|Today’s scripture readings:
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Last month I attended a presentation by the Minnesota State Economist, in which she gave her take on our state’s economic outlook. It was part of a continuing education program I’m in, run by the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University. Four times a year for two years this cohort of 13 Twin Cities clergy get together to learn about some of the challenges facing our state and to discuss the church’s role in addressing them. At last month’s gathering we heard from the State Demographer about the state’s rapidly changing demographics, and we heard from the State Economist about the impact those changes will have on Minnesota’s economic life.
We learned that the combination of falling unemployment and a growing demand for labor will likely lead to modest wage growth over the next few years. That’s good news for folks who are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession. But we also learned that the huge number of baby boomers retiring in the next 10-15 years will have a dramatic impact on the workforce. Over the next two decades we will only barely have enough workers coming into the labor force to replace all the boomers who are retiring. Economists worry that this will result in years of slower-than-normal economic growth.
It really was a fascinating, eye-opening conversation. Our State Economist is wicked smart and she’s a great teacher. It’s clear that she’s the right person for the job. But when the presentation was over and the economist left the room, we all remarked that something about the conversation just didn’t feel right. What didn’t feel right was the presumption that our happiness as a society depends on a perpetually growing economy, on finding enough new workers to replace all those who are retiring, on making sure consumers keep consuming. Or maybe, on a more fundamental level, what didn’t feel right about the conversation was just the fact that rather than talking about “people” we were talking about “workers” and “consumers,” as though you and I are nothing but little cogs in a vast economic machine that need to keep getting bigger and bigger. Is happiness really about “workers” and “consumers” growing an economy? Can abundant life really be boiled down to a GDP growth rate of at least 3% per year?
I watched a documentary recently called I’m Fine, Thanks. The filmmakers traveled around the country interviewing everyday people about how they got trapped in complacent, dull lives and careers, and the steps they took to try to chart a new course. The film captured story after story of people who had done exactly what they thought they were supposed to do in order to be happy and successful, but ended up miserable. “The job that I had was fantastic,” one man said. “On paper, it looked great. And I had a lot of friends who would have killed for my job. But I was extremely unhappy.” Another man described a time in college when he was torn between going to law school and becoming a physical therapist. His girlfriend’s dad pulled him aside one night and said, “I hear you’re considering these two options. I just want to say something to you: Even a really bad lawyer makes six figures.” I bet you can guess what choice he made, and given the kind of advice he received, I bet you can guess how that turned out for him. One woman reflected on her own experience: “It felt like I climbed the ladder and got to the top, only to realize I had leaned it against the wrong wall.” Each of the people in the film reached a breaking point and ended up choosing a radically new direction, rejecting the status quo in search of real, abundant life.
The Bible has a word for that kind of change of direction, for rejecting the things that are killing us and instead pursuing that which really gives us life. The word is “repentance.” Actually, the Biblical word is a Greek word, “metanoia,” which literally means something more like, “to change one’s mind.” When the Bible speaks of repentance, it’s about making a change and choosing a new direction.
A call to repentance is the thread running through today’s readings. God’s people are always being invited to turn away from a life of dissatisfaction and despair and to follow another path that leads to rich and abundant life.
In today’s first reading, Isaiah speaks to the Israelites who are exiled in Babylon. Decades after their beloved Jerusalem has been conquered and they have been hauled off to live in captivity among the Babylonians, the Israelites hear a word of hope. The prophet Isaiah tells them their time in exile is nearing an end, and they will be allowed to return to Jerusalem. But a strange thing seems to have happened. After all those years living as captives in Babylon, the Israelites have actually gotten sort of comfortable there. Most of those who remember life in Jerusalem have died. The younger generation has grown up in Babylon. It’s all they’ve ever known, and they have begun to put down roots there. Isaiah has proclaimed that the exile is over and the Israelites will be allowed to return home—except for most of them, Babylon is home. They don’t want to go anywhere. “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!” the prophet says. These delicacies await you in Jerusalem, Isaiah seems to say, and they are free! They are yours for the taking! So why would you rather stay here in Babylon? “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” The Israelites are invited to repent, to leave Babylon behind and receive new life in Jerusalem, but they can’t imagine anything other than the status quo. They can’t imagine how much better life could be. But the invitation to new and abundant life is there waiting for them.
The second reading tells a similar story from much further back in Israel’s history, long before the Babylonian exile. Having been led out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites got fed up as they wandered in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. God was faithful to them but they turned their backs on God and began to worship a golden calf. God gave them miraculous manna to eat in the desert but they wanted a bit more culinary variety. God led them into freedom but they longed to be back in Egypt. You would think after all those years spent as slaves in Egypt, and after their dramatic escape across the Red Sea, that the Israelites would be grateful to God for the new life they had been given. But even these Israelites of the Exodus were tempted back to the status quo. Maybe life was miserable in Egypt, but at least there they knew what to expect. Sometimes God’s offer of new life calls us out of our comfort zones into the unknown. But make no mistake: God’s invitation is an invitation to abundant life.
And in today’s Gospel lesson Luke wants us to hear that the invitation to new life won’t be there forever. We should act soon because who knows when it will be too late.
Normally talk about repentance makes me think of those hate-filled Westboro Baptist protestors or angry street preachers threatening hellfire and damnation. We have heard more than enough of that message. A lot of us have learned to avoid the topic of repentance altogether because it too often calls to mind a theology we find repulsive. But sometimes I think we are too quick to shirk the subject. Repentance isn’t about saving our souls from hell; it’s about turning away from the hell we’re already living in. The call to repentance is a call to new life. It’s a call to walk away from all that’s draining the life out of us and instead pursue that which gives us life. To use the language of our theme for Lent this year, it’s about unplugging from the things that are killing us and plugging in to the abundant life God has chosen for us. Repentance will mean saying no to business as usual and rejecting the status quo, which is almost always scary. But new life awaits.
I keep thinking about that conversation with the State Economist. What if we decided maintaining a certain level of economic growth was not our top priority? What if we repented of an economy that’s leaving too many people behind and chose a new course, building a society where our top concern is that nobody is forced to live in poverty, and everyone has a place to live and adequate food and clean water? I’m not an economist, but I do know that too many people find themselves living in an economy that’s killing them. What would it look like if we were to repent—to choose a different course and pursue abundant life?
Robert F. Kennedy once remarked that the gross domestic product measures “air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl…. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country…. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” I actually just found out the country of Bhutan decided almost 50 years ago to stop measuring its gross domestic product and instead began measuring gross domestic happiness. They have chosen to prioritize the well-being of their people over material economic growth. What would it mean for us to repent of an economy that’s making too many of us miserable and instead build something that works better for all of us?
This Lent, let’s really talk about repentance. Let’s turn away from what’s killing us and seek a different course. New and abundant life awaits.
Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, in the Westminster Bible Companion series (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998).
“Gross National Happiness,” in Wikipedia, accessed February 27, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_National_Happiness.
I’m Fine, Thanks: A Documentary, directed by Grant Peelle (2012), http://www.imfinethanksmovie.com.
Robert F. Kennedy, “Remarks at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Remarks-of-Robert-F-Kennedy-at-the-University-of-Kansas-March-18-1968.aspx.