Change Your Heart

While touring a number of churches as ‘pulpit supply,’ I was blessed that many of my, self-described non-churchy and non-religious, friends would attend worship. Often in small churches – particularly those without a pastor – a lay member would read scripture during worship.

Following one of the services and in a tone of frustration, a friend confided…”I don’t know what those folks read before you preached. I do not know how to listen to it. Consequently, I don’t listen. Then I really don’t understand your sermon because you presume whatever they read or tried to read made sense.  It was not comfortable to be there.” So sad to reflect, but it is no wonder the church was nearly empty.

Clinging to worship formality or perhaps not knowing what they were reading, the lay reader, created an inhospitable worship experience. At KUC, I’ve witnessed such an interest in visitors and members, wearing name tags, and extending a warm welcome, so that in support of the spirit of hospitality within KUC, I hope to always offer some context of scripture to be proclaimed in my sermons.

Luke was written in Koine Greek – or common Greek – to resonate with people in the first century. The scrolls, codices and letters were later translated into Latin to remain relevant as Christianity spread, and during the reformation into a variety of vernaculars for people to directly discern the meaning of scripture.

In each translation, an attempt was made to become relevant to the reader, but also appease generations who had grown up with certain words and established ideas. Translations can become highly political and theological battlegrounds for those wielding the pen ?

In an attempt to reclaim relevance for our common English and current linguistic framework to communicate ideas, The Common English Bible was published in 2011 as the work of over 120 scholars and theologians across 24 denominations and subsequently critiqued by 77 reading groups. I know of and highly respect my colleagues and professors from The University of Chicago and several churches that were part of this life-giving effort. I recommend this translation to you.

Last week, we heard Zachariah’s song celebrating the birth of his son, reminding us of our place in God’s long arc of creation and redemption. Today, our gospel places this son, John the Baptist, center stage, who preaches to a gathered crowd of Christ’s coming.  As the author of Luke wrote in common Greek, listen for the word of God to us as I read our gospel lesson from The Common English Bible, Luke 3:1-20

Is there anything in this book about me?  Do these words and God’s Holy Spirit speak to me through this story in ways that matter today and in my current situation?

I wrote those words earlier this week to open a sermon planned for this morning.  On Friday afternoon, I faced those questions with a depth of grief, anger and fear.  In light of Advent, our praying for “joy” and the tragic deaths on Friday,  these questions resonated even more in my heart and mind, perhaps yours as well.  I could have reached for a different scripture passage as we reflect on the New Town tragedy, but instead; I re-read John the Baptist’s preaching and Luke’s good news with a sharper eye.

The tragic killing of children and teachers in a community such as ours arouses the deepest kind of questions of the presence of God in our lives.  The killings create a sharp knife doubt.  The killings cause us to seek to protect those we love.  The killings cause us to wonder how any notion of joy can be preached in a nation that continually remains paralyzed to act against more frequent and more frightening violence.

First of all, I will profess my belief that God weeps with the pain of parents whose children were killed, whether the parent of a five year old or the parents of those who were the teachers, all are children and human lives created and loved by God.

Also, I cannot stomach anyone who will claim this was the “will of God” or retribution for removing prayer from public schools.  To claim this is to use God as a personal weapon and diminish God’s love for all of God’s creation.  I believe God is holding us as we weep and has throughout our history come into our lives to change our hearts and turn our lives into what God intended.

Luke’s gospel situates Jesus’ entrance into human history amidst political grit, citing Herod, Pontius Pilate and Roman rulers, tyrants who kept their boots on the throat of the people in the regions around Jerusalem, and the hypocrisy of religious leaders who appeased these rulers.  A first century listener of Luke’s gospel would also have been aware of the divine illusion these rulers sought to create for themselves, calling themselves a son of god, endowed with transcendent wisdom, divinely conceived.

As I try to situate myself into a culture and hear these words as a resident in Palestine during the first century, my imagination is limited or shall I say my cynicism takes over, trying to conceive of political actors as divinely superior to those they are to govern and eternally motivated by a compassion for the people and gods they serve.   But, as a coercive force and common mindset, during the first century and for so many afterwards, rulers supposedly bridged our world with a mystic realm and with transcendent wisdom.  In the first century, it was also incomprehensible to believe in the dignity of all human life, particularly the lost and the least of all…children.  For God to come into our world, for a child to be called the Son of God, celebrated as being one with God, and to love all people was subversive, radical and for some incomprehensible.  It was also the greatest joy they could receive.

There were no safe havens within worship either in the first century.  Yes, there were tension between Jewish leaders and Roman rule, but the priests were motivated to maintain legitimacy, preserve the religious laws, sacrifices and rituals.  To do so, they aligned with and served political rulers to achieve their goals.

Should we be surprised the word of God comes to a man in the wilderness, John the Baptist, who was distinctly separate from civilized life or civilized habits?

And what does John preach?  In the New Standard Revised Translation (NRSV) you might have heard John chastise the gathered crowd as “brood of vipers” for their behavior. In the Common English Bible, they were called “children of snakes.” These words bit hard. If I were among the crowd, listening to John preach I would not want to be called a child of a snake, inheriting and exhibiting the characteristics of a snake.

In the NRSV, which are our pew bibles, we would have heard also “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Instead, The Common English Bible states John preached, “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives.”

One of the greatest differences in this translation is a word repeated throughout Luke’s gospel – metanoia –, which our NRSV and King James translate as “repentance.” In Common English, metanoia is best expressed to those of us in the  21st century as “change your heart.” John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized, change their hearts, allegiances and values so that they will be open to “produce fruit,” evident in a new human existence.

John points his finger at large scale injustice in the culture and then moves into the individual lives of those present, indicting everyone present but also exhibiting the wisdom of how each can live in the culture but with a heart devoted to God.

When the crowd asks, “what should we do,” John offers the simple act of sharing.  When the tax collector, an agent for sustaining the government’s finances, asks to be baptized, John includes him and instructs him to simply “collect no more than you are authorized.” God’s grace includes even the Roman soldiers, who sought baptism and are told, not to reject their profession, but simply “don’t cheat or harass.” The writer of Luke casts the net to include a lawyer, ruler, jailer and a Jew as able to receive God’s grace.  One’s profession, political affiliation, cultural status, or financial condition cannot inhibit one from participating in this new life.  John’s message of radical behavior was so subversive in the way he asks each to simply care for each other as God cares for us.

John does not care about ritual worship, sacrifice or the law.  John cares about cleansing through baptism, washing away devotion to the false kingdom of Herod, so the people can turn towards the life God created.

People in John’s age are so much like us.  They need to be reminded of who they are and who they serve.  This is what the church is called to do for us today; remind us of whose we are – we are God’s children – and our lives are to be oriented toward God.

Changing hearts is hard, though when surrounded by a culture, as a first century Palestinian was, which was subject to oppressive political power and the status quo, and diminished the sacredness of life.  But, it is only through a changed heart that one can begin the difficult task of changing a life and culture.

Yesterday, various ministry blogs debated how to best comfort a congregation, grieve the killing of small children, as we also fear how it could happen in our community.  For the rest of our lives we will need to comfort those parents whose children died.

Some contend it is too soon to speak of our moral obligation to prevent such violence.  But, I can only wonder how much longer do we wait and to what end has our waiting in the past been, a forgetful paralysis?

On Friday morning, I had researched and confirmed for a sermon that before the November election, the US had 44 shootings in 2012 that were multiple or mass shootings and yet, gun violence was not spoken of on the national, political stage (Christian Century, Nov. 14, 2012 p. 7). How we tolerate violence and fear the implications of change has been on my mind.  Yesterday morning we woke to learn shootings across the city on Friday afternoon and night wounded at least ten people, including four teens in three separate South and West side attacks.  This morning, local news reported one person was dead and two others wounded by gunfire. Advent is the time to prepare for the arrival of God’s child so I cannot help but think about how we care for the children we have in our world today.

I appreciate gun ownership is complex.  I also know our willingness and ability to properly care for those with mental illness is complex.  But, we are educated, gifted with resources, equipped with intellect and means to confront the underlying problems that wreak such tragedy.  Paralysis and denial only exacerbate our problems.

Rarely do I go to a movie theater to see a movie, waiting to see a film on my couch is usually just fine with me.  But, the recent release of the movie Lincoln compelled me to go see it over Thanksgiving.  It is powerful.  Etched in my mind is the enormous courage so many men and women embraced to make fundamental changes in our country and in the lives of future generations.  It became clear that for many of these senators, representatives and public officials, and ordinary citizens during the Civil War, the task to end slavery was a life-long passion.   I was inspired to witness such dedication to an ideal with determined and tireless actions. These men and women took a stand, seeing a divine image in the lost and least.  I also believe they were carried by God’s Holy Spirit to move in individual and collective ways to care for all of God’s children.

As I was watching the news and absorbing so much grief for the families who have lost children forever, I remembered this past Tuesday morning.  One of the many joys of serving in this congregation is working in the office next door, so I can hear the preschool’s chapel. I thought of the dedicated teachers who shepherd these small children through the day.  On Tuesday, they sang “happy birthday.” They sang happy birthday to the baby Jesus.  I stopped work and just reveled in the gift of this life.

Changing one’s heart is a challenge as John recognized, changing our collective lives is even tougher.  But, even in this task we are not alone, as it is God who reaches out to us in the simple gift of the birth of a child, to walk among us, love us and forgive us.  The foundation of metanoia, repentance or changing our hearts is the mercy of God. That’s how God seeks and saves the lost.”

Advent Waiting: waiting for a world free of violence; a world where ALL children are safe; a world where we choose life again and again. And while we wait, let us work to help usher in such a world.