Here is that concept of repentance. If our Baptismal promises are to be believed, we all are in need of repentance. We sometimes take this the wrong way, and become immediately defensive, but Jesus didn’t come among us as God incarnate, for nothing. We are sinners, we are broken, and we often struggle to find our way in the world. But we are, which I find a comfort, all in the same boat, all in need of redemption, all longing, like the Psalmist today, for what Jesus has to offer. The modern world and the present–day church often, in my view, struggles to articulate the nature of Christ’s Gospel: that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son – a sacrifice – so that all who believe in Him, turn to Him, trust in Him, will be saved. Today, in Luke, Jesus has many words of warning and caution – making it clear that no one is worse off than the other nor is anyone an irredeemable person; how could we be. God so loved the world, remember? But Christ also says, to all who will hear, that we do all need Him, and we all are called to turn through Him to God. This is not the Gospel’s only message. But often, out of fear of the past, we hesitate to speak about this particular truth.
Jesus also speaks words of patience. WE may not have forever to buy into the idea of repentance – our lives are finite, after all – but we do have time; God has always been willing to wait for us ... for a time, at least. And Jesus, the gardener of the parable in Luke, makes it known that He will not only give us time but that He will nurture, feed, and water us along the way; with love, hope, and presence. So, we need to seek the holy ground of God (remember, dwelling within us); we are all in this together; and Jesus is the way and the truth and the life that pushes us in that turning to God – repentance – that we all sometimes find difficult.
Flannery O’Connor, that tremendously talented and eccentrically spiritual writer, had her greatest triumph in what was (I believe) one of her best books, Revelation. Revelation follows the self–righteous and pious woman, Mrs. Ruby Turpin. Ruby is a woman of tremendous faith and she makes sure everyone knows it. She is saved by the grace of God but is not certain that anyone else is. She looks down on – in the most mean–spirited and petty ways – people who are black, or “poor white trash,” and is not at all certain that anyone is going to be going to heaven, except for her that is. In the waiting room of a doctor’s office, Ruby engages in just enough conversation with another woman, to tip off a college girl named Mary Grace, as to who Ruby really is: a person who thinks she is better than everyone, maybe the only person on the planet who is not in need of repentance, and treats everyone as if they are nothing. In fact, Flannery O’Connor’s narrator tells us that Ruby has already written off Mary Grace as “fat and ugly.” Finally, incensed at Ruby’s haranguing, Mary Grace throws a psychology book and hits Ruby right in the face with it, yelling, “Go back to hell where you belong, you warthog!”
Now Ruby is scandalized and hurt. She is certainly not a warthog. From hell. She has spent her days thanking God that she is not black, “white trash” or like this person or that person and she has nothing to repent of. She is like the publican in Matthew’s Gospel who approaches the Temple and prays, “I thank God I am not like that tax collector over there …” and then lists all of his accomplishments. The tax collector doesn’t even look up to heaven and endlessly prays to God for forgiveness. Meanwhile, unable to shake the Mary Grace’s words, Ruby has a vision. In her vision she sees all the people she has always considered unworthy being carried up to heaven first and she and people who tend to think like her are last, bringing up the rear.
There are certainly people who don’t see a need to turn back to God; or to God for the first time. They do not think they possess any biases that may lead to prejudice or racism. We may treat people poorly, but justify the behavior because we tell ourselves they deserve it. We may use violence but reassure ourselves that it is the only way we can protect or serve or defend ourselves. The truth is that we all fall short of the kingdom of God, we all are in need of reflecting and turning ourselves, our lives, and our attentions back to God. And our need of repentance is not a measure of our worth. We can get so caught up in the correlation between our own brokenness and the need to move more fully onto God’s holy ground – and the distance between the two – that we can feel that we are nothing, weak, and unlovable. We can also become, instead, defensive, angry, or fearful and become paralyzed by all these feelings welling up inside of us.
Jesus is the constant gardener. God did not come among us because we are worthless, hopeless, and not simply because we have fallen away from God. Jesus came among us because we are beloved; we are cherished; we are God’s. Jesus came to reclaim God’s own for God’s kingdom of redemption. And we should understand that Christ has done the heavy lifting, the suffering, and hard work of salvation for us. And Christ is with us, too, in our own suffering, sorrow, and yes, our sin. Jesus makes His holy ground in us where we are, when we call on Him.
Our baptism is filled with the language of return; our repenting hearts are hearts and spirits that turn to God, understanding that we all fall short of God’s grace in some way, at some time. But God’s grace is present to us, in all its fullness, because that is who God is to us. We are brothers and sisters in our need to follow God; we are brothers and sisters in Christ because God wills it to be so. We are people of need, people of hope, people who are called to seek the holy ground found in God’s presence, available to us no matter where we may be in our earthly journey. God is in us, remember, ready to be embraced by us once again, or for the very first time.