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What Then, Should We Do?: The Third Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 16, 2018
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

This bit of trivia, cribbed from the Episcopal Church (USA) website is found in today’s bulletin:

The third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday. The term is derived from the Latin opening words of the introit antiphon, “Rejoice (Gaudete) in the Lord always.” The theme of the day expresses the joy of anticipation at the approach of the Christmas celebration. This theme reflects a lightening of the tone of the traditional Advent observance.

And then we have this, from the Gospel: “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?” Which seems a little harsh. I mean, seemingly berating the crowds coming to him in a spirit of repentance. I thought that was what he wanted.

But John is following in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. And it was the duty of the prophets to call people back to following God’s ways (often with the volume knob turned to 11). And this often meant calling to mind the very practical and clear instructions at the core of their collective identity from the days of Moses:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10)

[I] execute justice for the orphan and the widow, and [I love] the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

John sees himself as part of this tradition, or movement. And certainly Jesus’s own critiques of the establishment, and his demonstration in the Temple are in line with this, too.

So we have this image of John, a strict, wild-eyed, tent revival preacher out in the country. As a prophet he taps into the style and imagery of the apocalyptic genre; this talk of vipers, fire, and the separation of the wheat from the chaff. Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, will much later tell a similar story about the dividing up of the sheep from the goats. And here in our story today, we have this section that’s only found in Luke’s gospel; these very practical instructions. The crowds ask: What, then, should we do?” And John tells them: keep your neighbour warm; keep your neighbour fed; treat your neighbour with honesty and respect. And to live in a spirit of gratitude for what we already have. It’s not a coincidence that Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, describes the early Church as a community where people live in harmony with one another, and share their possessions.

Isn’t it interesting how just as we get into this talk of judgement, and the coming of the Messiah, and all these heavy end-of-day things, we end up returning to the basics: about clothing and feeding, and basically caring for others. And I wonder: who are these vipers that John’s so upset about, these people wanting to “flee the wrath” that’s apparently going to come, but who aren’t willing to actually change their ways.

For me — and perhaps I’m being cynical — but I wonder if the vipers are, sometimes, the celebrities — perhaps well-meaning — but the celebrities that lecture the rest of the world about how to live, but (most of them) who are totally removed from the actual everyday living situations of ordinary human beings. Or our online selves, when we pat ourselves on the back for sharing a post on social media to our like-minded friends about how, I don’t know, “slavery is bad,” as if we’re the first people in 150 years to have had that thought.

But John calls the crowds to unite their hearts and their actions. To “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” To repent (change their hearts), and then to bear the fruit — to take action — in a way that flows out of that change of heart. But we can’t just jump straight to the fruit, to the actions. We need charity in our hearts, not just as an outward system. The Baptizer challenges us to search our own hearts, and maybe even to ask who the prophets are in our day. Gerry last week encouraged us to consider modern day prophets: like climate scientists and population growth experts. People calling us to live in a way that respects others, and the earth, and future generations. To that I’d add this week: community organizers, and activists, and volunteers. Some that get a lot of attention and make bold pronouncements like John the Baptist, but also those who might fly under the radar, but who faithfully support non-profits, and helping organizations, and charities. People who prepare and serve meals at Ray of Hope or St. John’s Kitchen, or various church basements. People like Marlene O’Brien, profiled in Friday’s Record, who experienced poverty growing up in the 1940s, but whose heart was shaped through that experience, and who now volunteers every year, with a thousand others, for the House of Friendship Christmas Hamper and Turkey drive, serving 12 000 people in our community. Marlene, in her faithfulness and her genuine care for others, strikes me as a prophet.

Earlier this past week as I was just starting to think about today’s readings, I was given a tour of the Ray of Hope facility near the corner of King, or Charles, and Stirling, just a few minutes from here, where they host a daily dinner that feeds up to 200 people, and a food hamper program, and addictions counselling for youth, and employment for at-risk youth through their Morning Glory cafes. I was shocked when the centre’s director, Jon Hill, told me how the monthly welfare cheque in 2018 is over $100 less than it was 25 years ago. And since then, factor in inflation and increases in cost-of-living, and how the average cost of renting a 1 bedroom apartment has almost doubled in those 25 years. [I say this recognizing that people hold a diversity of opinions regarding how to tackle issues such as poverty.]

And shortly after my visit with Ray of Hope, I walked just across the street from our church, past the plaza at 300 Mill, through a hole in a fence, and across a parking lot, toward some train tracks, where a group of probably a little under ten people have been camping out, after having been moved from Victoria Park, and then a few other locations, in the summer. The person I spoke to talked to me about challenges that I find hard to imagine. Like recovering from a serious injury while living outside in wintertime. Like people who don’t belong to, but wander through the camp, and steal stuff from unattended tents. Like landlords who won’t rent to people on Ontario Works [welfare]. Like your clothes and body smelling like a campfire all the time, and the barriers that that presents. Like the 8-year waitlist for supportive housing in this community.

What then, should we do? This is the question asked by the crowds, and it’s a question that we often ask, when confronted with these societal issues. On Friday, during our annual open house at our apartment, I asked for our attendees to give some thought to the question of what John the Baptist’s instructions might look like for us, today, and to write it down.

The first response I read was rather cheeky. Someone obviously transfixed by our pretty massive movie collection, suggesting I give them a few DVDs. Well, I think we’ve got a double of The Sound of Music. And while I’d be more than happy to part with both our copies, I should probably have to check with Leslie first.

But more seriously, we had some good feedback. About donating clothing to Thrift on Kent, where good quality items are sold at fair prices, but also where the money raised goes toward relief and development projects around the world. Or right here within our building, as part of our collective ministry, some people brought attention to our food cupboard here; where I heard we had seven visitors this past week, most of them there for the first time. And our church also has a history of collecting for the Food Bank and Salvation Army.

Someone submitted that we follow John the Baptist’s guidance when we get to know our neighbours and support each other, “extending our definition of ‘family.’” I think along these lines, someone else shared that we always have time to pray for others, and to give hope by sharing what Jesus is working for you in your own experience.

And someone brought up the practice of being intentional about achieving a balance between our own needs, and those of others. That we can budget our own bills and various expenses, but also budget for our giving to organizations that are doing good in our community and the world. And to investigate the organizations we feel called to support, asking if they’re helping build people’s capacity to get out of the cycle of poverty.

There is wisdom in all these ideas. And how we all, in some way, as a church community, and as individuals beyond our shared life here, are all involved in various ways, of “keeping our neighbours warm; keeping our neighbours fed; treating our neighbours with honesty and respect. And living with a spirit of gratitude.” As we go about these things, and as we grow in our openness to others, may we find that our outward actions are the fruit of our experience of our merciful and generous God. And as St. Paul counselled, may we not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let our requests, for ourselves, and in intercession for our neighbours, be made known to God. Amen.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter