Summit Presbyterian Church
March 7, 2010
Isaiah 55: 1-9; Luke 13: 1-9
Eat, Drink and Repent
As Jesus was talking with the crowds, people were sharing the terrible news: Pontius Pilate, the Roman military governor of Judea, had killed some Galileans who had come to Jerusalem to make the customary sacrifices in the temple; their blood had been mingled with the blood of their animal sacrifices. Also on the mind of the crowd was a catastrophe at the Tower of Siloam, which had fallen and killed 18 people. We know nothing more about these events than these few words in Luke's gospel, but as people shared the news, some must have wondered -- as people do - if the "innocent" victims weren't so innocent after all, if they had done something to bring on their suffering. We know about that kind of speculation. We recently heard Pat Robertson explain the suffering of the Haitian people by claiming they made a pact with the devil 200 years ago. We've also heard loved ones ask, "what have I done to deserve this?" when they face illness or misfortune - maybe we've asked that question ourselves. But when Jesus heard this kind of talk he challenged them. "Do you think," he said, "that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them - do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others? No, I tell you. Jesus wasn't going to blame the victim. But then he adds a warning: "but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
Inspired partly by the lectionary, I've started reading a book called, "Why buildings fall down," by Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori. The authors look at buildings, bridges and dams that have fallen across the centuries and discuss the flaws, the structural weaknesses, that led to their collapse. In these case studies there's usually an event that starts the disaster: an earthquake, lightning, an explosion or bomb - but engineering, design or construction mistakes play a part as well. (You know that we're starting a capital campaign here at Summit so that the Summit Tower doesn't become a case study in the revised edition). The authors never suggest that buildings fall down to punish people -- but they often trace falls to some human error that involves an ethical or moral lapse. It may be the hubris of an architect or engineer who takes a design risk; or the greed or desperation of builder who cuts corners to keep construction costs down; or carelessness on the part of residents or caretakers or inspectors. The lapses are not usually malicious or egregious, they may be collective or individual, but they're widespread. In the last sentence of the book, after discussing technological advances, the authors point out that such improvements alone cannot guarantee a decrease of building failures and may even increase them. "Only a deeper consciousness of our human and social responsibilities," they say, "can lead to the construction of safer buildings."
In other words, only our collective repentance. (It's collective repentance, not just in building design but in the world economic order, that will lead to the construction of safer buildings and less suffering in Haiti). It's this universal sin, and our universal need to turn from it, that Jesus is referring to when he says to the crowds that "unless you repent, you will all perish." Many think that Jesus is talking about the day he'll return and we'll all face judgement, with some folks perishing in the fires of hell, and others gaining eternal life; the early church thought that day would be coming soon. Others believe that Jesus is speaking of a judgement that we will each face upon our deaths, making the need to repent always urgent, since we don't know when that will come. But whether or not we believe in heaven and hell, in our generation this warning has another, urgent, meaning. For if we do not repent, if we do not turn from sinful paths that we're on, we may well all perish: from nuclear war, or climate change -- or some tragic combination of the two. This warning of Jesus - I think of it more as a desperate, loving plea - could not be more urgent.
The trouble is, the threat of future disaster, or even, sadly, the knowledge of other people's suffering - doesn't motivate many of us to turn to God or give up our grievous ways. The thought of judgement may even make us want to dig in our heels. So here is where Isaiah speaks. In today's scripture, God invites us to repentance: but a repentance of eating and drinking, not sackcloth and ashes. A repentance of mercy and delight, not punishment or pain. "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. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor that which does to satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear and come to me, that you may live."
God calls us to repent by inviting us to a banquet. A banquet with no admission and no ticket price, where everyone is welcome and where money and wealth don't matter. A banquet where everyone has enough food, rich food and good food, not the junk food we usually eat. A banquet where no one is thirsty, for there's plenty of clean water, nourishing milk, and wine. A banquet where even the wicked are invited: "let the wicked forsake their way," says Isaiah, "and the unrighteous their thoughts, let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, who will abundantly pardon." A banquet where everyone is at the same table; there's no children's table in the family room or servant's table in the kitchen. But to get to the banquet we have to accept the invitation; we need to repent.
What does that repentance, that turning, look like for you? Perhaps it means inclining your ear and listening carefully to God: through disciplined prayer and reading of scripture; by listening more attentively to those you love; by listening to those crying out for help, for justice and peace: in Haiti, in Philadelphia, in Afghanistan. Perhaps repentance means no longer spending money for that which is not bread, whether it's the latest in clothes or electronics, in cars or in kitchens; it may mean giving more of that money away. Perhaps it means no longer laboring for that which does not satisfy - not necessarily quitting your job, but no longer laboring for status, or things you don't need. It may mean leaving work that is ethically or morally compromising, and finding something more satisfying, even if it's less glamorous or secure. It may mean simply doing more of God's work: here at in ministries of the church, or in other works of compassion or justice. It might mean forsaking wicked ways: drinking and drugging. The easy, wicked way of indifference to suffering that many of us take. The wicked wasteful ways that are woven so deeply into our lives. It may mean leaving behind unrighteous thoughts: old hates and resentments, all those isms. And if we were to all repent, together, here at Summit and in the wider world, what an even more wonderful world this would be.
Repentance is a journey. It's not a one time decision or an act with a beginning and an end. It's a turning to God that grows deeper, and wider, the more we practice it. It's a turning that will bring us joy and delight and it's also a turning we cannot delay. The warm invitation from Isaiah and the urgent warning of Jesus are not a good cop/bad cop routine; they are calls to repentance from the same God, the God who loves us, the God who will abundantly pardon, but also the God who cannot stand by as we countenance suffering and put the earth in peril. A God who wants no one to perish.
And we can begin by coming to the Lord's table, where we have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Everyone is invited -- to eat and drink, without money and without price; to receive God's grace, the God who abundantly pardons. To be strengthened for the journey, and for doing the work of God in this world. Come, for the the Lord has prepared a place for you and for me.