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Sermon for April 19, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland

Text: Luke 24:36b-48

      Sermon: A Change of Heart

         We humans don’t like to be caught changing our minds. Politicians who change their minds are seen as patronizing, shifting with the prevailing winds of popularity to get votes. Have you ever noticed how derogatory the press is towards an elected official who has changed their mind? They show a film clip of someone from 2009 saying one thing, and then another film clip from this year saying the opposite thing. “Ooh”, we think, “I’d never vote for someone who flip-flops like that.”

         In today’s story Jesus says just the opposite. When he was still physically alive and teaching throughout Galilee, he preached that the Kingdom of God is at hand and that you HAVE change your mind in order to enter it. Jesus hotly criticized the hard-hearted and rigid scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. He never said much good about lawyers who spent their time debating the law, though he was patient with Nicodemus, the lawyer who earnestly wanted to understand what Jesus meant when he taught that the Kingdom of God is near.

         We don’t ever hear Jesus saying, “I’m looking for people who are rigid and unyielding, who insist on their own way, who have to be right at all costs, who follow the letter of the law, or who never change their mind about anything.” Jesus never hearkens back to the good old days or lifts up people who are unwilling to change as examples of faithfulness. On the contrary, in today’s lesson, Jesus says this: “Then he opened their MINDS to understand the scriptures. He said to them, ‘This is what is written: that Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and a change of HEART and LIFE for the forgiveness of sin must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” He recruited disciples willing to change their minds, change their hearts and change their lives for a new way of being in the world, for Kingdom life.

         Right after Easter, Boston Globe writer Brandon Ambrosino wrote compellingly about Jesus’ invitation to changed life for all people in his article, “The Radical Politics of Jesus.”

         He said, “What’s radical about Easter, (then), is not that Christians claim a dead man rose from the dead. What’s radical is what that means – specifically, what it meant for Rome, and by implication what it means for all kingdoms everywhere, including the ones we live in. Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of Caesar’s way of doing things. It established a new kingdom in which enemies are loved, the marginalized are given primacy of place, and the poor are blessed. In this kingdom, hierarchies are subverted, concentrated power is decentralized, and prodigal children are welcomed home…’Remember the stranger in your midst’ is a common refrain in this kingdom.”

         In these weeks following our remembrance of Jesus’ death and the initial trauma of an empty tomb, Jesus appeared a number of times to the men and women who followed him, before ascending to God for the final time.

He stayed around long enough to show them his hands and feet on repeated occasions, to break bread with them and to hear their grief. He wanted them to see that God is faithful, that God did what God said God would do. He pulled them out of their terror and their grief, telling them to let go of fear and pay attention.

As Jesus had once called them from their jobs as fishermen and tax collectors and fathers and husbands, he now called them a second time from the paralyses of grief to the capacity to act in his name. Jesus bestowed upon each one the power of the Holy Spirit so that they could now say what he said and do what he did for all people, not just to the insiders. In this way through him, the Kingdom of God is fulfilled.

         Jesus needed to ground this message about a new kingdom of God on earth as in heaven with these disciples. The parables that had been previously hard to understand, now were made clear to them. Jesus wanted them to make the paradigm shift from seeing the world one-way to seeing it a new way. This would change their lives, and it would also forever change the world.

         This process of change seems quite modern. Psychologists Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck were among the first to develop a treatment modality for depression called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. But Jesus long ago understood keenly how we humans think, feel and behave. He appeared to the disciples with new information, showing them his hands, and feet, and eating a piece of fish so they would know that he lived. He wanted them to change their mind about the reality they knew as death. He wanted the disciples to take in new information. Cognitive Behavioral Therapists refer to this as changing your automatic thoughts.

         Jesus knew that the disciples needed to re-think his birth, life, teachings and death in a new way. By changing their thoughts about what this meant, changed hearts would follow. Their grief would turn to joy, their despair to expectant hope that God was doing a new thing. Jesus wanted them to change their minds, knowing that their changed emotions would follow. And then, he wanted them to change their lives, to follow in his ways, and to invite others into this radically transformed life, not only insiders in Jerusalem, but all people everywhere.

         Changing our minds and hearts and then changing our behaviors and thus our lives can be costly. It requires taking responsibility for our actions. We can no longer make excuses that a situation of injustice is quite beyond us, as if there were nothing we can do. There is no room for helplessness as resurrection people. There is always something we can do that demonstrates God’s good news.         

         I spoke recently with a woman who was stuck on Good Friday. She talked about all the awful things that had happened in her life, and that were happening still. She identified deeply with hanging on the cross with Jesus, and the suffering he experienced there, and she with him. After listening to her for sometime, I asked her this. “What would your life look like if you were to come down off the cross with Jesus? What would need to change in order for you to live?” Jesus didn’t stay on the cross. He wasn’t attached to death. He rose from the dead and invites us to rise out of our death-dealing world to life, too.

Jesus came to the disciples to invite them to come down off the cross and live. And then Jesus sent disciples out of the closed room of their grief to invite the whole world to repent of their way of life, that is, to stop what they were doing and live a new way as Easter people, as Alleluia people. He empowered followers to issue a call to action, inviting people to change their heart and to change their life.

         This call to action can be as deeply personal as transforming our relationships within our inner circle of care: our family, our friends, and in our faith community. But Jesus also said this message of transformation is not only for Jerusalem, not only for the insiders in our circle of care, but also for all people. Jesus’ call to enter a new kingdom on earth as in heaven is at once deeply personal, but also profoundly expansive, transforming communities, countries, and the world.

         If we believe that Jesus meant what he said about loving all people, even one’s enemies, then that call to action will necessarily take us places we don’t at first want to go. We don’t like change. Despite our challenges, we’re doing o.k. Why rock the boat?

         Courageous followers of Christ hear Jesus’ radical invitation to kingdom life. This always rocks the boat. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his letter from a Birmingham jail in l963 to fellow leaders who wanted him to go slowly and go along to get along. He made it clear that going along with the flow would result in an unlimited season of oppression for Blacks in America. He wrote that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to an oppressed group.

         He expressed his love for the church and his sure confidence in new life promised through Christ. Yet he also expressed disappointment in the white church leaders, who with notable exceptions were more cautious than courageous. “He went to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of the community would see the justice of their cause and with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which their just grievances could reach the power structure. …” He wrote: “I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: ‘Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.’ In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro… in the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”

        Courageous followers of Christ risk everything for the hope of new life in God’s kingdom. We remember that a man named Sewell, one of the early colonialists here in York, read the Sermon on the Mount and a commentary on the book of Romans and then wrote in the book’s margin, “We must goeth against the King.”

         The first battle of the American Revolutionary War will thus be remembered tomorrow, Patriot’s day, when on April 19, 1775, the British won a victory at Lexington, Massachusetts, killing 8 and wounding 10, with several thousand colonial farmers and shopkeepers rising up by days end.

         Some have said to me that New Englanders don’t like change, but a read of American history tells us otherwise. Those who left homelands, and sometimes family and friends irreversibly changed their lives by coming here for the hope of a new kingdom, where among other things they could experience religious freedom, lack of persecution and liberty for all. Generations later, they severed governing ties with the very king who granted them land in the New World, and at bloody cost. What greater change and at what greater cost can there be than this?

         Courageous followers of Christ respond to Jesus’ invitation to new life and invite others to join them. Change is scary. Not every one agrees. We sometimes lose friends. Family members turn away. We know what this is like. In our own time we struggle over what it means that the Kingdom of God is at hand in our treatment of Central American immigrants. We sometimes struggle to exercise compassion and hospitality towards neighbors who have middle-eastern sounding names. Many of us secretly fear the non-terrorist majority of Muslims who lived peaceably as our neighbors until the last decade. Since 9/11 and the rise of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, we increasingly treat all middle easterners with suspicion and hostility as potential enemies.

         We’re tempted to avoid talking about these things as Christians, as if this conversation belongs solely to the realm of foreign policy. When Jesus asked us to change our minds, that means we have to confront our own prejudices and change our hearts towards those we disdain and those we fear. The Kingdom of God is at hand for all people, for all the world. That’s everybody. Love of neighbor is in fact the central concern of the gospel.

The gospel question for us then is not solely about how we treat African Americans if we live in Birmingham or Chicago, or Mexican immigrants if we live in Arizona, or how we respond to any particular group of people. Rather, Jesus appeared to the disciples and to us to confront anything in us that doesn’t fit with the kingdom of God. Jesus asks us to repent of that baggage and leave it at the door. We simply can’t enter the kingdom of God with hardened hearts towards the people God made and God loves.

         On Palm Sunday, Robert Azzi, a columnist for the Portsmouth Herald who happens to be Muslim wrote these words: “As I witness Christians and Jews, loved ones, friends, strangers, celebrate days most holy to them, I am moved by all that connects us on this fragile earth through faith, belief and an immutable love of that which is the source of all of life.

         “Jesus, a Jewish mystic whose resurrection (was) celebrated by Christians on Easter Sunday, challenged the privilege of the ruling elites of his time, as did those prophets and activists who followed, like Prophet Muhammad, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela...Prophets are, as Christian theologian Marcus Borg writes, ‘Bearers of the dream of God: a world of justice and compassion,’ advocates for an inclusive and egalitarian world in which humankind is charged to challenge and resist those who threaten violence, injustice, exploitation and pollution. “

We end today where we began. While the disciples stood talking about all that had taken place, Jesus himself came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Jesus wants changed minds and changed hearts and changed lives. He wants us to think about the world as God thinks about the world and to live accordingly. This is the Good News of Christ. This is God’s hope for the world. This is Jesus’ peace beyond all human understanding. May it be so for all God’s people. Amen