Advent 2, Year A - December 4, 2016

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Second Sunday of Advent

Year A

December 4, 2016

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'"

Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:1-12)

 

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In the 5th Century before Christ, Plato wrote, “an unexamined life is not worth living.”  Twenty Five hundred years later, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a corollary to this…An unexamined life may not be worth living, “but what if an examined life turns out to be a clunker, as well!”[1]

In this Advent season of preparation and reflection, we have John the Baptist to remind us that an unexamined life can be a disaster – “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” “Bear Fruit Worthy of Repentance!” His appearance each year on the Second Sunday of Advent gets us to step back from business as usual and examine ourselves in a piercingly honest way, “What is it I need to repent of if I’m going to ‘prepare the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight’?”

Repentance can be an ambiguous concept for many of us, especially if we’ve found our way to the Episcopal Church because of its welcome and acceptance, its refusal to judge or convict us if we don’t fit the traditional “Christian” stereotype.  Who needs to hear one more word of judgement – about our marital histories, our gender roles or sexual orientation, or our embrace of people from other cultures and religious traditions?

For some, the word “repent” dredges up extremely negative feelings – feelings of guilt and unworthiness….even a deathly fear of a day of Judgment, where God will separate the wheat from the chaff.  The question soon becomes, Can I ever be sure enough that I will experience God’s mercy, rather than God’s wrath?

What does repentance mean, to you?  Does it mean feeling sorry for your mistakes?  Is it a matter of trying to be a better person?  Is repentance something we even need to do, if we are unconditionally loved by God?  What do you think?

As I’ve mentioned before, the heart of the Greek word that John the Baptist uses when he says “repent” – metanioa - means turn around, start over, take another course, change direction. All of those actions, of course, do call into question the value or rightness our current behavior.  But the emphasis is much less on what is wrong with what we’re doing now than on what is right and important and necessary about what we will do differently – from now on.

And the thing about this kind of repentance is that it emphasizes that change is necessary not just for the sake of change, but because we become aware that our actions are out of step with God’s deep desire for us – as individuals and as people in community.  Out of step with God’s longing for us to be whole and fully alive, to be the people we were uniquely created to be and bear the fruits that bring peace and equity and joy to the people in the world around us. 

Repentance, in other words, means taking seriously the vivid image of harmony and reconciliation that we read about in today’s reading from Isaiah.  Which is God’s dream for the whole of creation, brought about by a spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, knowledge and respect and wonder. Repentance involves realizing that God is pointing us in this direction, and that we’ve been traveling another way, and so we change course.

And yet, once you name repentance this way, it can get daunting pretty quickly. I mean, there are so many things I could repent of, we as a community, as a nation, as a species, could repent of.  I know that every day I drive my car or throw out my trash, I contribute to pollution and climate change. What can I do to reduce my impact on the environment?  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  What about poverty and food scarcity? Racial injustice. Overflowing prisons. Crime and violence?  Addiction, child abuse? The list goes on, and it breaks my heart. The temptation is to just give up on repentance altogether, hunker down with my current and comfortable friends and biases, or hide out with my favorite series on Netflix.

So here’s what I’ve been thinking.  Perhaps rather than focus on repentance in general – which is too unspecific to be helpful – and rather than calling for a ‘global-issue’ sized repentance, we might start with just a few things.[2]

First, I’d like each of us to just take a moment to daydream what God’s vision might be for us, personally. That is, what do you think God wants you to be and to do? The word “daydream” is key here, because it invites us to imagine something beyond what we can presently see, which is exactly what today’s reading from Isaiah does – it gives us God’s dream about a different world where there is no predator or prey, no fear or hatred. And it’s not so much a goal to be achieved, but a dream by which to set a course.  Take a moment to daydream.

And now, I’d like you to do a bit of that examining I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon.  Choose just one element of your lives that you’d like to repent – that is, change direction – so that your daydream might come a step closer to being true. And make Advent your time to do that. Is there an unhealthy relationship you want to repair or address?  Or perhaps, you are you longing to use your time differently and toward better ends? Is there some practice or habit you might take up that would make life more abundant for you…or for the people closest to you?

And then, try to identify one element of our communal life together that needs repentance, turning around, and think how you can contribute to that. Could one of our ministries use your help or participation?  Our garden, the worship team?  The programs for our children and youth, our faith formation and fellowship events?  Or, what small thing might you do help All Souls secure the resources to sustain these ministries? 

Perhaps you might try to get to know someone here, or outside the church, who seems different from you - culturally or politically or generationally – and build a more vibrant community that way? Try to think about one issue that relates to our community, and intentionally pray about it in the next few days, and be open to how God might direct your time and energy to contributing to change.  It might help to share this with someone, or talk to me about it.

If we can each try to think of repentance more concretely over these next few weeks, and engage in just two specific acts of repentance – one personal, one more communal – we might go a long way in redeeming not just repentance but Advent itself. Because the point of Advent is to make room for Christ’s arrival, to be surprised again that God was willing to enter into our lives and history and take on our vulnerability in order to give us hope.  This is a time to reaffirm our trust that God doesn’t just sit up in heaven either smiling or frowning down at us depending on our behavior, but comes into our lives to take on our lot and be with us and for us.  Not scolding us for how rotten we are, but inviting us to live more abundantly, unafraid to act in new ways that affirm our goodness and the goodness of others.

So if we can imagine that “it doesn’t have to be this way” – whatever “this way” is oppressing us right now – and have the courage to take action and step toward God’s dream for our own lives and our communities, Advent might actually become for us, and for those around us, a truer and more meaningful season.

So that’s my suggestion.  And even as I offer it, I’m aware it could easily devolve into little more than an early New Year’s resolution. So let’s keep in mind that repentance isn’t like that – it’s not a once and done activity. Instead, let what we do these days of Advent become a microcosm of all of our all our days – opportunities to hear that voice in the wilderness, see where we have left the path, and turn toward God’s vision for us and our communities once again…and again. This may be just a start, tiny first steps down a new and straight path, but that is how dreams come true – one day at a time, one person at a time, one step at a time.

Amen

 

 

[1] From Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Wampeters, Foma, and Grandfallons as quoted by http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/267775-plato-says-that-the-unexamined-li...

[2] I am indebted to David Lose’s commentary for this week, “Reclaiming Repentance” for the structure of ideas in portions of what follows, which I have paraphrased and adapted to my current setting.

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