The Green Mile is a 1999 film, based on a Stephen King novel that takes place during the Great Depression. Tom Hanks stars as a Louisiana prison officer named Paul Edgecomb. Paul is in charge of death row, also referred to as the “Green Mile.” Early in the movie, while suffering from a severe bladder infection, Paul meets a black prisoner named John Coffey. John is a gentle giant, sentenced to death after being wrongly convicted of raping and murdering two white girls. John also demonstrates strange supernatural powers. First, by curing Paul's bladder infection. Then by resurrecting Mr. Jingles, a pet mouse crushed by a cruel guard.
Eventually, Paul convinces John to help the prison warden's wife, who’s terminally ill with a brain tumor. Later at their house, John heals her. Back at prison, Paul talks with John about the possibility of saving him from death row. And although John is upset over being executed for a crime he didn’t commit, John says that he’s had enough dealings with humanity's cruelty. That he’s ready to die. So, Paul himself oversees the execution. And he shakes hands with John just before he is killed.
The film received numerous awards. But Hollywood producer Spike Lee angrily criticized The Green Mile. He viewed the portrayal of John Coffey as what’s been called the “magical Negro.” A term used by African Americans for a black character who exists in a story solely to better the fortunes of white people, echoing the long history of slavery. “Magical Negro” characters like John often possess special insight or mystical abilities. But they also subtly promote racial and cultural stereotypes, especially in the movie industry. Like Latinos cast as drug dealers. Like Muslims cast as terrorists. Like gays cast as effeminate men with tragic endings. Like Native Americans cast as warriors. Like Jews cast as a miserly Scrooge. Like women cast as submissive wives. Which all feed into our shared racism and sexism, homophobia and classism, antisemitism and xenophobia. Which cause us to see people through prejudice and distorted lenses. People like Spike Lee are calling for the film industry to move beyond roles like John Coffey. To present more positive, authentic portrayals of people of color and other disenfranchised groups.
Our Gospel lesson presents the image of another John character, who calls us to see our world and other people in new ways. This John is telling people they need to change. Change their preconceptions. Change their previous behaviors. Change their perspective of God’s Kingdom. This Jewish John mysteriously appears at the Jordan River—looking a lot like a modern homeless man. This John announces that the Kingdom of God is coming in unexpected ways. This John calls people to a baptism of repentance.
The Greek word for repentance in this passage is “metanoia.” Metanoia is filled with remarkable meaning in the Gospels. But it’s also misunderstood. Most translations of the Bible use the English word “repentance” for metanoia. But “repentance” is a loaded term for many Christians. Repentance has been interpreted to mean that you must feel extreme remorse or regret for your sins. For centuries, Christians were taught they had to repent from their sins and do penance to be saved. Some us grew up with exaggerated guilt or shame because pastors or priests condemned us because of what we had done or who we were.
But in the original Greek, metanoia has a different meaning. Metanoia comes from two Greek words. The first is “meta,” meaning “to change”—like in the word “metamorphosis.” A change in one’s body. Like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. The second Greek word “noia” translates as “mind,” referring to one’s mindset or worldview. Together they mean “change of mind.” Unlike the word “repentance,” metanoia isn’t restricted to a narrow interpretation. It’s a change of mind in how we view God’s love and one another and the world.
In our lesson, John the Baptist preaches, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Another way to read this would be: “Bear fruit that shows your change of mind.” I like how the Amplified Bible translates it: “Let your lives prove your change of heart.” But in our Gospel story, some people respond to what John preaches with anger and excuses. As members of John’s own Jewish community, they complain, “But we are children of Abraham and Sarah. We have nothing to repent of!”
Today, I think those excuses would sound a bit different. Today, those of us who are white Lutherans or Christians might say things like: “But I’m not racist—I have African American friends.” Or, “I don’t hate the gays! I love the sinner.” Or, “I don’t mind having some immigrants here, but I wish they would just speak English.” Most of us don’t have such extreme viewpoints, nevertheless, we still see the world through our own culture. In our heads, we make silent judgments about those who are different than you and me. Looking honestly into our own hearts and minds, John’s words about metanoia prepare us for the radical Gospel preached by Jesus.
From our Lutheran perspective, I have to admit that there’s a lot of Law in this story and my sermon. That was the main point of John’s prophetic ministry. The Gospel message for us today is found, I think, in our Hebrew reading from Isaiah, which presents a new vision of the coming messiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…. He shall not judge by what his eyes see… but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:1-10)
Many of you know that I’m a gardener. This past June, a giant cottonwood tree in our backyard was knocked down by a storm. It landed on our neighbor’s garage. So, we hired someone to cut it down right away. Which they did. And for which they also charged us a lot. Before they left, they ground up the stump. We gardeners know the chances of a tree growing back from a stump are pretty low. The stump has to still be alive without any decay. It also needs the energy to send up shoots, called “suckers,” to absorb sunlight for photosynthesis to be able to start a new tree. In our case, I really had no desire for that tree to come back. But guess what? It did. By the end of summer, several branches grew from the stump. New growth from destruction. New life from death.
In our lesson from Isaiah, even though the tree also has been cut down—symbolizing the people’s failed covenant with God, there is still hope. Because God is going to do the unexpected. God is going to make a new tree sprout. A new tree of justice for the poor and oppressed. Not just an empty promise, but something that will happen in the holy today of God’s vision. The promise of metanoia: change on a grand scale. Brought to us not by a famous movie producer, but by the creator of the universe. A God who shows us that metanoia isn’t just a change within yourself. Metanoia also includes a change in how we deal with those who are different. Different in race. Different in economic status. Different in gender. Different in sexual orientation.
The Gospel vision we see in Isaiah is not that God takes away all those things that make us different. But that finally, we can live together in harmony, even with those who disagree with us. Like a lamb with a wolf. A calf with a lion. A vision spoken by John in the wilderness. A vision fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. A vision coming to reality among us today. A vision that calls all people to metanoia. A change in mind. A change in our community. A change that leads us to cry out for people of color and the elderly, for queer individuals and the poor, for the hungry and the powerless who have no voice. And to challenge our Church and world to prepare a way for God’s Kingdom to come among us today.
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GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now. the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."