Monday, December 14, 2015

bearing fruit

St. Thomas’ Church, Whitemarsh
Advent 3, Year C, 2015

You brood of vipers!!

John the Baptist: that wild, locust-eating, camel-clothed cousin of Jesus; he never could keep his mouth shut, could he? To be fair, my imagination probably unfairly caricatures his ranting and raving. I’m sure that he was less like a yelling caveman from the GEICO commercial and more like an Elijah or MLK, Jr. figure, a dynamic, passionate, earnest speaker who had a vision of what a righteous life was supposed to look like and called people out when they strayed from the path.

In Matthew and John’s gospels, the brood of vipers is referring to the Pharisees and priests, the elite religious leaders of the Jews. John was calling them out for taking advantage of their faithful people, of placing more emphasis on following the letter of the law than actually taking care of the people they served.

But today we hear from the Gospel according to Luke, who emphasizes God’s love for the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast. And in Luke’s version, the people who get called a brood of vipers are not religious leaders who have come just to spy on John or to see a spectacle, but people who have traveled to the wilderness to be baptized by John. Not exactly the way to win the hearts of the people who want to follow you—or so you would think. But John doesn’t want fair-weather followers. He tells them straight up that if they really want to prepare for what is coming they can’t just get baptized and then sit back on their haunches, self-satisfied. It is not enough to say they are children of Abraham, God’s chosen people; they need to show their contrition by bearing “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). If they are truly repentant, they will have had a change of heart and their actions from that time forward will demonstrate this change of heart. This means no more taking advantage of one another! The tax collectors can’t take extra money on top of what they are required to collect, and the soldiers can’t bribe or falsely accuse people to get more money, but should be content with the wages they earn (vv. 12-14). These actions seem to be simple, obvious things: don’t contribute to making the poor poor, but help out the people disadvantaged by the system, the same system that allows you to take more than you need.

The tax collectors and soldiers—the ones with some power over their fellow Jews—were not the only ones called out. The crowd asked John how they could prepare themselves, and he told them to share their coats and food with those who don’t have any (vv. 10-11). Even if you are not wealthy compared to those in the upper classes, you are still able to help others out.

To all of these “exhortations” the people didn’t leave dejected but responded by being “filled with expectation” (vv. 18, 15). They wondered if John might be the Messiah, the one they believed would overthrow the oppressive Romans and bring about the reign of God. But John told them that they were waiting for someone greater, someone for whom he was not even good enough to be a slave (vv. 15-16).

So what message is John telling us today? We have the advantage of knowing how the story of John and Jesus not only begins but ends. Soon after this passage, John is arrested, effectively ending his ministry, and Jesus is baptized, marking the beginning of his ministry. In his teachings, the thing that Jesus emphasized more than anything else was to love God and love our neighbor. It’s simple enough on paper but difficult to actually put into action.

Like the warning John gave the Jews he was preaching to, we too must be careful not to become complacent. If we call ourselves Christians but then ignore the needs of our neighbors—not just our literal neighbors but all children of God—then our behavior does not reflect one of true Christianity.

Judith Jones, professor of religion at Wartburg College, asserts that “Economic issues are spiritual issues. If we ignore God’s commands to practice social and economic justice, how can we claim that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? If we prioritize our pleasures above our neighbors’ basic necessities, how can we claim to love our neighbors as we love ourselves?”

At our baptism, we—or people on our behalf—made promises to follow Jesus Christ, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as [ourselves],” to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP 303, 305). This means that we cannot sit idly by as our sisters and brothers suffer; everyone is called to contribute what they can to bring about the kingdom. 

We also promise that when—not if, but when—we fall short, we will “repent and return to the Lord” (BCP 304). Yes, we are made in the image of God, and reborn in the waters of baptism, but we are hardly perfect.

When John talks about Jesus coming to baptize people with the Holy Spirit and fire and to separate the wheat from the chaff, it’s easy to assume he means separating people according to their goodness. But as Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling writes in book five of the series, “the world isn't split into good people and [bad]. We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are.”

What John is trying to convey is that in the same way that we occasionally have controlled burns of forests to allow for new growth, when Jesus comes, the parts of us that separate us from God will be burned away. All of our prejudices, anxiety, perfectionism, anger, regret—it will all be removed so that we can finally love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and our neighbors as ourselves. This is Good News!

In this Advent season we cannot simply stand still. Like the crowd in front of John, we are called to bear fruits. We do this by remembering the vows we made at our baptism: to take care of one another, demonstrating God’s love to those around us, both stranger and friend, until the day when Jesus returns once again. 

(image found here)