The Third Sunday of Advent
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
Tags: christian, episcopal, john the baptist, sermon
3 AdventC; Dec 13, 2015 The Rev. Deborah Meister
Zeph 3:14-20; Canticle 9
Phil 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
When my friend Sheelagh moved from England to the United States, one of the first things she did was go to church. The local parish was housed in a beautiful building; the congregation were welcoming; the music sublime. Sheelagh was feeling right at home until the rector climbed into the pulpit to deliver the sermon. After a long pause, he leaned out over the congregation and said, “You all are spawn of Satan!” While Sheelagh listened in stunned shock, the rector continued with a long rant about how horrible his parishioners were, how badly they treated one another and himself, then abruptly resigned and left the building. There was a long pause. Finally, the young curate gulped audibly, stood up, and said, “Let us now proclaim our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.” And with that, the service continued as if nothing unusual had happened. When Sheelagh got home and told her husband about it, he tried to console her, saying, “I’m sure there are other parishes.” “Oh, no,” she replied, “I’m going back there. I need to see what happens next.”
This Sunday has that feel to it, doesn’t it? We began by hearing heartbreaking news of the death of a much-beloved leader in this parish, and then the service continued. That is, of course, our Christian vocation: to redeem our sorrow by turning our human weeping into worship and praise.
Today’s Gospel reading also has that feel, doesn’t it? John the Baptist appears in the wilderness proclaiming the forgiveness of sins and people flock to him from near and from far, hoping to hear a word of grace. And instead, he cried out, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” It’s easy to get fixated on that outcry; its stridency, its rage, its uncanny ability to tap into our darkest fears that, yes, what we really deserve is wrath. And yet...if we stick around to see what happens next, it is startling in its simplicity. The crowds, jarred into alertness, ask what they can do to be saved, and John replies: Share. Be kind. Live an honest life.
This stuff is not rocket science. It’s not even arcane.
Sometimes I think we’d be more likely to obey if it were. People flock to learn yoga and kabbalah; they journey to the ends of the earth to visit places believed to be sacred (I’ve done some of that myself). They will twist their lives into pretzels trying to follow the commands of a demanding spiritual teacher, pour out money to build churches or make elaborate penance. And yet, none of these is required.
What John asks of us, as he did of his first hearers, is an essential humility: not to believe that we are better than our brother. If we have two coats, share one; the stranger’s need is as great as our own. If we have food, offer some to people who are hungry; their stomachs work just like ours. In our work, be content with what we are due. Eschew corruption. Do not extort. This is fourth-grade ethics, and yet, what lies underneath is difficult: we can do these things only if we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world, if we allow that another person’s claim to the necessities of life is as significant as our own, because we share one Father in heaven.
Easy to say, but this ethic, simple as it appears, makes considerable demands on our lives. We have seen two great instances of it this week, and I’d like to spend some time considering them. Yesterday, in Paris, representatives of 195 nations signed into international law an agreement to alter our economies and our way of life in a last-ditch attempt to prevent climate change from becoming catastrophic for us all. When I read that they had actually signed it, I wept for a good long time. I have been waiting for this almost my whole life. When I entered kindergarden or first grade, our science classes were focused on basic concepts. Monarch butterflies migrate from here to Mexico each year, and that means this whole world is one interconnected system. If you smoke, you will damage your lungs. (They put cotton wool into the lungs of a dummy and made it smoke cigarettes to show us how black that cotton became.) The world and this resources are finite, and if we pollute the air or the water, then the air we breathe will be black like that cotton and the water we drink will make us sick. And the air will become warmer, and that will damage that whole interconnected system, and creatures will start to die. We are creatures.
The science was established enough to be part of a standard elementary-school curriculum more than thirty-five years ago, and yet, we have done almost nothing. We knew how to recycle when I was seven, but I was twenty-one before I was able to live in a town where recycling even existed -- and even then, we had to load it into the car and drive it to a recycling center forty-five minutes out of town. We’ve known about greenhouse gases, but we have failed to make agreement after agreement and have barely invested in alternative technologies. Over and over, we have believed that our desires were more important than our neighbor’s necessities, and we have failed to act.
If you have been following the coverage of the Paris talks, two factors seem to have made a difference: science and morality. First, we are actually seeing the effects of change, not just hypothesizing that they might happen. Equally important, however, was a moral imperative: the conference was dominated by the voices of people from small countries that are in immediate peril, crying out to be heard as fellow human beings -- and they were. And the conference was laced with voices from developing nations asking for help in caring for their people without making use of the technologies that are destroying our environment -- and they were heard. In the end, achieving a worldwide commitment to change our ways required us to acknowledge not only the claims of science, but the claims of humanity.
Early in Genesis, Cain stands over the slain body of his brother Abel and asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that Cain’s great question goes unanswered. It hovers, open-ended, over all the Old Testament, over exodus and kingdom, apostasy and exile, codes of righteousness and deeds of cruelty, until it is echoed in the lawyer’s question -- “Who is my neighbor? -- and finally receives its response in the death and resurrection of Christ. Yesterday, it was embodied in international law: yes, we are our brother’s keepers, and our sister’s, and our grandchildren’s, for we depend for our very lives on one fragile, complex, achingly beautiful home, and we will thrive or perish together.
After that, the second instance of humility seems like a small thing, but we have been starved for good news lately, so here it is: a group of twenty-five prominent Orthodox rabbis have issued a joint letter affirming that “Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations,” and calling upon Jews and Christians to partner in offering “models of service, unconditional love, and holiness” to the world. Why is this a big deal? First, because it has never happened before. Second, because it is a profound instance of grace canceling the blood-soaked claims of history. For almost two thousand years, Christians have showed their most unredeemed face in our treatment of our Jewish brothers and sisters. It took the horrors of Holocaust for us to begin to reckon with the horror of that behavior and the weight of that debt. What this letter means is that, for a number of significant leaders in Judaism, that time of atonement is over. Our efforts to respect Jewish teachings and customs have been accepted as honest and profound cultural change. Now, we are able to go forward, not as rivals, but as partners. God has changed our shame into praise. (Zeph 3:19)
Going back to Genesis, when the younger son Jacob stole his older brother’s Esau’s blessing, Esau cried out, “Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me, me also, Father!” That question, too, has haunted our history, for if there is only one blessing, then we must necessarily be rivals and compete for it. But the answer, of course, is that blessing comes, not from humankind, but from God: blessing is infinite, and it can reach all of us. Finally, we are beginning to understand.
Share. Be kind. Live an honest life. The words are so simple, and yet, if we lived them, we would inhabit a different world. A world in which the specter of need would not hang over so many; a world in which strangers were welcomed as brothers, not feared as rivals; a world in which the very real danger of destruction would pass out of memory.
At the end of John the Baptist’s tirade, St. Luke observes, “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” (Luke 3:18) The good news, because this cry for repentance ushers in a renewed humanity, a healthy world, relationships restored. In a few words, John breaks the iron chains of history, and holds out the promise of a future that begins anew. “For surely I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans of welfare, not of anguish, to give you a future with hope.” (Jer 29:11)
And so, beloved,“Rejoice and exult with all your heart...! For the Lord has taken away the judgments against [us]...He will rejoice over [us] with gladness, he will renew [us] in his love.” (Zeph 3:14, 19-20)
 I should emphasize that these leaders speak for themselves; there is no central authority in Judaism.