Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Reflections on Repentance

This sermon was given on Saturday, December 7 by our friend Greg Johnston at All Saint's Parish in Brookline. Greg is one of the Life Together fellows All Saint's has graciously housed in the church rectory this year.

I want to thank you all for welcoming me here today. And even more importantly, I want to thank you for the welcome you’ve given me in the last three months. Most of you probably don’t recognize me, although some might. Maybe you’ve seen me carrying bags of groceries through the front door of the rectory as you come here on Saturday evening, or maybe you’ve seen me sitting on the bench in the yard.

I’ve been living next door since August as a part of the Life Together Community. A group of us live in the rectory in intentional community, working at congregations and nonprofits across Greater Boston, doing service and community organizing, working for justice. Those of us staying at ASP have come from Texas, North Carolina, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin—and even Massachusetts! It’s been incredible for us to have access to a big house in a great neighborhood like this—it’s allowed us to build a strong community that can help support us in our work outside it.

Well, I’m one of the few from Massachusetts. I grew up in Winchester, which is a lot like Brookline in some ways: it’s white, upper-middle class, great schools, progressive. I grew up in a congregation that was very focused on service: I always volunteered moving furniture at the Mission of Deeds, or working at the Woburn Council of Social Concern soup kitchen, and went further afield on youth mission trips to work in homeless shelters in DC and New York, on a farm in Georgia, and at a youth camp in Puerto Rico. But we’d never really been activists: we spent our time working to ease the symptoms of injustice rather than addressing the causes.

I went to college and, like many young adults, drifted away from the church. Outside the community I was used to, I didn’t have my own spiritual life. With papers and exams and reading, service wasn’t a priority. And I got so caught up in the culture of achievement, of success, that it seemed for a while like the best way to change things would be to go to law school, work in government, eventually maybe run for political office. And if, along the way, I ended up in corporate 

But instead here I am, making $450 a month, living a life of intentional simplicity with six other people, spending my time in prayer and working at a community organization in Dorchester called the Massachusetts Communities Action Network. Why?

One of the first weekends I was working there, a coworker and I were driving to a meeting at a church in Fall River. Now, Tomas is 42 years old. He grew up in South Boston and Dorchester. His family, who were some of the only Latino business owners in Southie during the busing riots, left after their bodega and their home were burned down. He had worked in politics and for the labor movement his whole life. We were going to a meeting with a bunch of working-class congregations in Fall River and New Bedford about the minimum wage. He turned to me and said: “You know, when I looked at your resume, I had no idea why you were taking this job.”

And so I told him. I told him about the lack of real connections between people I’d seen in college, about people so obsessed with getting the best internship that they didn’t have time to really get to know each other. I told him about my family: that the same economic system that forced people working minimum-wage jobs to work sixty hours a week forced my venture-capitalist dad to do the same, that the culture of possessions, power, and prestige that led Walmart to fire employees for organizing had led to my parents’ divorce.

And I told him about the moment, when I was sitting in my college dining hall with a friend, one of the most genuine people I knew, talking about our real selves, our values, our families, who we thought we were, what we really cared about—the moment when I first experienced genuine, holy listening, and the first moment in a long time when I experienced the presence of God.

It was a moment that led me to repent.

Repentance is one of the central themes of Advent, what we call—in a truly-Episcopalian turn of phrase—a “mildly penitential” season. Now, you know I’m a New Englander. And you know I’m a mainline Protestant. I don’t know about you, but growing up we didn’t talk much about repentance. Repentance meant sin. It meant Puritanical ideas about sex. But the contrast we see in the readings today is different. It’s a contrast between “righteousness” and “repentance.”

“Repent!” John the Baptist says. “μετανοεῖτε,” in in Matthew’s Greek. He sounds like one of those guys you encounter on the T—they’re generally guys—who works himself up into a furor over fornication or contraception or Obamacare while everyone politely looks away.

That’s not what John is going for. “μετανοεῖτε” means something different. It comes from two Greek words: “μετα,” which often means “across”—a metaphor is something that carries its meaning across expressions; and “νους,” which is understanding or intellect. “μετανοεῖτε” means “Change your mind!” but even more than that... “Change your understanding!”

Benedictine monks and nuns have a principle of “conversion of life.” This really goes beyond Benedictines though, to all Christians. In our baptismal covenant we renounce Satan, evil, and sin—and we turn toward Jesus. We repent. We re-orient ourselves away from the path of evil toward the path of righteousness, of justice. “Repent!” John the Baptist tells us. But what—in a concrete sense—are we supposed to turn away from? What are we supposed to turn towards?

Isaiah gives us one answer: righteousness. In Advent, we read Isaiah as a prediction of the two comings of the Messiah, the Christ: a shoot from the stump of Jesse, who “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor” (Isaiah 11:3–4). Righteousness, Isaiah tells us, “shall be the belt around his waist” (Isaiah 11:5).

But what’s righteousness? Is it just about wolves and lambs lying together, about unimaginable pie-in-the-sky dreams? Is it just what will happen after the Second Coming, something we don’t have to worry about until then? Is this topsy-turvy world, the world turned upside down, the world that the Gospel proclaims—is this something we can work for on earth?

The psalmist puts it a little more straightforwardly. A righteous person is an ally to the poor, an enemy to the oppressor. The New Revised Standard Version translation maintains the parallelism in the second and fourth verses:

May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice. (Psalm 72:2)

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, 
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor. (Psalms 72:4)

To judge with righteousness simply means to defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. Sure, there’s some community service here, in delivering the needy. But the overwhelming force of the point is that the righteous king, when judging between the causes of the rich and the poor, chooses the cause of the poor. Community organizing, the way we do it, is all about building an alliance between the cause of the poor and the values of the faithful. As the BCP psalter puts it, and as we’ve all just said, we have a commitment to “defend the needy among the people,” “rescue the poor,” and “crush the oppressor.”

At my site placement I’ve been working on a ballot-initiative campaign to raise the minimum wage and to allow all workers to earn sick time at work. Passing these questions would benefit one million of the poorest workers in the state. We needed 200,000 signatures to put them on the 2014 ballot. We gathered 285,000. People of faith working with MCAN collected 69,000, two or three times the number of the strongest labor unions or progressive political groups. This, today, is “the cause of the poor of the people.” And this is how we, as people of faith, have responded.

This is the conversion of life, the repentance, that I’ve experienced in these last three months. Tomas, you see, was right. When I graduated from college, I could have been making six or seven times what I’m making, working in a job with ten or twenty times the prestige. Working alongside poor and working-class people on poor and working-class issues, living simply in an intentional Christian community founded on faith, prayer, and real relationships—these are choices that come directly out of the calling I experienced from God to repent. Not to feel guilty; not to say “I’m sorry”; but to turn away from a life that wasn’t sustaining me, a life that wasn’t really living at all, and to turn toward the kingdom of God. “Repent,” says John the Baptist, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Repentance has never been easy. Conversion of life has never been easy. It’s never even been comprehensible. St. Cyprian, a third-century African bishop—a man who gave away his entire estate and inheritance over the course of his life to support the poor in his diocese—wrote this to a friend:

“How,” said I, “is such a conversion possible, that there should be a sudden and rapid divestment of all which, either innate in us has hardened in the corruption of our material nature, or acquired by us has become inveterate by long accustomed use? These things have become deeply and radically engrained within us. When does he learn thrift who has been used to liberal banquets and sumptuous feasts? And he who has been glittering in gold and purple, and has been celebrated for his costly attire, when does he reduce himself to ordinary and simple clothing? One who has felt the charm of the fasces and of civic honours shrinks from becoming a mere private and inglorious citizen.”1

Possession, power, prestige—these are things that have become “deeply and radically engrained” within us. We can’t simply decide to root them out and have them gone the next day. There’s no magical switch we can flip. Intentional community, more than anything, is a structure that supports each of us in our practice of eradicating our deeply and radically engrained dependence on privilege and wealth. Having a house, a place for that community to live together in this daily practice, has been so important, and such a blessing—and for that we thank you, again and again.

I’m certainly not perfect. I know for a fact that I never will be, this side of that second Advent, the Second Coming in Glory. It’s a good thing, really, that Advent comes every year—that every year we hear the call to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

And so I ask you, on this Second Sunday of Advent 2013, as we’re surrounded by advertisements for gifts, by news stories of people being beaten at Walmart over a good deal on a new Xbox, as we hear about strikes for fair wages at Walmart and McDonald’s, as we hear about activists turning in a stack of petition sheets for workers’ ballot issues a foot-and-a-half taller than a T-re—I ask you, what are you doing, individually, congregationally, and as a whole church, to repent? What are you doing to defend the cause of the poor? To deliver the needy? To crush the oppressor?

“μετανοειτε!” John the Baptist cries out. “Repent!” “Change your understanding!” “Change your life!”


1 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds. Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix. vol. V of The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Accordance electronic ed. (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1885), n.p.

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