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May-June Network Journal

Repent and Believe
Delivered by Rev. Glenda Hope on March 9, 2003 at St. John's Presbyterian Church.

Mark 1:9-15

"Repent and Believe!" The caller on the other end of the phone line said: "What?"

"I heard you on the answering machine asking why I'm at home and that's the answer. I'm trying to write a sermon on 'repent and believe'."

"Hmmm," she replied. "Both are hard."

So true. So I propose to begin with the previous line: "The Realm of Heaven is upon you."

The Realm of Heaven. The Kingdom of God. We speak those words every Sunday - too often in a rote, unthinking way - and we would do well to ponder what is meant by them, asking if we are aware enough to dare pray this prayer: "Thy Kingdom Come. Thy Will be Done. On Earth…"

The Realm of God is not a place - on this earth or in the life to come - not a state of being nor a set of beliefs. It is a power, a process already transforming all that is, coming into the world in the person, words, liberating practices of Jesus, yet also open to fullness and fulfillment tomorrow through all those who do repent - changing life direction - embracing the Realm of Heaven on Earth and being embraced by it.

The Realm of Heaven is both something given and something required.

Here's where it gets tricky for us with our linear thinking. Embracing the Realm of God requires a radical change, ruthlessly rooting out all those other gods clamoring and conniving for our allegiance. We cannot embrace this new way of being unless we repent. And yet. We cannot repent unless we already know ourselves to be embraced by the God of unconditional and unswerving Love.

Remember learning to ride a bicycle? Wobbling along with some bigger, stronger person holding the seat and handlebars; then just the seat; then discovering - YEOW!! - that the one steadying you is half a block behind?

Repenting - an active verb connoting what we do rather than just how we feel - is like that. We can't do it without knowing there is someone to steady us before we wobble over; then, having experienced exhilarating new powers, knowing there is someone who will patch us up when we fall, as we inevitably will.

Repenting and believing are simultaneous, each reinforcing and informing the other. Crystal teaches us about that. Coming, at age 47, to our SafeHouse for Women Leaving Prostitution she related the familiar story of horrific childhood abuse and incest, continued abuse as an adult, drug problems and incarceration. After completing the intensive program we offer, including counseling, health care, money management, vocational testing and training, basic nutrition classes and more, Crystal graduated. A little later she wrote:

When I arrived at SafeHouse I felt alone and terrified that I wouldn't fit in. Thank goodness I got over my fears. The staff was very good to me. Everyone took time to listen to me. I was able to challenge myself and find an inner strength I didn't know I possessed. While I was at SafeHouse I found a sponsor and entered into service in AA. After leaving, I shared a house with active addicts for 8 months until I could get my own little place. I visited SafeHouse very often. I increased my service commitments in NA and AA. I'm glad I learned the value of 'giving back' while I was at SafeHouse. SafeHouse has been extremely supportive since my graduation. I'm so happy to be included in activities there. I know I'm not alone. It feels wonderful to be part of something so positive.

Repent: change your life direction. Believe: trust in the Gospel, the Good News.

She sponsors 5 people in the 12 step program, is an active participant in her church, comes back to SafeHouse to inspire and encourage current residents, is always on call and available as a support to other graduates and recently, at my request, told the residents of the role gratitude plays in her continued recovery. During our group prayer of thanksgiving, she gave thanks that she is not yet on dialysis and we gave thanks that on that day we could bring out a fancy cake to celebrate the 50th birthday she never expected to see. Crystal embraced and was embraced by SafeHouse as a place of transformation, painful and demanding as that is, at the same time helping to create this new reality.

She described SafeHouse as a "place where women can come and plan for a new and fulfilling life." Your gifts help make possible this program as an agent and a sign of the Realm of God. Yet our budget is thin and tight and endangered even as the President of our country offers a $15 billion (that's 15,000,000,000 - nine zeros) bribe to Turkey to allow us to use them as a launching pad for the invasion of another country.

Repentance is not only for our individual sin; it must also be for our corporate sin.

Mark's terse summation of Jesus' time in the wilderness "he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him" (1:13b) points up a portion of our corporate sin by harking back to the idyllic life of harmony portrayed in the first two chapters of Genesis and the promise so powerfully portrayed by Isaiah. "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea." (11:6 and 9) In Jesus, the harmony of all Creation is again coming into being. Do you believe that? You are all caring and informed people so there is no need to recount the many ways human beings are despoiling God's beautiful Creation. In this time of Lent, let us each ponder how we might personally change some way of behaving which would become Creation-healing. Make at least one day each week a meat-free day, not as a sacrifice but as a witness to the Realm of Heaven among us. Make the effort to ride the bus when you otherwise might have driven your car and do it prayerfully in a spirit of repentance. A cartoon depicts a woman saying "If we drove alone we'd consume 10 times the energy we use riding BART." Her companion answers: "It's good not driving a weapon of mass consumption." Pray for the driver and all the others riding with you. Then move on to the corporate level - perhaps God is calling you to make visible the Realm of Heaven by locating and working with a conservation group. Or consider this: Congress is even now being petitioned to roll back the nonproliferation policy and to approve an enormous appropriation for developing the "robust nuclear earth penetrator", a weapon with 5 times the explosive power of the one we dropped on Hiroshima. Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, member of the House Armed Services Committee, exclaimed: "I don't see how we look at all the nuclear wannabes in the face when we are going to now launch ourselves into a whole series of new weapons." David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, continued, "It develops a lot of paranoia among proliferating states who believe the U.S. is planning to attack them." (SF Chronicle March 8, 2003) Members of Congress and the administration need to hear from people of faith about this.

Change the focus. Tomorrow begins a week of workshops and seminars focusing our attention on the 75 million Americans who were without any health insurance during some part of last year, 80% of whom were in working families. For Network Ministries, Dana is a constant reminder of that part of our ministry which is devoted to working for political change. At age 57, Dana came to our SafeHouse struggling with the effects of a lifetime of abuse, and the dual challenge of being both educationally limited and mentally ill. She has successfully completed an intensive course of substance abuse treatment, is working hard to overcome her functional illiteracy and doggedly struggled through the Beginning Class at our Computer Training Center where she chose the moniker: Determined Dana. She wants to make her own way and has started doing janitorial work. Dana has no upper teeth, her dentures were stolen (perhaps for their trace amounts of dental gold) while she slept in a homeless shelter, a loss affecting her appearance, self-esteem, health and speech. We are rushing to get those teeth replaced because the proposed state and city budgets would eliminate dental care assistance and Dana, lacking health insurance, would be out of luck. Both budgets also propose eliminating asthma relief products and Dana, whose asthma is severe, could be out of life if they are adopted. Along with 48,302 senior citizens and 20,538 disabled persons, she would also be hit with a total loss of Medi-Cal coverage. We who have health insurance and believe that when "the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, [and] the poor are hearing the good news (Matthew 11:5)" God's Realm will be upon us, dare not be silent in the face of the suffering of our own poor, disabled and old people. All this week there will be free and informative seminars where we will be advised of specific actions we could choose to take in order to right this wrong and promote health care for everyone as a sign of our belief in the present and yet-to-be healing Realm of God.

The Realm of God cannot be reduced to the merely political, much less to any one nation or ideology. We who believe in the Gospel are empowered to make known the forgiveness and love of God in Christ Jesus as others have made it known to us. Perhaps we who are the Church must repent of holding on to old ways and being closed to new ways for communicating the Gospel in our worship and our communal life.

Neither can the Realm of God be reduced to the merely religious. It is pervasive, challenging and changing any societal structures which break, hurt, divide or destroy people and other parts of God's world.

Leonardo Boff wrote: "To pray 'Thy kingdom come,' is to activate the most radical hopes of the heart, so that it will not succumb to the continual brutality of present absurdities that occur at the personal and social level. Whenever bonds of fellowship, of harmony, of participation, and of respect for the inviolable dignity of every person are created, then the Kingdom of God has begun to dawn." (The Lord's Prayer, p. 61)

Perhaps our call to repentance is linked to our fear that active involvement in creating earthly history will lead us into conflict with the "continual brutality of present absurdities." It will. Jesus came preaching after the arrest of John and if the people of St. John's follow the call to repent and believe - embracing and being embraced by the Gospel, the Good News, of ever deepening discipleship - there will be conflict, because the Realm of God is in opposition to the existing diabolical structures, forces, patterns, of thought and action leading to the horrors of our time.

As you make those much-needed sandwiches today, do it prayerfully, asking why we have all these hungry people - this growing number of homeless people - in the richest country on earth. As you make those sandwiches, picture this: gangs of kids, some not yet teens, gather in front of our office in the Tenderloin hanging out, dealing drugs, shooting craps. There is not much for them to do in the Tenderloin and what few programs do exist are to be drastically cut in the proposed City budget, even as major corporations - Bank of America, Chevron, Bechtel and others - petition to have their property taxes reduced from already low levels. Meanwhile, Network Ministries works with a handful of children in our own building and through after-school programs at our Computer Center, trying to keep them out of gangs and to give them other hopes for their futures. We offer these services knowing that without intervention fewer than half of Tenderloin children will graduate from high school. Without a diploma, in a few years we'll be making sandwiches - or building prisons - for many of them.

Just yesterday, I had brunch with eighteen materially comfortable, well educated, articulate people - good people - Jews and Christians and Buddhists - some of whom were saying we can only work with individuals, help people "one at a time," since we cannot affect policy. We must work with Dana and Crystal and Daniel and Thomas one at a time, but we must also work all our lives to affect policy. After all, someone is going to affect policy and if it is not us it will be people who do not share our values, our faith that "the Realm of Heaven is upon us." Perhaps what we most need to repent of - allowing ourselves to be transformed - is our own lack of belief that we can make a change in the world around us or, in fact, that there can ever be real change.

We need to hear the Gospel belief voiced by Henry, a man we first met when he was living in a homeless shelter while taking classes in our Computer Center. Henry parlayed those computer skills into a position as resident manager, then supervisor, of a residential hotel. I conducted a memorial service in Henry's hotel for Kenny, a cantankerous, contentious chap who was nevertheless a child of God. Henry mused: "I know Kenny is in Heaven. I see God as a hippie teacher who says 'just keep showing up and do the best you can.'"

Repent: Pray that we do not allow our hearts to "succumb to the… brutality of present absurdities." Don't give up. Show up.

Believe: Do the best you can. This is the Gospel, the Good News: the Realm of Heaven is at hand and we are the ones God trusts to make that known.