An Old Sermon for a New Year

I haven’t written anything recently that seems like something that needs to be shared. So I decided to look back and see what I wrote five years ago and found this sermon. The references to recent shootings were at Tucson, when Gabrielle Giffords was shot among others. But I’m sad to say there have been so many shooting since then that this could reference just about any month in the five years since I wrote this.

January 23, 2011 – A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

            Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 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 them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

When my husband and I had been married for one year, we decided to quit our jobs and become live-in house parents in a halfway house for ex-offenders. A progressive Catholic Church ran the program out of an old house in a sketchy neighborhood as an extension of their prison ministry held at the maximum security men’s prison. Our housemates were mostly men who had done some pretty serious time for some pretty serious crime.

When we moved in, we didn’t know the background of these guys. Since the ministry believed in dwelling more in the present than in the past, if we found out about what put our housemates into prison, it usually came during one of the therapy or 12-step groups we all attended together. We went to these groups most days of the week, so we eventually did hear the stories.

Some were repeat drug offenders. Others served time for grand larceny or serial assaults. One guy did 25 years for murder, and not the passion of the moment kind, either. Murder for hire; cold-blooded mercenary killing.

I will confess that the guy who had been a murderer was not my favorite housemate. And it wasn’t because he scared me. It’s just that he was awfully cranky and hard to live with. I guess 25 years behind bars might do that to a person.

Then again, I can be cranky and hard to live with and I don’t have that excuse.

When I describe this job, many people ask whether I was afraid. Absolutely not. The last thing these guys wanted was to go back to prison. They were in this halfway house, with all its rules and curfews and requirements, because they realized that changing the patterns that had led to prison was not going to be easy.  They wanted help. They wanted community. They wanted accountability.

They wanted to change. They wanted, in the language of this week’s scripture reading, to repent.

Repent. Now there’s a word that will send most of us running out of the room.

But it is, as far as we know, the very first word Jesus ever preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Sounds like something you might hear on the corner of Times Square from the sandwich-board preacher. So let’s break it down.

The kingdom of God has sometimes been confused with some pie-in-the-sky afterlife, but listen to the first thing Jesus says about this concept: “The kingdom of God has come near.”  Or translated differently, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” That is, the place where divine love rules (the Kingdom of God) is right here. At hand.  At the end of your arm. At your fingertips!

The place where divine love rules is at your fingertips. OK, that’s not so bad.

And about that scary word? That very first thing that Jesus ever preaches? Repent! The Greek word for repent is metanoia. Metanoia means to change one’s mind. The connotation is always to change it for the better. It can also be translated, “to think differently.”

Jesus is all about changing minds. That was one of his main gigs. So here he is, his first day on the job. He got baptized, then he went off on a 40 day vision quest in the desert where he danced with the devil and now he’s home and ready to rock and roll.  And what does he tell people?

Change your mind. Think differently.

Think differently, Jesus says, and believe in the good news. Change your mind from the bad news channel and trust in the good news station.

That’s something I need to hear regularly. Don’t put your heart into the bad news. Believe the good news. Think differently about the world you’re witnessing. Notice the good things. Trust those.

The place where divine love rules is at your fingertips.

After my week of thinking about shootings and violence and incivility, I arrive at the day when our nation commemorates Dr. King, preacher of nonviolence, purveyor of dreams. Everywhere I look, I see quotes from his hope-filled sermons and speeches, reminders to love instead of hate, to dream of beauty when life sends nightmares, to work toward peace in the midst of war, to trust in truth even when surrounded by lies.

“I have decided to stick with love,” King said. “Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

I have also been reading about some of the dead and injured from last week’s shooting. Good people. Kind, hard-working people. My favorite comedian reminds me, “There is light in this situation. I urge everyone: read up about those who were hurt or killed in this shooting. You will be comforted by just how much anonymous goodness there really is in the world. You read about these people and you realize that people that you don’t even know, that you’ve never met, are leading lives of real dignity and goodness and you hear about crazy, but it’s rarer than you think.”*

You will be comforted by just how much anonymous goodness there really is in the world.

Before Jesus tells us to repent, he quotes the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

From darkness to light.

From hate to love.

From violence to nonviolence.

From crazy to kind.

The prophets, ancient and contemporary, religious and comedic, always remind us to think differently. Change the channel from the bad news to the good.

Think differently. The place where divine love rules is at our fingertips. Our fingertips. Your fingertips, my fingertips.

Repent and believe. Think differently and see the good. You will be comforted by just how much anonymous goodness there really is in the world.

Change your mind. Change your heart. Change your direction. Change the channel.

Oh and that cranky murderer I lived with? He became a counselor at a detention center for at-risk youth.

 

(*The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, January 10, 2011)

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2 Responses to An Old Sermon for a New Year

  1. Steve Collins January 26, 2016 at 11:05 am #

    We can see the glass as half empty or half full. Jesus and MLK and dare I saw President Obama see it as half full and we can too. It requires us to forgive and forget and belive in and anticipate and work for better days ahead. Good message and especially timely in this poisonous political season. Thank you for reposting.

    • Meredith Tilp January 26, 2016 at 12:04 pm #

      Ditto to your brother. I enjoyed reading this. Why did you stop that ministry? Sounds very hard Sisiphian but good

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