Repentance: One Way to Reduce Suffering Reading: Luke 13:1-9 Lent 3/C By the Rev. Karen Faye Siegfriedt; Trinity Episcopal Church, Sutter Creek, CA 2/28/16
Hurricane Katrina was the costliest natural disaster and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. Property damage was estimated at $108 billion dollars and at least 1,245 people died. Do you think that because these folks along the Gulf Coast suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all the others who were spared? On Thursday, a Kansas gunman (who worked at a factory owned by Excel Industries) opened fired on employees working at the plant. Three people were killed and 14 were wounded. Do you think that those folks who died or were injured were worse sinners than those who escaped the gunfire at the factory?
Similar questions to these were posed in today’s gospel. Jesus’ followers wanted to know why a building collapsed on seemingly innocent people and why a political dictator killed his opponents. Did those who died ‘do something wrong’ to deserve such a fate? This kind of question assumes that there is a direct correlation between sin and suffering. But Jesus says no to this kind of thinking. He dismisses the popular but unworthy theology of retribution that was held by the Jewish people at that time as well as many of the prophets over the centuries. If human beings die by the sword, by accident, or by natural disaster, it is not because God has arbitrarily chosen to punish them for their sins while sparing others. Try as we may, none of us can fully protect ourselves or those we love from dangers such as disease, accidents, crime, emotional disorders, random violence, or death.
While Jesus avoids answering the question of why bad things happen to innocent people, he does tell his audience that unless they repent, they too will experience death. Today’s gospel is all about repentance; a common theme addressed during Lent. Repentance comes from the Greek word Metanoia which means changing the way we think and allowing God’s thoughts to become our thoughts. It means making the effort to become aware of how our thinking affects ourselves, our neighbors, and the well being of this planet. Repentance has very little to do with groveling in the dirt or feeling shame and guilt. But it has every thing to do with right thinking which is part and parcel of the spiritual journey. Once we have seriously corrected our thinking, right actions will follow. And while we may never know why innocent people suffer, we do know that if we correct our distorted thinking, we and those around us will suffer less.
Larry is a middle-aged accomplished lawyer. He is well-educated, extremely talented, full of energy, and highly sought after. He never has difficulty finding a new position and makes tons of money. However, if you offer him any criticism, even if it is constructive, he goes off the deep end. His self-esteem is low and he often feels depressed or unworthy in spite of all his accomplishments. I don’t know where this lack of self-esteem comes from but my hunch is that there was some unhealthy communication or lack of affection in his family of origin. Perhaps he was never validated as a child. This sense of low self-esteem has caused great suffering in his otherwise “successful life.” I think if Jesus met Larry today, he would say to him: Unless you repent, unless you change the way you think about yourself, your life will become so diminished that you will slowly die inside. Can’t you see how gifted you are? Don’t you understand that you are a beloved child of God, made in the divine image, and that no matter what someone tells you (whether it is good or bad), there is nothing that can be said to tarnish your innate belovedness? Get in touch with your true self. Turn toward the Light and let the grace of God heal your distorted image of yourself. Throw off these chains of suffering that keep you from experiencing joy. Listen to my voice, not the voices of the past. “For I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.” [John 10]
Last year, Volkswagen Car Manufacturer was caught lying to the EPA and the California Air Resources Board about diesel emissions. They had made a corporate decision to cheat emissions tests worldwide by building into their cars a computer program designed to deceive the public into believing that their cars met all air quality emission standards. This deception scheme finally unraveled, ultimately revealing that Volkswagen was polluting the air 35 times over the standards allowed by the Clean Air Act. Corporate heads began to roll, Volkswagen is being sued all over the world, billions of dollars of fines have been levied, sales have plummeted, and this corporation is suffering greatly.
If Jesus were here today, I imagine him saying: Unless you repent, you too will suffer the fate of death. How dare you think that you can cheat and deceive and pollute without any consequences. Don’t you understand the harm you have imposed on the environment by your deceptive inventions? Pollution reduces the quality of life for everyone, contributes to global warming, and causes significant health problems for the young and old as well as those who suffer from asthma and COPD. Greedy thinking on your part has caused great suffering on innocent bystanders. Change your way of thinking and turn toward the Light. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” [Luke 12:15]
There is a connection between repentance and a reduction of suffering in the world. When I repent, when I move beyond my fear-ridden ego, my distorted thinking slowly diminishes. My small-minded, narrow way of viewing everything begins to expand and I finally realize that I am not the center of the universe, but God is. I start to look at my life and the world from God’s perspective. Like a snake molting its old dead skin or a butterﬂy morphing out of a cocoon, I discover how things really are: “I once was blind, but now I see.” Repentance is not tucking our tails and harboring guilty feelings. Rather it is an openness to the Holy Spirit, allowing the Spirit of truth to work on clarifying our wounded minds, healing our broken hearts. And when this Spirit of light shines into that dark, gaping hollow place inside, we start to notice that we have tried to fill that void with pleasure, possessions, and ambition rather than compassion, grace, and generosity which can ultimately heal our broken world.
Two years ago, Trudy went through a painful divorce. Having grown up in a chaotic, alcoholic family, her parents did not provide a structure that made her feel safe. In order to cope with her environment, she became a control freak, manipulating people, places, and things to bring order into her life. In her adult life, this coping mechanism became harmful as she tried to over-protect her children, sweeping into their lives at the first sign of distress. She tried to control her husband, being overly demanding, not allowing him his own space and preferences. Over time, her children began to act out and her husband became distant, finally asking for a divorce after 23 years of marriage. Now Trudy is suffering greatly, not knowing where to turn or how to go on.
If Jesus were to meet Trudy today, perhaps he would say to her: Change the way you think or your relationships will die. Repent. Your old coping skills of control and manipulation are creating distance between you and your loved ones. I understand that you grew up in a toxic environment where you had little power to change the behavior of your parents. I am saddened that your needs were invalidated, creating a lack of trust in those who were suppose to protect you. But can’t you see that your old life is in the past and a new life is awaiting you? Don’t you understand that your fear of losing control is a spiritual divider? It separates you from your spiritual self and makes it difficult for you to surrender to the Holy One who created you in the divine image. Your need to control comes from a place of fear and is your response to lessen the shame. But there is no place for fear and shame in God’s kingdom. “Come to me you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” [Mt. 11] “Do not let your heart be troubled, and do not let it be afraid…My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” [Jn. 14] For with God, all things are possible, even the healing of your heart and mind.
Whether it is shame, fear, low self-esteem, automatic negative thoughts, unforgiven hurts, difficult childhoods, or physical disadvantages, our mental health is key to an abundant life. Most of the suffering we experience begins in our minds with distorted and harmful thinking. And while suffering will remain part and parcel of the human condition, Jesus offers us a piece of godly advice that can reduce our suffering and points to an abundant life. And that advice is to repent: to turn toward the light, to change our distorted way of thinking, to put on the mind of Christ, and to allow God’s thoughts to become our thoughts. Repentance is a Lenten discipline. It is the path that leads to salvation, the path of health and wholeness. Repentance is the good news of today’s gospel.