A Pandemic Sermon on Meditation as Repentance
(sorry for 2 emails today, I just wanted folks to have this in case it might help...if not, just ignore!)
My sermon preached this morning at (an empty) St John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Denver.
(sermon starts at 15 min…but the whole service is lovely!)
3rd Sunday of Epiphany, 2021
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Grace, Peace and Mercy are yours from the Triune God. Amen.
So, my own pandemic fatigue got bad back in October.
Being stuck in my little one bedroom apartment for months started to feel like having to do time in a cell with a member of an enemy gang, except that the enemy was me – specifically - my own brain. I couldn’t stop my scurrying thoughts of doom and I couldn’t stop wondering when I would ever see my family and friends again, and I couldn’t stop wondering if maybe our entire civilization is collapsing, and is that little headache I have COVID. My psyche did not know how to handle the rising death toll. I began to turn on myself and turn on others because if I can’t control anything at least I can find someone to blame and if I can't assign blame at least I can correct someone on Twitter.
And then none of that worked and so I just watched more Netflix and ate more ice cream.
It was then that my best friend suggested I try meditating, which felt like an act of aggression against me. I’ve never given meditation much of a go before because every time I tried it, all I could do is perseverate over how bad I was at meditating and that kind of self-loathing didn't seem like it was helping me spiritually so I thought thanks but no thanks.
But I was desperate. So I downloaded a meditation app and just did the thing even though I’m like, really bad at sitting perfectly still and clearing my thoughts. And look, I know I’m 51 and a so-called spiritual leader so maybe this shouldn't have been such a surprise to me, but – it’s not that bad. I mean, it’s actually kind of great, once I was able go let go of thinking I had to be “good” at it.
See, what I learned from the teachers I listened to is that, the gift of meditation isn’t in being able to maintain a still mind (although that’s great), the gift of meditation is in the messing it up – it’s in being carried away in thinking and then realizing you are thinking and then returning to the meditation.
Meditation’s magic is in the returning. Not in the never having left.
Theologically speaking, there’s a word for that. It’s repentance.
I’ve read this morning’s Gospel text hundreds of times in my life and yet something struck me this week for the first time about WHEN it was that Jesus said these, his first words in Mark: see, beforeJesus proclaims this first little mini sermon of his, some pretty intense stuff happens. He’s baptized in the Jordan, the Spirit descends on him and God says this is my beloved. Then the same spirit drives him into the wilderness for a prolonged time of some serious social distancing – he fasts and wanders and is tempted by Satan and is with the wild beasts followed by his cousin being thrown in jail and only then, only then does he finally speak up and when he does he says:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”
See, Jesus didn't wait until Herod was dealt with and his preferred political party was in office and he had total freedom of movement and everyone in his family was doing well and he himself had optimized his workout and nutrition to say
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.
He said it amidst some less than ideal circumstances.
Maybe it’s the fact that we are living through a global pandemic and economic collapse and political insurrection, but this is the first time I ever thought about the timing of all that. And it made me wonder if I have been waiting until “things get better” to see that the time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand believe the Good news.
So, somehow realizing how weird and unstable Jesus’ own conditions were when he said all that allowed for my own repentance this week. It allowed for my own returning.
Now, I know the word repentance has gotten bad wrap, as if it is the priggish cry of a pearl-clutching moral elite demanding the immediate lifestyle changes of people more interesting than themselves.
But repentance or metanoia in Greek is far more than cleaning up your act. Repentance means changing your mind and changing your direction and changing your heart. And the cool thing is that in Greek it implies a continual action, not something that happens just once and then you’re good.
So this week as I practiced meditating and I found my thoughts crowding back into my mind just as soon as I cleared it like freshly rakes leaves on a windy day, I’d hear Jesus saying “the kingdom of God has come near, Repent and believe the good news” and I would come back to stillness and my breath. And then I’d start wondering if I have all the ingredients to make that soup I am planning for dinner and if that one person is mad at me because I said something stupid and then I’d hear “The kingdom of God is near repent and believe this good news”. And again I’d return. This is the beauty of our faith, that repentance gets to be a continual action.
This is the beauty of our faith, not that we once were bad but now we’re good, but that Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling us out of our trances. Again and again. The trance of thinking that we will be happy when everything is as we think it should be. The trance of white supremacy in which we are hypnotized by Satan’s lies. The trance of self-interest. The trance of self-righteousness. The trance of self-loathing. Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling us out of the empty promises of our personal and cultural trances and into what is most true and most real – this present moment, where the time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. It is not to be found in moments that have past or moments that have not yet come to pass.
And part of the good news we are called to repent and believe is that there is no upper limit to the times we can return to God by changing our minds or changing our hearts or changing our direction. It is not like the three tries you have to remember your password before the system locks you out.
The gates of repentance are always open.
And there is no distance we must travel to get to the doors of the kingdom.
The kingdom our Lord ushered in as close to us as our own breath… arriving with this breath and this breath.
You need not show your papers or take a citizenship test to enter the place where we find our deepest belonging.
The time has already been fulfilled before you even got here.
Repent and believe the good news.
Find out more about St John’s Cathedral
(I am delighted to be a long-time friend of and the cathedral)
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