John is saying the same thing here.
Saturday, December 15, 2018
Year C Advent 3 16 December 2018
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
Collect: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Luke 3:7-18 John 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? Bear 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. 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." And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers 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." As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
What must we do? Simple question. It is the grown-up equivalent of “Is this going to be on the Test?” What MUST we DO?
What is the bare minimum? What is the least I can do and skirt by?
And notice it is DO. Not believe, say, adhere to, or pretend to be. It is DO. And notice even more that it is different for everyone asking, but all sticking to a general theme.
And if John were preaching and baptizing where the traditional sites say he did, it was not an easy trip to go and hear him, to experience his ministry. The road from Jerusalem and Bethlehem down to Jericho and the Jordan where it meets the Dead Sea is the very same road on which Jesus set his parable of the Good Samaritan, a rough road through desert wilderness of thirty miles or so. It is to this day still a desolate land. This is the same patch where Jesus met Satan’s Temptations, the Wilderness it was called then and still is. This was the route that people would have had to go through to hear John’s message. And how does he greet them?
[Come down out of pulpit to make it big.]
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear 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. 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."
Can you hear the fire? Can you see the brimstone falling? John is exasperated. He cannot fathom the condition of Israel's spiritual condition. Especially the leadership.
Now notice the words that are being shared here, and put it with the last line of today’s Gospel reading.
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Can you imagine what he would have said if he were royally ticked off? We do not hear good news in this. Do you? So how can we turn and twist our thinking to see this from their perspective. Would you walk thirty miles in a desert to get yelled at? But they did. Where is the hope in this?
[Go back to pulpit.]
But it is Good News to know what is expected of us. And what does he say? Use what you need, and make sure that those who cannot are taken care of. Do what is right. No more, no less. These are things that all of us can do. From one of the earliest stories in Scripture we are told that “Yes, we are our brother’s keeper.” Period. We cannot do it alone. We need each other. I need you to give me what I am lacking. You need me to give you what you are lacking. We are in it together. From the Down-and-Outs all the way to the Up-and-Ins, we are all in it together.
When folks were heading out to hear John, they are described as crowds. Now the word we use for what I am doing now, a sermon or homily, comes directly from this in the Greek. Homilos is crowd. [The word used here in Luke, is Ochlois, though, also meaning crowd.] Homilia, stemming from that, is conversation or discourse in a group. And it is good that they were in groups.
As I said, we need each other. When we try and change in isolation, it is hard. New Year’s Resolutions, Goals and Plans, whatever. If done alone, we tend to fail. Science has shown us that when we try to go it alone, most of us tend to fail. The old phrase rings true. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
You Brood of Vipers, you Beloved Brood of Vipers, John is calling us out, not to single us out in our sin, but in the fallacy that we are own creation. As the Psalm 100 echoes, “It is [God] who has made us and not we ourselves.” And God made us for God’s pleasure and for each other.
That is the success of many life-changing groups and plans for success. The group component. 12 Steps is successful because you do not try and do it alone. Gyms have trainers, and eventually friends, who encourage you, and cheer you on. The Preacher of Hebrews even said, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
John is saying the same thing here.
That is the Church at its best. A gathering of incomplete, flawed, and hopeless sinners who have found their hope in Jesus and together come to walk the way of Jesus. John repeatedly points beyond himself to the One who was to come, the One who can provide the Hope so longed for, the One in whose Name we still gather and wait.
John starts with the Brood of Vipers and similar language to wake us up, to become dissatisfied with what is so we can see what is truly worthy of our time and attention. One of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote: “Christianity preaches the infinite worth of that which is seemingly worthless, and the infinite worthlessness of that which is seemingly so valued.”
One of the hardest parts of faith we teach and preach, is the balance of seeing us how God sees us, tov vetov from Genesis 1, VERY GOOD, while at the same time embracing the idea that we are simultaneously Sinners in need of Grace.
Leonard Sweet, well known Christian author, often began his speaking engagements this way. And you need to know, these talks are often to priests, preachers, and other ministers. He would say, “Good evening, Saints!” And there would be a loud response of, “Good evening!” And immediately he would fire back, “Good evening, Sinners!” And there would be a much quieter murmur, “Mrmmnmsqur.” So low you could hear the crickets chirp. We do not want to embrace both. We want to see ourselves as Worthy. We do not want to look into those dark recesses where we shove down and hide those parts of ourselves we are wanting to ignore.
The simultaneous message of being Stinkers, but Stinkers who could do something about it, was a message of Hope not Hype. It was good news to John’s crowds to hear what they needed to do. And many tried, some succeeded at it, and more failed. One cannot live by law because then the law becomes the end unto itself instead of the desired righteousness. Look at Javert in Les Miserables. He was truly miserable, bound by the Law that drove him so. When given Grace, it shattered his world view, and his identity was so wrapped in it there was only one possible outcome. Which is why John points beyond a baptism by water, a baptism that cleanses only our outsides. He points to a baptism from within, where both the inside and the out are cleansed. And only the One to Come could do that.
We must be a community of the “bungled and the botched,” a Brood of Vipers but a Beloved Brood, coming together to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.” My prayer for Saint James the Less is that we become more honest with each other, and more honest with ourselves. To use the language of Christmas specials, I desire us to be an Island of Misfit Toys, where anyone and everyone has a place and can be loved and finds a way to be useful and contribute. A place where we start with where you and I both are and we provoke the best out of each other, through trial and error, through patience and grace. As your priest, I often get to see people at their best and at their worst, often within minutes of each other. I am human enough to say it can sometimes be bothersome and frustrating. But most days it is a joy. The Bishop has given me the task to help love you through it, the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful. And to extend that Grace to myself when I don’t.
Henry V in the eponymous play [Act IV, scene iii] by Shakespeare has one of the most rousing speeches in the English language ever written. I paraphrase it here.
We few, we happy few, we BROOD OF VIPERS; For THEY to-day that walks this way with me Shall be my brother; be THEY ne'er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition; And gentlemen in ASHLAND now a-bed Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
In the coming weeks, may we welcome any and all who come through these doors, and and may we prayerfully find ways to let them know they are loved and accepted as they are, and missing out if they are not here. We few, we happy few, are ready, willing, and able to welcome all who God brings to our door. Amen