Sermon 12 13 15 Advent III
There’s not an actor on the planet who wouldn’t love that line – “You brood of vipers!” More on that later.
Just before I came here to you folks I served as extended supply for St. James, Long Branch. There was one point this fall when we had had yet another horrifying occasion of terrorist violence and when the time came for the Children’s Sermon I decided to ask them if they knew that something bad happened in the last week. All of them, even the youngest, knew something bad happened. I asked them if they knew what it was. One little girl responded, “Yes. A lot of people got shot.” I pointed out to the congregation that we can be pretty confident that our children know when something scary is going on. There’s no real hiding it.
Then I asked the children what they do when they’re scared. One little girl piped up and said, “I go and get into bed with my sister.” I thought that was a good answer – find someone you love and get close to them!
Last Sunday at church, someone asked me why I didn’t mention the shootings in San Bernardino. I’m embarrassed to say that I wasn’t aware of them. I went for days without listening to my car radio. I didn’t hear or watch the news. I was so busy unpacking that I was out of touch!
Then I happened to watch CBS Sunday Morning later in the day. Brad and I especially like the human interest stories from Steve Hartman. He often brings tears to our eyes.
Last week, in response to the San Bernardino shootings, Steve Hartman said that even though he and his wife choose not to tell their children about bad news, to protect them, he decided to ask “the experts” about their decision – the boys themselves. When asked if they wanted to know about bad news, the boys immediately asked if people died. Their dad said “Yes.” Then they said, no, they really didn’t want to know about bad news. But then the oldest, 7 years old, took his dad to task. He said, “You’re always telling us that everything is going to be OK. And I keep trying to tell you, but you don’t listen. You can’t always say that. You don’t know!” Finally, the boys decided that if something was going to happen right here in their own country, the United States, they wanted to know.
What they all were talking about was their fear. Often, when people are reacting so strongly to these events, it’s about their fear. Often, even when we find ourselves in a rage, it’s not about our anger, it’s about our fear.
Our bishop, Bishop Stokes, sent out an email Friday. I didn’t get to it until yesterday. He recalled what FDR said to our country at a frightening time in our history. Interestingly enough, I had just used the same words at a Vestry meeting earlier that morning! “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Those words were never truer. Whatever may be frightening us, nothing has more potential to damage us, to hurt us than our own fear. When you hear people yelling their wholesale condemnation of any group, that is fear talking. We are thoughtful, intelligent people. Here at Good Shepherd, we are also Christian. As our bishop recently said, “As Christians, we cannot allow hateful rhetoric and fear-mongering to prevail.” Speaking practically, how do we end it? By yelling back? No. The best way to end a fire is to starve it – don’t give it oxygen. We can choose not to react, not to respond. We can answer such rhetoric with silence and non-participation and then move on. If enough of us do that, we leave the yellers talking to themselves. If they think no one’s listening, they’ll eventually stop.
More important, we can continue to trust in God and God’s love for us. It’s times like these when the rubber hits the faith road, my friends. Do we really believe in God’s love? In God’s bountiful grace and mercy? Or are those just pretty words we drag out at Christmas? Can we honestly rejoice and exult in God’s love with all our hearts? Can we believe that God will continually renew us, rejoicing over us with gladness? Can we say today’s Canticle with confidence?
“Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior.”
We have to mean it! We need to mean it!
Every person thinks their time is unique, that no one else has ever lived through what they’ve had to live through. Israel, through the centuries, had to live through one crisis after another. And yet, through it all, even when they denied God, God was with them, just as God is with us.
In Philippians, Paul’s reaction to his own terrible fear and the fear of his followers – they feared death at the hands of the Romans. Paul told them all to rejoice – in the face of persecution, to rejoice always! And then he told them to let their gentleness be known to everyone. In the very face of brutality, to show gentleness. Not to display useless posturing – but to let their “gentleness be known to everyone.” And finally, the hardest instruction –
“Do not worry about anything,…” Do not worry about anything. Telling someone not to worry is like telling them not to itch! But that is what God asks us to do – “don’t worry, it’s a waste of time and effort, have faith in me, trust in me, know that I am here and that I love you.” That is where our strength can be found – faith and joy in the face of the madness of hate.
And then we come to John – John the Baptist – whose every word was despised by Herod. Herod was a king appointed and approved by the hated Romans. He didn’t want any revolutionary voices stirring up trouble. All he wanted was to remain in office and collect taxes for Rome and be allowed to go on his merry way. But no! John had to stir up trouble and predict a Messiah! Messiahs were a dime a dozen in those days. There was always someone stirring up trouble and threatening to start a revolution.
And John didn’t know what the crowds who came to him were looking for. Some of them were people who were sincerely looking for salvation. Some of them were looking to trap him so that he could be legally silenced. John was looking for the Messiah and trying to prepare the people of Israel for him. But it was hard. Betrayers around every corner. He didn’t know who to trust either. All he knew was that God would let him know.
We can’t really blame John for being frustrated. What he was really asking people in our Gospel for today was, “You people! Who are you? Why are you here?” How could he know who would support the Messiah and who would betray him? My guess is that if all the disciples were baptized, Judas was baptized like everyone else.
“You brood of vipers!” Vipers attack for food and out of fear. Fear is a great motivator. John wanted the people to change their behavior from fear-based to love-based. He wanted them to leave their fear of the Romans behind and to bear “good fruit.” He wanted them to be willing to share both food and clothing with each other, even in their poverty. People who share with each other aren’t acting out of fear. He taught the tax collectors to gather fairly (almost unheard of in those days!) He taught the soldiers not to threaten and extort, but to do the jobs they were paid for. He wanted people to live in fairness with each other. He asked them to look at their lives and consider whether they were good useful nutritious kernels of grain or the dry, light chaff, the husks of the kernel that were burnt as cheap fuel. Were they the core or the useless outer shell?
John was asking people to live with integrity, generosity, and love in an incredibly difficult time, a time of fear that tempted them to consider their own selfish needs first, not the needs of others. In the face of civil uncertainty and grave danger he was asking them to trust in God’s love.
And that is what God asks us to do. God asks us not to give in to fear, but to be his loving presence in the world, to show the world that we don’t need to give in to fear, but that we truly can trust in God and so can they. Trust is where our strength lies and that is where we can find peace – the peace that is beyond all understanding, the peace of God that will protect our hearts and minds.
Sermon 12 13 15 Advent III