Make Way! Make Way!

bonhoefferMalachi 3:1-4
Luke 3:1-6

In 1937, a German theologian and pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was watching the rise of the Nazi regime in his country. He saw how faith in Christ was becoming muddled with faith in country. It was anti-German to be welcoming outsiders. It is anti-German to not be Christian. Therefore, not welcoming outsiders and being Christian go hand-in-hand — since they’re both pro-Germany.

This very same kind of fuzzy logic happens in our own country right now. When a person says they are Christian, immediately some assume that means they must also be pro-life, love America, vote Republican, and be against immigration.
But that’s not true… that’s fuzzy logic. Logic that makes grand assumptions. There are pro-choice Christians, and there are pro-life atheists. Polarizing language that breaks us up into two camps — the enemy and the good guys — (always, we find ourselves in the good guy camp no matter which side we pick) makes this fuzzy logic grow.

Soon there is no middle ground. Soon there is no real self-reflection. Soon, churches begin to offer only cheap grace.

Bonhoeffer coined this term in the book The Cost of Discipleship. Hear his words:

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! …

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Cheap grace, to Bonheoffer, is when the church bows to society and silences those who question the way things are. It is cheap grace when we tell ourselves we’re good people because we’re Christians… but don’t actually follow Christ. It is cheap grace when scripture and faith don’t challenge us, and God looks and thinks and acts just as we do.

“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” ((Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies.)) It’s a mirror. It’s yourself. An idol.

Our church gives cheap grace when it says “Things are fine for me, so stop your complaining.” “I’ve never been gay, so nor should you be.” “I’ve never needed to flee my country’s violence: so go home and leave me be.” Cheap grace is grace not from God — but from ourselves. It is patting ourselves on our backs and saying “What good Christians we are!”

Cheap grace is the love we give ourselves at the expense of following Jesus.

Opposite of this, says Bonhoeffer, is costly grace. He writes,

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods…

Costly grace is the Gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.

Above all, it is costly because it costs God the life of His Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Bonhoeffer’s words mean Christianity is costly. It doesn’t let us follow society. It makes us follow a different law – the law of love. Christianity demands repentance – repentance means to radically change your life. It isn’t just “I’m sorry,” when you do something… it is “I’m sorry and I will never do that again.” Repentance is the idea that we are walking the wrong direction and must completely turn around, back towards God The baptism of repentance that John calls for is having a water baptism as a sign of washing away the old life and beginning a new. The baptism in the name of Christ, the Father, and Holy Spirit we do is a sign of what happens invisibly of the new life a person has. And when we take communion, we confess our sins and pledge to begin anew our life with God and one another.

New as in… not repeating those wrongs.

And that is costly.

But grace is defined as a free gift. Confusing? Let me explain…

Cheap free gifts, cheap grace, are like… the really cheap chocolate you can get for Christmas. It’s mostly wax. The sugar tastes good. For a moment. Then it is awful.

The cheap free gift of a faith that doesn’t challenge us a faith that won’t stand up to pressure. When we face truly awful things – the death of a child, the betrayal of a friend, the injustice of law, the sexual abuse of clergy on children – and our faith hasn’t grown beyond the basic step… that faith crumbles. How could God permit such evil? How could I ever forgive such a friend? How can I have faith in any laws or any clergy? When our faith is given to us cheaply without challenge… it just wilts and has nothing to say to these situations.

Costly grace is a gift that cost a lost to give. It’s like the expensive chocolate. Just a little bit goes a long way because it is mostly cocoa. It tastes good, and leaves a good taste. But it cost way more.

The costly gift of faith that does challenge us is faith that stands up under the pressure of the evils of life. It reminds us that God is a parent grieving the loss of their child. God-in-Christ knew the betrayal of Judas… then each disciple… all the way to Peter, his best friend, who denied ever even knowing Jesus. It reminds us that wherever there are humans, there is sin… this includes our most sacred institutions and worship spaces. Costly grace is messy. It can’t be summed up on a coffee cup. It says there are real sins, real evils, but also real forgiveness, real repentance, really changed lives.

Malachi writes at a time the cheap grace of the Jewish faith is failing people. He prophesizes that God will refine the priests and make them strong – strong enough to lead the people back into costly grace. But costly grace – faith that can move mountains – costs.

So Malachi warns us this cost is like a fire that burns away impurities to leave behind the gold and silver. It is like bleach, that will turn dull and dirty cloth into dazzling white as snow cloth. Who can withstand this, wonders Malachi. Who can handle the cost of discipleship?

Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his own Advent sermons a few years before writing The Cost of Discipleship. He wrote,

“It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.”

Fear and wonder. Terror. Like the shepherds seeing the angels. Like those who came to hear John preach. Like those who found Jesus’ tomb empty.

But also grace. Love. Forgiveness. Acceptance.

God’s question to us again and again is who shall I send? Who will go? Who will prepare the way? Who will keep awake? Who will walk the narrow way, the costly way, instead of the wide way, the way that offers no challenges… but no rewards? Who will be silver and gold? Who will withstand the bleach to be washed whiter than snow? Who will tackle their own sins?

I wonder, sometimes, if the paths Isaiah speaks about are us. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make God’s people ready. Everyone who is low should be encouraged and lifted up. Everyone who is high and powerful should be humbled and lowered. The crooked and sinful shall be made straight and true; the rough made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

It’s what John was doing. He was offering repentance. A way to turn our crooked path around and walk right back to God. And what Malachi foretold.

It is easy to love upon a cute baby cuddled in his mama’s arms.

But Christmas means so much more.

Are you preparing yourself for the more?

Amen.

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A Blue Christmas

Isaiah 9:2 (NRSV)1-candle.jpg
The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
Nat King Cole gave us the lyrics of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and “tiny tots with their eyes aglow.” From that same 1940s era is song after song about the “most wonderful time of the year” but, I’ll admit, it’s a “blue Christmas” for me. The pressure to feel happy and joyful makes me a Grinch. I’m sad there are people who are not here who ought to be, and the ghost of Christmases past haunt empty chairs and old photographs. I don’t want celebration songs; give me a few funeral dirges. The hymns “O Come Emmanuel” and “O Holy Night” feel more appropriate than joyful music during this season. These hymns deal with the reality of chains, sin, error, and this “weary world” mourning “in lonely exile.” For me, they invoke the spirit of Christmas that looks for the “thrill of hope.” They bring to mind the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” I feel that darkness. The Great Light of the hope of new life, reunion in heaven, and peace on earth is like a guiding star, like light at the end of a tunnel, like the joy others feel that I may someday feel again in this season. Until then, I live it “if only in my dreams” and watch for the light, like our ancestors did of yore.
— Published in the Towne Crier, December 2018

Kin-dom of God

John 18:33-37 crown
Revelation 1:4b-8

It is 1925: Secularism and nationalism is on the rise. Fewer people go to church, and more people identify with their country saying things like “America first!” Churches observe national holidays and sing hymns to the country, rather than to God. Many feel jaded… like God is an old notion and the new way is to follow someone who identified with the common man, speaks like him, and has good and bad qualities like him.

I’m speaking about the year 1925 – but it could be 2018. In 1925, the Great War, rumored to be the Final War, World War I had finished. The great kings and czars and ruling families of the Romanovs, the Habsburgs, the Osmans and Hohenzollerns were destroyed. People no longer identified with kings. They identified with presidents. Führers. Elected leaders. And since these people come and go quickly, they identified with their counties. I am French! I am English! I am American!

Churches began to display country’s flags, and hymns were rewritten to new words to honor countries.

But fewer people came to church. Church was too quaint, too antiquated, to answer to the pain that was Guernica, trench war fare, and missing brothers.

So Pope Pius XI said, we need a king “whose kingdom there shall be no end.” Who will be able to lead and answer to this world of pain. And over a few years, he and theologians worked together to craft a long letter explaining how Jesus is a king. If everyone saw Jesus as their ruler, their king, their president, their czar or führer, then there is hope of lasting peace among all these nations and never again would the whole world break out in to war. Truly, the Great War was the War to end all Wars.

We know it didn’t last. WWII breaks out. We have rumors of WWIII ever since WWII ended. Nationalism rises and falls. Secularism rises and falls. And even among Christian to Christian, we argue and fight.

But the goal of the Pope was lofty and right. He instituted this day, the last Sunday of the Church Year, as Christ the King Sunday. We Protestants adopted it, and sometimes call it Reign of Christ Sunday. Or something similar. The idea is the same: there is no king but Jesus. There is no Caesar but Jesus. There is no president but Jesus. There is no reign, no ruler, but Jesus. And since we’re all under the one same ruler, then there are no French, no English, no Americans. We are all one people – Christians.

And this gives us the hope of peace.

Really, the same notion is what holds the United Church of Christ together. We affirm there is no head of the church but Christ – and that is the bridge that unites us with all our different theologies, different political views, and different ways of worshiping and being.

But, I don’t know about you, the idea of Jesus as “King” sits a little awkward with our scripture.

Consider… Jesus NEVER calls himself king. Not once. He calls himself the ‘son of man.’ A human. He calls himself a child of god, but also calls you a child of god. He calls himself a servant, and a slave, and a witness to truth. After giving the people bread, the people went to take Jesus and make him king. He runs away. When the disciples want Jesus to go to Jerusalem and be king, he tells them kings are tyrants. Be servants. When Satan offers Jesus to be king of the world… Jesus refuses. Three of our four gospels are concerned with showing Jesus as a humble man, with humble beginnings, living a humble life, and dying ignobly.

All four note he dies, however, with the sign declaring his guilty charge above his head. And that sign reads: “KING OF THE JEWS.” in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. This sign is abbreviated on some crosses as INBI or INRI.

How did he come to be charged with sedition, with trying to become king, when he was adamant he was NOT an earthly king?

John teases us with it from the beginning,  but the bulk of the testimony to Jesus’ kingship is in the final chapters of the book of John. ((We’re setting aside Matthew, Mark, and Luke who do not really use king language.))

In John,

“John intentionally and dramatically arranges the trial of Jesus before Pilate into 7 or 8 scenes, punctuated by Pilate’s egress to meet the Jews and ingress to interact with Jesus.1 Each scene — and the whole trial — centers on kingship.

Scene 1: 18:28-32
Jesus is accused; the charge will be sedition — making himself a king.

Scene 2: 18:33-38a
The nature of Jesus’ kingship is raised. Is he king on Earth, king of Israel? King of who?

Scene 3: 18:38b-40
The choice: King of the Jews or Barabbas? The people reject the king for a bandit.

Scene 4: 19:1-3
Jesus is crowned King of the Jews by the local king.

Scene 5: 19:4-7
Jesus is presented to the people dressed ironically as a king. The chief priests and police, seeking Jesus’ death, demand Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate has put them in the position of demanding the death of their own king (19:6).

Scene 6: 19:8-11
Jesus’ authority as king and Son of God is revealed: Jesus won’t bow to Pilate.

Scene 7: 19:12-16a
Jesus is presented as King of the Jews. Pilate maneuvers in Jesus’ trial to appear as the one who crucifies the Jewish king. John recreates this scene of the demand for Jesus’ crucifixion twice. The second time, he underscores that it is the beginning of Passover, the moment when Israel would stop and remember God’s kingship and God’s rule over other powers. Instead, at that same moment, Pilate asks the Jews again, “Shall I crucify your king?” In their reply, “we have no king but the emperor” (John 19:15), John shows that the Jews’ rejection of Jesus leads them to deny God’s kingship and embrace Roman rule.

Some add an 8th scene: 19:16b-22
Jesus is exalted on the cross and reigns as King of the Jews. Part of the irony of John’s presentation of the trial and crucifixion is that Pilate uses his own authority to declare Jesus’ kingship. Pilate places an inscription over the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (John 19:19). The chief priests protest, asking Pilate to clarify that this was only what Jesus claimed. But Pilate refuses their request with a solemn pronouncement, “What I have written, I have written” (19:22).

In this way, John crafts his narrative so that Jesus’ kingship becomes most visible in his crucifixion. It is as if his crucifixion is his enthronement as king, the moment at which the declaration of his kingship is made public
((WorkingPreacher))

By the time of the crucifixion in John, Jesus is established as the king of not Jews… but “Jews,” which in John means all people whether or not they accept Jesus as king. He is king over the local kings and king over Caesar – for he is now lifted up and taken to heaven to rule.

As the crucifixion makes clear, Jesus’ kingship is “not of this world” (John 18:36). All of the gospels agree that Jesus and Caesar reigned in opposite ways. Caesar stayed in charge with violence, bread and circuses, militaries. Violence kept people fearful. Free bread fed their bellies. Circuses entertained them. Militaries oppressed neighbors and stole wealth and labor for Rome.

Jesus reigns with peace and repeatedly says “Do not be afraid.” He tells us to forgive one another. Jesus reigns with bread – the free bread from heaven that fulfills not bellies, but souls. Jesus reigns without circuses. Without entertainment that makes you forget your troubles because Jesus goes into your troubles and invites us to address them. Jesus rules without militaries. We’re told to set down our weapons, and to pray blessings upon our enemies.

Because Jesus reigns as no other king, some Christians have taken to referring to the Kin-dom of Heaven instead of the Kingdom. In a kingdom, a king is in charge. A male over all others. And the idea of a king brings forward the idea of hierarchy. Crowns. The king ruling over the impoverished and lowly serfs. A king with knights for war. A king with power stolen from others and kept with fear and manipulation. By referring to the kin-dom of God, we remember Jesus isn’t king like an earthly king.

Kin means family. Jesus reigns as our brother, our beloved, our friend. Jesus reigns as our servant, our slave, our sacrifice. Jesus reigns with hope, peace, joy, compassion, forgiveness – with love.

Kin-dom of God reminds us that WE are family. Much like Pope Pious intended the Reign of Christ to remind us: we are one. Our nationalities, our race, our gender expressions and sexual orientations, our ways of worship, our political views, our secular allegiances and clubs and groups do not separate us because… we are one. We are the children of God. We are all brothers and sisters.

Amen.

Peer Pressure

Mark 13:1-8 rumor
Hebrews 10:11-25

In Actalan Mexico this year, a rumor began to spread in a rural town similar to Baltimore. “Child abductors!” “Kidnappers!” “Be warned!” It began on social media — WhatsApp and Facebook and forwarded emails. Then it began to spread by word of mouth.

An uncle and his nephew left their farm to go into town for supplies. Someone didn’t recognize them – they weren’t from the town. They were outsiders. This person whispered, “Do you think those two strangers are the kidnappers everyone is talking about?”

“Did you hear in the neighboring town they didn’t find their abducted kids until their organs had been cut out?”

“We can’t let that happen here!”

Angry, people went to the police and demanded they do something about the kidnappers in their midst. The police asked who the horrible murdering abductors were – and several citizens pointed to the uncle and nephew.

So the police arrested them for disturbing the peace and began to look into it. The uncle has a wife and several daughters out on his farm. His nephew is a young man engaged to be married. They have no idea what the rumors are about.

Meanwhile, outside the Police station, a crowd has grown. They began to bang on the doors, “Give us the pedophiles!” “Give us the murderers!” The shops around the police station start closing their doors and closing down. A larger crowd comes as they hear from facebook to email to phone call to text message to gossip at the gas station — the police are protecting child abductors who eat the organs of children. There is no justice! We must have justice for the children!

A man climbed up on the church in the town square and began to ring the bell. This summoned more people. He yelled, “The police are ready to let these evil men go without charging them of a thing!” The crowd broke down the police station doors and yanked the two men out.

Phones came out and people began to record this. In the USA, the mother of the nephew was alerted to get online and look at a live feed. Isn’t that her son? She tried posting ‘do not harm my son, he is not a child abductor’ and she tried to get help – but in a very short time a man stood on the step and chanted, “Petro! Petro!” He promised money to whomever got gasoline.

The mother watched her brother and son beat by a crowd screaming that her loved ones consumed the organs of boys they abducted and assaulted. Then the crowd poured gasoline on them and burned them alive. The thick black oily smoke was recorded from hundreds of cheering phones.

All because of a rumor.

The widows. The police. The children with no father. The citizens all testify: the crowds were provoked by lies into mob action, into murder. No one will look the widows in the eyes. Shame settles in the city.

No children were ever abducted.

Let alone assaulted with their organs cut out and consumed by two local farmers who had come to town for supplies.

((https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-46145986))

… But this is not the first time this has happened. It happened in another Mexican city on the same day based on the same rumor. It’s so common in India that there are calls for companies to not permit forwards on their platforms. Sri Lanka, Mynamar… and us, the United States. We’ve all fell victim. Do you remember “Pizza-gate” here?

Two years ago a man heard across social media, and television, and word of mouth that Hillary Clinton was hiding abducted children as part of a sex slave trade in a mom and pop pizza joint. He heard it repeated enough times and there were enough calls for justice that he took two guns into the shop determined to rescue the children himself. Praise God he killed no one! And of course, there were no children there.

((https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/pizzagate-from-rumor-to-hashtag-to-gunfire-in-dc/2016/12/06/4c7def50-bbd4-11e6-94ac-3d324840106c_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.13973dcf060e))

We provoke one another. When we hear one person saying something we think little of it. But when several are saying it – or it seems everyone is saying it – we believe it. Even if what is being say is a pure lie we’d never believe on our own.

In a crowd, in an echo chamber, humans lose their minds. This “mob mentality” is a well studied phenomenon. It’s why concerts are so exciting – why pep rallies work – and how some modern churches run themselves. Inside a mob, or crowd, or online, we lose our individual identities and become part of something larger and more powerful than ourselves. We gain energy from everyone around us and what was unthinkable now is possible.

Such as burning two men to death based on a rumor.

Or such as throwing a convoy birthday party for a mentally challenged young man.

((https://www.channel3000.com/news/18-wheels-for-bubba-how-a-team-of-truck-drivers-worked-to-make-a-boy-s-wish-come-true/783303571))

In Wisconsin, a young man sits by a highway in his backyard. He hasn’t many friends, and is mentally challenged. But he LOVES semis and watches them every day. Drivers began to notice, and across their CBs and social media began to talk about him. This led to the idea that the truckers would throw a birthday party for the boy. On the boy’s 16th birthday, trucks began to pull into a local park. The organizer and the boy’s parents thought maybe one or two semis would show up and let their son finally touch and see up close the trucks he loves… but instead dozens pulled in… then a hundred! The story had spread and spread and a huge convoy overwhelmed the little place all for this boy to have a most marvelous birthday. His parents were in tears and he laughed and smiled and was not alone.

When we’re in groups, we’re provoked to be so much more. The author of the letter to the Hebrew church urges us to provoke one another to love and good deeds. When everyone around us is living in loving kindness, we are peer pressured to do the same.

We are entering the holiday season which is full of loving kindness and random acts of charity. Our television shows, and plays, and books, and stories all peer pressure one another to join the mob of… gift giving. Of selflessness. Of generosity . Of forgiveness and love. From “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to “A Christmas Carol” to even Santa Claus – We enforce a message of loving kindness and a judgment against those who don’t have the “Christmas Spirit.” The… mob spirit… of good deeds and love.

In Minnesota, a grandmother was driving home and saw a young woman step over the fence over a bridge, ready to commit suicide by throwing herself down into the freeway traffic below. The grandmother prayed to God, called the cops, and ran to the young girl.

She pleaded, “Please, honey, you don’t want to do this. You have so much life to live.”

The suicidal young woman said, “No, my mom doesn’t love me.”

The grandmother swore, “I love you!” and reached through the fence and grabbed the young woman. The young woman struggled, but the old woman hung on proclaiming how much she loved her, and would give her all the support and help.

The grandmother yelled to another woman to get the traffic to stop. That woman kicked off her heels, hefted a construction cone, and rolled it out to stop the traffic.

Other people began to run to the grandmother, or pick up more cones, or call the cops for more details.

When a cop arrived he saw a “mass” of people holding onto a woman hanging from a fence over the stopped traffic. He got the tools to cut the fence and pull the woman through to safety.

At that time the grandmother yelled, “AMEN!” Ending the prayer she’d been living the entire time.

This crowd of strangers – of white police and black citizens in a city charged with violence between such – saved a Native American young woman – because of love.

((http://www.startribune.com/shoulder-to-shoulder-strangers-came-to-the-rescue-of-a-suicidal-woman-in-st-paul/389017491/ and https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/08/04/how-a-crowd-of-diverse-strangers-saved-a-suicidal-woman-from-jumping-off-a-bridge/?utm_term=.2fc6ffd16498 ))

“Jonathan Haidt has dubbed the feeling we get from seeing loving kindness as “elevation,” a condition he defines as “a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human good­ness, kindness, courage, or compassion. It makes a person want to help others and to become a better person himself or herself.”

In an essay on the subject, he once wrote: “Most people don’t want to rape, steal, and kill. What they really want is to live in a moral community where people treat each other well, and in which they can satisfy their needs for love, productive work, and a sense of belonging to groups of which they are proud.

“We get a visceral sense that we do not live in such a moral world when we see people behave in petty, cruel, or selfish ways. But when we see a stranger perform a simple act of kindness for another stranger, it gives us a thrilling sense that maybe we do live in such a world.”

((https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/schmich/ct-met-schmich-good-deed-20181018-story.html ))

Humans are so interesting! People influencing people. People repeating what they see – evil or kindness. We can be moved to great evil or great good. Someone starts the movement, but soon it is a power greater than we are – and sweeps up others.

What force will you be in the world?

Jesus warned his disciples of the power of peer pressure and mobs. He said some will come saying “I am the messiah” or pointing to other mortals and saying “That is the Word made Flesh.” But the person being pointed to will not do good things, will be hypocritical, and inspire groups to evil.

So don’t fall for it. Don’t get wrapped up in the rumors. Think for yourself. Take a moment. Step aside. God gifted you a mind, so use it!

It is an unthinking mob that kills Jesus. A mob wrapped up in the rumors Jesus is claiming he is the King of the Jews… but he only calls himself a servant and slave and the son of man… It is an unthinking mob that will destroy the temple and rob it thinking this will give them immortality from Cesar.

But crowds can do great good, too.

What crowd will you be part of? Who will you follow? The rumors of war and famine and child abductors… or the rumors of faith, hope and love?

Amen.

Fire and Water

Luke 3:1-22

blessings_watercolor_by_texas_artist_laurie_pace
“Blessings” watercolor by Laurie Pace

Once upon a specific time, writes Luke, the Word of God came to John in the wilderness. When the Word is upon you, you prophesize! And it was no different for John. He went into all the regions around the Jordan river, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John fulfilled the prophecies of the Prophet Isaiah, who heard the Word of God saying to prepare the way for God for ALL FLESH to see salvation.

“But we don’t need salvation,” said some. We were born from Abraham, we are the Chosen People. Today, it would be like saying – I don’t need to go to church to be Christian, or live a Christian life to be Christian – because I was born Christian in a Christian nation. I was baptized as a baby. Once baptized, forever saved. I never need to step into a church again. Courthouses can marry me and funeral homes bury me.

John replied, “God is able from stones to raise up children” – from the numerous stones all over the wilderness about them, from the field stones and river pebbles: God could make more humans. From dust like God did Adam or ribs like Eve. God can make more people.

John then foretells that God will destroy everyone — Christian or Jewish or not — who doesn’t produce good fruit. And those John speaks with panic – what should we do? How do we produce good fruit?

Should we go run away into the wilderness like John, away from society, and try to live pure? Should we go off and attempt to establish a faithful community by sword and war? Should we be the fire of God that burns the faithless?

What should we do?

“The first step of the redeemed community is for those who have to share with those who have not.” And John gives them concrete examples. If you have more than you need to survive – give your extras to those who don’t. Who needs two winter coats? Give one away to someone who needs a coat. Who needs two thanksgiving turkeys? Give one away to your food pantry. Whomever is using tax loops to avoid their fair share of taxes should stop. White collar crime is not victimless — the victims are everyone who suffers from the collapsed housing market or banks or economy. Whomever is in authority should use it for good, and justice – not use it to threaten people and make false accusations. Cops should be our security – not the force that oppresses people of color. Judges should be our law upholders – not the people breaking the laws. Presidents, Senators, House Representatives, and politicians of all sorts should be role models.

John focuses on individuals. The reign of God begins with individuals. With one person choosing to do good. Then another. Then another. Soon there are whole communities producing good fruit. But it begins with individuals choosing to confirm their faith by living lives that produce food fruit… good deeds, good relationships, good on heaven and Earth.

The people hear this, and get hopeful. Is John the messiah? The promised one who will change our society for the good? Who will right wrongs, bring about God’s reign, and bring wholeness to us all? Is John our savior?

No. John says. I am not. “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming;” he is so much more powerful I am not worthy to untie his shoes. “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.”

Again! Destruction! John likes to focus on it. John knows fire is coming, and he thinks of it as something that will destroy and remove the rot from his faith. He does not yet know of Pentecost and the holy fire God sends as the Spirit! Luke knows, we know – the Pentecostal fire alights us inside, burns in our hearts, drives out the rot, and sets us to living the lives God envisions for us. That unquenchable fire within us arrives with our baptisms and it flares up and down our whole lives – but cannot be extinguished for it is the Holy Spirit of God. The destruction is our old selves. Our old sins are cut away. New growth is welcomed in.

This new life calls us to good fruit. To integrity. Integrity is matching what one says is also lived and also believed. It is wholeness. A whole integer. It is the life of repentance John speaks of; the life of love of God and neighbor and repentance for the sins we do and that over take us.

It is a life that is congruent, not hypocritical, unified in the way we live our life, our priorities, our commitments, our personal relationships, our passion for peace and justice and our unplanned acts of compassion. ((cite: from the New Interpreter’s Bible’s Commentary))

It is the life that says ‘I am Christian’ and preaches love of neighbors, then does love for neighbors, out of belief God tells us to love one another. And when we fail to love, it is a life that is truly sorry and tries to make amends and love again.

It is a life that begins at any age, and continues our whole life through.

Today, we welcome Luke into our church family and have witnessed his baptism of water. Unseen, but felt, is the presence of the Holy Fire that now resides with him. Today we promised to be that community of integrity for Luke. Today we promised to be that orchard that produces many different types of good fruits. Fruits of love, of compassion, of peace. Fruits of wisdom and encouragement. Fruits of supporting his family and his walk in faith. Whether he is called by God to the wilderness or led to put down roots here… we are his family.

And family has a very important role to play in every child’s life. Every person NEEDS to hear from the adults around them, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” We NEED to hear these words. NEED to hear it to grow into our best selves.

God the Father spoke them to Jesus the son – and Jesus was called into his ministry, his messiah-ship, his mission to bring salvation to everyone of every race and creed and gender and age and social standing.

We speak them to Luke – he is our beloved child, with whom we are well pleased. What great things God has already gifted him and will continue to gift him, and we will walk along side.

God speak these words to you – “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” You strive to produce good fruits and God encourages you to keep on keeping on. The fruits begin with individuals choosing to do good, to share, to welcome, to love.

The baptismal waters of life and the unquenchable fire of the Holy Spirit anoint you to do the good work of Heaven here on earth.

Go and be the church! Amen.