3rd Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 13:1-9;
CHANGING OUR MINDS (REPENTING) ABOUT GOD
Last week I began with a risky exercise in imagination. I asked you to imagine being with your child in a public place when an armed man walks in and starts shooting. Little did I imagine that that precise scenario would take place in my hometown that same day. Another horrifying tragedy this week. How can human beings do this to one another?
We also talked last week about how Jesus lived in violent times, too. Last week it was Herod trying to kill Jesus. This week it’s some folks who mention to Jesus that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, had apparently spilled Jewish blood. He was famous for that.
But let’s try another imagination exercise. What if we were to transpose Jesus’ response to our modern situation? Imagine that you come up to me, a resident of Kalamazoo, and convey your sympathy about the terrible tragedy there this week. And I respond,
‘Do you think those folks who were killed were worse sinners than the rest of us in Kalamazoo? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish as they did. Or what about those folks gunned down in their church last year in Charleston, SC? I tell you that unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
I’m echoing Jesus’ own words here — very strange, right? What’s going on here?!
I think that the first step to understanding is to consider how much we have already repented, so to speak. What is Jesus challenging here? Isn’t it the conventional human view about God punishing human sin? When bad things happen to people, it has been common for human beings through the millennia to think that such events were a punishment from God. It was extremely common in Jesus’ day. Less so now. Hearing the Gospel of God’s gracious forgiveness in Jesus Christ, it has become less common for us to think that. It sounded strange for me to even imply that the six people tragically killed in Kalamazoo last Saturday may have been worse sinners, right? We don’t think that way as much anymore. We have begun to change our minds about who God is. The word repent literally means “change of mind.” Over the past 20 centuries the message of God’s grace in Christ has slowly worked repentance on us. It has begun to change our minds about who God is as a punishing God.
But is the repentance complete yet? I said we’ve begun to change our minds. I’m not sure we’ve completely changed our minds yet. We don’t see innocent victims as being punished by God anymore. The six shooting victims last weekend were innocent, we say.
But what about the shooter? Does he deserve to die for what he did? We certainly need to lock him away to keep others safe. But does he deserve the punishment of death for what he did? And once we believe that the guilty deserve punishment, what does that lead us to do? To carry out the punishment, right? Here’s the hard facts, then, about our current state as a nation: we lead all developed nations in locking people away in prisons, by far — at the rate of ten times more than many other nations. Is this because we have more crime? Statistics show: No. It’s because we have become more into simply punishing than trying to restore those who break the law — especially when it comes to drugs. Most other nations try treatment for drug problems before simply locking them in prison. On both sides of the political spectrum, leaders are beginning to question what has been called our national problem of “mass incarceration.” And as with so many other things in the country, we’ve become more aware of how mass incarceration combines with racism to put People of Color behind bars at rates that far exceed their crime rate.
How did we get I into this subject? By considering, as Isaiah says in our First Reading, just how different God’s ways are from our ways. If in Jesus Christ, we learn to repent of thinking of God as a punishing God, and instead see how much God loves us and wants to restore us, then doesn’t that also speak to how we treat our fellow human beings? When we see ourselves as wronged by others, is our first impulse to punish? Or is it to seek restoration and reconciliation? When we repent and change our minds about God, God asks us to repent with our fellow human beings, too.
In asking whether our repentance is complete, there’s one further big issue to tackle. What about our traditional view of hell as a place where God punishes people eternally after they die? This relates especially to those words of Jesus this morning when he says, “Unless you repent, you will die as they did.” In other words, if we persist in seeing a God who punishes people in hell when they die, we, too, might die wondering if God will reward or punish us. People of Faith, can we make our repentance complete and change our minds about this hell business? That God punishes anyone for eternity? Perhaps you already have, in which case you can be part of helping to work this repentance across the church. I’m one of those who thinks it’s crucial to change our minds about God sending people to hell. If you’re interested, we can spend some time while I’m here to talk it through more completely.
Today I’d simply like to share one of my favorite stories with you. It’s from Christian counselor and pastor Dennis Linn, his personal story of how his mind was changed about God1 — how he repented. He tells of Hilda coming into his office one day because her son had attempted suicide for the fourth time. She described how her son was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder and then ended her list of her son’s “big sins” with, “What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?”
Pastor Linn tells how he personally believed in the popular version of God being something like a stern father, but the counselor in him didn’t want to tell that to this struggling mother. Instead, he began by asking Hilda what she thought. But Hilda was trapped in that same idea of a stern punishing God. “Well,” she replied, “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” Sadly, she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”
Again, Pastor Linn didn’t want to admit he agreed with her so he tried another counseling tactic. He had Hilda close her eyes and imagine herself sitting next to the judgment seat of God. He also had her imagine her son’s arrival at the judgment seat with all his serious sins and without repenting. Then he asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” Hilda answered, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” So Pastor Linn asked Hilda what she would do, to which she responded, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.
Finally, when she had stopped crying, Pastor Linn asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. Hilda saw God step down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embrace her son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another. What Pastor Linn said he learned about God that day is this: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most. God loves us unconditionally.
God’s thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways, says the prophet Isaiah. In the cross of Jesus Christ, I think we see just how completely different they are. And that’s a cause for celebration, isn’t it? Let’s celebrate, with bread and wine — our Lord’s body broken, his blood poured out, for us, for all God’s children. We are forgiven. We are loved, unconditionally. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, February 27-28, 2016
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