Epiphany 3A, 2008
Matthew 4: 12, 18-23

Liturgy is also available


There is a mythical story from the Middle Ages about a young woman who was expelled from heaven.
As she left, she was told that if she would bring back the gift
that is most valued by God, she would be welcomed back.

She brought back many gifts:
drops of blood from a dying patriot;
some coins a destitute widow had given to the poor;
dust from the shoes of a missionary labouring in a remote wasteland.

But she was turned back repeatedly.

One day she saw a small boy playing by a town fountain.
A man rode up on horseback and dismounted to take a drink.
The man saw the child and suddenly remembered his boyhood innocence.

Then, looking in the fountain and seeing the reflection of his hardened face,
he realised what he had done with his life.
And tears of repentance welled up in his eyes
and began to trickle down his cheeks.

The young woman took one of these tears back to heaven
and was received with joy and love.


For many folk, the call to ‘repent’ is one of the foundational phrases of the church.
        Yet surprisingly it is very infrequently heard on the lips of Jesus,
        and usually put there by the storytellers themselves.

When Matthew has Jesus using it, it is not a call to any person in particular,
but the context of a general invitation to others,
such as those named this morning: Peter, James, John and Andrew,
to become wandering and homeless companions,
cutting family ties, and relying on the support of local sympathisers.

An invitation which would also bring them into relationship
with the likes of Herod Antipas and the political powers of this world (Sarah Dylan Breuer, 2005).

And surprisingly, when it is not used as an invitation,
it is most often directed towards the religious people of Jesus' day.
        Those who worried about other people's so-called sins,
        needed to repent - not sinners.

Likewise, the conversion experience of Paul was not
to turn away from a life of so-called ‘sin’
to living a life of everlasting moral purity.
It was to stop persecuting others in the name of God and religion.

So the call to ‘repent’ is a call to live life in all its fullness.

It is because we fail to hear this and fail to communicate this call to others,  
that the world hears the word ‘repent’ and assumes we are saying:
"Become religious like us…”  

When if anything it should be heard as the opposite of this: "Be accepting of others..."

Indeed one of the reasons I am wary of being called a "Christian",
(I prefer 'Follower of Jesus') is not just because it seems to have been captured
by the pentecostal and charismatics, but because
I see the Bible and doctrine being used to denigrate others.

We are on dangerous ground when we do that.
Especially with the Bible.
Because many modern assumptions about the Bible are just incorrect:
• the Bible did not encourage slavish conformity;
• it has been suspicious of orthodoxy since the time of the prophets; and
• the modern habit of quoting proof-texts to legitimise policies and rulings
is out of key with its interpretive tradition.


Next week most of us will be celebrating Australia Day.
A celebration of mixed blessings, really.

In 1788 when the First Fleet arrived from England,
Governor Arthur Phillip not only established a penal colony,
a gaol for the 736 convicts and to a certain extent,
the marines and officers who accompanied them,
he also won the land for ‘protestant’ Christianity (Breward 1988:2).

However, instead of that experience being a 
“search for a feeling of reconnection to a healthy kind of wholeness” (Loehr 2000:2),
Governor Phillip saw religion as a
“useful package of warnings and admonitions that supplemented the cell, chains, the lash, the gallows, or the rewards and remissions for good conduct”  (Blainey 1987:429).

Hence christianity was in the main rejected by the convicts
and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years.
        Which has led some historians to conclude that in Australia,
        christianity has always been rather a casual affair.
                      At best, the nation was only ever superficially christianised  (Wilson 1982:6).

And one of the things Australians are particularly averse to, are "religious" people:
those who pray over you,
quote the Bible at you, and
talk about God, as if they had access to God’s personal diaries!

Generally speaking, the majority of Australians
have little interest whatsoever in becoming religious like that.
If we as the church have only as our goal, the making of others "religious" like this,
then it is no wonder people are simply not interested.

And I wouldn't blame them at all.
We have missed the point.

The call to repent then is not to say we are not measuring up to the standards ‘others’ or ‘God’ expects of us.
        It is a call to be accepting of other people,
        in their faith or their lack of faith.

The call to repent is not to write people off
because they do not profess the faith in our particular terms,
        or live the same sort of life we try to do.

The call to repent is a call to respect all people.
For there is in fact much goodness in all sorts of people.
        In religious and non-religious people.
        In Christians and Jews and Muslims.
        And those of all sorts of faith.


During the last few weeks I have taken some holidays and a week of Study Leave.
And during that time I read several books and wrote Reviews of them for Insights.

In one of those Reviews – my comments on a book by the radical English
theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt – I included a statement by him
from the first edition of his TV program Sea of Faith.

In that program Cupitt said:
“Religion [is] a way of affirming the value of human life, from the first breath to the very last.  It is up to us to give it that value: to affirm human dignity in the face of the indifferent universe”.

Listening to Cupitt’s comment in light of what I have been already saying:
‘Repent’ is not the call of the church to the world.
That is to remain aloof from seeing the worth and the beauty in all.

A different approach seems to be offered in a Michael Leunig prayer
which was written for the commencement of 2008.

Let me share it with you as it has been shared with me.
It is called “We shall be careful”:

We pray for the fragile ecology
of the heart and the mind.
The sense of meaning
So finely assembled and balanced and so
easily overturned.  The careful, ongoing
construction of LOVE.

As painful and exhausting as the struggle for truth
and as easily abandoned.

Hard fought and won
are the shifting sands of this sacred ground,
this ecology.

Easy to desecrate and difficult to defend,
this vulnerable joy, this exposed faith,
this precious order.  This sanity.

We shall be careful.
With others and with ourselves.

Blainey, G. “Sydney 1877” in (ed) D. J. Mulvaney, J. P. White. Australians. To 1788. Broadway. Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates, 1987.
Breward, I. 
Australia. The Most Godless Place Under Heaven. Mitcham. Beacon Hill Books, 1988.
Loehr, D. “Salvation by Character. How UU’s can find the Religious Center” in Journal of Liberal Religion 1, 2, 1-14, 2000. (PDF file).
Wilson, B. “The Church in a Secular Society” in D. Harris, D Hynd, D Millikan. (ed). 
The shape of belief. Christianity in Australia Today. Homebush. Lancer Books, 1982.
Dylan's Lectionary Blog. Sarah Dylan Breuer. 2005