A CHANGE OF HEART
© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine
University Congregational Church
January 27, 2008
Reading: Matthew 4: 17 – 22 (NRSV)
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called to them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
The theme of repentance is rarely found on the lips of Jesus. It is more typically the call of John the Baptizer. And yet, if you grew up in the American Protestant tradition the mantra of repent and follow Jesus was the common thread of our religious training. The general idea was that we would tell God that we were sorry for all our sins and shortfalls, accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and then we would be “saved.” Sunday worship services typically ended with an altar call. People went to evangelistic services or “camp meeting” and gave their lives over to God one more time. Every summer kids went off to youth camp and after a week of intense adolescent bonding, singing, crafting, and worshipping we were called to the altar one more time. This call was followed by invitations to full time Christian ministry or mission work. Letters would be sent home to local pastors informing them of the children from their church who were now converted and on their way to seminary. All of this despite the fact that nearly every one of these teens had been baptized and confirmed in the church; had been on mission trips and church retreats; not to mention the fact that they had been to summer camp several years running.
Repent and be saved we must, many times over, in seems. It reminds me of the dry cleaning business. No matter how many times you take your laundry in you have to return several weeks later with more dirty clothes. The same garments have to be washed multiple times. Perhaps you heard about the dry cleaner who opened his shop next door to the convent. On the grand opening day he went over to the convent to speak with the Mother Superior, asking her if she had any dirty habits.
Somehow we have gotten the idea that we have never gotten this salvation business down right and have to try again. Our conversion or baptism did not take. We are never good enough. We find ourselves, even after the most intense religious experience, still plagued with temptation, or fear, or doubt, or disbelief! Sometimes we succumb to willful selfishness, vanity, and indulgence. We know that we can never stand before eternal goodness where our sin and pride betray us. Thus we return to church hoping that somehow we will make ourselves acceptable to God. We think of the church as a kind of self-help agency that will equip us with the right diet and exercise to make us fit before Jehovah’s awful throne. But, of course, deep down inside, we want nothing more than to find ourselves acceptable in our own eyes. We would like to look in the mirror without distrust or disdain or doubt. In one fashion or another we return to the altar to offer up our most heartfelt plea for mercy. Can we ever, finally, get it right with God?
Now what is wrong with this picture? Have I misidentified the process by which so many of us have been ground up in? Have I misstated the tradition that many of us grew up in? Frankly, I don’t think so. What is wrong with this picture is two-fold. The first is that we can ever do the right thing or profess such faith that makes us morally justified. It is pride that convinces us that we can clean ourselves up enough to stand before the court of the eternal. The second focus must be our misunderstanding of the call to repent for the kingdom is at hand. We seem to think that we must do the work of repenting, on which the kingdom of God depends.
You see, the call to repentance and the nearness of God is one act of grace. There is no cause and effect here. The invitation to repent is a gift to us, as is the kingdom of God. They go hand in hand. So let’s go back to basics and see if we can make some sense of this.
The New Testament Greek word for repentance is metanoia. Metanoia is the change of heart or the change of mind. We learn something, or we experience something, or we see something and we change our minds about it. A few days ago I was telling some friends that when I was a child I hated salmon croquettes. My mother made them with canned salmon that had those crunchy bones in them. I vowed never to eat salmon when I became an adult. But later in life some friends of mine had been to Alaska and brought home some wild caught salmon. I changed my mind about salmon!
Metanoia certainly reveals our misunderstanding or the wrongfulness of our thought and behavior. But we change our minds because something has been shown to us and we realize the error of our ways. We would remain in ignorance if someone had not shown us a higher knowledge. We remain delinquent until we see a better way to live our lives. We will be forever locked into brute survival and self-preservation until someone gives us a vision of a shared lifestyle where all may thrive. Human beings are enslaved to systems of domination until we are shown the prize of freedom. We will not change anything without the gift of an alternative way to be authentically human.
In this passage from Matthew Jesus is reported to offer the gift of repentance with the presence of God’s kingdom. He might be saying, “Have a change of heart in the presence of God.” “Change your mind in the midst of God’s love and goodness.” “You life will change as you experience the grace of God.” He does not say, “Go work it out and we might let you in.” “Get yourself cleaned up and we might send you an invitation.” “Go back and try again and maybe you’ll get it right next time.” That would be something like the three ministers and their wives who were taking a cruise. They were Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist. The ship was sunk by a great tsunami and all were drowned. They found themselves standing before St. Peter.
Looking at the Presbyterian and his wife St. Peter shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, I can’t let you in. You loved money too much. In fact sir, you loved money so much you married a woman named Penny.”
Then came the Methodist. “Sorry again,” said Peter, “but you loved food too much. You loved to eat so much you even married a woman named Candy.”
At that point the Baptist turned to his wife and whispered, “This doesn’t look good, Fanny.”
Now listen, the gospel never expects human beings to effect their own salvation. There is no case made between Matthew and Revelation for self-righteousness. Quite to the contrary. Rather, if you can see the abundance of God’s providence around you, your life is going to be re-oriented, restored, and renewed. God’s realm is right in front of you; it is near at hand – no further away than the length of your arm; indeed, God’s rule is within you. The only work you have to do is open your eyes!
We are so preoccupied and caught up in life’s expediencies that we are blind to the beauty and the joy that surrounds us. We are like a man who was obsessed with finding money that everywhere is went his eyes were glued to the ground. At the end of his life he had found 6,343 pennies, 4,098 nickels, 3,235 dimes, and 1,737 quarters. Sadly, he had never watched a sunrise or sunset; never followed the moon across the night sky; never seen the glow on a new mother’s face; never watched a river meander through a valley; and never saw the wheat wave across the Great Plains. Jesus chastised the disciples, “Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears do you not hear?” (Mark 8:18) It is all right in front of us. Pay attention! Wake up! Smell the roses! Smell the coffee!
God’s realm is all around us if we but see it. One of my favorite books in 2007 is entitled, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. The book tells the story of the Nickel Mines Amish children who were murdered in their schoolhouse by Charles Carl Roberts, IV. People, especially the media, were surprised at how quickly the Amish offered Roberts and his family forgiveness. In the Amish view of the world forgiveness is essential if any of us are to ever be forgiven by God.
“At about 5:30 on Wednesday morning, two days after the shooting, the sleepless grandfather of the two slain sisters was walking by the schoolhouse, reflecting on his loss. A little more that twenty-four hours earlier, he had made grueling trips to two different hospitals only to see the young girls die in their mother’s arms. Suddenly TV cameras caught him in the glare of floodlights, and a reporter stepped toward him.
“Do you have any anger toward the gunman’s family?” she asked.
“Have you already forgiven them?”
“In my heart, yes.”
“How is that possible?”
“Through God’s help.”
“We have to forgive,” an Amish woman said. “We have to forgive him in order for God to forgive us.”
As difficult as it might be for us to understand the deep culture of Amish forgiveness, I want to make the point that in such a response to this horrible tragedy God’s rule is to be found. The offering of forgiveness for such a heinous crime points us to God’s presence. God’s kingdom is manifest by this action of grace. Open your eyes and see it.
Having seen such a display of God at work in the world, I am drawn to metanoia – to repentance. In the witness to such love, I am challenged to change my heart about all of those injuries I once imagined were so felonious to my pride. I am called by Amish grace to a deeper commitment to forgive others. Because I have seen the kingdom of God in the Amish life I am changing my mind about how I might treat others who have offended me.
And how many times in my life has charity come my way, unexpected and undeserved? I once was in debt to a man who had loaned me $2,000. We agreed that I would make payments of $100 for eighteen months. After the second month he tore up the agreement and said he considered the debt satisfied. He did not want me to be burdened with it anymore. A few months ago a neighbor came to my house and asked me if I knew about a certain furniture store in Wichita. I told him I had seen their commercials on television. He handed me an envelope and told me that there were some coupons inside that I might be able to use. The coupon was, in fact, a gift card for $1,500. Just a few weeks ago another friend told me that she had a four-year-old gelding and wondered if I would like to have it, and yes we are still friends.
If all of us would stop and think about it, we have all been blessed with riches far greater than these. Every person in this room is the beneficiary of a larger charity than we have ever been able to comprehend, much less be thankful for. I think, for example, of my mother-in-law, Gloria Leo. Since Mimi and I have been married Gloria sends to all of my children birthday and Christmas cards with small monetary gifts enclosed. Understand that these are children from a previous marriage. And when my son, Christopher, was in Afghanistan Gloria kept a vigil candle lit for him every day and offered prayers for God’s protection – every day for 385 days. These outpourings of love are emblems of the presence of God. Open your eyes and see.
Because so many people over so many years have blessed me with such largesse I am moved to share with others. I have seen the kingdom of God; it has been near to me throughout my life. I cannot but offer what gifts I can to those in need.
And have you not seen the kingdom of God bringing a word of comfort to those who suffer? Have you not heard the voices of young prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking truth to the powers of fear and prejudice? Think about former President Jimmy Carter going down to Africa to treat victims of the Guinea worm – a parasite that bores its way into human flesh, rendering the human leg as large as an elephant. I remember Archbishop Oscar Romero telling the military junta of El Salvador that their oppression of the poor was wrong. Or recall four-year-old Alexandra Scott who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of four. She made a decision in her wise old age that she was going to raise money to help find a cure for cancer and relieve the suffering of other children. She opened “Alex’s Lemonade Stand” with her older brother Patrick. Alex died at the age of eight, but not before her idea of a lemonade stand spread across the country, raising one million dollars. Since her death in 2004 nearly $17 million has been raised for pediatric cancer research and education about children’s cancer.
I tell you, such human being speaks for justice or takes some action to relieve the suffering of others it is nothing less than God’s love. We need only open our eyes to see that is how God’s rule runs it course. I think the first spiritual discipline that we need to teach our children is the discipline of seeing. Look around and see the mercy of God touching the wounded, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and comforting the bereaved. There is a sacred lining behind every act of human kindness, even in the most wretched of human situations.
The Sermon on the Mount immediately follows the theme of repentance and the kingdom of God in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus offered the hallmarks or benchmarks of God’s imperial rule in the lives of the faithful. We call them the beatitudes or blessings. Do you wonder what the kingdom of God looks like? What are the characteristics of those who live in God’s presence? Jesus said that they are poor in spirit, they mourn (that is to say their hearts are heavy with the suffering of others), they are meek, they hunger and thirst for righteousness, they are merciful, they are pure of heart, they are peacemakers, and they are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (that is to say they hold on to faith when the world holds such faith in contempt, and in some cases oppression). We are blessed; our lives are hallowed, when our faith takes on these qualities. This is what happens to us when we pay attention to God’s presence.
The context of God’s kingdom is, of course, this world. The incarnation of God’s love is found, not only in the man Jesus, but the natural world of plants and animals, oceans and rivers, moon and sun. So many of Jesus’ teachings reflect the natural environment and he often takes time to be alone in the desert, or on lakes, or in the hills. God’s rule is active in this world – on this planet. And I must tell you that I have seen the presence of God roaring and crashing on to the beaches of Florida, California, and Hawaii. I have heard the voice of God singing gently in the throats of meadowlarks and mockingbirds. I have felt his robes brush my face in the breeze that blows across the prairie. I have seen the grandeur of Creation in the Rocky Mountains and the splay of light we call the Milky Way. Mary Oliver wrote of such sacred visits in her poem, “Making the House Ready for the Lord:”
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice – it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances – but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord; you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.
When I survey the wondrous planet I am reminded that my entire body and soul moves through the realm of God. Sometimes that is deeply humbling. Sometimes it is even terrifying. Sometimes its beauty takes my breath away. But always it inspires me to gratitude and praise. Perhaps that is a quality of meekness that Jesus declared in the beatitudes.
That is the process of metanoia. When your vision of God becomes sharper your heart will change. Your mind will change. This is God’s grace, gifts to us who are invited into the kingdom. So with deep love, my friends, repent, for the kingdom of God is near. Take a look around and have a change of heart.
 Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass: 2007), pp. 44-45.
 Mary Oliver, “Making the House Ready for the Lord,” Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), p. 13.