Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, 24 March, 2019.
Texts: Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
1 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Let’s start by talking about two kinds of thirst - physical and spiritual thirst. Let’s start with physical thirst.
Have you ever been so thirsty that getting a drink of water was all you could think about?
Ten years ago I went climbing in the Alberta Rockies, and after six hours on the mountain, and with three to go on the way down, I ran out of water, just as we were getting out of the thin air and wind and back into the summer heat.
During those last hours, all I could think about was water. I felt my field of vision getting more narrow, my feet started to stumble, and I fell way behind the rest of my group. Water was all I could think about. I remember vividly how good a bottle of water tasted when I got back to the car, and how quickly I drank it.
Besides physical thirst, I suspect most of us have also known times of spiritual thirst. I think of spiritual thirst as those moments when I felt disconnected from God. I’ve had moments in my life when I was spiritually dry, when I couldn’t pray, didn’t want to go to church, and just generally felt dead inside. I don’t care to remember those moments much. I’m sorry for the things I did, and sorry that I didn’t come back to God earlier, but mostly I try to focus on how good it is not to be spiritually thirsty anymore.
Today in our gospel reading from Luke, we heard Jesus saying “repent, or you will perish”. Unless there was any doubt, he says it twice. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (Lk 13:3,5). Sometimes I think we hear this passage and we think that it is about punishment - that Jesus is saying that people died because they did bad things. But Jesus doesn’t actually talk about cause and effect. He says, very simply, if you don’t repent, then you will be just as dead as these other people are.
The word “repentance” is important to Jesus - he uses frequently, and in ways that suggest he sees it as the key to his ministry, as when he says elsewhere in Luke that “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32).
My main point today is about how we understand repentance. Too often, I think, we tend to think about repentance in terms of saying sorry for bad things that we did. We think of it as being sorry for the time we cut someone off in traffic, or for the time we shared in gossip, or when we had to put a looney in the swear jar at work. Repentance thus becomes a reflex, like saying sorry when you bump someone’s shopping cart at the store. If “sorry” is that oh-so Canadian way of getting along with our neighbours, then repentance is the way we get through the day or the week with God.
What if we rethought repentance as being about the moment when we recognize that we are spiritually thirsty? What if repentance is the moment when we understand that the things we crave - another Amazon package on the doorstep, another pound lost, another like on Facebook — will not quench our spiritual thirst. Isaiah speaks to this misdirected priorities when he asks, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isa 55:2).
What if repentance was the realization that we need God to overcome the things that keep us up at night - whatever fear, shame, dark past or heavy burden keeps us from being fully alive? What if the repentance was coming to understand, as the Psalm today tells us, that we have reached the point where our soul thirsts for God “as in a dry and weary land where there is no water”?
We all know what happens to us if we get too thirsty. It becomes harder and harder to do the simplest things, we shut down, and we die. Spiritual thirst can be more subtle, but its effects are sever - we have difficulty looking after ourselves or caring for others, we are prone to indifference, despair, addiction, indifference. Sometimes the line between spiritual death and physical death is a very fine one.
What happens to us when our spirits drink and we are no longer spiritually thirsty? Isaiah says “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Isa 55:1). Think of how a wilting plant revives after you water it. The same is true of us. When we are connected to God and to God’s people, we regain the capacity to live authentically. We can see the needs and care for the needs of others, we become less inwardly-focused and more self-aware. We gain the ability to forgive and seek forgiveness, to value healing, to let go of the shame and guilt that debilitates us.
I think the idea of spiritually flourishing is behind Jesus’ little parable of the fig tree at the end of today’s gospel. Once again, it should not be understood as a threat. Jesus isn’t saying, “you better be good or I’ll destroy you”. Rather, I think the parable tells us that unless we are connected to the gardener, Jesus, if our souls are not watered and fed, then we will wither and die. God doesn’t want that for us. The image of the free feast in Isaiah, offered by a God who will “abundantly pardon”, reminds us that God only wants us to flourish.
As a closing thought, what does life look life when we are no longer spiritually thirsty? Well, I would say that life is found in the church as a healthy community that is rooted in an active fed and watered spiritually so that it is able to flourish in its mission to the world. I said earlier that there is a fine line between spiritual and physical death, and I think the same is true of physical and spiritual life. The whole point of Christ’s incarnation is to remind us we aren’t just spiritual beings - that God wants to know and save the physical beings that God created.
A flourishing church will make a difference to a thirsty world. As an example, let me tell you briefly about an Anglican church in Cuba, St. Luke’s. According to one visitor, if you go looking for it and ask locals where is St. Luke’s, you won’t find it, but if you tell people that you are looking for the church “that provides support to the elderly, that which distributes clean water in the community, [and] that … has lots of young people”.
St. Luke’s is one of many Anglican (Episcopal) parishes in Cuba that actively care for their communities in a very poor country.
“This [caring] is especially exemplified by a one middle-aged woman known as Martha at Holy Trinity Church. Martha wakes up every morning at 6.00 am and goes to collect empty containers from the elderly members of the community, fills them with purified water at the purification plant behind the Church and have them delivered back to owners. Martha also ensures that the responsible local government department delivers water to the purification plant on time.”
By a godly coincidence, last Friday, 22 March, was World Water Day, a UN-sponsored event designed to help us think about the importance of water to our planet and to over 660 million people who lack access to sanitary water. These parishes in Cuba understand the connection between physical and spiritual thirst. They understand that spiritual care goes hand in hand with physical care.
Today we have considered repentance not as an act of saying “I’m sorry” but as a recognition of our spiritual thirst and of our dependance on God for our flourishing as created humans. My prayer for us, and for St. Margaret’s, is that we always be a community rooted in and watered by Christ, so that our flourishing may be a blessing for those around us.