we may or may not be sorry about it.
We are called to repent. But we can’t get stuck in the guilty portion of repentance. That is only half the turn. It is important to acknowledge that we have failed to preach Good News with our lives every single moment, but it is also important to complete the turn. Repentance is also about taking God’s dream for the wholeness and connection of all the world seriously, and that requires our going in precisely the opposite direction from the way of selfishness and sneakiness. It is about acknowledging the gift of God’s love for us and recognizing we are each called to be little Christs. It is about preaching a different sermon with our life: a sermon that says we are God’s children, and are called to serve the world that God loves with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength.
St. Paul describes this kind of life well in his letter to the church in Philippi:
“Be of the same mind, having the same love…. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”
Left to ourselves, we cannot live a life that looks just like Jesus’. But nourished by God’s own body and blood, forgiven and called in the waters of baptism, empowered by one another’s companionship, and accompanied by God’s own “selfie” Jesus Christ, we are able to complete the full turn of repentance and begin again tomorrow. Thanks be to God!