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Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2015 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.

Repenting of Our Words

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 126
Luke 3:1-6

If the essence of Advent is expectancy,
it is also readiness for action:
watchfulness for every opening,
and willingness to risk everything for freedom
and a new beginning.

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas

In the previous congregations I have served, I always either combined the Gospel readings from the Second and Third Sundays of Advent or chose just one of them on which to preach. Now, part of the reason for that decision was because the Fourth Sunday of Advent was always some kind of special music Sunday, and those Sundays did not usually include a sermon. But the more honest reason is because that decision meant I only had to preach about John the Baptist one time, rather than two, for one time was always just enough John the Baptist for me.

It was not his prophetic uniform of camel’s hair and a leather belt that I wanted to avoid. It was not even his off-putting diet of locusts and honey that always had me turning away. Rather, I only wanted to deal with him one time because of what he always had to say. Now, we will listen to more of his preaching in our text next Sunday, but we already hear echoes of it in this introduction from Luke: “John went into all the region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Repent, John always yells. Repent. It is a church word that often elicits heartburn in me, primarily because it is so often used as a threat. “Repent or burn” is not an uncommon phrase, often painted on the signs of a street preacher with a megaphone who must feel convinced that fear is an effective evangelism tool. I always wonder if they ever notice that people cross to the other side of the street just to avoid their fear-based proclamation.

This church word also causes a reaction in me because the verb repent has been personally directed to me in my past. As a female clergyperson, I have been told I need to repent of my desire to be a preacher and get back into my proper biblical place. And growing up in Waco, Texas, I have seen the verb repent used as a weapon against all kinds of people, more times than I can count. I bet some of you have, as well. So it is because of John’s preaching of repentance that I have always been just fine with only one Sunday of John the Baptist during the Advent season.

Not this year, though. This year, I find John’s message of repentance to resonate deeply within my spirit. This year, rather than merely hearing it as shame-inducing condemnation, I hear John’s message to repent as offering possibility for honest-to-goodness transformation. But we should not be surprised. That is, after all, what the verb actually means in the Greek. The word we translate as “repent” is metanoia. It is a combination of a word for “mind” with a prefix that means “after.” So a few ways to define “repent” are as an after-thought, or as second thoughts, or as a change in one’s mind or thinking upon reflection (

So what is it, exactly, about which God, through the voice of John the Baptist, might be calling us to repent this Advent season? Consumerism? Envy? Greed? I am sure many of you could offer your own examples. But I want to bring something up with you, my congregation, that I brought up at the annual Chicago Leadership Prayer Breakfast this past Friday morning. Many of you were present at that event, and you challenged me to bring this word home. I listened. So I will ask your indulgence now as I speak some of it again.

Needless to say, it was an interesting time to be the keynote speaker at that gathering. Though it was only my second year to attend, I felt a particular tension in the air this past Friday. It felt to me that those 600 people—leaders in politics, business, and faith here in the city of Chicago—walked into that space carrying a heaviness with them. Many of us carried a heaviness of outrage over what we witnessed on the videotaped shooting of Laquan McDonald and an anticipation of outrage over videos still yet to come. Some of us carried the heaviness of a still-lingering fear following Monday’s shutdown of the University of Chicago and its surrounding schools. Lots of us inevitably carried the heaviness of angry grief with Wednesday’s San Bernadino carnage fresh in our minds. Honestly, it is overwhelming to me that I could actually go day by day from just this past week alone and name out loud some horrific event that unfolded in our country, events that would produce in many, if not all of us, a heaviness and a tension.

But in addition to all of these horrific, all-too-familiar events that unfolded in our national and city life just this past week, I believe some of the heaviness and the tension felt in the room on Friday morning was created by the very toxic and divisive ways we are now accustomed to speaking about each other. As I told those gathered, I have to force myself to follow the campaigns, to watch the news, and to read the newspapers these days because I have grown so weary of the polarizing ways we talk about each other—at the local level, the state level, the national level.

Our political discourse in particular has become so mean-spirited and poisonous that I worry about the kind of democratic culture we are bequeathing to our children. So it is our passive or active communal acceptance of this kind of toxic discourse about which I, and other faith leaders, believe we, as Americans, as Christians, are being called to repent. To turn away from. To say “no more of this.” And then to call for action and accountability and make it change.

Now, to some of you, that claim might sound simplistic or naïve. Perhaps it sounds out of touch. I can understand that some folks might wonder why, out of all the myriad of problems in our world—problems like gun violence and climate change, racial injustice and poverty—why, with so much wrong, would I and others choose to focus on calling us all to repent of the way we use our words. I understand that critique. But we are a people who believe God began the work of creation by speaking. We are a people who claim that Jesus Christ is the Logos, the eternal Living Word of God. We are a people who know in the depths of our souls that the words we use have power.

Our words have the power to shape both perception and reality. Who gets called a thug, a loner, a terrorist, a one percenter? Do the words we are using demand of us that we see the image of God in every person? Or do the words we use or allow our leaders to use give us tacit permission to too easily ignore the God-given humanity of someone with whom we do not share life or love? The words we use about ourselves, about each other, have the power to heal or to wound. The words we use define arguments in particular ways, usually leading to the same old, tired results of inaction. All we have to do is go on to social media following a devastating event in our country and watch the verbal barrage begin, or turn on our favorite cable news station and see the same thing unfold.

Tragically we, as adults, have become very proficient at “othering” each other, treating those we perceive as our opponents, especially in politics—or even those we simply don’t know—as less than human or not worthy of respect. Undoubtedly, given our brokenness, this kind of hate or “othering” of each other has always been a part of our culture. But it seems to me that, all of the sudden, it is now accepted as a part of our public discourse. Paint it on a sign. Write in a letter to the editor. Put it on an ad. It is just the way we do things now. But I, along with other religious leaders, fear a continued acceptance of this kind of toxic speech will keep eroding our national culture unless we decide to repent of it, to give our words a second thought, to change the ways we talk about our fellow citizens, even those we do not know or those we do not like. And we must demand our leaders to do the same.

Sisters and brothers, those of us who follow Jesus can no longer tolerate words that demean another person—regardless if we know them or not—based on their race or their religion or their ethnicity or their neighborhood or their economic status or their physical abilities. We, as followers of Jesus Christ, cannot sit by and abide language that barely conceals contempt for our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings. Not because we must be politically correct, but because we are people of faith. We are children of the God who created all people in God’s image—whether we like them or agree with them or not. It is who we are.

A preacher friend relayed a story to me this week. He has been having difficulties with folks in his congregation. Some of his church members insist on speaking about those on the other end of the theological spectrum in ways that are demeaning and destructive. It is starting to have an effect in that church system. So in order to help them repent of that kind of speech, the Presbyterian minister now says to them, “Be very, very careful whom you label as an enemy, because the second you do that, you know what follows. Jesus commands you to love that person.”

I realize that repenting of the toxicity of our words and being more intentional about the words we do use are just the first steps. We are barely scratching the surface of the myriad of issues we face as a city and as a nation. But it is a crucial start. We are not helpless in this, for the way we talk about each other, the way we talk about those we perceive as opponent or enemy, shapes us. Our words shape the atmosphere of our church. Our words shape the ethos of our city. Our words shape how our children see themselves, and our words shape what they can imagine for their future.

So during this season of Advent, let us, as the members and friends known as Fourth Presbyterian Church, join together in a season of repentance, a time during which we all choose to begin to actively change the way we speak of others, particularly of those with whom we disagree or do not understand. And let us also demand the same kind of accountability from those who are our leaders of public life. This is a call to collective action. And I believe it is what God is calling us to be and to do in these days. Repent, John the Baptist invites. It is an invitation that feels like possibility, that feels like a new beginning.