Sunday, October 22, 2017

Proper 24

Matthew 22
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.


As movie tropes go, this is a good one.

A trope is a familiar theme or device that the author will insert into a story—something we recognize and enjoy—like fictional comfort food. So, take as an example, a dispute over jurisdiction. Cop group A will arrive at a crime scene and begin investigating, only to have cop group B come and claim jurisdiction. Some examples:

In that Canadian classic Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006) the body is literally laying over the Quebec/Ontario border, which means our heroes must cooperate or the RCMP will swoop in and claim jurisdiction.

Or that Christmas classic Die Hard (1988) where the evil genius Hans Gruber knows that the FBI will claim jurisdiction over the LAPD in a hostage situation, buying him more time to steal $640 million in bearer bonds, whatever they are.

Or the rare case where claiming jurisdiction is a good thing, in The Fugitive (1993). Assuming that no one could survive the terrible wreck that frees Dr. Kimble, the local sheriff gives up. It then falls to the U.S. Marshals to claim jurisdiction and make the call:

What I want...is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area.

I have waited decades to quote that line in a sermon.

And the word itself has multiple meanings. From the Latin, jurisdiction literally means “what the law says.” It can describe who is responsible over what kind of case, both in law enforcement and the courts, but it can also mean who maintains law and order in a certain place. Think Smokey and the Bandit (1977) racing to the state line with Sally Field and 400 cases of Coors. But we’re done with movies for today.

It seems jurisdiction is at the heart of the very familiar passage John shared this morning. The Pharisees and the Herodians have set a trap, asking Jesus if it is lawful for a person of faith to pay the imperial Roman tax. Israel lies within the jurisdiction of Roman, making the tax a requirement—yet some resist. Pay the tax and you are committing treason to the faith, refuse to pay the tax and you are committing treason to Rome. In other words, it’s a trap.

So Jesus sets a kind of jurisdictional trap of his own, asking the gathered group to give him a coin. “Whose image is this?” he asks, “and whose inscription?” The answer is Caesar, and so Jesus makes his iconic and mostly misunderstood statement: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.”

If we are required to render unto both, then, it becomes a question of jurisdiction. Somewhere between Caesar’s jurisdiction and God’s jurisdiction there is a border, and we need to decide where to live. Put another way, there is line between Caesar’s jurisdiction and God’s jurisdiction, and we need to decide where to draw the line in our own lives (Cousar).

And the clue to where to draw the line is hidden there in the text. For Jesus asks “who’s image (εἰκὼν) is on the coin?” and he could have very well have asked the follow-up question “and who’s image (εἰκὼν) is on you?” And the answer, of course is God’s.

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them (Gen 1.27).

Created, as we are in the image (εἰκὼν) of God, we seem to be predestined to inhabit God’s realm, on God’s side of the jurisdictional dispute. We can render the things the state demands—assuming the state is legitimate—always mindful that we belong to God. It doesn’t mean we live separate lives in separate realms, but that we live in one and visit the other.

Before I venture into a very tangible example of how this works, I have a confession: I’m a monarchist. If there’s a toast, it’s to “Elizabeth, Queen of Canada.” If I have a choice of stamps (you remember stamps) it’s the Queen every time. Like Macdonald, I say “a British subject I was born and a British subject I shall die.” And when I say subject, I mean loyal subject.

And it’s not just because Elizabeth, Queen of Canada is so awesome, it’s because of what she represents and what she doesn’t. As the embodiment of the crown, she represents the stability that comes when the head of state exists outside politics. Governments serve at her pleasure, though in reality we elect them (or more accurately we throw the other bums out). In other words, we can be loyal to the crown and not the government. You might like the government, or the value of good hair, but your loyalty is to something beyond politics.

Cross the border, and there is no crown. And without a crown, people try to imbue the same significance to items like the flag, the anthem, the presidency, the pledge of allegiance, and so on. The constitution seems to approach the idea of the crown in terms of neutrality, but it’s a document, so it’s always subject to interpretation.

Where I’m heading is this: when national symbols are given too much meaning, too much significance, you end up with conflicts such as the controversy about standing for the national anthem.

The “take a knee” controversy, where black players protest the treatment of black people in the criminal justice system, is a really good example of the tension Jesus is pointing too. The faithful response to injustice is protest, even if it means that people will question your loyalty to the state. We can debate the cause that is being highlighted, but at it’s core this is a story about higher loyalty—to an anthem and a flag, or a person’s sense of what’s right.

Another obvious example is unfolding in Quebec right now. The state (the Quebec government) is willing to undermine freedom of religion for reasons that keep shifting. One day it’s about public safety, another day it’s about assimilation, another day it’s about the presumption that women who choose to exercise their religion must somehow be oppressed. All these shifts tell me that it’s about discomfort with “the other” and they are willing to misuse the power of the state to make them something else. This is a moment when it seems religionists (all who value faith) should stand together and resist the state that no longer upholds the freedom of religion.

In the world, but not of the world. This is perhaps the most vexing thing a believer tries to do. It is about our fundamental identity as Christians, our ability to exercise our faith in a society that is increasingly secular, and our ability to use governments to further the common good. And while we have moved beyond the divine right of kings, we can still believe that the state is a vehicle for the betterment of humanity, and that God intends us to work together (through the state) to seek justice and resist evil.

All of this through a simple coin. In our hand is a coin that represents earthly power, and the state, and the women and men who struggle to govern us, most often doing their very best. But the hand that holds the coin, that’s part of you, made in the image of God and holy. A little less than angels God made us, in God’s own image, pronounced good in God’s sight.

The hand that holds the coin that’s part of you that’s made in the image of God—is also one of the hands of Christ, busy on the border between this realm and God’s realm, doing the work and worship that God demands and God deserves. We are imperfect vessels, Paul will say, but we are given righteousness through faith (Rom 3) to do the work of Jesus Christ in the world. May it always be so. Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Proper 23

Philippians 4
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!
2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.


It’s not about all the palace intrigue: who’s in and who’s out and who called who what and how many people heard it.
It’s not about Russian meddling or anything else dismissed as fake news.
It’s not about emoluments or any other obscure 18th century constitutional concept we’ve been forced to learn this year.
It’s not about 688 lies told since January 20 (as of Thursday) according to the Toronto Star.
It’s not about an utter disregard for treaties, agreements, or long-standing international obligations.
It’s not about threats and intimidation aimed at the courts, the media, other branches of government.
It’s not about the latest tweet storm or twitter tantrum.

It’s about the death of civility, and the extent to which public discourse may never recover from this era of name-calling, disrespect and the shattering of every norm that defines true leadership. Almost everything I mentioned a moment ago can be mended, reversed, or impeached. But civility, decency and ‘the better angels’ of our nature are always at risk.

Before we continue, I want to acknowledge my valiant effort not to preach about this stuff week-by-week. It has more-or-less been killing me not to address each new outrage and each new threat to us from this pulpit. In many ways, it’s a mental game: reminding myself that this is happening in another country. Recalling that preaching starts with the Bible and not the newspaper. Trying to let this place remain a sanctuary from the profane and the absurd.

The truth is that those of us who like to drink our news straight from the hose are struggling to manage the firehose that is current events in 2017. Articles have begun to appear that caution the constant news reader about the risk of anger and despair—so even the news is warning about the danger of following the news. You will forgive me then a mid-October foray into the topic I have been generally avoiding—because on this day, the Bible has something to say:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

This is the very definition of civility, a Bible-mandated approach to the world around us. St. Paul is arguing that our first thought should be to truth, nobility, righteousness, purity, loveliness, admiration, excellence and praiseworthiness. If we’re going to meditate on anything, begin with this list—because in doing so, we enter the very mind of God.

Instead, 2017 has taken us on a tour of the opposite. Study the speeches and the tweets, the obscene post-election rallies and you have heard whatever is false, whatever is crass, whatever is wrong, whatever is impure, whatever is regrettable, anything that is poor and does not deserve praise—and we have been forced to think about these things.

So it’s easy enough to see how we got to this place. In our desire to be entertained, we allowed ‘reality-based’ programming into our homes, only to learn that some were willing to extend this crass medium to public life. As early as the summer of 2016 it was becoming obvious that there was less interest in what was being said, and more interest in how it was being said. People were being entertained. All the other ‘career politicians’ were swept away not by the failure of their ideas, but by their failure to entertain.

It’s hard not to look back to Rome and the poet Juvenal who famously said ‘that the people desire only two things—bread and circuses.’ This is the very same era in which Paul is writing. The nobility of the Roman Republic (in the mind of the poet) had been replaced by free food and the staging of ever more elaborate spectacles. And Claudius, emperor when Paul begins his missionary work, is famous for expanding the games and turning gladiators into the rock stars of the first century.

And so, this is the context in which Paul writes. The passage Sylvia shared begins with a disagreement—which is fortuitous—since it prompts Paul’s remarkable description of proper Christian thinking. Two of the leading elders of the church at Philippi have been fighting, and Paul wants them to stop.

It’s important to note that these leaders were women, something the church would downplay and ignore later. But for Paul (authentic Paul) there was nothing extraordinary for this congregation to be led by women. They were respected leaders, from the same congregation that produced the first convert in Europe, a woman named Lydia, a well-known merchant.

So Paul wants them to stop fighting, and uses an interesting turn-of-phrase to appeal to them to make peace. “Help these women,” Paul says, “since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel.” Scholars note that “contended at my side” is a phrase borrowed from the gladiatorial games, as in gladiators fighting side-by-side against a common foe. So although Paul is arguing for peace and civility in the community, he still can’t help himself from using a phrase from the circus that public life in the Roman empire has become.*

But it’s all good. We can assume that this conflict in the congregation was solved by Paul’s intervention, and we are left with the words he used to bring peace. These are perhaps best known:

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

We are meant to dwell in the peace of God. Even when the world gives us conflict, we are encouraged to keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of the love of God. This is the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that will allow us to transcend whatever strife or struggle will come. It is the way we are meant to cope.

Yes, you will say, that is all well and good, trying not to be anxious—but what about tomorrow’s paper, and this week’s census of lies, and the very dark place the world seems headed. Will Paul’s assurance be enough? Will truth, nobility, righteousness and the rest carry is through?

I think it’s important to remember that we’ve been here before. Looking back to Paul’s day, it is striking to see the parallels. Claudius was regarded as weak, leading to conflict with the senate and what would earlier have been called the republican establishment. He used the military to look more imperial, conquering Britain to strengthen his position. His infrastructure projects were meant to appeal to his base.

Despite this, Paul won. The Julio-Claudian dynasty was swept away, along with all the other emperors of Rome, but the way of gentleness described by Paul remains. We know the names and the dates of empire, but the appeal to truth, nobility, righteousness, purity, loveliness, admiration, excellence and praiseworthiness are eternal, described in a letter once and lifted up for all of time.

This the way we can save ourselves and save civility in the present age: Let your gentleness be evident to all. Guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Practice the array of virtues that will bring the peace of God. And rejoice in the Lord always.

There will be struggle. There will be conflict. There are some who will pay a steep price for the sake of the future we long to see. But through it all God will contend with us and remain at our side, seeking the good, in Jesus name, Amen.

*Hawthorne 1983:180

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Thanksgiving

Deuteronomy 8

10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.


You know something is important if there are lots words for it.

Take, for example, a memento. A quick look at Merriam-Webster will reveal synonyms that include souvenir, keepsake, reminder, remembrance, token, memorial, trophy, relic and even bomboniere. If you are confused about the last one, think tiny box with an ancient bit of wedding cake, hopefully in the freezer and not in a drawer. It’s an English word, bomboniere—meaning bomboniere.

And we tend to surround ourselves with them. Looking around the room where this sermon began life, I can see a handful of mementos from my Oma, objects that she treasured and I treasure in turn. There are two clocks, including (appropriately) a grandmother clock. There is a small porcelain creamer, which is actually a souvenir of the 1928 Olympics held in Amsterdam. And there is a painting of the family home in Voorburg, the last home before coming to Canada.

There were other objects, of course, including the ones that no one can quite recall where they ended up. And there then were the things that she saved (and we discarded) that never made sense: countless bags—paper and plastic—neatly wrapped and stored, and an ancient tin of salmon that she had obviously kept for years.

Why did she keep it? She could certainly afford to eat it and buy another. A good tin of salmon is not the cheapest item in the aisle, but not so expensive that you would buy it and never bring yourself to eat it. No, there was clearly more to it—more likely that the tin of salmon was a symbol for her.

Was it a symbol of her new home? Even now you can find salmon in the ‘Souvenirs of Canada’ section at various Pearson shops, for the last-minute memento shoppers. You will find salmon there, tucked in between the little Mounties and the overpriced maple syrup. Now the salmon is smoked and packed in some kind of golden ziplock, but it remains a national symbol.

I’m guessing it was a symbol of her new home—not in the souvenir-sense—but something more, more a reminder of plenty that followed seasons of want. Maybe it’s the same impulse as the one recorded in a sister-passage to the one Douglas read this morning:

Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar and put an omer of manna in it. Then place it before the Lord to be kept for the generations to come.” [So] Aaron put the manna with the tablets of the covenant law, so that it might be preserved. (Exodus 16.33-34)

That jar is lost, of course, along with the lost ark of the covenant—and the tablets inside—but for a time the jar would have been an treasured object for those who lived through the wilderness experience, those who remembered days and nights of hunger. It would have been a treasured object, but with a complex meaning as described in Deuteronomy 8:

When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you.

Suddenly that jar of manna, tucked into the corner of the ark of the covenant has a deeper meaning than simply ‘remember that some food appeared when you were hungry.‘ That simple jar represented the very human tendency to forget our dependence (and even helplessness) and think instead that we achieved something on our own.

The passage records the very outcome that God wished for God’s people: homes and herds, security and material possessions that never again should people experience the privations of the wilderness or the nightmare of bondage. But the passage also records the turn that follows every advance—’your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God.’

Think of the jar of manna as a downpayment, a daily allotment of the good things that will follow in the promised land. There is a sub-theme about being satisfied and taking only what you need, but the main meaning of manna is ‘you will enjoy a future that only God can provide.’ All we are asked in return is a grateful response: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.”

If Linus were here, he would say “and that’s what Thanksgiving is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Taking a step back, it might be ironic that we’re talking about souvenirs, keepsakes, reminders and relics in the October of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. After indulgences—the ability to purchase a better outcome in the next life—relics were the cause célèbre that drove the Reformation forward.

And without giving away too much of our study set for the end of the month, the proliferation of relics—the bones of saints, pieces of the true cross, and so on—and the vast sums spent on them gave fuel to the reformers’ fire. Absurdities abounded and the result was a turned away from sacred objects (and images) that made the Protestant movement what it is.

We became ‘people of the Word,’ giving all our attention to scripture and setting aside all other forms of veneration. Even our relationship with the natural world become confused, convinced that everything we needed to understand God was contained in the pages of a book.

But I would argue that the book itself points to places and objects that deepen our faith. Time and time again places are given names and meaning that represent an event in the story of the people of God. Places of testing, or trial, or places where someone met God face-to-face. Or sacred items: the tablets, the jar of manna, and the Temple that would eventually house these sacred objects.

And of course, the myriad of objects that draw us closer to Jesus. Even strict reformers couldn’t abandon the cross, though our cross became a resurrection symbol at the same time it reminded us of Jesus’ death. We still need loaves and wine, and the font that becomes a symbol of our new life in Christ.

We make meaning from objects, but we do so without the historical and moral problem of trying to determine what’s real relic and what’s not. Instead we make meaning from things that point to the story of our faith—like a simple cross—and the common objects that surround us. We give things meaning, and that meaning can strengthen our faith or remind us of important lessons—like the jar of manna.

So blessings on Thanksgiving. And “when you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land God has given you.” Perhaps you can make your own jar of manna, tin of salmon, or maybe that wishbone or some other relic of a special meal. Whatever the object, or memento, or memory, may it point the the many gifts God has given us, Amen.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Proper 21

Matthew 21
28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.


Sometimes, you just want a do-over.

You know, a do-over: a second chance, an opportunity to erase the past a start over. Take, for example, the 95 million people who neglected to vote on November 8 of last year. I bet they want a do-over.

Or that time you loaded some software and suddenly you computer stopped working, or slowed down to a crawl. My computer has something called Time Machine, that freezes a moment in time and allows you to travel back there, pretending that everything that happened in the meantime never happened. When will that function appear in real life?

Even golf has a do-over, famously called a mulligan. While I haven’t played since high school, I can recall with some relief my mates saying ‘you’ll never find that ball—take a mulligan.’ Oddly, the opposite of mulligan is gilligan, whereby someone may demand that you redo the most amazing shot of your life, just to prove you can. This only applies to informal play, it seems, and if agreed in advance. Then there’s a “gimme,” something I have no time to explain, and ironically is meant to save time.

Whether it’s a do-over, a mulligan, or a fresh start, there are elements that are common to any new beginning. First, there has to be a set of rules (even informal rules) that govern the do-over. Everyone involved should agreed to how and when these things happen, with the understand that they are uncommon and not an everyday occurrence. Like the get-out-of-jail-free card, there must be few of them, or what’s the point of having that jail in the corner of the board?

And there has to be some acknowledgment of wrong-doing. You can’t claim the opportunity for a fresh start if you don’t at least understand what happened. When your teenager is grounded for life (obviously in the heat of the moment) there will be a moment when it’s best for everyone to offer a fresh start. But unless there’s some remorse that follows whatever offence occurred, you might just have a teenager with you into old age.

And the do-over has to serve some higher purpose, or there is little point in the first place. It should demonstrate compassion, for forgiveness, or the well-being of a group. It should be a way to build character or model future behaviour, and not just a quick way to get on with your day.

The Bible, of course, is filled with do-overs. Noah’s Ark is the most obvious example, with the interesting twist that the story is an incomplete do-over. God’s first instinct is to utterly destroy humanity, but decides that might be too humiliating, having created these creatures in the first place. So it’s a modified do-over, with one family surviving, along with animals two-by-two, followed by future toymakers and cartoonists following closely behind.

The story of the exodus is a series of do-overs, with (once again) God’s periodic desire to let these troublesome people perish in the desert, followed by all sorts of items to allow them to continue, from water to manna to quail.

Then, of course, there is the exile. As a punishment for disobedience that would make Noah and Mrs. Noah blush, the people are carried off into exile, with little or no hope of return. Luckily for us, and those who follow the other Abrahamic faiths, the exiles used the time to reflect on their life with God, to codify their beliefs, and renew themselves. The return from exile is a do-ver, with God switching from anger to comfort right there in the middle of Isaiah (39-40).

Finally, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a gospel of do-over for the forgiveness of sins. He called the gospel of do-over repentance, the desire to renounce sin and embrace the promised One of God. Sins would be forgiven, Christ would come, and the ultimate do-over would follow, both in the presence of God-in-Jesus and the do-over that would happen at Calvary. With the destruction of death itself, we might say all of creation was subject to do-over, the past done and new life come.

But it was never that simple. It was simple insofar as God truly did make all things new, but less simple because some could not accept it. Couldn’t accept it and couldn’t begin at the beginning of the whole process: the need to repent.

Let me interrupt this sermon to offer you a penitential get-out-of-jail-free card. Repentance is hard work. It requires self-awareness, some humility, and the desire to look candidly at your situation and the people around you. And it requires confidence. Those who lack confidence will say “it’s not my fault” or “I didn’t intend for that to happen” or “I can’t afford to be blamed.” It takes depth of character and practice to say “I did it, and I wish I could do it differently again.”

So, back to our regularly schedule sermon. The interaction between Jesus and the elders of the people, and the parable that follows, are about John’s message and how it was received. The chief priests and the elders question Jesus’ authority, namely the authority by which he is forgiving sins and continuing John’s ministry of calling people to repent.

He sets a bit of a trap for them: He asks them about John’s baptism—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins—and whether it was divinely or humanly inspired. What follows is some rather desperate dialogue:

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

It is obvious from their tortured comments that they didn’t follow John, or spend time in the desert, or repent of their sins. They were the excessively righteous ones that Jesus continually railed against—unwilling to repent and unwilling to accept that Jesus could forgive that things that people were repenting. But it was the first sin—unwilling to repent—that was the most troubling for Jesus, as becomes obvious through his parable:

Two sons, a vineyard, and a simple question that every parent asks: ‘My child, today will you do your chores?’ The first son says “nah, can’t today. See you later, I’m off to (unintelligible).” But, somehow he does it. The second son says ‘sure I can, no problem, you can count on me, I’m your guy...’ then does nothing. Jesus asks ‘which one did what the father wanted?’

‘The first,’ they reasoned, as they fell into the trap Jesus carefully laid for them:

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

The way of righteousness begins in repentance. Get a pen and write it on your hand, get a tattoo, or hire a plane to travel around the neighbourhood with a rather lengthy banner that says “The way of righteousness begins in repentance.” These words are trustworthy and true. If you want to be righteous (meaning you want to follow God) you need to practice repentance. There is no other way.

So what is it and what is it not? Starting in reverse, it’s not constant self-denigration or an unending ‘woe is me, a sinner.’ And it’s certainly not helping others to see their sin, like we’re doing them some sort of spiritual favour that they will thank us for later. And it’s not meant to make you loath yourself, doubt yourself, or count yourself as unworthy of God’s love.

Instead, it’s a discipline. It’s the capacity to say “I wonder if I made this situation worse in some way?” Or “given the chance to do this again, how would I do it differently?” Or simply “that was screw-up—I’m really sorry.” Repentance is rejecting the world’s desire to appear blameless and our human tendency to point the finger in any other direction.

Repentance is standing with all the other screw-ups and ne'er-do-wells, all who need a do-overs and everyone who needs a second or a third chance. That’s where Jesus is standing too—listening, understanding, forgiving, and loving us even when we need more mulligans than the course allows. Amen.