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No More Saying Sorry (Reclaiming a Theology of Repentance)

A reflection on Mark 1:1-14 by the Rev. Helen Dunn

Lord, make us masters of ourselves that we may become the servants of others. Take our minds and think through them, take our lips and hands and speak through them, take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”

John is in prison. He made the mistake of preaching a baptism of repentance—a message so threatening to the rulers of the day they threw him in jail. Jesus is baptized by John and washed into this dangerous message, a message worthy even of the Son of God. Immediately, the same dangerous Spirit who rests on Jesus at his baptism drives Jesus into the wilderness. Here wild beasts and angels wait in the wings. And 14 verses into the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ ministry is just getting started.

“Repent, and believe in the good news!” Jesus cries out in this evening’s gospel, John’s prison shackles rattling in the distance. “Repent and believe in the good news!” Jesus cries out as he approaches the Sea of Galilee where fishermen and their hired help are making their wages, wages that will ultimately go to the Empire that owns them. “Repent and believe in the good news!” Jesus cries out, this dangerous message catching the ears of worthy and beloved people caught up in a corrupt and broken system.

Tonight is my first time preaching at St. Brigids. And boy is repentance ever a loaded theme to preach on—loaded down with prison shackles (can you hear them rattling in the distance?); loaded down with beasts and angels (can you see them waiting in the wings?).

St Brigids has this reputation as a place where people testify to the work that God is doing in their lives, so repentance is especially loaded this night for those of us expecting that Jesus’ call to repent will bear some meaning on our lives when we leave here.

I wonder what repentance has meant to you in the past? I wonder what it means to you now?

What exactly are we called to do—or perhaps, who exactly are we called to be when this dangerous message catches our own ears?

Tonight I’m going to talk about how my theology of repentance has been transformed. I used to think repentance was about drawing near to God by turning away from myself, by saying sorry over and over again for who I was learning myself to be.

I’m wondering these days if repentance is instead about turning to God with my worthy and beloved whole self, by returning over and over again to this person God is shaping me to be.

My theology of repentance and the transformation that has taken place around that term can best be summed up in a poem I performed at a slam poetry competition in my twenties—when I was young and brave. (I turned 30 last week, so I can now say “in my twenties” with this air of wisdom like it was so long ago).

And it’s important for me to tell you that slam poetry used to be where I’d say everything I couldn’t say from the pulpit. And now I’m about to say what I thought I could never say from the pulpit, well, from this pulpit.

That’s a credit to the kind of community that’s forming here. It’s also a heads up that there is some difficult language in this poem and if there are emotions that come up for you, please honour them. This poem is called “Saying Sorry.”

A passenger on a crowded city bus gropes my chest and I say sorry. A man yells through the double-pane glass of my office door and I bow my head and say sorry. I forget my place and say sorry. I trip and say sorry. A friend interrupts me while I’m speaking and I say sorry.

I say sorry when I’ve done nothing wrong: this is how I’ve been taught to make space for myself. It’s never I’M sorry but “sorry.” I have learned to take MYSELF out of the equation; I have learned to excuse MYSELF from the room. I am not guilty but with a word I bear all manner of sins. I am displaced—a scapegoat let loose on a two-syllable word my tongue has been groomed to say.

I say sorry because I have been ordered to police my fury. I am polite to save others the trouble of making an apology.

I say “I’M sorry” for the first time and I mean it. I neglect to say I love you—I’M sorry! and I mean it. I forget my brother’s birthday—I’M sorry! and I mean it. I turn my face from injustice—I’M sorry! and I mean it. I refuse to be caged in polite speech! I am my own polity waiting to be unleashed! I am myself and I am not sorry.

I first performed this poem when I was coming to terms with being gay, and a woman, and a priest, and grappling with these things in a branch of Christianity where gay was not okay, being a woman was a thing you apologized for, and a female minister was something my hippy aunt out on the Island did, but not really a legit option for a good Christian woman.

And when I think about this poem theologically, it represents how my understanding of repentance was operating at the time. Repentance was more about saying sorry in an effort to take what I thought was my rightful place on the margins.

Repentance was about turning away from myself, saying sorry for the space I took up rather than turning towards God to maximize the transformational power that I, being my worthy beloved and whole self, could have in a corrupt and broken world. Which is to say, repentance was in those days more about displacement than defiance.

I wonder if any of that resonates with you. I wonder if your theology of repentance has or still is more about saying sorry in order to excuse yourself from the room, saying sorry to bear all manner of sins when you’ve done nothing wrong—more about being a scapegoat let loose on a two-syllable word your tongue has been groomed to say?

In the past, I’ve heard the gospel this evening preached this way: The fishermen are the models of repentance because they sacrifice everything that makes them, them (they give up their means of income, they give up their families, they give up their whole selves to follow Jesus). Repentance, as one preacher put it, is as if God were holding up a mirror to humanity and saying, “Look, whatever you see has to go!”—the implication, of course, that repentance is all about turning away from yourself in order to draw near to God.

And why, how can this definition of repentance exist when the gospels are full of stories where people draw dangerously close to Jesus with their whole selves, daring even to touch the hem of his robes with their unclean bodies, daring even to gather the crumbs from the table where he ate, daring even in the first 15 verses of Mark’s gospel to leap from their boats in pursuit of him—with sea-stained hands and sweat still dripping from their pores?

As Amy Jill Levine writes in her annotated Jewish New Testament, “Mark, more than the other Gospels, never loses sight of the real lives of ordinary people—the economic and the social, the earthly over the cosmic, the present over the future.”

I wonder if Jesus gathers people from the margins not so they can leave their whole selves behind in pursuit of some distant God, but so that with their whole selves—economic, social, earthly, present—they might draw near to God who is drawing near to them? Jesus gathers people from the margins and welcomes them into the centre of God’s ministry to the world. Do you see that?

If I could give this evening’s sermon a title it would be, “No More Saying Sorry: Reclaiming a Theology of Repentance.”

People of St Brigids: Let us reclaim repentance.

Let us return it to its roots—the shores along that Sea of Galilee where even fishermen turned to God, the shackles of a corrupt and broken world rattling in the distance. Let us reclaim repentance like those fishermen did when the kingdom of God came near to them, dangerously close to their sea-stained hands, to their worthy, beloved, whole human selves.

What if repentance wasn’t about saying sorry in order to excuse yourself from the room? What if repentance was never about turning away from everything that makes you, you? What if repentance was never about being displaced in order to take what you’ve always been told is your proper place on the margins? By all means when we turn our faces from injustice, we must repent; but let not those who are marginalized repent to save others the trouble of making an apology.

Repentance is about turning to God with our worthy, beloved, and whole selves in defiance of the unjust structures and institutions of oppression that make up the corrupt and broken systems we often find ourselves in. Take up the transformational power that you, being you, can have in this world. Inspire change at the centre of this system we call Christianity.

Join Jesus in the heart of God’s ministry to the world. Time is up! The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news.