Just Do It!

 

Meditation on Luke 3:7-18

Third Sunday in Advent

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

Dec. 13, 2015

***

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

***

My husband, Jim, and I went out to see “Spotlight” on Friday. The movie is named for the small, investigative reporting team working for the Boston Globe in 2002 that discovers a massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese. The film brings out how difficult it is for the reporters and editors to pursue the story, as people are afraid to criticize the Church, which has considerable power, especially in Boston. It is more important for the Church to protect its reputation than to protect the most vulnerable members of the kingdom of God–the children, many of whom came from broken homes or lived in poverty. The Church settled multiple cases of child abuse through private mediation with victims’ families, forcing them to sign confidentiality agreements, so no one would find out what the priests had done. Some of the children were abused repeatedly, over a number of years. Many did not recover psychologically from the abuse.

One frightened victim, interviewed as a young adult, said he didn’t fight back or tell anyone about the abuse as a child because in his family, the priests were God! Adult victims portrayed in the movie wanted nothing to do with any church anymore.

Particularly moving in the film is its portrayal of how the reporters were affected by these revelations–and by the obstacles the Church thrust in their path as they grew closer to the full truth. Journalists on the Spotlight team had been raised in the Catholic Church. Most described themselves as “lapsed” Catholics. Sacha, played by Rachel McAdams, sometimes accompanied her “Nana” to church. But after learning of the abuse and cover up, she couldn’t go anymore without thinking about the victims–and the offenders–and how the Church had allowed the abuse to go on. In one touching scene, Mike, played by Mark Ruffalo, is standing at the back of a church, watching and listening to a children’s choir sweetly sing, “Silent Night.” Tears stream down his face. Later he tells his colleagues, his voice breaking with emotion, that though he was a “lapsed” Catholic, he always thought that, someday, he would go back.

***

Sin and corruption amongst the people of God are nothing new. Thousands of years ago, the Spirit led John the Baptist to preach repentance to a sinful generation, seeking to prepare the hearts and minds of those who had turned away from the one True God for the coming Messiah–John’s younger cousin, Jesus Christ.

Now John the Baptist is bold. His tone is sarcastic. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?!”

I looked up “brood of vipers” and I learned that “brood” isn’t just a family group; it’s specifically the offspring! He’s saying, in today’s language, “Your mama’s a snake!” Vipers are found in most parts of the world today, including Florida! They are nocturnal; they ambush their prey–in the dark. They strike quickly. Their venom causes paralysis. Death may result from asphyxiation. I can’t think of anything worse than calling someone a snake–or a child of a snake!

Why would John use such harsh language? Bible scholars (such as Joel B. Green) say that John chooses words that “deliberately contrast with” their own self-identity. They see themselves as God’s chosen, the children of Abraham. They are comfortable with who they are, without seeing themselves as they truly are–sinful people who allow injustice, abuse, and oppression in their society to continue. They aren’t rich people, but they have more than enough and allow others to go without basic necessities, such as food and clothing. They are people, some of them, who are dishonest on their jobs and in their day-to-day lives, such as the tax collectors and soldiers who come to be baptized.

“Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ John says sternly. “For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.”

The crowd listens to John, though his words are harsh and abrasive. They must know, deep down, that he is right and that he is warning them for their own good. And after all, they are afraid, “fleeing” from the judgment, “God’s wrath” to come. “What then should we do?” they ask.

It’s interesting about John’s baptism and teaching–how the people have to leave their normal lives and go into the wilderness to partake in his ministry, but he doesn’t urge them to join him in his ascetic life, living apart from the world, wearing camel’s skin, eating only locusts and honey, and forsaking alcohol, which was quite unusual in those days. John’s baptism to repentance is to empower people to return to their former lives with changed hearts and minds–so that they may behave appropriately as the children of Abraham. The first step toward this change and right living is seeing oneself as one truly is–being convicted of one’s sins.

John teaches that true repentance is shown through acts of mercy and generosity. Live your life, he says, in a way that reveals your love for God and neighbor.

“Whoever has two shirts must share with anyone who has none. And whoever has food must do likewise.” He tells the tax collectors to collect no more than the amount they are supposed to. He tells the soldiers to stop extorting money from the people with threats and false accusations. “Be satisfied with your wages.”

He says, do this:  be honest, be generous, be merciful, be content with your material wealth.

Just do it!

The turning point of this passage is verse 15, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.”  Their hearts are changing! They have gone from fear of God’s wrath and the judgment to joyful “expectation” of the Messiah and wondering if he could already be there. Was he John?

Not me, says John. Just wait!

“I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals,” he says. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

 

***

As the movie “Spotlight,” nears its conclusion, we learn the most startling revelation of all–that the editor of the investigative team, “Robby” played by Michael Keaton–had been one of those who had by his own silence had covered up the abuses and allowed them to continue. An attorney representing the Church had sent Robby, when he was working as a metro reporter in the early 1990s, information on 20 clergy sexual offenders. Robby wrote one article, buried on the inside pages, but then dropped the story– failed to do any follow up on the victims, the offenders, or the Church.

Robby, who attended a Catholic school across the street from the Globe, had known about the allegations for years, and he hadn’t done a thing. He doesn’t remember writing the story at all until Sacha finds his article in the files– and gives him the clipping.

There’s a close up of Robby’s face as realization dawns, then sorrow and shame. He is determined not to fail again to do the right thing. He’s just going to do it–no matter what it costs him personally. Not even if it means losing longtime friends by pursuing the truth. The whole truth!

Brothers and sisters, I don’t want you to leave worship today talking about the horrible abuses in the Catholic church–and the cover up by Church leaders. Go out into the world determined to be the Church that God wants us to be–to hear the words of John the Baptist, and obey. Go in joyful expectation that the Messiah is coming! He’s coming soon! Now is the time to live the way God wants us to live.

Repent! Turn back to the Lord. Be honest. Be merciful. Be compassionate. Be content with your material wealth. Be generous. Share with your neighbors in need.

Just do it!

Don’t stumble into sin by judging others. Protestant churches, like Catholic, are not always places of health, healing, comfort and refuge, though they should be. Many of those who are hurt in a church end up not going to church at all–like the Boston Globe journalists. Do you know someone who was hurt by the church? What can you do to reach out to them?  What can we do? Let’s do it.

I can’t stop seeing Mike, standing at the back of a church as children sweetly sing, “Silent Night.” Tears are streaming down his face. He is a lapsed Catholic, he later tells his colleagues, his voice choking with emotion.

But he always thought that he would go back.

 

Let us pray.

 

Holy One, forgive us for being comfortable with our lives and not working very hard to correct the injustices in our society, in our world. Forgive us for not praying enough for our neighbors in need and not sharing what we have, though we certainly have more than we need.  Thank you for your generosity and mercy for us–just sinners, too often taking for granted your wonderful grace, that covers all our sins! Turn our hearts toward you in joyful expectation of our Messiah’s coming! Give us wisdom and compassion to reach out to people who have been hurt by churches, hurt by Christians, and no longer go to any church, anymore. Stir us to true repentance for our sins, demonstrating our change of heart through our words and acts of kindness, generosity, mercy, and love. Help us to do whatever it takes to draw others nearer to You, to bring stray sheep back into your fold. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

 

Yellow for Alice

 

Meditation on Luke 1:68-79

Dec. 6, 2015

Second Sunday in Advent

Merritt Island Presbyterian Church

 

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

 

***

 

I watched and listened in horror with the world on Wednesday as the latest act of terrorism was reported on CNN. A husband and wife opened fire on a social service center in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 people. The act of terror in California came on the heels of a shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado last week, which followed the terrorist attacks on Paris Nov. 13, when 130 people were killed and hundreds were injured.

On Wednesday, as CNN cameras rolled and Jim and I watched the horrible events unfold, my silent prayer was, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

If you need any evidence, my friends, that we are living in a world that walks in darkness, a world in desperate need of a Savior, you only have to turn on the TV or read the newspaper.

Sometimes, it feels like the bad people are winning, doesn’t it? But it’s only an illusion. Christ has already defeated sin and death! We are the children of the new covenant, people of hope as Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 reminds a frightened church of the first century, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” We trust not in the things of this world but in the grace of God. By faith we can see our Emmanuel, our God with us, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters in Christ– and when we see their gentle acts of mercy and grace. People like my friend, Alice.    Alice was one of the first members of my last congregation that I met. As we pulled up in the driveway of the parish house to move in, she was there, holding a container of still warm, homemade chocolate chip cookies. She was one of many “Barnabases” the Lord has sent to encourage me and remind me of God’s love. And I am only one of many people that she encourages. When someone in the community is in need–sick, lonely or grieving– she is there with kind words, smiles, hugs, small gifts, cards and “thinking of you” phone calls.

Alice often wears yellow, especially in winter–when the world outside her in rural Minnesota is mostly white or brown. Yellow reminds her of summer, her favorite season. Yellow reminds me of peace, promised to us in today’s gospel reading–as we pursue it, led by the Spirit. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

I received a card from Alice a few days ago. It was yellow, with two lit candles, an open Bible and Psalm 92:1, “it is good to give thanks to the Lord.” What particularly touched my heart was her sprawling handwriting assuring me of her prayers for us and how she and her husband will always miss us because we are so dear to them. She reminded me about the small gift I gave to her as we said goodbye. “The little lamb,” she wrote, “rides in the car, and we think of you.”   Inside the card, Alice slipped a poem, “This is the Day,” by Patience Allison Hartbauer. “This is the day that the Lord has made–I will rejoice and be glad in it. I will start out this day with a song in my heart to face any trial and to win it…For I know that I walk with His hand in mind, He will guide every step of my way. If I fail or I fall, He will lift me up, the Lord is my strength every day. This is the day that I will be glad–I can smile, I can win and achieve. For I’ve given my heart to my God this day and I trust in His word–I believe.” And then this next line, she underlined. “I believe that He has a plan for me.”   “That my life will be changed for the best. He has washed all my sins, He has made me whole. I’m at peace, I am calm–I am blessed. This is the day that I overcome all the burdens that weighed on my heart. My spirit will soar and I will succeed, for I’m given a fresh new start. I will walk with pride with my head held high, and fear cannot enter my sphere. For this is the day that the Lord has made–All is well, all is good…God is near…”   On Wednesday night, after watching the report of yet another terrorist attack, I began to crochet a scarf for my dear friend, one of many Barnabases in my life, to remind her that winter won’t last forever. Yellow–for Alice. Yellow–for peace.

***

The passage in Luke that I read today is actually a song written by a man named Zechariah. When you look at this passage in your Bible, you’ll see that it is indented like the stanzas in a poem or verses in a song–like the Psalms. It wasn’t written that way in the original Greek, but it is, indeed, a song or “canticle,” one of several woven into the narrative of Luke, much like the Magnificat, the song Mary sings in Luke 1:46-56, just before the account of the birth of John the Baptist begins in verse 57.   John’s father, Zechariah, is so important to the telling of Christ’s story that Luke first mentions Zechariah and his wife in chapter 1, verse 5, immediately following Luke’s introduction, dedicated to Theophilus. Luke writes, “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren and both were getting on in years.”

Their story has echoes of the Abraham and Sarah story, but also Hannah’s story in 1 Samuel, which we studied a few weeks ago. Zechariah is serving in the holy sanctuary of the Lord one day, offering incense on behalf of the people, while the people are praying outside, when an angel of the Lord appears to him. Zechariah is “terrified; and fear overwhelm(s) him.” (v. 12) Zechariah is alone because only the priests can enter into the holy sanctuary. The angel tells him not to be afraid– for his prayer has been heard. Your wife, Elizabeth, will “bear a son and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord… he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Unlike Hannah and Mary, Zechariah responds with disbelief. He asks, “How will I know this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replies, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”      I kind of feel sorry for Zechariah; I don’t think he was trying to be rude. He wants a son more than anything. The priesthood was, back then, only open to one ancestral line and the job was passed down from father to son. It wasn’t a position the general public could pursue by going to school; you had to be born into the tribe of Levi. And Zechariah, a name that means, “God remembered,” had waited so long for a child that, sadly, he had finally given up hope.

God punishes Zechariah for his unbelief, but then blesses him with a miracle–the longed-for son who would play an important role in God’s plan by preparing the way for Jesus Christ. And God, in his tender mercy, uses the “punishment” of becoming mute as a sign for the community–not of God’s wrath, but of His faithfulness to visit them with His grace; it was “proof” of Zechariah’s encounter with an angel.

The song that we read together today–Zechariah’s canticle– is the priest’s first utterance after the angel’s prophecy had come to pass; he has been mute for Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy! It isn’t until the baby’s circumcision, 8 days after his birth, when he is named “John,” that Zechariah regains his ability to speak. “John” is a name derived from a Hebrew word meaning, “God is gracious.” And while Zechariah’s overwhelming fear had turned to overflowing joy, “fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them, pondered them and said, ‘What, then, will this child become? For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.’”   Zechariah’s song answers that question — who, indeed, would this child become? He would be filled with the Holy Spirit. And turn the hearts of many of the people of Israel back to the Lord their God. And “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Let us pray.

Holy One, we thank you for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, our mighty Savior and loving Lord who will guide our feet into the way of peace. Lord, we long to live in a world where there is no more evil–no more violence, sickness and sadness, no more loss, no more pain. Prepare our hearts so that we are truly ready for your return. Help us to be more faithful to your calling on our lives and less distracted by the things of this world. Forgive us for our anxieties and fears and for our failure to mend the broken relationships in our lives. Help us to love and forgive! We pray that your Spirit would grant us wisdom to know your will and courage to live in obedience to your Word–without fear and doubt. And we ask that you be with all who lost loved ones in the recent wave of terrorist attacks. Please bring them comfort and wholeness, despite their terrible loss. Empower us to be brave peacemakers, bearers of hope, Barnabases to all who need encouragement and reminders of God’s love, tender mercies, and grace. We pray in the name of our Emmanuel–God with us and coming again. Amen.