Don’t Sail On By Those In Need

3rd Sunday of Easter—Luke 24:36b-48—April 22, 2012

On the ocean this week, three fishermen were found stranded at sea. The engine had died on their boat, the Fifty Cent, and they had been drifting aimlessly for nearly a month. Two of them were very sick. The youngest, Fernando, was only 16 years old. For all those weeks they saw not a single ship, except those on the horizon too far away to see them.

At last, hope arrived. A cruise ship called the Star Princess passed close enough that some passengers who were scouring the ocean for birds caught sight of a small boat through their binoculars. They saw the strongest fisherman – a man named Adrian Vasquez – waving frantically and ran to tell a crew member, who alerted the ship’s officers.

There is a rule at sea – time-honoured in my home town of Lunenburg – that every ship will stop to help another vessel in distress no matter what. But what did the Star Princess do? The cruise ship never slowed. It never altered course. And what’s more, it never contacted the Coast Guard to make sure the crew of the Fifty Cent were okay. Later, the captain would say that he thought the fishermen were waving a thank you for the cruise ship’s avoiding some local nets. But it hadn’t looked that way to the passengers who had raised the alarm. The cruise ship carried on with its own agenda.

That night, a 24-year-old crew member died. Fernando also eventually succumbed before rescue finally came. Only Adrian Vasquez made it off alive.

All of us know, when we speak of righteous deeds, the passing by of that cruise ship was not one of them.

This is one of those sin-heavy Sundays, a word, as most of you know I tend to avoid. That’s because it is always getting used to point fingers and to level blame, or to shut the doors of the church to one kind of person or another.

In fact, our three readings this morning take us on a journey of sorts about our wrongdoings. In the first reading, we hear Peter reminding the people what happened to Jesus and telling them that they have been offered forgiveness. But they have to take a step in that healing process: they have to acknowledge their mistake and admit what they did wrong. “Repent therefore and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,” Peter says.

In the second lesson, we are asked to consider the actions that constitute a sin, and what constitutes a right action.  “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” And then we are cautioned:  “Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.”

And when we come to the third step in this morning’s reading, it is as if we receive a comforting embrace at the end of the road: Jesus comes to the disciples, eats with them, and reassures them. What’s more, he again urges them forward, telling them to spread the news of the gospel, a message of repentance and forgiveness.

This is, in fact, the ying and yang of the moral life, the Christian life as followers of the gospel. We often imagine – or perhaps we just hope – that truly moral people reach a place where every deed they perform is righteous, where they always do their best, and their conscience never wavers with a doubt. Of course this is not true.

The truly moral life is one wise enough to see the constant exchange between repenting our mistakes and forgiving others. When we don’t see what we have done right, we have no chance of being moral the next time: if we pass by someone in need of our help, and we never consider it again, we aren’t likely to stop for someone the next time it happens. We would, in fact, just keep walking by, just keep sailing by, on our own steady course. Instead, Jesus calls us to live life in stops and starts. We stop to repent. We move forward forgiven and forgiving. We cannot vow to do the right thing, if we never admit when we are wrong.

This is why the gospel puts such a high value on repentance. It requires us to think, to pause, to reflect, to have a conversation with God. If you are admitting your part in an argument, you don’t just say sorry and shrug. Repentance requires an examination of what caused the fight: what was really behind it, what steps led to it, and why it escalated.

Repentance is the path to wisdom.  If we see a bully – adult or child – and we do nothing, repenting, even after the fact, it’s too easy to say: I will step in the next time. Most likely, if that is as deep as you go, you will not, in fact, step in next time. To repent is a process of thought and an examination of action: why didn’t I step in, we need to ask. What circumstances deterred me? Was it the people watching? Was it the nature of the bullying? Was I worried about myself?

Finding those answers is what moves us forward; it makes us conscious of the things to watch out for, the pitfalls to be mindful of. It gives us the courage to do something different the next time. Perhaps we realize that the other witnesses felt the same as we did; or that the cost to ourselves was really very small, or that even if there was a cost – like detention or anger from the bully – we could handle it.

So you have repented – you have answered those questions. Why should forgiveness come next? How many times do we beat ourselves up about our own mistakes: why didn’t I do something? Why did I do that certain thing? Why didn’t I stay quiet? Why didn’t I speak up? If we have thoughtfully repented, we find it is easier to move on to forgiveness – the kind that Jesus speaks of, in which we are then motivated to try again.

If repentance is what stops us – what should pause us, what should bring us to a state of reflection — it is forgiveness, for ourselves and others, that starts us up again.

That is why it comes as a deliberate two-step in the gospel: Repent and Forgive. Only then do we begin to acquire the wisdom to be righteous – a journey that never reaches its destination. But surely along the way, we become more accepting of ourselves and others, and less likely to just sail on by those who are in need.  Amen.