The Confession of a Recovering Settler

A Sermon Preached on The Third Sunday of Lent
at St. Thomas, Kefalas 11:00 am March 24, 2019

The Readings appointed for the Third Sunday of Lent

“Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Luke 13.5
“Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Isaiah 55.7

hair shirt

A hairshirt, or cilice, worn by a penitent Christian as an undergarment.

Repentance

When you hear the word, “Repent!” what do you think or feel?

Some think of clergy telling people to fix up their moral life. Others reflect on theirs sins. I associate repentance with visions of people in ashes and hairshirts, overwhelming remorse. The Greek word in the New Testament translated as “repentance” is μετανοώ. In ordinary Greek it just means “I change my mind”, which is a more useful way for me to understand it. Changing my mind does not involve outward signs of remourse like sitting in ashes, or a hidden punishment like a hairshirt. Rather, “changing my mind” is focused inward, and can be a series of decisions, small ones that accumulate in a dramatic change over time, like interest at a bank. For me repentance is not a one-time life event, but something I do all my life as I strive for an inward and spiritual change responding to outward and material facts. It is manifested in action towards anyone who has been harmed by my actions, a responsibility to the other, whether that is God or my neighbour.

Today’s gospel reading is about changing your mind. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” The parable of the fig tree is all about the urgency of repentance. So, whether small steps or something dramatic, the time to act is now.

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The Surrender of Job

The Ten Commandments as Confession

In the Orthodox tradition confession involves the priest reviewing the Ten Commandments with the penitent. Do you remember the Ten Commandments? We do not talk about it as much today in the Church of England, but it used to be part of the Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer. It was a part of the Catechism that all Christians were expected to learn and memorize, and it was often written on the walls of churches to one side of the altar. Reflecting on them is not a bad way to begin one’s own repentance. Indulge, me then, while I run through them, in one of their shortened forms:

Then shall the Priest, turning to the People, rehearse distinctly The Ten Commandments; and the People, still kneeling, shall, after every Commandment, ask God mercy for their transgressions for the time past, and grace to keep the law for the time to come.

Ten_Commandments_altar_screen_in_the_Temple_Church_London

The Ten Commandments immediately above the Communion Table. The Temple Church, London.

GOD spake these words, and said:
I am the LORD thy God; Thou shalt have none other gods but me.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Do we have any other gods? We probably think ourselves as good monotheists, but it may be that we follow and worship other deities, only we call them other things.

Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them:
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

What are our idols? Or better, who are our idols? Some of us idolize economic systems and see the invisible hand of God in capitalism (or socialism, or in earlier eras, mercantilism). Some of us blindly follow political leaders who can do no wrong. Some bow down to liberal values, not recognizing that non-Europeans may not see them as the verities.Buildings can become idols, things to preserve long after they have lost any function or historical significance. Even the institution of the church can become an idol. What human constructions do we treat as God-given?

american-idol-final-31-e1526999609646

One of them is work. Many professions demand that people work long hours, encouraging people to neglect their families and their own health. The result is often early heart attacks or burnout.

Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain;
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

This is usually taken to be about blasphemy. I always distinguish between blasphemy and profanity, and I try to avoid the former, but may be known to do the latter. I do not swear much, mainly because when I do it is an expression of uncontrolled anger, and I do not like to lose control that way. It frightens people, and it makes me ashamed. Casual blasphemy and profanity is often used to emphasis a point being made, and I just wish people would be more imaginative and move on to using more than just the same one or two words as adjectives or adverbs.

Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath-day.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

The Jewish understanding of שַׁבָּתShabbat is that it is an echo of the seventh day of creation, on which God rested; shabbat means “to cease”. And, as we know from living in Greece, the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, Saturday, or in Greek, Σάββατο. Today is Κυριακή, the Lord’s Day, or Sunday in ordinary English. However, Christianity somehow transferred the sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, and my father, growing up in a Calvinist household, was never allowed to do much on a Sunday other than to go to church or perhaps read a book. Certainly one did not play games, or go shopping. Things have loosened up up a bit.

However, this commandment not just about paying attention to God. It is also a matter of justice. God did not rest because God needed to, God rested because creation would need to. Everybody deserves a day off. The full text in Exodus 20 reads:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The text points out that everyone should be getting at least one day in seven off – including your children, your slaves and servants, or the foreigner among you.

Honour thy father and thy mother;
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our’ hearts to keep this law.

I have wondered about this one. It is often read as requiring obedience from children to their parents, but I think it is more. I suspect this is also a matter of justice. The Ten Commandments emerged at a time when there were no pensions and no social safety net. This is really about taking care of parents in their old age. Are we taking care of the vulnerable people closest to us?

Thou shalt do no murder.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Perhaps I am naive, but I suspect that neither of these are not big issues for most of you. Do I presume too much of this rather ordinary Anglican congregation?

Thou shalt not steal.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

Again, this is presumably not too much of an issue for any of us – except when it comes to dealing with the Greek taxation system.

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.

This is probably about giving testimony in legal proceedings, but we may extend it to gossip. Do we tell stories, whether we know them to be true or false, simply for amusement?

Thou shalt not covet
Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.

And what do we covet? Most of us are at a point in life where we are getting rid of things, not acquiring them, but we might still be filled with jealousy and resentments.

I suspect that all of us, as I recired and reflected on these commandments, found something from which we needed to turn, something about which we need to change our minds. But most of this is at a personal level, and I think we can go beyond that.

The Confession of a Recovering Settler

I come from a land that was colonized for over four hundred years. My ancestors left the borderlands of Scotland in the 1830s. They looked to get land to farm, and the ownership of land was a dream beyond their poor means if they stayed in the old country. So they boarded ships and went to New Brunswick, then a colony in British North America. They cut down trees, they farmed their land, fished, and over just a few generations they received education that allowed them to become engineers, doctors and other such professions.

But where did the land come from that they settled? There were peoples there before them. In the region that my paternal forebears settled they were the Miꞌkmaq, a people who were are are still in eastern Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. The French government of New France and then their successors, the British colonial regimes, too the land from them and forced them to live on small reserves. Many died from disease and famine; numbers are contested, but anywhere from 50% to 90% of the population was killed off, either deliberately or but callous indifference. So, looking at historical facts, I have benefited from the theft of land and the genocide of indigenous peoples. I know people whose ancestors were the subjects of this colonial genocide, the trauma of which carries on to this day. Now, I am not the cause of this, so no personal guilt accrues to me – but perhaps the real issue is this: what is my responsibility? Is it not to try in Christian compassion to make things right? As Jesus proclaims in Luke 4, quoting from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

This may not be the personal repentance that we associate with the Ten Commandments, but it is a participation in God’s salvation that requires a change of mind on my part, a new perspective and an imaginative response. It is a matter which is of the greatest political significance today in my home of Canada, and I believe a real issue for Canadian Christians.

Mikmaq-Women-Face-Police-Elsipogtog-FN

A protest against fracking in 2013 led by the women of the Elsipogtog First Nation in Rexton, New Brunswick, Canada, near where my paternal forebears received land.

What is the correct response? Biblical scholars associate the passage above with the Jubilee, the time that comes every forty-nine years – a sabbath of sabbaths – in which things are returned to their rightful owners. If we are carrying on the mission of Christ, what does it mean to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour? Now, obviously those descended from colonists and immigrants are not going to go back to where their ancestors came from, but is there a meaningful way to make things right for the descendants of the colonized? I believe the answer is yes, but it will require much negotiation, more listening than talking, and a willingness to let go rather than holding on for dear life. It means putting oneself in the other person’s position and thinking like them – creatively changing our minds. It means being in relationships, perhaps uncomfortable ones. It means going beyond apologies and acting to make amends.

Repentance – the Holy Spirit driven changing of mind –  is serious business, whether at the personal level or at a communal one. It is challenging and unsettling. But it is the means by which we draw close to God our creator and the neighbours with who we live. As we continue to walk from Ashes to Easter in this season of Lent, may we be drawn to the water which God so freely offers us in Christ Jesus.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
This entry was posted in Canadian Issues, Lent, Sermons, Unsettling Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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