Christians (Lutherans perhaps especially) like to talk all the time about forgiveness.
We love love love forgiveness.
And as an extra bonus, we can even talk about forgiveness in polite company.
But unless we’re reading those super uncomfortable Advent texts featuring John the Baptist (that wild-haired, wild-eyed, wild-mannered guy in our lectionary about whom we’re always a bit embarrassed, looking at each other with wide eyes whenever Sundays in December come around, knowing that this strange man got in our scriptural tradition somehow, and so apparently the right thing to do is to figure out how to welcome him into our lecterns, even though we all know we’re not so sure we’d even let him into our pews, and definitely not our pulpits), this man who wields the word ‘repentance’ all the time (much to our chagrin), we have (in stark contrast to ‘forgiveness’) gotten away for far too long without talking about repentance so very much at all.
But this is good, we think.
To tell someone to repent, you see, is awkward.
It’s even insulting.
It’s definitely conflictual.
And Christians aren’t supposed to make people feel awkward, and we are not about being impolite, and we shouldn’t insult, and of course we ought not cause conflict in the name of Christ, no matter what this John the Baptist said and did.
But on this tragic, grief-ridden day of the Emanuel Nine, a day that is bundled into other days that have spilled into weeks where our nation has begun to name and claim our racist underpinnings and undertow, it is precisely a moment, in fact a very, very, overdue moment, to speak directly about repentance.
You see, as unwelcome as repentance is as coffeetable, let alone pulpit, discourse, to indict someone by announcing that they must repent…well, arguably, you can’t really get more Lutheran.
Because telling someone to repent means that we are Calling A Thing What It Is.
Martin Luther used this phrase in the 21st Thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation, a series of propositions he presented to his Augustinian Order after he caught a little attention the prior year by nailing some 95 other theses onto a certain door in Wittenberg.
Point is, in this particular thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation, the 21st, he wrote this:
“The theology of glory calls ‘evil’ ‘good,’ and ‘good’ ‘evil.’
A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”
Telling someone that they need to repent simply calls a thing what it is.
White people, and we as a nation, and we as the ELCA, must repent of our racism, and we can’t do that unless we call it what it is.
Today we mark the Emmanuel Nine, and we say their names.
Reverend and Senator Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Mrs. Cynthia Graham Hurd
Mrs. Susie J. Jackson
Mrs. Ethel Lee Lance
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
Reverend Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Kibwe Diop Sanders
Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr.
Mrs. Myra Singleton Quirles Thompson
These black children of God died because Dylann Roof, a 21-year old far-right white supremacist and member of an ELCA congregation—and, lest we forget, also a child of God—sought to incite a race war by massacring black people whom, he believed, were “taking over the world.”
Somehow his online far-right radicalization held more power over him than did the call—if one was uttered clearly, or loudly, or at all?—to repent of it.
It is overwhelmingly poignant that the commemoration of this horrific crime falls just weeks after George Floyd was murdered and our country—even including the NASCAR community (!!)—is beginning to notice our entrenched, latent, systemic racism.
That’s the first step, of course, to Calling A Thing What It Is.
But we can’t notice, really, unless things are pointed out, unless things are named.
Only then do we have a chance to engage the holy act of repentance.
Rostered leaders are called to be pointer-outers, to be name-ers, to be Calling-A-Thing-What-It-Is-ers.
They are called by the Church at Large and then are called by specific congregations to steward the gospel which, contrary to a pretty decent share of Lutheran understanding, is not that your sins are forgiven.
The gospel, instead, is that Jesus is risen.
So when you invite someone into your community to a ministry of Word and Sacrament or Word and Service, you are calling them into your community to preach, teach, and live out the gospel.
That latter part, of course, this living out the gospel thing, isn’t just their professional vocation, but is their—our—baptismal one too.
The thing of it is, of course, is that the gospel would be positively irrelevant and in point of fact unnecessary if everything were fine, fine, just fine.
There is no need, that is, to pronounce life if life abounds for all anyway.
But the thing of it is, the gospel is precisely relevant because there is still death, and an abundance of it.
And be not mistaken: death is present not just of the six-feet under kind, but of the kind that steals hopes, and spirits, and possibilities, and even our very humanity.
Racism is a tool of death.
And we need leaders of and in the Church to Call That Thing What It Is, because they are called—by all baptized Christians, including you!—to be theologians of the cross, to know that where there is death, precisely there is where there can be possibility of life.
If you want a theology of glory, if you want to be told that all is well when it is not, if you want a (self-proclaimed) leader who says “Peace, Peace,” when there is not peace, go MAGA (and look up Jeremiah 6:14 and surrounding verses).
MAGA puts babies in cages, and separates children from parents, and builds walls, and removes rights, and calls the KKK good people, and after violently forcing peaceful demonstrators off of the streets uses a holy church as a mere backdrop to score a political point with an upside down Bible held by a man who neither opens the book nor enters the building, and MAGA calls all such evil good.
(The leader of that Church’s synod, by the way, Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, Called a Thing What It Is about all that nonsense, I’ll tell you what.)
But if you want a pastoral leader whose primary vocation is to proclaim the gospel, which means announcing life, you also called a leader who, inherent to that very call, needs to announce death.
So sit tight, then, because leaders are themselves becoming all the more aware that we all have some repenting to do.
That means it’s about to get awkward, and impolite, and insulting, and conflictual.
We can now appreciate how the crowds who heard John the Baptist felt.
But perhaps unbeknownst to them, and even to us, it is also about to get life-out-of-death-y too.
As it turns out, of course, it’s not just the primary vocation of a pastoral leader to announce and engage in repentance: it’s the primary vocation of any baptized Christian.
Pick up your cross, says the one who was himself baptized by, of all people and inconveniently, John the Baptist, yes, the one and the same, this wild-eyed, wild-haired, wild-way-ed man who at most every turn announced repentance as a mark of the reign and way of God.
“Be willing to die to all that is not of God, and follow me,” says Jesus.
Don’t follow MAGA.
Don’t follow racism.
Don’t follow white privilege.
But follow, rather, Jesus.
Repent, you see, repent of all that is not of God.
Let that die, so that you and others may live.
All of this is true.
But what is also true, on this tragic day five years ago, is that righteous people, faithful people, sisters and brothers in Christ people, died so that racism, rather than righteousness, could live.
Today, that is, there are nine six-foot-under deaths—nine of them—which need to be recalled.
Their deaths matter.
Remember their deaths, and remember their names.
And then in their honor be willing to also name the death-dealing ways of racism and our unwillingness to call it—on personal, congregational, denominational, national, and systemic levels—what it is.
And then repent.
If we can find the courage to hear racism be called what it is, namely not of God, not good, and in fact evil, we will discover that John the Baptist, as wild as his hair and his eyes and his ways were, was right.
Repent, he said, for the Reign of God is, indeed, near.