Saturday, September 24, 2011

Changing Your Mind - Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32

What we think has a powerful effect on what we do.  Here is a mind-blowing example:    How you see isn't just about how good your eyes are - it's also about your mindset, according to a study published in Psychological Science. For example, in one experiment, if someone was told that exercise would improve their vision, they saw better after doing an athletic activity - jumping jacks - than an unathletic activity with the same effect on heart rate.

What we think influences our behavior.  In our scripture this morning, Jesus tells a story and then gives a lesson from it.  Both point to the necessity of changing one’s mind and therefore behaving differently in order to realize the blessing of God.

So, being the practical preacher that I am.  This month.  I thought - OK.  What’s the practical application here?  What do people need to know?  How to change our minds was the obvious answer.  Of course, in order for that to be a helpful topic, we’d have to have some change that we wished to make, or thought we OUGHT to make in order to live better lives.  We’d have to want to change.  Which reminds me of the lightbulb joke:  How many psychaitrists does it take to change a light bulb?  Only one.  But the lightbulb has to really want to change.  Or of a hat a certain pastor acquaintance had that read, “Let’s CHANGE - - - You go first” 

In general, most of the time, change is not something people want to do.  I get that.  And nothing I can say can make you want to change.  But I can remind you of something you already know:  If you want the world to change - if you want something in your world to change - if you want a situation to change - the only thing you CAN change is yourself.  So maybe if you don’t want to change yourself - your behavior, your ideas, your life in any way, you will just hear me out and file these ideas in the back of your mind in case you ever DO find that you want to change something.  Because here’s something Jesus says is possible - even blessed - you can do:  You can change your mind. 

One way to change is to think yourself into a new way of acting.  This works like the experiment with the eyes that I talked about before.  You convince yourself that a new course of action is possible, and you gradually live into that possibility.  Let’s take something mundane.  Like controlling your tongue.  Or being organized.  Or exercising regularly.  If those things are aren’t problems for you, then think of something that you do struggle with, that limits your life in some way - being isolated.  not saving money. Failing in school.  Hating your job.
Let’s work with controlling our tongues, since that is a Biblical mandate.  The book of James says, “Watch your mouth, for the tongue is a raging fire.”  So that’s a behavior that we need to repent.
The first step in changing your life by changing your mind is to become aware of all the times and all the ways you think negative things about that.  
I say things without thinking. 
I am not tactful.
I say things that hurt people.  Maybe I say things TO hurt people.  I gossip about folks.
I don’t think before I speak. 
You write those things down on a piece of paper.  With your hand.  Not the computer.  (I’ don’t know why that matters, but apparently it does.)  Then you fold the paper in half and on the other side, you write positive statements that correspond:
I think before I speak.
I am becoming more tactful (you don’t say “I’m trying” to be more tactful, cause trying focuses on the effort, not the success.  In the immortal words of Yoda, “There is no try!  There is only do or not do.”)
My words foster better relationships.
I consider the impact of my words befre I say them.
And you put those affirmative statements where you will be reminded of them often.  Every time you see them, you say them.
Every time you notice thinking the negative thing, stop it and think the positive one instead.  You don’t have to believe it in any deep way.  You just say it to yourself.

And then, you will start to notice that instances in which the positive things are acted out.  You notice when you think before you speak.  You notice when instead of cussing you remain polite.  You notice when you say the right thing - the thing that makes a situation better instead of worse. 

And it will happen more and more.  If you do this, it will change your mind and change your actions.  Your words will become like a healing balm - that turn away wrath and sooth the soul - both yours and others.  This is true. 

You have thought your way into a new way of acting. A way that is more full of the grace and mercy of Jesus. 

The other way of changing your mind is to act your way into a new way of thinking.  Let’s say you have fallen out of love with your spouse.  Or your church.  Or Jesus.  You just aren’t feeling it.  Let’s say it is your best friend. 
To change the relationship, you change some actions on your part. 

You compliment your friend on some aspect of their character that you appreciate.
You choose to spend time with them.
You call them up just to ask about their day.
You tell them a joke they’ll like, or send them a song or an article they’ll enjoy. 

Two weeks of this behavior and voila!  Your relationship takes on a different, more joyful tone.  A month - you look forward to hearing from them and you no longer have to pretend that they enrich your life.  It will be true.   

You have acted yourself into a new way of thinking and felling about them.

These techniques work in mundane matters, and in spiritual matters as well.  When they are spiritual, we call them “repentance”.  Changing one’s mind is one way of understanding repentence - which does not mean felling sorry.  It means to change one’s direction.  And to change the direction of thinking also changes our ability to do the right thing  - to answer God’s call, to live the life that God has invited us to share in Christ.

Jesus told this great story about the two sons - both asked to go and work for their Father (God) and both of whom changed their minds between the answer and the action. They repented. 

In one case the change was for the good.  In the other, not so much.

What’s interesting when you look at the Greek is that the change here is not quite the same as just changing one’s mind - which is what is translated as “repentance” elsewhere in the New Testament.  Here Jesus uses a slightly different word that means changing how we feel, or changing our Heart, not just our mind. 

What scientists are beginning to discover is the physiological truth behind Jesus’ choice of words.  For there is now research on-going which has discovered what Jesus already knew - that the heart has a mind of its own.  There are actually a rather large group of nuerological cells in the heart, which both react to messages from the brain and the rest of the body AND send messages to the brain and the rest of the body through electrical and chemical pathways.  So it is quite literally true that the heart sometimes knows and communicates truths that the mind doesn’t. 

How to change your mind is only half of the story.  What we really need is a change of heart.  And the good news is that we can change our hearts - train our hearts - in a way that makes it possible for us to be more Christ-like.  One heart training technique is called Freeze framing.  But that’s because scientists named it.  If theologians named it, they would call it something different.  Like prayer.  Here’s how it goes - when confronted by anger or frustration, which the heart recognizes even if the mind doesn’t, for instance if someone asks you to do something that you don’t want to do and you feel that tight feeling in your chest, quickly put your hand on your heart (literally at first - when you get good at it you can do it without the hand) and pray, “Christ have mercy. Open my heart to feel compassion for this person who has asked for my help.”  Feel your heart opening to the other person and let God’s love govern your response. This doesn’t mean that you will have to always say “yes” to the request.  But you will be able to respond in a way that is in concert with the divine Yes we have heard in Jesus Christ.   You will act with the wisdom of an open and loving heart.

You can change by acting your way to a new way of thinking
You can change by thinking your way to a new way of acting.
But this scripture also points out that the changing that God desires from us and for us is not just about changing our heads but changing our hearts.

No matter how we have answered in the past - whether we have said yes or no - to God’s will for our lives, 

God has gifted us with the possibility that we can change our minds, and if we allow him to, he can change our hearts. 


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