I've been supply preaching the last two Sundays at a Presbyterian Church in St. Paul. Here's the sermon I gave there this morning:
“Not A Tame God, Part Two”
Luke 3: 7-18
December 17, 2006
Edgcumbe Presbyterian Church
St. Paul, MN
From the time I was about seven until maybe I was old enough to drive, my Dad would get me up at about 6am on a Saturday morning once a month to get to the barber shop before they opened around 7:30 or so. A line would form and Dad wanted to be among the first.
I hated doing this. Saturdays were for sleeping in and not trying to get to the barber shop before the other guy. However, we did it and maybe as a token of my patience, Dad would take me to breakfast where I would have pancakes.
I always got the same haircut; short, but not too close. For years, Dad would tell the barber what I wanted. I think when I got around 11 or 12, I started telling the barber what I wanted. Well, one Saturday, when I was about 13, I told the barber I wanted it cut short. So he went to work and I sat not paying attention. When he was done and spun me around, I was shocked; he had cut my hair really short. I mean were talking the next step was looking like Kojack. Now, these days, that is my standard haircut, but back then it wasn't and I thought I looked horrible. I remember just crying like crazy. Here it was, I wanted a little off the top; and I what I got was a buzzcut.
This got me thinking about today's passage; some people wanted a little off the top and John the Baptist was preaching a total buzzcut.
If you remember from last week, I said John the Baptist is not anyone's favorite Biblical character. He's rude and can't say anything nice and he certainly lives up to that in today's gospel, if you can it that. The passage opens with the crowds who were listening to John. Many in the crowd decided to come forward to be baptized. Now, I just celebrated the 30th anniversary of my baptism and I've learned that baptism is about being reminded of God's love for us. I don't think John was sitting in on my seminary class, because he calls those coming forward a “brood of vipers.” He tells them to produce fruit in keeping with repentance and to not rely on religious or family ties for salvation. He talks about an ax that is getting ready to cut down poor producing trees and throw them into the fire.
When was the last time you saw a preacher say that at a baptism? If they did, I can bet they didn't stay in the pulpit very long.
You know, in the past, when I have preached this sermon, I would have said that poor John was off his rocker. He was preaching a message of hell and damnation, a message of what my Lutheran friends like to say, “works-righteousness.” On the other hand, Jesus preached a message of grace. Of course, I said this because John's message is so harsh and seems mean-spirited. But these days, I'm beginning to think John was preaching a message of salvation and grace, but he reminds us this grace isn't cheap, but costly. John, like Jesus, was concerned with how we live. Yes, we are saved by grace not by works, but the eveidence of our faith relies on how we live. The best testimony of being a follower of Christ, is how we live our lives. Do we live them in the same way Jesus did, welcoming all, forgiving others and helping those in need?
A few weeks ago the election of a congressman caused a bit of a controversy. As many of you know, Keith Ellison was elected to fill the seat of Martin Sabo in the US Congress. Mr. Ellison will represent Minneapolis and some its suburbs in Congress and by doing so he is a trailblazer. He is the first African American from Minnesota to go to Washington and he is the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. When Mr. Ellison was asked about taking the oath of office, he opined that he would take that oath on the Koran, the Muslim holy book. That seemed to be a no-brainer since many Christians who serve in Congress as well as the President and Vice President take their oaths on Bibles. However, this didn't set well with radio host Dennis Praeger. Mr. Praeger retorted in a column “Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress. In your personal life, we will fight for your right to prefer any other book. We will even fight for your right to publish cartoons mocking our Bible. But, Mr. Ellison, America, not you, decides on what book its public servants take their oath.”
Mr. Praeger, who is Jewish by the way, seems to think that the only book any person in public office must take their oath on has to be the Bible. Now, personally, believing in the separation of church and state, I don't think that public servants should take the oath of any holy book, but if someone wants to and they are Muslim, why can't they take an oath on a book that means so much to them?
What distrubed me and many others was that Mr. Praeger seems to put the Bible in such high regard and yet ignores its message. Shouldn't he be more concerned with the biblical injunction of helping those in need or not putting anything, including the Bible before God as an idol?
I think if John was around today, he would probably be calling all of us snakes as well. There are too many people, especially Christians, who will shout loudly that they are religious, holy people and yet their actions say sharply otherwise.
That was what John was getting at. Simply believing that God loves us and then turning around and treating your neighbor like crap makes you out to be liar as John the writer says.
There are a lot of people out there who think that to be a Christian means accepting certain truths; Jesus is God's Son, Jesus died and rose again, Jesus is coming soon. If you believe that, then you are all set. But John seems to be saying that's not enough. Of course Christians must believe in all of this, but if those beliefs aren't lived on in our daily lives, are they real to others? If we say we believe in Christ, and yet ignore the poor, or turn people away because they are different, will people really believe us?
Christianity isn't just about accepting certain beliefs; it's also about living as a Christian. John the Baptist told those in the crowd to share with those who have none, don't extort and don't overtax the populace. He was telling people that if they were coming to be baptized; they need to live lives of repentance and not do this just for show.
I know that Edgcumbe is in the midst of trying figure out where to go from here. You have been a faithful community for over 50 years and you'd like to know what kind of community you want to be in the next 50 years. I know there are a lot of meetings and planning and questioning going on. Well, let me add one more question. When people pass this church, what should they see? Will they see a community that puts their faith into action, helping the less fortunate in St. Paul and around the world, one that welcomes the stranger, one that practices the love and compassion of Jesus? I know that this community has been concerned with the widow and the orphan in the short time I have known you. I pray that as you enter this time of discernment, that you continue this practice and seek God's guidence to be more and more God's people.
Advent is a reminder that we need to be stirred to live into God's way of justice. It is not simply the coming of a little baby, but the coming of God who not only saves us, but wants us to join the effort of bring heaven to whole of creation.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a concert by a local choral group. The designed it the style of a Lessons and Carols service. Between the songs we heard readings from Scripture and passages from poets and authors. One memorable passage was from the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. He summed up nicely what Advent is all about:
Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. This is what Advent is:
Christ living among us.
God isn't interested in shaving a little off the top. God wants us changed, to live lives for others.
Thanks be to God. Amen.