When I was in college, in the 1970’s, I had a very difficult time figuring out what I wanted to major in. At 17 I really had no idea what I wanted do with the rest of my life. I’ve told you before about my brief time as an Agriculture major…well, another major I considered, was anthropology. For some reason, which I no longer recall, I decided not to pursue it, but if I had majored in anthropology I would have known this term, “redemptive media,” before preparing today’s sermon.
Redemptive media is a term used by anthropologists to describe the things in a culture that decide what makes a person good, successful, and respectable. What are some of the things we say describe a good, successful, and respectable person? What university one goes too? What profession one is in? Does it matter if they worship in a church, synagogue or mosque? What about where one lives? How well behaved the kids are? What kind of clothes are worn?
On the television show M*A*S*H, Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester III made it clear about what defined him; “I’m a Winchester,” he was heard to say more than once. For him, it was his family name that determined who he was, and in his mind it made him superior to everyone else. Even today a family name can bring respect. Think of Kennedy or Rockefeller, Clinton or Bush. The people in John the Baptist’s community banked their inheritance as a people of God on their direct lineage with Abraham. The people of Israel all descended from Abraham, and that meant, by tradition, that they were God’s chosen people.
There’s a comfort in knowing who we are. Especially if we easily fit into the categories our culture deems as good, respectable, and successful; which surely includes everyone here. We live in the comfort of suburban America with our warm homes, cars, schools, jobs, plenty of food and friends. It’s nice. I think that’s a good thing. But John reminds us that it is not enough. In fact resting too comfortably in our own sense of security can really undermine us.
Anyone here ever hear of a Floogie bird? Apparently Harry Truman, another respected name in our society, once described a Floogie Bird as a wooden bird that had a small label around its neck that read, “I fly backwards, I do not care where I’m going. I just want to see where I’ve been.”
Resting too comfortably can keep us stuck. As John the Baptist, and then later Jesus, would say, “That’s when we become like the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Do not presume that all is well just because of who we are and how we kow the world at this point in time.
John the Baptist is pointing the people, and therefore us, in another direction. He says they cannot presume that all is well, just because they are descendants of Abraham. No, God has come to do a new thing. Now, in Christ, the new thing will happen. And what is this new thing….Anyone can be a member of the family. Anyone can be found by God to be respectful, good, and successful. All God asks is that the person repent – turn and return to God.
In John Steinbeck’s story “The Wayward Bus” a dilapidated old bus takes a cross country shortcut on its journey to Los Angeles, and gets stuck in the mud. While the drivers go for assistance, the passengers take refuge in a cave. It is a curious company of people and it is obvious that the author is attempting to get across the point that these people are lost spiritually as well as literally. Which, you may remember is an Advent theme – the darkness that is both spiritual and literal. Spiritual because we are invited into the mystery of God, literal because it is winter and night comes early.
As the people enter into this cave the author calls the readers attention to the fact that as they enter they must pass a word that has been scrawled with paint over the entrance. The word is repent. Although Steinbeck calls that to the reader’s attention it is interesting that none of the passengers pay any attention to it whatsoever.Isn’t that just like people: we fail to see the obvious even when it is right in front of us. “Can’t see the forest for the trees…” Repentance is key to this reading.
But what does repentance mean?
In Matthew, John the Baptist thinks repentance means all kinds of things. For one, he thinks that, based on some criteria, the nature of our repentance will determine whether we become chaff or wheat. John gets this idea from Isaiah, it is part of the tradition of John’s faith. Some will become chaff and some will become wheat. And this new thing God is doing, this new thing that will be done through Jesus will determine which is which. John is certain that Jesus will take a shovel, for the word here, winnowing fork, is actually better translated as winnowing shovel. John says Jesus will take a shovel and dig into the pile, scooping out large portions of chaff to be burned and large portions of wheat to be saved.
There’s just one problem with John’s expectation, and scripture reveals this later in the story of the Gospels. Sure. Jesus comes and well, he isn’t always this nice guy. No, Jesus can have a bit of a temper. He yells at people. He turns over tables in the temple. He gets mad and impatient. But. He never actually burns anyone. In fact, Jesus, despite his temper tantrums, ends up offering love to all. All are welcome. Even those who make him mad.
And that’s a really big deal. Jesus’ love for us is not dependent on who we know, or what our last name is, or how much respect we have, or how successful we are. Jesus loves us for being exactly who we are right now. Knowing that we are loved for being exactly who are: flawewd and imperfect, and not coming from the right family, but loved anyway, will change us completely. Actually, it is an amazing process that happens inside. And it begins when we recognize the need to seek forgiveness; when we recognize that there are things known and unknown for which we need to repent. Repentance means turning and returning to God. Turning away from the things in our lives that cause broken relationships and hurt in this world. There are things we know we have done that break God’s heart. Things we know cause broken relationships with people we know, like, care about…we know they are hurtful, but sometimes we do them anyway. And then are things we do in the course of our everyday lives for which we have no idea how those actions affect the lives of others. How is it that the food we eat or the clothes we wear may influence poverty around the world? Poverty through extremely low wage sweat shops where young people work 14 hour days in ruthless brutal conditions for a fraction of the daily cost of living. IPoverty through an inability to earn a living wage for work done, like the plight of coffee growers around the world, that is unless the grower is in a fair trade market. It’s one thing to work long hours under decent conditions, it’s a tragedy when the conditions are inhumane. John the Baptist reminds us that we cannot rest comfortably in our ignorance. There are many different kinds of vipers that poison our lives and our world. What vipers live in our culture masked under the guise perhaps of the very thing we deem worth and respectful, like making a profit.
Even as we rest, easy, comfortable in our homes, words from Martin Luther King Jr. remind us that: We shall have to repent, not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked , but for the appalling silence of the good people. In other words, we are not to rest comfortable, quiet toward the injustices in this world. We need to take responsibility for our selves, our actions, and our ability to influence the world around us.
A friend tells of the Saturdays he spent going to football games with his father. The boy and his dad sat in sunshine and rain, wind and snow, and cheered for their favorite team. There was nothing like it. On the way home from the ball games, prior to the era of drive-through windows, they often stopped to get a bite to eat. The boy would stand at the counter and listen to his father give the order for their food. Sometimes the restaurant person would turn to the boy and ask, “And what for you today?”
It was very comforting for the boy to point to his father and say, “I’m with him.” Those were the days. The boy’s father took care of everything and all the boy had to do was stand there and wait on his food. If anybody happened to ask, he could always say, “I’m with him.”
William B. Kincaid, III, And Then Came the Angel, CSS Publishing Company, Inc.
At some point, we start taking responsiblity for ourselves. It’s the steps we take from infancy to childhood to maturity. Yes, frightening at first,…in fact it sometimes is still frightening years later. But when we take responsibility we turn from a life focused inward, safe, and secure, to a life focused outward. An outward focused life is more challenging and vulnerable, like a voice carrying out in the wilderness – but it’s what God calls us to do. To turn and return to God, to repent, and focus our lives on what God desires. To love God, love neighbor, love self.
Just like when I was in college, turning to God does not always assure us of the future – and what we will be doing. But it does assure us that God will be with us, filling us with fire and Holy Spirit…
and, since I fly off tomorrow, and will be gone for a few days, I am grateful this sermon is done and the bags are packed. Now I just hope the weather is good to us…
The theme of this sermon was influenced by dylans blog