Metanoia: Choosing Higher Thoughts and Higher Ways
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
February 28, 2016 Third Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9
The Prophet Isaiah delivered a beautiful message to the people of Israel. All who were hungry or thirsty would have an abundance of food and drink better than money could buy. God’s love was steadfast and sure, and God would raise them as a light to the nations. All they had to do was turn to God’s higher thoughts and ways, and they would have richness of life and abundant joy.
If we were seeing this as a movie, the camera would be focused on Isaiah’s face full of passionate urgency and exuberant hope. Then the camera would draw back and show the people listening. We would see that they were dressed in stained and tattered robes. They had looks of weary disbelief or stone cold resistance. They were exiles in Babylon. None believed they would ever see their homeland, and besides, it had been utterly destroyed decades ago. What Isaiah was saying was absurd. They were as far from a condition of glory that could inspire the nations as they could possibly be.
Yet Isaiah’s prophecy came true. As Psalm 126 says,
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Today’s gospel passage takes place in a similar context. Instead of the Babylonian Empire, it was the Roman Empire, and instead of being exiles they were an occupied nation under the oppression of Roman rule. People were downtrodden and discouraged, and as is human nature, they were focusing on all the bad news.
Neuroscience has shown that the human brain is programmed this way—negative thoughts and experiences are like Velcro, we fixate on them, they stick easily to our brains, whereas it takes a concentrated effort to turn to the positive and make it stick. Star Wars says, “Beware the power of the dark side.” It is true; negativity is very powerful. We can get stuck in it.
Jesus heard the sensational horror stories going around. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, ordered his soldiers to massacre Galileans while they were offering sacrifices to God. A tower in Jerusalem fell and killed eighteen people. Tragedy and misfortune were considered indications of God’s judgment, so negative stories were doubly negative as signs of God’s wrath. Jesus spoke up and rejected that vehemently. The God of Jesus is not about punishment, but about mercy, about giving another chance, about forgiving not seven times but seventy times seven times.
Jesus said that the people who died were not singled out because they were bad. Everyone suffers misfortune sometimes. Life is that way. It is not God’s punishment. We cannot avoid death, but we can choose how we will respond to suffering or hard times, and that will have an affect on both how we live and how we die.
I have been with many people as they were dying. I have seen some who were tormented and terrified, and others who gave gifts of light and love to all around them, who radiated peace and wellbeing. They might have been anxious about the unknown, but what came across more was their confident grounding in mercy and grace. The thing that seemed to make the difference was that they had learned how to find the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness can never overcome. They had learned through practice and experience how to turn in all circumstances to God’s unconditional love in trust.
This is what Jesus is talking about in today’s passage when he says “repent.” As you may remember, the Greek word for repentance in the gospels is metanoia, which means to change our heart, mind or soul, to turn it in a different direction. It is a choice we make to shift from the negative to the positive, from darkness to light.
Jesus is feeling great urgency that we learn this. It is a matter of life and death. We have only a short time on this earth. It matters urgently that we practice metanoia while we can. It matters urgently that we keep turning to the light. Even when we are so lost in the darkness of grief or depression or despair that we cannot imagine that light still exists, we need to turn in those times to the light we cannot see! It matters for our own sake, so that we will live the best life and die the best death we can, and it matters for the sake of the world as well.
Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree. The fig tree was symbolic of the entire people, not just an individual. Jesus was trying to change his nation and establish the realm of God on earth. Our individual metanoia gains its greatest meaning by contributing to the metanoia of our community and culture. Metanoia is a matter of life and death for communities, too. They need to turn to the light, too.
How we each respond to our own personal negativity and shadow-self makes a difference in the world. God’s realm on earth depends on our turning again and again to God every time negativity tempts us to speak or act out of it.
One of the earliest Christian monks was a holy man named Abba Moses. One day his brothers called him to come to a hearing about a brother who had broken a rule of the community. The man was guilty and punishment needed to be decided. They asked Abba Moses to help. He refused, but finally they all came and insisted. He picked up a sack, filled it with sand, and walked in front of them. The sack was full of holes, and they cried out, “Abba, wait, the sand is spilling out of your sack!”
He turned to them and said, “My own sins spill out behind me, and you call me to judge a brother?” The monks were humbled. They told their brother to mend his ways, and forgave him. They returned to their prayers with joy and praise for the mercy of Abba Moses and of God.
Jesus is calling us to turn from whatever pulls us away from the love and light of God. He is calling us to change our orientation from judgmental to forgiving, from negative to positive so that love and light will flow through us, and the peace in our heart will lead to peace in our home, and the peace in our home to peace in the town, and the peace in the town to peace in the nation, and the peace in the nation to peace in the world.
This is the difference between repentance and the metanoia that Jesus had in mind.
The definition of repent is to feel regret about our sin. Its focus is all on what has been wrong.
The definition of metanoia is to change one’s heart, mind and soul, to have a conversion or transformation take place that results in a change in the way we live. Repentance is backward looking, metanoia is forward looking. Last Lent we read Bishop Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness. Metanoia assumes that we know that we have done wrong, yet we turn from it and let it go, trusting in the unconditional love and mercy of God.
This congregation has heard Christ calling us not to repentance but to metanoia. The Identity and Aspiration Statement that we read this morning was a direct response to experiences of wounding conflict here over the years, but we did not list our past sins as our identity. Instead, we described a church that is intentionally turning to be more like God’s realm.
Similarly, the Healthy Communication and Beloved Community workshops we are having are not intended to focus on the wrongs or wounds of the past, but to focus entirely on the skills and practices we need to learn in order to make this “a church family where everyone feels welcome and at home, appreciated and supported, where we take the love we find here out into the world, and where people want to participate because the church makes a positive difference in their lives throughout the week; a congregation where we maintain healthy communication and a positive, hopeful attitude as we face inevitable challenges, and where we feel joy, peace and a steady deepening of Christ-like love and faithfulness; a safe, comfortable place for worship and spiritual growth.” (from our Identity and Aspiration Statement)
It is urgent that we learn the new thoughts and ways the workshops will teach us, not because the soldiers of the American Empire are going to rush in and murder us as we make our offering or because the tower of the church is going to fall on us as punishment for the wrongs we have done in the past. We need these new skills because every one of us needs this congregation to be as much like God’s realm on earth as we can make it. We need this church to be here to comfort and inspire us, to guide and empower us as we face the challenges of life and death.
The world needs us to learn these skills, too. It needs our congregation to shine with the light of God’s higher thoughts and God’s higher ways, to be a beacon in a society that has sunk shamefully low. We face a challenge similar to the captives in Babylon, or the oppressed people of Jesus’ time.
We, too, need to work hard to shake off the negativity and despair that say things cannot change. We need to throw off the oppressive suspicion that a church in today’s society can no longer shine like a light to the nations. We need to think how God restored the fortunes of Zion. We need to think how God raised the crucified body of Christ from the dead. We need to have faith that with the force of the Holy Spirit in us, we can accomplish metanoia in our own lives, we can accomplish metanoia in our church, and we can make a difference in this world to help it rise to higher thoughts and higher ways of mercy, justice and peace.
Let us pray for that with all our hearts in silence…