This post is pretty close to the sermon that I preached on Sunday, December 16th. This presentation of that sermon has benefited however from two additional days of reflection and statements by several public figures, most notably President Barak Obama.
The Word of God came to John and he began to preach, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and the crowds came out to be baptized. They came to the wilderness, a desolate place that the people of Israel sometimes referred to as “the desolation.” Why would they do that? They had a perfectly good temple right there in Jerusalem; a temple with a long history and tradition, with mystery and ritual, with clergy in beautiful vestments, with comfortable seats… Why would they go out into that desolate place, the “devastation” instead of to their local parish? I think that the conversation John has with them when they arrive in that terrible spot sheds some light on their motivation.
John says to the crowds that came out to be baptized “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” TO the tax collectors that come out to be baptized he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldiers who come he says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” John says to all of them, “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.” John stands there in the River Jordan, a wild man in a wild place, and tells them all it’s not enough to talk the talk, to claim righteousness and the Kingdom of God as your inheritance and privilege. You have to walk the walk. You have to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” and bear witness to the truths that you claim and proclaim. You can’t make a claim to righteous living and oppress the weak, cheat the poor, and ignore the people around you who are suffering and alone. If you say that we are all called to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, soul, strength and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves, then you ought act as if you love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself! the People went out to John, to the wilderness, to the devastation, because in him they were hearing something authentic, they recognized his call to integrity, and they went out to be baptized.
This past week The Episcopal Café, a web site that covers the Episcopal Church, ran a story excerpting an article entitled “Why Don’t People Come to Church?’ Here is what it said:
Why don’t people go to church?
David L. Hansen writing in The Lutheran finds out why people don’t go to church:
Ask any group in your church: “Why do people not come to worship? What keeps people away from church?” You might hear:
• “We need a better youth program.”• “We have to have a different style of worship service.”
• “We need to advertise.”
• “If only we had a nursery for young children.”
….These are the answers that church people give when they try to figure out why people don’t go to church. Friends, we could not be more wrong.
I recently spent a week using social media to “listen” to people who do not go to church — listening to their explanations for why they stay away. I didn’t argue with them. I didn’t defend the church. I just listened. And what I heard broke my heart.
The No. 1 thing that keeps people away from the church is the people who are in the church.
It’s not that people outside the church have low expectations of Christians. It’s the opposite. They expect us to actually live out the things we proclaim on Sunday. They expect us to love our neighbor, care for the least of these and love our enemies.
They have high expectations for us, and we have disappointed them. Instead they have been insulted, hurt and broken by us.
Programs are at the bottom of the list for why people don’t come to church.
The number one reason people don’t come to church is the people in the church! We talk the talk pretty well. We claim that we love the Lord our God with all of our heart soul, mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves but people don’t see us walking the walk! John stands there in the River Jordan and calls us to bear fruits worthy of repentance to open our doors to all people, to freely share what has been freely given to us, to stop fighting amongst ourselves, and to stop trying to second guess what Jesus said when he told us to love our neighbor, and our neighbor’s neighbor, and our neighbor’s neighbor’s neighbor as ourselves.
We are there with John, in the wilderness, that desolate place that is “the desolation” and people are watching us very closely. We are talking the talk. Are we prepared and willing to walk the walk? If and when we are we will see the “whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem” coming to hear what we have to say about the way that God calls us to live together in God’s Kingdom . Imagine how that might change the world!
I think that poeple are watching us particularly closely right now. We have all been thrust into the wilderness, that desolate place, the devastation by the horrific loss of life in Newtown Connecticut last week. We are all reeling from the news, trying to make sense of something that makes no sense at all. The world is waiting for a word… Do we have something to offer? Is John the Baptizer here?
Here is some of what I have heard this week. The Huffington Post reports that Mike Huckabee, a man who ran for President of the Unites States and who claims to represent the Christian faith and belief said this,
“We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”
Bryan Fisher of the American Family Association said, ”
“We’ve kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen.'”
And today I read that James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, has said,
“And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.”
No wonder the eyes of the world are turned upon us! Here we are in the devastation and this is what we hear? No wonder people don’t come to church! Where is the authenticity? Where is the integrity? Where is John the Baptizer?
Here in the wilderness there is only one choice for us. We have to stop looking for someone else to speak like, to act like, to be John. We have to speak, act and be the voice in the wilderness crying!
We have to stand up to those awful voices who claim to speak for the church, who dare to claim to speak for God and share the truth. It would be so much easier if we could explain suffering. It would be much more comfortable if we could tie it all up in a neat package and explain why we suffer and offer a prescription to prevent it. But we can’t. Go back to the book of Job and read how Abraham’s descendants wrestled with the reality of suffering. It was a mystery then and it is a mystery now. We just don’t know. What we do know is that God is with us in our suffering. Even in our darkest moments, we are never alone. And we know that God does not inflict suffering on God’s children. It is impossible to reconcile the Cross, God’s willingness to die at our hands to show us how much God loves us, with the idea of a God who kills children to exact vengeance upon us for our sins. When we hear people say that children died in Newtown, or Oak Creek, or Aurora because God has abandoned or rejected us we need to stand up an say that they are wrong. The world is watching! If we don’t walk the walk poeple aren’t going to listen to us when we try to talk the talk. And walking the walk means speaking out against that kind of bigotry, fear mongering and hurt. We have to stand there in that river with John and “proclaim the good news to the poeple!”
Walking the walk also means working to make sure that we never find ourselves desolated, in this wilderness again. How many children have to die before we find the courage to demand an end to the gun violence that has become so routine that it takes an atrocity like the one we experienced last week in Newtown to bring us to our senses? We talk the talk, claiming that we love our children. We even claim that we love our neighbor’s and our neighbor’s neighbor’s children. But are we walking the walk? The seemingly endless acts of violence committed against our children speak louder than words. We are not walking the walk.
If I had heard these words before Sunday morning I would have read them from the pulpit. Standing here in the wilderness, devastated by what we have witnessed, I couldn’t have said it any better than this. I am not sure that John could have either.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.
But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.”
Surely we have an obligation to try. As people who claim to be followers of Christ, who claim to love the Lord our God and our neighbors as ourselves, we have an obligation to speak up and out, to push our leaders to engage in a conversation about gun violence and sane gun control laws. If we don’t fight to make sure that no child, not teacher, no parent ever finds themself in this particular wilderness again then we really are just another brood of vipers standing on the sidelines looking for affirmation and justification from those who have the courage to speak with authenticity and integrity.