Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sermon for 3 Advent

Advent 3 December 16, 2012
Sermon by the Rev. Kate Ekrem for Church of Our Redeemer
Text: Luke 3:7-18

I was going to start this sermon with a joke. But I’m not feeling particularly jokey right now.  The church in Connecticut where I was a young acolyte and went on youth group ski trips is preparing for two funerals for six-year-old children this week.  Instead, I’m thinking maybe John the Baptist had a point when he shouted, “you brood of vipers!” at the political and religious leaders of his day, asking them, how could you let our society, our world, get like this? How could we let our world get like this? And I’m reminding myself that while this tragedy cuts very close to home – Newtown is a town very much like Lexington – that tragedies
like this happen in our world every day. Twenty-five people are killed by gun violence every day in our country. The difference here is that we can’t console ourselves that these things only happen far away in other countries or only in poor, underprivileged neighborhoods.

And with today’s 24 hour news cycle, I also know we have this tendency to be very anxious and upset for a few days about a news story like this, and then we move on, to the next thing, another scandal or disaster will appear in the headlines. This Friday I let a clergy friend talk me into getting back on Twitter, reading all the news happening every second. It was a bad weekend to do that. It’s too easy to get blown here and there by false information and overblown emotions.

I was going to talk today about how John the Baptist is so annoying, bringing gloom and doom into our pre-Christmas joy. Instead today I’m so grateful that we have John the Baptist’s trumpeting voice cutting through everything, telling us in no uncertain terms that we need a Savior.  I was going to talk about how this fire-kindling Jesus he talks about is so hard to take, so unlike the gentle Jesus we think of. Today I’m glad we have this image of a strong, powerful Jesus coming to set the world to rights. Maybe those of us who tend towards a gentle Jesus can today understand better why those in urban neighborhoods where violence is a daily occurrence might better relate to this conquering Jesus, who comes in power to separate the chaff from the wheat.

Today is Gaudete Sunday, Joyful Sunday, the pink candle, the day we ease up on our quiet Advent prayers and rejoice a little bit on the way to Christmas.  But apparently John the Baptist did not get that memo, he’s full of hellfire and brimstone today and maybe that’s a good thing for us this weekend.

Christmas is so close. We can almost see the baby in the manger, the beautiful crèche, we can almost reach out and touch it, but John the Baptist is standing in our way, blocking our view. And he has a message for us, before we can get to that beautiful scene. He says, “Jesus is coming so bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

John definitely challenges us, challenges us to take a hard look at our life, at our world, at the systems we live in, and to repent. Repent is not a very popular word. When we hear that word, we hear judgment. We hear disapproval and rejection. That’s how the word repent is often used, but that’s not what it actually means. It actually just means, turn around. Turn around, change direction, go the other way.  
If you were on a journey, and you knew you were lost, and you’d been feeling lost for awhile, and you heard someone say, “turn around, that way out, that’s the way you want to go,”  you might be really relieved, and thankful.

That’s the way that crowd around John the Baptist felt. They heard John’s fiery preaching as Good News, because they were ready to hear it.  Last week it was hard for me to understand why people called this good news, and stood around to hear more of it. Today I understand so much better. And I understand why, instead of walking away from all this judgmental talk about sin and repentance, the people  said, “Exactly right, you hit the nail on the head, John, so what then should we do?”  Isn’t that the question on all our minds and hearts today, what do we do?

Whenever there is a crisis, we want to DO something. When disaster strikes, people want to jump in and take action. Sometimes they don’t think too hard about what that action is, like after Hurricane Sandy when the New York area got flooded with clothing donations, much more than were needed or could be used. It’s a time to listen to the needs of others, not to fulfill our own need to be needed.  But it’s also not a time to throw up our hands and say, “well, what can you do, it’s just how things are.” In John the Baptist’s time, people could say, “well it’s too bad tax collectors cheat people or soldiers beat people up, but what can you do? There are people who don’t have a coat or don’t have enough to eat, but what can you do? It’s just how things are.”

“What then should we do,” the people ask?  John gave them a very simple answer, very basic stuff. Share, be fair, don’t use your power to get your way.  Probably they already knew all that, probably they already knew what to do. Probably we already know what to do, too.

John’s point is that repentance begins with turning outward, away from our own worries, anxieties, and self-absorption. Notice how John gives practical and concrete actions of charity. If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none, likewise if you have extra food.  How basic can you get, but a powerful vision for community.

John’s repentance is serious stuff, but he gives it in easy steps. He reminded them of simple things they could do right then, right that day.  So what can we do right now, today?  I’ve heard stories in this congregation about people becoming inspired to work with teens because of wanting to reach out after a tragedy like this. Is there a teen you know who is alone, who needs someone to care?  I’ve also heard this weekend that some member of our Lexington interfaith clergy association are already involved in advocacy to stop gun violence. That’s something we can do, maybe write to our  congressperson to express our views,  join in advocacy to fight against violence in our communities, both suburbs and cities.  What else, what other simple concrete actions can we take?  Let’s talk more about that at the adult forum downstairs after worship. I bet you have even better ideas than I do. And let’s not forget to pray. Prayer is powerful, and we can pray not just for the people of Newtown, but for all those who have lost children to violence, all those places in the world where the system is destructive, where we fall short of what God’s dream for us is.

John the Baptist is standing in the way as we approach Christmas, saying, “Repent, change, do something to prepare for God’s kingdom.”  And this is good news. John’s Good News doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves, this is no “I’m OK, you’re OK,” because we’re not OK, not today, what happened in Newtown was not OK, and it’s also not OK when it happens in Dorchester or Laurence or Mumbai or Damascus or Kigali.  John’s Good News is that One more powerful is coming, to thresh the world and set things right, so we need to repent, and be ready. And we can begin that repentance by acting in clear and simple ways to live our lives as if this really is God’s world, as if Jesus is coming soon. What one step, one action, do you feel God is calling you to take to make this world a better, safer place? Later this week we’re going to the Grow Clinic, which serves babies with failure to thrive syndrome, which is usually the result of poverty and undernourishment.  These kids come from some dangerous neighborhoods, where violence is sadly common.  It’s going to feel pretty good, I think, to play and dance with them, to bring them books and hats and mittens, to show them that people love and care for them, that they are important to us, precious to us. On our way to the crèche, let’s take John the Baptist’s good news to heart, and be ready to prepare some room for Jesus in our hearts and in this broken world that needs a Savior so badly.

Let’s pray the ancient words of our Advent hymn,

O come, Thou Day-Spring , come and cheer
Our spirits by your advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

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