This. Is. Hilarious. This is a lot of hard work.
This. Is… Good News.
This is the Good News of asking the toughest questions – with the most simple, Holy, response.
Let us go into the wild places and rejoice! God is near. Again I say, rejoice!
How do we not read today’s bible passages back-to-back… and laugh?
How do we not hear: “Rejoice in God always… you brood of vipers?”
Paul and John proclaiming the Good News that the peace of God surpasses all understanding.
Rejoice and remember where we are. Remember that we are still in that desert place, that raw place through which the river runs. Last week, John made his opening debut as a prophet in our midst, proclaiming that we must prepare for God to be with us. But how do we do that?
Today is a continuation of the story, that Holy Saga of which we are a part. Standing there, in the dust and uncertainty, we gather with the crowds of long ago wondering, “What should we do?” Tax collectors, soldiers, all those workers… come to John and ask “what should we do?” What should we do as John calls us to repentance? What does it mean to repent? What do we need to do to repent? Or, as the original Greek word “metanoia” suggests, have “a change of mind”? In John’s call to repentance, how does God’s redeeming grace burst forth?
What should we do? As people of God, what should we do? As people who follow Jesus, what should we do?
I love this story of people gathered around John, this crowd of curious, seeking… people. These people who go about their day-to-day lives, looking… for… something.
Here—let’s do a little reenactment. I want to hear from you. What are some of the jobs that you do now, or have done in the past? Let’s start with just one job…
Pastor Kris stepped into the center of the sanctuary. Those gathered in were encouraged to state their jobs –some of the responses were:
“I am a parks and recreations employee.”
“I manage an IT department.”
“I am a certified nursing assistant.”
One of the youth said, “I feed my guinea pig.”
Each time, Pastor Kris responded to their “What should I do?” with a reflection such as:
“As you care for your patients, be kind, be compassionate, be present.”
“As you tend to the parks, you are caring for nature. Be aware of the relationship you have with the earth, the air, and the water.”
“As you feed and care for your fur friend (i.e., guinea pig), be tender, be loving, and enjoy the relationship you have with your pet.”
Then Pastor Kris returned to the reflection…
It seems like John is saying, “You brood of vipers…. Be Nice!” Take care of one another. Treat other people with respect and dignity. Imagine that—Good News! Rejoice!
Yet we look around, and realize that this is all very… very… very… hard work. We rejoice. God’s redeeming grace bursts forth, and humanity is still… a mess. How we treat the earth from which God first formed us is… a mess. We… the people here… who in many ways are people gifted with a great deal of privilege… are called to task by John.
This is the Good News asking of us the toughest questions – with the most simple, Holy, response: God’s redeeming grace. I want to take some time to focus on John’s urging of us to “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” because in the United States today I believe that too often Christianity has become this nice, safe, calm place to say “work hard, do good, and everything will be OK.” This has misshaped our faith. Sometimes this “follow Jesus and be comfortable” theology is called the Prosperity Gospel. Or, the bigger, more challenging “funny church word” way of saying this is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This is where “the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” This is what Kenda Creasy Dean calls, “a bland view of faith.” And, it sounds a lot like Paul’s exhortation:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone… Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God… will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7, NRSV)
Yet we shouldn’t forget that before Paul, out in the wilderness, we have heard John continue to shout, “You brood of vipers! … Bear fruits worthy of repentance…”
Here, I want to turn back to God’s redeeming grace—and the “fruits worthy of repentance.” These are heavy, challenging ideas, but… oh so very… important. Imperative. Urgent. Urgent not only for us as individuals, but for all of humanity. This is the “what should I do” of the Good News Jesus brings to us.
I am going to approach this reflection through the lens of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, specifically lifting up the word “repentance,” hopefully offering what the original Greek word in Luke, “metanoia” suggests is to have our own “a change of mind.” Prepare the way…
Ruttenburg writes that, “I want to distinguish between ‘atonement,’ ‘forgiveness,’ and ‘repentance’…”
Now, before I lose you with those three big, complicated words, before I pull you out of your comfort zone in the padded pew chairs, warm sanctuary, and the calmness of watching the birds at the bird feeders outside these windows, I want to ask you to repeat after me: “Atonement, forgiveness, and repentance.” And then ask yourself, “how do I define those words? Are they the same for me? Different? Do I know?”
Ruttenburg says that, “I want to distinguish between ‘atonement,’ ‘forgiveness,’ and ‘repentance,’ which are three different concepts in Judaism. The critical one, in my view, is repentance, where the real work is on the person who has done harm…. There are specific steps to repentance work:
- Owning the harm perpetrated (ideally publicly);
- Do the work to become the kind of person who doesn’t do harm (which requires a ton of inner work)
- Make restitution for harm done, in whatever way possible
- THEN apologize for the harm caused in whatever way that will make it as right as possible with the victim
- When faced with the opportunity to cause similar harm in the future, make a better choice.
To bear the fruits of repentance. What should I do? What should we do? To repent, have a change of mind? To do our own work, owning the harm we have perpetrated? To do that heavy, hard, “ton of inner work”? Make restitution? Apologize?
And, when we are faced with the opportunity to cause similar harm in the future, make better choices?
In our own context, here in Fitchburg… Dane County… Wisconsin… the United States… our global community… what
should we do? As we pick up the paper (physically or digitally) and read the headlines, what should we do? As people who follow Jesus, how should we respond?
As we follow Jesus out onto the streets, how are we (as that “brood of vipers” John calls out) to recognize our own privilege, the “hidden” benefits of those of us who are white have had in our lives? The benefits of colonialism that have caused harm… and are still causing harm… in our rigidly structured institutional systems? What are the steps to repentance work that we need to do? The Wisconsin Conference UCC has called out one of these steps: the call to churches to learn about, and talk about, the Doctrine of Discovery. With its roots tracing back to the year 1452, “Theologically, (the Doctrine) provided the spiritual rationale for Europeans… to conquer and confiscate other lands, including what is now the United States. There were papal documents which laid the groundwork that, later, Protestants adopted. It treated the indigenous peoples as if they were animals” Today, we still find deep, troubling, systemic injustices that treat people as animals. I could name examples, but today the readings challenge us to face our own “what should we ‘do’s’?”
Are we ready to do the hard work? To own the harm we have perpetrated… and to name our failure(s) publicaly? Are we ready to become the kind of people who don’t harm? Make restitution? Apologize? Make better choices?
To this point I will plant one seed:
Pastor Kris invited people to consider participate in an upcoming course, “Black History for a New Day,” that will be held in Madison, Wisconsin, Monday evenings February 4 through April 5, 2019, 7-9 pm.
Now, if you have been following the sermon up until this point, you might be wondering what happened to “atonement and forgiveness,” as so far I have only mentioned repentance, leaning us into John’s idea that we need to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
But what about atonement? Forgiveness? What should we do?
Yet atonement and forgiveness are not “what should we do” responses. Rabbi Ruttenberg says that “forgiveness is up to the victim (and the victim alone). Atonement is up to God…” Forgiveness and God’s extravagant, redeeming grace.
So… what should we do? Repentance is our task. That is the work we are… and/or should be… up to. Our struggle with finding new ways to hear the Good News in our own time and place and ask the toughest questions, all the while realizing that this is going to be a lot of hard work. This is our task. This is our faith. Hard work that is filled with the radical joy of God’s Good News. God’s redeeming grace. And… a touch of Holy Laughter.
Let us go into the wild places around us today and rejoice! For God is near.
Again I say, rejoice!
Reflection on Philippians 4:4-7 and Luke 3:7-18 offered on December 16, 2018
 Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pg 15 of 254, Kindle edition.
 Yurtoğlu, Nadir. “Http://www.historystudies.net/dergi//birinci-dunya-savasinda-bir-asayis-sorunu-sebinkarahisar-ermeni-isyani20181092a4a8f.pdf.” History Studies International Journal of History10, no. 7 (2018): 241-64. doi:10.9737/hist.2018.658.