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Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016 | 4:00 p.m.

Courage and Serenity

Nanette Sawyer
Minister for Congregational Life

Matthew 3:1–12


Unfortunately the Bible can sometimes be used as a weapon. I saw a movie once in which one of the characters throws a Bible and screams angrily at another character, “I am filled with the love of Christ!” It was meant to be ironic—which it was. She didn’t seem like she was filled with the love of Christ.

When I say “the Bible can sometimes be used as a weapon,” I don’t really mean hitting someone with the paper; I mean hitting someone with the words. For example, when I first read this scripture, what jumps out at me are these words: snakes, judgment, wrath, ax, and fire.

These jump out at me because this scripture, and others like it, has been used as a weapon at times. Those of us who have ever heard fire-and-brimstone preaching might hear these words first when we hear this text, because they have been weaponized in order to show that some people are good and some people are bad; some people are like trees that produce good fruit and some are like trees that don’t; or that some people are like wheat to save in barns and some people are like husks that can be destroyed.

This becomes a weapon when anybody uses it to say, “I’m the good tree, I’m the good fruit, I’m the wheat, and you’re not.”

But what if we believe that the line between good and evil goes straight through the middle of the human heart? What if the wheat and the husk are both each and every one of us? What if sometimes we produce good fruit and sometimes we produce no fruit or bad fruit?

If we don’t use this scripture as a weapon to divide people or to threaten them or even as a weapon against ourselves, then maybe we can use it in a different way. Maybe we can find something deeper in it, something better, something inspiring that could help us become better people and better followers of Jesus.

Using the Bible as a weapon is like sitting down at a scrumptious banquet and starting a food fight instead of eating the food.

Instead, let’s look for the nourishment in this scripture.

The translation I used today, the Common English Bible, is a new scholarly translation made from the original biblical languages. It’s my favorite translation, and I especially love this line that John the Baptist says: “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (CEB)

I love this translation because the kingdom of heaven is in the process of arriving. I’m sure they did a careful analysis of the Greek verb that’s used there, and they have a good reason why they think they can say it like this: “Here comes the kingdom of heaven.” It’s in the present, but it’s also in the future. The kingdom of heaven: Here it comes; it’s coming now; it’s going to be here in the future.

It’s not something that happened already, in the past and is finished. And it’s not something that’s only gonna happen in the future sometime. It’s happening now, right now, and it’s not gonna stop.

That’s a hopeful vision for me. That’s nourishment. I don’t know about you, but I need some hope right now. Not optimism. Not sentimentality that says, “Oh, everything will be fine.” That’s optimism.
I need a kind of hope that lives deep in my guts and that pulls me toward something good that I can’t even quite see yet.

I was reading a lot this week from the Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. His name is Omid Safi, and he wrote a couple weeks ago that what we need is a “gritty and grounded” hope. That sounds about right to me (Omid Safi, www.onbeing.org/column/omid-safi).

Reflecting on these words, I think grounded hope acknowledges that the glass is half empty, even while recognizing that it’s also half full. It’s not one or the other; it’s both. This hope is grounded in a complicated reality that doesn’t look away from the ugly parts of experience. Grounded in reality, this kind of hope gives me something to stand on.

Gritty hope makes us do something about what we see. Gritty hope calls us to get involved in bringing about the future that we hope to see. We participate in this kingdom of heaven that’s on its way. We’re not just guilty bystanders. We’re people of action. We’re disciples, actively following God in the way of Jesus.

I have grounded and gritty hope in the kingdom of heaven that’s coming right now.

The other thing I love about this translation is the phrase “change your hearts and lives!” This is a translation of the word that our pew Bibles translate as “Repent.”

In Greek, it’s metanoia. It means to change your mind or to turn around. It means to turn toward God, or to re-turn to God, again and again.

This is about reorienting ourselves in a way that changes our lives—and not just the shape of our lives, not just the actions we do, but our hearts, too.

This is actually what the word repent means. Repentance is changing our hearts and our lives and returning to God.

The prophets throughout history repeatedly call people to change their hearts and lives and return to God.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God says, “Return to me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22).

Through the prophet Ezekiel, God says, “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live” (Ezekiel 18:31–32).

Change your hearts and lives. This is what the prophet John the Baptist also tells his followers to do. And that’s what we’re called to as well. Change your hearts and lives.

But how? What has to be changed? And how can we change it?

This question makes me think about a well-known prayer that many of you have also heard. It was written by a famous American theologian in the late 1930s, Reinhold Niebuhr, and it’s been tweaked and edited and used ever since.

We call it the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer).

It, too, gets right at the question of change, but it lays out a big part of the problem. How do we know what to change?

We call it the serenity prayer, but it is also a call to action. We could call it the courage prayer, too. Grant me the courage to change the things I can. That’s just as important as the serenity part.

Serenity, peacefulness, acceptance: it’s not enough if we’re not also changing the things that we can change. We’re looking for some kind of balance between serenity and courage.

And balance is a very hard thing to find. Courage can so easily turn into self-righteousness when we think we’ve got all the right answers and other people have all the wrong ones.

That’s falling off balance from courage into self-righteousness. It’s going a little bit too far.

But on the other side of things, serenity can fall out of balance and become passivity when we don’t have enough courage and when we don’t change the things we could change.

We don’t want passivity on the one hand or self-righteousness on the other.  We want serenity and courage.

Looking for the wisdom to know the difference requires some serious spiritual work.

One thing that we often want to change but we can’t change is another person’s heart and mind. They might change their own mind and life, their own heart, because they know you, me, us. But they might not! And that’s hard to accept.

Each one of us can only change our own heart and life. We can only repent for ourselves.

Now laws, on the other hand, are something that we can change. Elected officials are something we can change. Police accountability is something we can demand. Social expectations, that’s something we can change. Changing those things does require seeing clearly what we are facing. We need a grounded kind of hope and a gritty kind of hope. And changing those things will require strategy and perseverance and definitely courage.

We could do all those things without serenity, but serenity would help us so much. Understanding what we can change and what we cannot change would help us direct our energy to changing the things that we can.

And I think that this kind of serenity could also help us grow in love. Love is not just a feeling we have; love is something that we can embody and enact in the world.

Cornel West has said that love, when it becomes public, is justice. That’s what love looks like in public. It looks like justice.

John the Baptist calls for his followers, who are going to become followers of Jesus, to change their hearts and lives because the kingdom of heaven is coming.

If we can keep our eyes on that prize, then maybe we can have grounded and gritty hope.

Omid Safi also wrote that “we need something to illuminate the darkness, and it may not be cursing it.”  Cursing the darkness probably is not going to change it. It’s just going to get us upset. We need to do something much more powerful than that. We need to change our hearts and lives.

Safi went on to say, “Our very being has to become a candle, bringing light into a world deeply in need of it.”

So on this second Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle remembering the prophets who throughout time have called us to turn and re-turn toward God, and to work for justice, let’s take away this image: that your very being could become a candle, that we, each of us, could bring light and heat to many cold and broken places.

What is the light that you can bring? What is the light that we can bring collectively?

The very fact that the prophets call us to something different reminds us that there is something different. There is a kingdom of heaven.

And even though it is darkest before the dawn, the kingdom of heaven is not going away. It is still coming. And it’s coming right now.

We can have this kind of hope, as Omid Safi describes it: “Hope that we will always remember that there is love and beauty and tenderness in this world. Hope that we live through the faith that the beauty here is a reflection of divine beauty. Hope that tenderness and kindness will outlast meanness and hatred. Hope that we as a human community will put love above indifference. Hope that justice for all will overcome a ‘just us’ mentality.”

This is the kind of hope that changes hearts and lives. So I invite us all, myself included, to prepare the way of the Lord by hoping and loving and changing our hearts and our lives. This is repentence, and I repent!

Let us repent together, turning and re-turning toward God. May it be so. Amen.