Our faithfulness is not measured in what we don’t, but in what we do.
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
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 ax 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.’
What We Turn To
Did you do it this week? Your homework—from two weeks ago? Remember, last week I gave you an extension of time, another chance, a second week to tell them. Did you do it? Did you tell someone—someone each day, whenever possible—did you tell someone these words: “You are God’s child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use you to change the world.” It’s difficult; it doesn’t feel natural. But you have to do it; we have to do it. If we want the world to change, we have to do it. The world won’t change for the better by itself; it never has. All of the changes for the better have been made through hard work by good people. We just have to do this.
We met, yesterday. Some of you—some of us, gathered here. Part of the Unified Council and most of the staff. We met here for the afternoon in a planning retreat. Talking about the life of the church, about ministry and mission for the coming year, about transition to a new pastor, about the many uses of the new building, including a great, open, friendly space for welcoming each other and our guests—a space where we can greet each other, share our stories, shake off the cold together or cool down from the heat as we prepare for worship or come together for small group ministry. Space for us to encounter and engage our neighbors, our guests, those who come to worship, or to seek or to listen—those who respond to the curious words of Jesus: “Come, and see.” We spent the afternoon talking about why. We must never forget the why of what we are doing here.
Rupert reminds us, this morning, of his “why.” Men and women, boys and girls, at risk. People who have lost their way, maybe never to find it again. Afraid to ask for directions in an unforgiving world, invited, gathered, welcomed and given help—with expectation. Help with expectation. I will help you, but you have to be willing to help yourself; I will show you the way, but you must walk it, and bring your family along. And, then, you must help the others, in return. The why of Rupert’s Kids is clear: people who have lost their way must be shown the way and, if it is done with care and expectations, most will find it—or a better way—once again. I’m very, very grateful for Rupert and his boundless energy, very grateful for his presence with us, and very grateful that God has led us to be in partnership with Rupert’s Kids.
You see, it’s our “why,” too. Nothing less than saving souls who are lost. Nothing less than changing lives. Nothing less than helping to build the Kingdom of God, one heart at a time. Nothing less than meeting those around us, greeting them, assuring them that they are like us, sharing with them all that God has given us, embracing them and walking with them to find the path, once again, that leads to life. All kinds of people: people who are broken; people who have never heard of Jesus; people the church has hurt in the past; people who think they have it all together and people who feel like they’ll never get it together, no matter how they try; people who are anxious; people who are depressed; people who have great jobs and, still, a great big hole in their hearts; people who, even when unemployment is so low, can’t find work and, still, have that same great big hole in their hearts. It’s nothing less than saving souls—helping others turn from the direction they are going and then walking beside them on the new path to help them stay true to it and, as we walk beside them, finding that they are helping us, also, to stay true.
This week—many of you know—we lost a great leader and a great friend, as our retired Bishop, Mike Coyner, passed away after a brief illness. Bishop Coyner was a commanding presence, a great strategist, a man of vision, but at his fullest heart, he was grace personified, faithfully extending himself to the lost and helping them to be found, leading us—United Methodists across the state--to live our lives the very same way. There is no better way to honor such a good and gentle pastor as Bishop Mike than to emulate him in our faithfulness.
And, so, I ask: do I define my faithfulness by what I do, or by what I don’t? This is a fundamental question for each of us—one we should be asking ourselves from time-to-time—in assessing our relationship with God. Or, for that matter, our relationships with one another. Is it about the good that I do, or only about the harm I avoid doing?
That word--“repentance” --is a loaded word—overloaded, in fact. It is laden with the notion that we have been doing bad things, thinking bad thoughts, being bad people, and that we need to stop. Just stop. Just say, “No.” Just walk away. Just turn around and go in the opposite direction. Stop drinking, stop using drugs. Stop cheating on my taxes, stop lying to my boss, stop sleeping on the job, stop, stop, stop.
There is a whole industry of evangelism based on this “stop” mentality. Stop being bad, and you will be saved. Stop doing the things you know you shouldn’t, and you will go to Heaven. Compare yourself with the others—the ones that still do the things you’ve stopped doing—and feel good about yourself, because that’s how God will feel about you.
John told the crowd, told the world, tells us, something very different. Most people engage the word, “repentance,” and lose the message. It is the message of John. More importantly, it is the message of Jesus. They hear the word—repent—and believe that it tells them to turn away—turn away from the bad things that you have done, run from the bad you are doing, turn—stop. But they are still lost. Because that word, repentance, is not about what we turn from, but what we turn to.
Let’s pray together and then we’ll stop--and we’ll consider where to turn.
Hear our prayer, O Lord. Lift our hearts with Your Word. Speak into our hearts with the rhythm of Your own; breathe into us Your Holy Spirit. Help us to know Your Will for our lives. Let us turn away from that which is not of You, but help us, also, to turn and to face You, that our feet might fall upon the path that leads to life. Then let us, also, lift the stranger and the loved one, alike, to walk upon that same path. And remind us, this day, no matter what we say or do, no matter what we see or hear, no matter where we find clarity and where confusion yet resides, that the glory of this time and of these words is Yours, alone. Amen.
The crowd, the soldiers and the tax collectors—they all asked John the same question: “What, then, should we do?” Because they understood that John’s call to repentance was not a call to cease doing, but to do, differently. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he insisted. The ax waits to chop down the tree that does not bear good fruit. And, so, they got the message. This was not about what to turn from, but about what to turn to.
Our faithfulness is not measured in what we don’t, but in what we do. And John’s answers were rich and spicy, and radical and non-conforming; this was the start of the Jesus revolution. To the crowd:
‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.’
To the soldiers:
‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
And to the tax collectors:
‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’
But wait, you might say. To the soldiers and to the tax collectors, John’s answers were admonitions—what not to do, not what to do. And you would be right, except that these were words that called for revolutionary change. Bear with me a moment, because we have to visit the context, the time, the culture. This was a time of haves and have nots, but that only begins to set the scene. Those who had—those who lived well, who ate well, who had good shelter and a source of income—were largely either Romans who had come to keep order or else complicit in the oppression of their fellow citizens. The disparity—in income, in wealth, in health and life expectancy, in rates of maternal mortality rates and infant mortality, in mental health—the disparity had almost nothing to do with one’s desire or willingness—or capability—to work. The disparity grew out of family power and willingness to act in conspiracy with the Romans. The Roman way—adopted by those who clung by their fingernails to the wealth and power allotted to them by the Romans—was to grind the poor into the dirt. It was to keep a foot on the throat of the broken ones so that they accepted their impoverished and meager lot in life. There was no middle class, but only a one percent and a ninety-nine. And, so, John’s words to the soldiers and the tax collectors were words of revolution. Lift up your foot and let the poor man breathe; allow him to stand back up. Don’t steal in the guise of collecting taxes, but allow the poor man to keep some of what he has earned. Allow a measure of hope to the broken, for hope will grow into something fierce if nurtured. Revolution has its original spark in the hope of the oppressed. No, John’s words weren’t words of what not to do; these words, spoken to the tax collectors and soldiers who had felt the call to come, were words of how to create that spark and to give life to the revolution that would be in Jesus’ name.
Here’s one to demonstrate the other way, from the Dictionary of Christianese. Seriously; it’s a real thing. The Dictionary of Christianese. From the mid-1800s, evolving over time, there was a familiar rhyme to help form and guide moral behavior among teenagers here in America. It was popular among Fundamentalists, and it went something like this: “We don’t smoke, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do.” Now, I remember hearing it, but I think I’m remembering the old Homer and Jethro classic, “The Battle of Kookamonga.” Extra credit if you admit listening to that back in 1960. We don’t smoke, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do.
The point is that, over the years, so often the Christian faith has been reduced—even by the church--to a set of rules and success or failure in adhering to the rules or smoking, or drinking, or going with girls, or boys, that do. Or any other of the many prohibitions of the Bible and, especially, the Old Testament. As though we had the possibility of earning our salvation by not sinning. As though we could be good enough or, at least, avoid being too bad. That’s not what John was talking about. As he baptized, preparing the way for Jesus, John was not calling for obedience to rules about what a faithful person didn’t do. John’s was a call to action. It wasn’t about what they turned from. It’s all about what we turn to.
Repentance. It means to realize that the way things are is not the way that things have to be. Not for the world; not for me. And not for my neighbors. Look at your own household—look inside yourself; it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t need to be lonely, don’t need to be angry, don’t need to be surrounded with stuff but devoid of love. Look at your neighbor’s life, struggles, poverty of money or spirit or character, his or her distance from the love of Jesus; it doesn’t have to be this way. Look at the world: the horrifying imbalance in wealth and income; the hunger contrasted with the gluttony; the illness contrasted with the quality of healthcare; the climate damage caused—or, at least, tolerated--by those who will always thrive contrasted with the danger and destruction faced by the young lives that will inherit the earth; the missiles and warheads at the ready, pointed by one nation at another, with the certainty that those who have will always be defended, while those who have not will be sacrificed. Look, and see that the way things are is not the way that things have to be. Repentance, itself—accepting that things could be different—repentance, itself, is an act of faith.
Repentance means a careful examination of who we are. John called to the people, telling them that it was not enough—it would not suffice—for them to claim their inheritance from the family of Abraham. They must look to whose they, themselves, have chosen to be. It is not the legacy of our families, but our own legacy, that we are building, for we will be remembered not for the things we chose not to do, but for that which we have done. No matter where we are, no matter how old or how young, no matter the sines of the past, those choices are before us, yet. What we did yesterday, or last year, or in what seems another lifetime—the things of the past may describe us, but they need not define us. They may describe you, but they need not define you. Turn, but understand: it is not what we turn from that matters, but what we turn to.
So, open yourself to these words that I want you—I beg you—to hear this morning: You are God’s child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use you to change the world. So, let it be.