I preached this sermon at Not So Churchy on November 19. Musicians for that evening were Linda Jimenez, Emily Scott and Jacob Schlichter. The Scripture reading, found below is Luke 3:7-14.
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin 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. 9Even 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.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
There really could not have been more that has happened over the past month since we met last. You know what has happened. Halloween of course! And also, you know a hurricane and mass destruction and exposure of what is underneath this city. An election I honestly barely noticed because of that destruction and exposure—but certainly would have noticed more if “my side” had lost. Throw in for good measure a wee conflict in Israel Palestine and now this week it is Thanksgiving, which honestly doesn’t always put me in the best of moods.
I am such a Grinch.
I am the kind of person who feels things really deeply—I have a feeling some of you all sitting around this circle do as well. And so, to be honest, a few days without power to then be turned on to the realization that neighbors a half a block away from me have been flooded out for the next many months, to what has been happening in places far from as privileged as where I live, has made things a little rocky. Indeed, regardless of where we live or how we have been physically affected, we have all been thrown around in a tumult of waves and surges.
And then you come to this service that is supposed to give you comfort and maybe a bit of courage and challenge and the reading leads with John the Baptizer, who is perhaps a relative of Jesus but is also an itinerant preacher, speaking to a similar crowd as we are tonight: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Nothing like a word of comfort to make you feel good the week of Thanksgiving.
No one wants to be chastised by John the Baptizer this close to the holidays.
People were coming to him asking for baptism. To be honest I am not 100% sure I know what baptism meant to them in those days—it is obvious they were coming for this thing called baptism that they were yearning for, waiting for, seeking out. Baptism as we know it wasn’t constructed yet, this is the first mention of anything baptism in the gospel, and Jesus is not administering it. Christianity didn’t exist yet nor did this thing called Sacraments. From what I could find the one thing that we know that was definitely meant by this action is that they came forward for washing, cleansing, cleaning. They were coming to submit their lives to God, and to stake their claim of being one of God’s children. They were riffing on a longstanding Jewish relationship between washing and cleaning and their ethical demeanor and actions.
The people that were coming were not those who were really loved members of society, some of them were poor and in a tough spot, some of them were not so poor and some of them exploited the poor. Now I haven’t followed super closely the Long Island Power Authority but perhaps it is like they were coming for baptism. Maybe they are a modern-day equivalent to the tax collectors or the soldiers who were extorting their clients. The crowds had come too, crowds who had looted others homes after disasters had struck their own. They were coming it seems for their lives to be turned around, or for acceptance, or for challenge, or for some other different way. Perhaps you would be in that line for baptism, or so would I, knowing full well that our lives are far from perfect, that we don’t treat others or ourselves in the best way possible but wanting to leave that behind once and for all as we await some new version of us to be born.
And so I stand before you at least wondering how I can actively wait for a different way, for something new to be born, for something new to be constructed among the rubble that isn’t the same old way of giving charity, that isn’t the same old way of solving conflicts through violence. I wonder today like the disciples do: What do we do? What should we do to find that new way?
Maybe you saw the article in the Telegraph that I saw today reporting that a senior Israeli politician provoked controversy when he warned that Palestinians firing rockets from Gaza would be punished with a “bigger holocaust” from Israeli armed forces. Seriously there has to be a different way.
Or you might have read the article in the Times this weekend about the divisions over race and class and at times the intersection thereof that are exposed as we try and figure out how to work together to help each other. Motives are questioned, by the people helping and those needing help, sometimes we don’t help or receive help very well, sometimes our guilt motivates us, sometimes we screw up royally and sometimes the spirit of another way breathes through and we are able to cross the preconceived notions we have, the generations of history that define our interactions before they even happen. Sometimes we can cross through without forgetting or being paralyzed by all that divides us as a human being sits with another and listens of their house being destroyed and looted. Sometimes we can cross through it us as we make music or murals with those who have lost little and those who have lost much.
This morning on facebook I saw on Rockaway Emergency Plan’s feed that they asked their constituency what they need, how they are doing three weeks after the initial devastation … and people reply that they are sick from the mold, they need electricity, they need open grocery stores, they need the streets to be cleaned so they are not reminded every second of the disaster around them. One not so young woman in the Rockaways wrote that after 19 days without power hers was restored yesterday and to make up for it she set up her Christmas tree early. I am not for sure why this made me cry when I read it.
Imagine those in the Long Island Power Authority who have not prioritized her power coming back on coming to John the Baptizer for baptism, looking for a new way. And when they ask what to do they are told to share and not to exploit.
Imagine us listening for a new way, as we learn how to reach across lines of history, of division, of politics, of experience.
And so John the Baptizer uses a rhetorical device awfully abrupt to us but typical to the time of the day called exhortation. One exhorts another to act out of what they already know and affirm, out of the deepest values and tradition, memory and identity that they claim. He is as much speaking to himself as he is the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers. And so actually not only is he trying to be compelling but he can actually even be comforting and reassuring!
At the same time he then turns around and says: don’t get too excited about claiming your bloodline, about all from whence you come, that won’t save you as you resist turning your life around—you being connected to the big daddy ancestors like Abraham ain’t going to get you anywhere. We are in a different boat here and you have some work to do. Share your stuff. Don’t abuse your position of power. Don’t force people to bribe you. In the end this isn’t going to work.
I am too old and jaded now to believe that there are easy answers to anything or that there are two sides of debates—my side being right and yours being wrong. The Long Island Power Authority being evil and the rest of us virtuous saints standing up for the power. Or Israelis or Palestinians being evil, with the other side virtuous and without responsibility. I know how complicated history is and structures of organization and structures of power. I know I am both oppressed and oppressor. Yet I yearn for those days when I couldn’t see those complications. Because they keep me from implicating myself.
And so I put us into that place of asking John the Baptizer, what should we do? What should we do? We are the crowd that doesn’t like to share what we have worked hard for, we are the tax collector that doesn’t mind a little skimming off the top, we are the soldier who likes to feel power over others.
Notice what he doesn’t tell us. These people are coming here for a new way, a third way, a fourth way, a way that hasn’t been dreamed of yet. And he doesn’t say “go to church more.” He doesn’t say “keep things as they were, for that is where you will save yourself.” He doesn’t say anything about giving sacrifices to God to please the Sacred.
The start comes from not avoiding what is here and what is come. He says in his really tough language: Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Repentance means turning around, literally that is all it means. Through not fleeing but by turning around, through trying something differently, whether it is ceasing the pummeling of rockets across international borders or the giving of electricity to those who need it most desperately, or leaving behind relationships that aren’t serving you well, or trying again in a different way to approach a problem that has been making you stumble, you bear fruit that is worthy. Because when you change, when you turn around, you incite change in someone else. And that, really does change the world. That constructs it back up again in a way different from how we find it deconstructed.
Over the past months I have been intentionally trying to engage with those who are more conservative than I and even I would say I have thought to be enemies. In the past, of conservatives, I have made all sorts of statements about them, negative ones, I have for many years just wanted them to change their minds or just to bug out of my life and those I love. But recently I began to write to conservative publications and tried to explain myself, because I have felt that this is my responsibility, because I am strong enough now to withhold the wrath that I expected to come my way.
I got some of that wrath, I got some hate mail and I am sure I will get more. But what I have found that I really didn’t expect is that I have been corresponding with people whom I never thought I would have a heart for. I am finding myself caring about them. I am finding myself hoping that we might be able to stay in the same church together, and that we might have compassion for the points on our journey that we find ourselves in.
I have yet to figure out how to deal with the reality that I know conservative positions on sexuality and gender identity have created a lot of damage and havoc in my life and the lives of those I love. But I do know that a tiny piece of my heart has been opened in a way I never expected at the beginning of this project. And maybe at this point I don’t need to know more. All I know is that the distinctions between the crowd and the tax collector and the soldier are becoming muddier and I too am being called to change, not what I believe and not who I am, but my heart is having a turn for what feels like the better. Because it is becoming a tiny bit more compassionate, a tiny bit less angry.
Any tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire, says our reading today. I wonder if that which needs to be thrown into the fire for me is a seeking of easy answers, is white guilt and survivors guilt, of creating enemies where they don’t exist. The fire John the Baptizer has been talking about is a fire that refines. It is a fire that takes what we put in it and creates something new out of it. In the fire we feel the licks of flames on our backs, the pain of turning around, of changing, of growing, but we come out of that fire, through the grace of God, as an old prophet once said as precious as silver and gold. And so as we are in this period of increasing darkness in our lives that I believe begs for waiting as we let go of what keeps us from finding other ways, for reflection, for goal-setting, for turning around, for preparing for birth and new life. As we wait for the birth of Jesus which is in the most unpredictable of places and to the most unpredictable of people, through fires and storms, through sharing with strangers, through avoiding our desire to exploit, through opening our hearts we are refined in the fire of life, and we find a different way.
(Many of the historical insights for this sermon were gleaned from the New Interpreters Bible Commentary and the Feasting on the Word Commentary).