Revolutionary Repentance

“What then should we do?” — Luke 3:2-18

In the first chapter of Genesis, God tells the newly created humans to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”

I think we can safely cross that one off our to-do list.

When Jesus was born, there were fewer than half a billion people on earth, and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere was less than 300 ppm – as it had been for hundreds of thousands of years. Today, there are over seven billion people on earth, and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is over 398 ppm.

Now, here is a problem our ancestors never saw coming. So what does our faith tradition have to say to those of us who live in this brave new world of overpopulation and industrialization, of climate change and environmental degradation? When we read in the headlines of 500-year droughts and raging wildfires, of melting ice-caps and vanishing species; what scriptures do we turn to? Where do we find resonance? Where do we find hope?

Thursday morning, I was among the millions of people who tuned in to watch Pope Francis as he spoke to the United States Congress. In the middle of that speech, he told the lawmakers, “I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference. I am sure.”

This is the sort of language that caused Fox commentator Greg Gutfield to describe the Pope as the most dangerous person on the planet. Dangerous, because he calls upon us to change our course. Francis has asked for nothing less than a “bold cultural revolution” to liberate both the planet, and the planet’s poor — and he talks as if he believes it could happen.

In the past year I have been struck by the fact that many of the same people who used to deny the possibility of climate change, are now saying that climate change is already here and there’s nothing we can do about it. One minute it was too soon to tell; the next minute it was too late to act. We seem to have jumped straight from complacency to resignation, without any room in between for urgency. Without any room for hope.

But here is the Pope, claiming that we not only should, but could, do something. Here is the Pope, expressing both urgency and hope.

Of course, there are some who might point out that the Pope is not an authority on climate science, any more than Donald Trump is an authority on pediatric vaccinations. But the Pope makes no claim to know the science better than the scientists. His information comes from published research, not special revelation. But his urgency, and his hope – where do they come from?

Well, I can’t speak for Francis, but let’s go looking for ourselves:

John the Baptist appears at the River Jordan, fresh from the wilderness. He wears a coat of camel’s hair, he eats locusts and wild honey,he is a nature freak if ever we saw one. He stands there, with his feet in the flowing water, and says: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

I suspect that for most of us, a call to repentance wouldn’t really qualify “good news.” In fact, public calls to repentance often produce something of a backlash. No one wants to be publicly taken to task for their errors. It makes us feel ashamed, or defensive, or both. We don’t want to hear that we are “to blame” for global warming and so we tune out the science that makes us feel guilty.

But the word, “repentance” – or rather, the Biblical word metanoia – that word does not mean, “to feel ashamed.” The Biblical word metanoia means to change. To change our hearts and minds, and to change our lives, to change direction. Or, as Pope Francis puts it: “to redirect our steps.”

A better translation might be, “revolution.”

And so it is with John the Baptist; when the people ask John, “What then shall we do?” he doesn’t tell them to fast or to do penance or say five hail Marys . Instead, he tells them: If you have two coats, share one. If you have extra food, share that. If you have power, stop using it for your own profit.

John the Baptist comes along, wearing his cruelty-free clothing, and eating his macrobiotic diet, and calls the powerful to repent. No wonder Herod decided the John was the most dangerous person in Judea. He was calling for nothing less than a “bold cultural revolution.”

“Revolution” may seem like a strong word, but the truth is that repentance is always revolutionary, that hope is always revolutionary. “For who hopes for what he already has?” So asks the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans. Such revolutionary hope, Paul believed, was not confined to the human race, but was shared by all creation:

“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

Paul may never have envisioned a world with over 7 billion people, or a climate endangered by human activity, but he understood that the redemption of creation and the redemption of the human race were inseparable. And he had hope, that such redemption was possible. A hope based not on a clear vision of the future, but on a firm grounding in the past. God had liberated Israel from Egypt; God had liberated Jesus from the grave; and just as miraculously, God had liberated Paul  from his own prejudice and hatred. If God could do all this, then surely, God might liberate creation as well.

God of creation:
Fill us with the hope of Paul,
and the urgency of John.
May we believe the good news,
and repent.

PHOTO is of street art installation by Isaac Cordal; click here for the source, and for more images of his extraordinary work (blog text is in French, but the images need no words…)

TEXT from sermon originally preached by Rev. Liza B. Knapp at Belchertown United Church of Christ, September 27, 2015.


“With a Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm…”

Remember that you were once a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. – Deuteronomy 5: 12-15 (NRSV, adapt.)

On the last full day of my family’s New York vacation, we spent the whole day in Manhattan. We visited the Sony Technology Museum on Madison Avenue, and the American Girl Doll Store on Fifth Avenue, and then went uptown to have dinner with my Uncle on the Upper East Side. We ordered pizza and shared an expensive cake that had been given to us for free because we happened to be passing by when a delivery boy accidentally dropped it on the sidewalk. (It was still in the box, so it was clean, just messy.)

Afterwards, we drove across the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn, where we were renting an Airbnb apartment for the week. As we came off the bridge, a transformation occurred. Here there were only a few stores open and only a few people on the street: small groups of maybe two or three men walking together, dressed in long black coats and cylindrical fur hats. Most had beards; all had the long curled sidelocks that are the mark of an observant Hasidic Jew. And most remarkably, none of them seemed to be in a rush.

It was Friday evening, and Sabbath had begun.

The day before, we had taken our kids on the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. In the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, there is a museum, and in that museum, there is a glass case containing a hundred-plus years of Statue-themed souvenirs. Among these artifacts, there is a Menorah, an eight-armed candelabra used during the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah. Each of the menorah’s arms is a small figure of the Statue of Liberty, her arm uplifted to hold the candle.

The man who made that menorah was a German-born Jew, named Manfred Anson. Anson was a teenager when the Nazis came into power. Leaving his parents behind, he managed to escape the country, travelling first to Australia, and then to the United States. Anson’s brother died in a Nazi concentration camp, but his sister survived, and the two of them were eventually reunited in America.

I thought of Anson’s menorah, as we drove through Brooklyn on Friday evening, past the men on their way home for Sabbath. And I wondered at the meaning that the Statue of Liberty must have had for Anson, and for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants who sailed into New York harbor, to be welcomed by her strong hand and outstretched arm.

On one level it seems like it would be almost sacrilegious, to incorporate such an iconically American figure into an ancient Jewish ritual. But the celebration of Hanukkah, the celebration of Passover, the celebration of the Sabbath, all of these are rituals of remembrance. They are the means by which Jewish families teach their children the story of their deliverance. Maybe the Statute of Liberty helped Anson to remember his.

You shall not oppress the alien who dwells among you; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in Egypt. – Exodus 23:9 (NRSV, adapt.)

The practice of Sabbath traces its origins to the Biblical book of Exodus, to the commandments given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. On the Sabbath, God tells Moses, the people of God are to refrain from all work; not only that they may take rest, but also so that they may give rest to others. You have six days to work, God says, but on the seventh day, rest from your work, so that your ox and your donkey may find relief, and your servants and even the aliens living among you may be refreshed.

In the midst of the Sabbath, in the midst of this intimate family celebration, God reminds the people to show compassion to the foreignors in their midst – for, as God reminds them, “You know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” If the core story of our faith is a story of deliverance, then the core practice of our faith is the practice of hospitality. The two go hand in hand. We welcome the stranger, for we know what it is to be strangers in a strange land.

My own ancestors didn’t sail into New York Harbor. They sailed into Massachusetts Bay. William Knapp arrived from England in 1630, aboard the same fleet as Jonathon Winthrop, the first governor of the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Colony. And those of us who are not first- or second- but twelfth-generation immigrants, sometimes forget to remind our children that we, too, were once aliens in a strange land. There’s been a lot of conversation in the news about Donald Trump’s suggestion that we should deny citizenship to what he calls “anchor babies.” But the truth is, that every Mayflower descendent is descended from an “anchor baby” – a child born on American soil to uninvited foreign-born parents. It seems that somewhere along the way, some of us have forgotten the stories of our deliverance.

But today is our Sabbath. So today, let us remember. Let us remember the ancient stories of Israel’s deliverance, and let us remember the stories of our own deliverance. And, having been guided into port at last by God’s strong hand and uplifted arm, let us in turn take up the torch, to shine that light for all to see.

statue of liberty menorah

(Excerpted from a sermon preached 9/6/2015 at Belchertown United Church of Christ)

(Photo credits: Statue of Liberty – Liza Knapp; Menorah – Smithsonian Museum of American History