Monday, December 14, 2015

Sermon; Advent 3C; Luke 3:7-18

Who are we, really?  I often hear people complain that friends don't know who they really are, or that they wish they could be their true selves in public.  It often seems that circumstances and obligations force us to behave in ways contrary to who we think we really are.

I’m reminded of the Harry Chapin song, “Taxi,” in which he picks up an old flame as his last fare.  The song tells of dreams they both had in younger days, and hers was to become an actress.  After dropping her off at her house, he realizes that they had both gotten what they'd asked for, because there she was acting happy inside her handsome home.  Who are we, really?

Today we get more of John the Baptist.  Last week he appeared on the scene telling people that he was the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and helping people get ready to receive the message of Christ.  Part of that message, he says today, is to understand that God requires something of you.  For the Jews, John was pointing out that God requires something more than an acknowledgment of genealogy.  For Christians, John is pointing out that God requires something more than an acknowledgment of our baptism.  What God requires is for us to bear fruits worthy of repentance.

This does not mean for us to sin spectacularly thinking that it is those sins that are worthy of repentance.  What it means is that our honest repentance is the fertilizer that allows us to bear good fruit.  Our honest repentance is the beginning of a changed behavior.

“What then should we do?” the crowd asks him.

“I'm glad you asked,” he says.  “If you have two coats, share with those who have none.  If you have extra food, share that as well.  Don't be greedy.”

This isn't simply an admonition for us to be generous.  On the one hand, that's not a bad idea.  One of the things we believe about God is that God is generous and it is our duty to exhibit that generosity here on earth.

But there's another side to this beyond simple generosity, and that has to do with social and economic justice.  Part of our baptismal vows is to respect the dignity of every human being.  How much dignity can one have while lacking food and clothing?  Can we claim to love our neighbors as ourselves if we place a higher priority on our own comfort and pleasure than on the basic needs o our neighbors?

John is challenging us to live lives that respect the dignity of every human being.  He is challenging us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  He is challenging us to live generously as God  lives generously.  He is calling us to bear fruit worthy of repentance and live as God wants us to live.

But that is easier said than done.  It's easy to point out what we should be doing or how we should be living.  It's easy to say that God is calling us to be people who love justice, seek mercy, and walk humbly before the Lord.  It's easy to point out those things, but it's much harder to actually live that way.

It's hard because over time, the circumstances and obligations of our lives push us into other directions.  Marriages that weren't quite right.  Children too soon or too late.  Jobs taken to pay the bills that ended up defining our careers.  All of these coulda shoulda woulda's can blind us to the fact that we really do have pretty good lives.  And it can be in that blindness where we focus on those circumstances and obligations that seem to define who we are, that leaves us wondering if anyone knows who we really are.

In some sense, those outside circumstances and obligations create a shell around us.  Sometimes that shell is a front we use to project an image of who we want others to think we are.  Other times we use that shell to protect our true selves from the outside world.

All of this to say that, even though we may feel like no one knows our true selves, that protective coating, that outer shell, is a part of us.  It may not be all of us.  It may not be the most important part of us.  But it is a part of us nonetheless.  And it may be that it is also keeping us from living like we are truly called to live.

Many people have read today's gospel and interpreted it as a separation story.  “His winnowing fork is in his hand to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Jesus will separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad.  The good, like the sheep, will be gathered into a place of eternal life.  The bad, like the goats, will be cast away and burned with unquenchable fire.

That makes for a good hell and damnation sermon, but I don't think it's correct.

That's because that protective coat I’ve been talking about, that shell that protects our true selves from the outside world, is also known as chaff.

The chaff is what protects the wheat.  It is the chaff that is separated and burned so that the wheat can be gathered in.

This is Advent, the time we prepare for the coming of the Lord.  One way we can prepare is to remove that protective coating, that chaff, from our true selves in order to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  We need to open ourselves up to the mission of God and share our abundance with those who have none.  And when our protective, selfish selves try to wrap us up in a shell of fear, we need to do what Jesus will do and burn it with an unquenchable fire.  Because only then will our true selves be shown to the world.  Only then will the world see what God sees.  Only then will we be able to say, “This is who I truly am.”

And living as our true selves in the manner that God wants us to live really is Good News.



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