The Fire

Sermon for Sunday, December 4, 2022 || Advent 2A || Matthew 3:1-12

Today I’m going to talk about the concept of repentance. But to get there, I need to talk about my experience of the fire here in Mystic that destroyed Seaport Marine last Sunday night. On Sunday evenings, Leah and I play Dungeons and Dragons with some friends in our basement. We were wrapping up our game when we heard a thunk coming from upstairs. Leah went to investigate and found a book had fallen off of one of the kids’ beds. No big deal. But right when she got back downstairs, we heard another thunk, and then another. But they weren’t thunks. They were explosions.

We went outside into the parking lot and that’s when we saw the intense orange glow filling the sky over the buildings in downtown Mystic. Orange smoke poured northward, deepening to gray then black as it billowed forth. We could see flames above the buildings. Sirens rent the air, a near constant wail of fire trucks from all over the region screaming towards the blaze. The trouble for the six of us, however, was that, from our position, we couldn’t tell where the fire was. We couldn’t tell where the fire trucks were headed. I climbed out onto the roof of the education wing to try to get a better look, but I still couldn’t tell what was on fire. 

And that was the terrifying part in those minutes before we learned from Facebook about Seaport Marine. The fire was so big that our minds could not contextualize its location. All we saw was a flame-orange skyline and smoke pumping into the sky like a burning oil derrick. The fire was either close and big or farther away and REALLY big. Either case was very scary. As near as I could tell, from our perspective, it looked like the new building on Main Street was on fire, the building that replaced the one that burned down a few decades ago. If that were the case, the fire could have easily spread due to the wind to the rest of Main Street and then up Pearl Street.

After a few days of reflecting on this terrifying experience from last weekend – when I can move past the ‘what ifs’ that lead to much more tragedy than actually happened – I have ended up seeing my whole perception of this event as a study in perspective.

From my vantage point, standing on the roof of the education wing, my mind did a bunch of unconscious math and decided the fire was much closer than it actually was, that the fire was right there, consuming that building that I can see from where I’m standing. In reality, the fire was about three blocks away on the other side of the river – still incredibly dangerous, still destroying buildings and threatening homes and lives. But it wasn’t, from my perspective, right there, causing me to run the numbers of when to bundle the kids into the van.

If I had been standing next to the Mystic Museum of Art, where many others congregated, I would have had a clear view of Seaport Marine across the river. I would have had a different vantage point, a perspective that was unimpeded by obstacles, a perspective that could see the reality of what was happening in the moment. I still would have been scared – I’ve never witnessed anything like this before – but my fear would have been more for others (for the first responders and people in the neighborhood) than for myself and my family.

These ideas of perspective and vantage point bring us around to the concept of repentance. We have all been taught and socialized to think of repentance as the pious action of showing regret for a wrongdoing. But that’s actually the definition of penitence, not repentance. (I know these words sound a lot alike.) And unfortunately, every thesaurus out there is going to make these two words synonyms. But they’re not the same thing. And the difference between them is so important for our lives of faith.

Being penitent is an acknowledgement of committing wrong. The “pen” at the beginning of the word is from the Latin for “punishment,” and it’s also where we get the words “penal” as in “penal system” and “penitentiary.” The “pen” is also in the word “repentance” but this is due more to the way English works than what the word looks like in the original language. The word we translate as “repent” in today’s Gospel lesson is the Greek word “metanoia.” (Which is just a really cool sounding word. Everyone say it with me: “Metanoia.”) This word carries a meaning that is less about feeling sorry for something and more about a distinct and conscious change in perspective.

When John the Baptist says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” this is not a threat. It’s an invitation to change our perspective, to change our point of view, so we can more readily see the signs of that kingdom present around us. That’s why John is baptizing people. The baptism with water is a symbol of their commitment to living with a fresh perspective. They confess their sins at baptism because those sins are the obstacles that are in the way of their new point of view.

Just like my perspective made me think the buildings on Main Street were on fire. The buildings were the obstacles that kept me from seeing the reality of the blaze. If I had shifted my vantage point, I would have gained a better understanding of the fire.

Our sinfulness sets up these obstacles that keep us from changing our point of view, that keep us from repenting. Everyone participates in the sinful systems of the world that keep people from thriving, that destroy our environment, that trick us into thinking everything is a zero-sum game. Our continual need for repentance springs from the enduring nature of these sinful systems. By consciously changing our points of view, we can, with God’s help, see these systems for what they are – distortions of God’s good and very good Creation. We can make these conscious changes through prayer, silent meditation, personal study, and most importantly by expanding our circles of proximity so that we rub shoulders with people whose experiences differ from our own.

We “humbly repent” every week when we say together the Confession of Sin. But notice how the confession words this: “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” Do you see what this sentence does? It’s penitence AND repentance – two separate concepts. We are sorry (that’s penitence) and in our humility and sorrow we will change our hearts and our minds (that’s repentance). That’s the change in perspective that Jesus offers us each day as he invites us into the reality of God’s kingdom. Our confession of sin is not just about feeling sorry for things; it’s about changing how we see the world and how God invites us to a new way of perceiving reality. My prayer for all of us this Advent is that we accept this invitation to continual change of our perspectives so that we come closer and closer to the mind of Christ.

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