Revisiting Repentance: Sorry, Not Sorry

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Camp Calumet’s Reach the Beach group for 2019. Thanks to everyone who’s given to send kids to camp; if you haven’t and you’re still interested in giving, click here.

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

This sermon begins our annual stewardship season, which ends in Pledge Sunday, September 29. If you’re a member of OSLC and haven’t received your pledge card in the mail, pick one up at church in the next two weeks! 

If I seem a little dazed and tired today, there’s a very good reason.
If you didn’t know already, it’s because I’ve just returned from a 12 person, 200-ish mile, 34ish hour relay from the mountains of New Hampshire to the beach. I, personally, ran 16 miles on no more than three hours of sleep. You might be wondering if this was for fun. No, no — I went to seminary for this. I ran to support our synod’s summer camp. We raised money for Camp Calumet’s campership fund, so that every kid who wants to go to camp might have a chance. I want to say thanks to all of you who gave, and if you haven’t and you want to, let me know and I’ll figure something out for you. Otherwise, when all of my work is done today, let me sleep. 

But I’ve got a few more miles to go first. 

The first order of the day is these texts, all vaguely referencing repentance, but not in the way you might expect. We usually think of repentance as kind of a dirty, wash, rinse, repeat cycle. You sin, you feel sorry, God looks at you like “Oh, no, again?,” you say sorry, and finally, you are forgiven because you feel bad and God feels sorry for you. That’s usually the way repentance works in the real world, between people. Usually, saying sorry is required before we get forgiveness. We’re expected to demonstrate true remorse, and maybe the other person will take pity on us and forgive us, and maybe not. Occasionally, you might hear (or be) a very strong person who’s able to forgive without needing an apology, but it’s certainly not common, and we definitely don’t expect God to act that way.

But since my brain is still in New Hampshire in the middle of the night, I want to begin my explanation of all this by describing the time we lost Sam. 

Okay, we didn’t lose Sam. We just misplaced him for awhile in 2018. 

About every other year, a runner in the middle of the night makes a wrong turn. My 1AM run this year had a ton of turns this year, but luckily, it wasn’t me this year.

When you’re running through rural New Hampshire in the middle of the night, you’re looking for signs with singular blinky lights on them that tell you where to go. If you miss one and keep going straight when you were supposed to have turned, you put everyone on your team, including yourself, into a panic. Oh, and did I mention that cell service is terrible run rural New Hampshire?

So we misplaced Sam. And thus my metaphor about these texts begins.

Sam went the wrong way and it separated him from us. It doesn’t really matter if he did it intentionally or not, though he definitely didn’t because, in the words of some Bostonian Calumet visitors, “Theh’s beahs out theah.” The night is dark and full of terrors. 

Immediately when they realized that Sam wasn’t coming to the transition when he was supposed to, people began to call. When calling didn’t work, some folks got into the van. They searched until they found him, corrected that wrong turn, and got him back to the right transition area, fixing the problem and reuniting him with his community.

What you’ve got in today’s readings is repentance, but it’s not about feeling sorry. It’s not about us at all, really, but about God and God’s character. 

The Exodus reading is the passage right after the famous golden calf, when the Israelites decide they need a better god and so they build themselves one out of gold. God, as God does, gets angry, and the argument in this Exodus reading between Moses and God is what ensues. It sorta goes like this for awhile: “They’re your people!” “No, they’re your people.” “No, they’re YOUR people.” In a very Jewish argument in which a person argues and struggles with God in the way only God’s chosen people can, God relents and decides not to wipe them all out. If “repent” literally represents a change of mind (and it does), God repents here, which tells us from the get-go that we have to think about repentance differently today than we’re used to. 

God doesn’t have much of a need to feel sorry, you see, but God does change God’s mind (Exodus 32:14), as conscious beings often do. The King James version actually does say that God “repented.” 

So what the heck is repentance if it isn’t crying about our sins? And what does that tell us about grace? And what the heck does any of this have to do with us losing Sam?

Let’s go to the Gospel. 

In the Gospel reading, you’ve got Jesus accused of, as usual, hanging out with the wrong sorts of people. He’s been at dinner with some good religious people, and they start to notice the crowds coming near to listen to Jesus. Rather than saying “Wow! We’ve been trying to get these people to listen to us for years,” they grumble jealously: “Can you believe he lets these people hang around him?” 

So Jesus, never one to miss an opportunity to offend such folks, starts talking about two other marginalized groups: shepherds and women — looking for a lost sheep and a lost coin, finding each, and rejoicing.

Just like we rejoiced when we found Sam. And boy did we.

You see, in the words of Delmer Chilton, a pastor down in the Southeastern synod that I adore, “the Gospel is rooted in a Hebrew understanding of God as gracious…. Jesus is not God’s Plan B… Jesus doesn’t represent God saying, ‘Well, that didn’t work, so I’ll send Jesus to change the rules.” 

No, Jesus is simply describing what true repentance is: it’s a story about God restoring us. 

The crux of Lutheran theology, friends, is that we get so broken that we can’t make our way to God. So God always comes to us and makes us new, again and again. And if you ask me, that’s a far better story than a story about God taking our sorry butts back. 

So if you’re feeling lost, my friends, like you’re on a dark New Hampshire road and you don’t know which way to go and you long ago lost sight of the last blinky sign, take heart. God will find you. Because the Gospel is, above all, a story about God. 

Our job, it seems to me in this Gospel reading, is to not go second guessing God by griping about “those people.” 

So, yes. Repentance can entail feeling sorry. It can also just be about reconciliation. When God changed God’s mind in Exodus, it wasn’t about God admitting fault, it was about setting the family right. It’s about who God is, not who Israel is. It’s about God taking action to restore, to bring new life from death, to set things right. 

So it is with us. 

As we enter another stewardship season, keep that in mind. You’re not giving so that God will love you. We’re not selling tickets to heaven or tickets into God’s good graces. You look just as cute to God whether you give a lot or none at all. 

We give so that we might work with God to set things right in the world. To do a little good. And most of all, we give because we’re grateful to be found. You can’t earn God’s love; you can only live in response to it. So it is with us. 

And so, my fellow lost and found sheep and coins, let’s get ready for another year of being found. Let’s get ready for another year of doing good because we’re grateful. Let’s get ready for another year of being awesome not so that God will love us, but because God already does. Amen.

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