A Change of Heart: Repentance Matthew 3: 1-12
Rev Debra Bowman, Ryerson United Church
Dec. 4, 2016
Oh my, here he comes again. John the Baptist. Every Advent it’s the same thing: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Now is the time when I hector you about not placing all your Christmas hope in the perfect dinner and not seeking unconditional love through shopping for the most extravagant gift. If you think you get tired of hearing the same sermon every year, please remember how it feels having to write it. But then, this week a couple of things came up that helped me hear John’s prophetic call with fresh ears.
First of all, Janet Cawley, the woman who read Scripture this morning, asked to be able to read the Common English translation: “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, ‘Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!’” “Change your hearts and lives…” opens us to hearing something completely different doesn’t it? Rather than experiencing a knee jerk defensive response when we hear the word repent, we might feel more of an opening up when we are invited to change our hearts and lives; isn’t that something that many of us have been trying to do one way or another for years?
The Greek word for ‘repent’ is metanoia, which means ‘change of mind’. And it doesn’t mean change your mind about some personal preference, change your mind about a particular hairstyle or your favourite restaurant. Metanoia is about embracing an entirely new mind set. It’s not a slight shift, or a return to something you already knew about but had turned away from, but it is about opening up to something completely unexpected and transformational.
I had this experience of being called to open up and change my mind and heart just the other night when some colleagues were over for dinner. My friends had been attending a two-day workshop about how the church can and must be rooted in its neighbourhood. One of the presenters had asked those attending the course for stories about the neighbourhood that the participants’ churches are located in. So if I had been there the question would have been, what are the stories about Kerrisdale? What’s its history? Who was there 100 years ago? How has it changed? What major upheavals have there been? What is on the hearts and minds of the people who live there? Or work there, or those who are in the area for whatever reason but may live elsewhere? As my one friend said, and I think it could be true for many of us, it had never occurred to her to ask those questions. She really has no idea about the history and character and life shaping stories of Oak Bay, the community in Victoria where her church is located. So then how do we say we are in relationship? How can we presume to make a difference, to participate, when we know so little? And I know, I know, we are a congregation that claims many neighbourhoods as home. But then let’s ask the broader question – what do we really know about Vancouver? About the Lower Mainland? What stories have shaped the land where we live, and the people we live beside? This was a metanoia experience for me – an opening to something I’d never thought of before.
Another friend told a story that one of the presenters offered. In order to make connections in the neighbourhood this person got a puppy. He knew how people respond to dogs, and puppies in particular – how people stop and want to greet the pet and then engage in conversation with the owner. But while out with his puppy the speaker had the opposite experience with some of the very neighbours he was hoping to get to know better. The little neighbourhood boy stopped talking to him; the family seemed to avoid him on the street. Finally, the presenter went to the neighbours’ home and asked what was happening, why this change in behavior. And the father explained that they were Muslim, and for them dogs were considered dirty. If the dog touched his robe, this orthodox Muslim explained, he would have to wash it seven times. Another moment of repentance – of realizing I’ve never been curious, really curious, about the differences in culture I knew existed but wasn’t open to learning why.
A third dinner companion told us about her daughter inviting her 4 year old class mates to her birthday party. One child ran over to her mom, delighted to show her the invitation. And then, the little girl came back disappointed to say that she couldn’t come to the party. Her mom just sighed and left with her daughter, and my friend remained behind feeling a bit hurt. But then the teacher explained that the family was Seventh Day Adventists. And my friend wondered, how could she have still found an opportunity to build a relationship, without asking the family to breach their religious principles.
One more story from the workshop – one of the congregations that was focusing on being rooted in the neighbourhood decided to have a block party so the neighbours could get to know each other better. The imam from the local mosque asked if there would be alcohol and women present. The church organizer said, well yes, it’s a social event, and so there will probably be alcohol, and certainly women. And so the imam said their mosque members wouldn’t be able to attend.
After all this story sharing we had a conversation about how we build relationships when there are such significant differences. I waded in that I didn’t know if I wanted to be in relationship with a group that considered me not welcome at an event. But my friends pushed me to change my mind and heart; consider, they argued, that to not seek a way to be connected is to accept silos, separation, perhaps growing gaps rather than finding common ground for ways forward. And I did experience a change; a desire to listen better, to seek to understand, and so to better be in relationship with all God’s people.
“Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” I want to invite you to imagine what other changes of hearts and lives John might be is calling us to. There are three things we’re going to do, in silence, you don’t have to speak to anyone, but only listen to yourself and for God.
First of all, I’d like you to daydream about what the kindom of heaven would be like? What part do you think you might play toward reaching that place? This isn’t about setting a goal, but wondering what direction you might set a course for?
Secondly, with that dream about God’s kindom, and your part in it, what is one, just one, element of your life where you would like to repent, to change direction, to have a new way open up? It might be an unhealthy relationship that needs healing, or to use your time differently, or to take up or get rid of a habit that could lead to more abundant life. What is one area where you would like to change your direction, heart and mind?
And then what is one element of our life together that needs repentance, that needs a new way of being and seeing? How can you contribute to that? Could you volunteer, contribute money, picket or protest, make an effort to meet someone of a different religion or race or culture?
Prayer: God you invite us to a change of heart and mind, to a change that moves us closer to your dreams and your path towards a reconciled world. Hear our daydreams for our world. Hear our ideas, our one idea for a step we might take in that direction. Hear where we may have turned away or missed the path, and hear our desire to be in synch with your yearnings for us. Guide us; lovingly cajole us into your daydream. Creating God, hear the daydreams of a community who has opened its hearts and minds to a new way. Help us to see your vision, to share in your dream. Change our hearts and minds so that they are fully aligned with yours, and help us to know abundant life there, and to be part of your offering of abundant life for all.
resource: davidlose.net Advent 2A, 2016