In the sixth year of the leadership of Prime Minister Trudeau, when Stephen MacNeil was the governor of Nova Scotia, when Donald Trump was in his last days of the presidency of the United States, and it was more than 2000 years since Jesus walked this earth. The word of God is being preached in lands both near and far, the word is being used to build up and it is being used to tear down. The words of John the Baptist are being preached today… “Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”
And the people asked, “What then shall we do?”
It’s a very concrete question those people on the banks of the River Jordan asked. John gives them very specific answers! Listen once again:
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 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.”
Three different groups of people ask the same question… because the answer isn’t the same for everyone. John is telling them that creating a just society involves sharing… an extra coat if you have one… not taking more than your fair share of collective assets… and a justice system that is exactly that, just and does not stoop to extortion and threats. And in case you’ve missed it, because I have often missed it when I’ve read this passage, John is not preaching to the rich and powerful. He is preaching to people who were probably working class, who had enough and perhaps a bit extra. He is preaching to people were further down the economic scale than most of us. It’s so easy for us to condemn others who have lots, but not so easy to think of ourselves as the ones for whom this message is pointed.
So what is John the Baptist’s message for us? What then shall we do? Did you notice that John offers very concrete examples? To those who have an extra coat – give it away. To those who collect taxes on behalf of the Roman empire, don’t try and make a little extra money by laying extra burdens on those who are already oppressed by poverty. To the soldiers, and soldiers would be like police officers, again, don’t extort money, don’t make threats, do your job in an appropriate manner. Don’t try and tell me that the Bible is not concerned with economic justice! And did you notice that John the Baptist didn’t tell them to do anything that was outside their realm of capacity?
He told them to start close in. With their own neighbourhoods and livelihoods. What do you think John the Baptist would say to you and me? What do you think he would say to you and me in light of what took place this past week in the USA? Because as much as we sometimes like to think that something like that couldn’t happen here, Wednesday’s events were the culmination of years of racism, of xenophobia, of heterosexism, or ableism, of misogyny, all the hallmarks of white supremacy. And they didn’t spring out of nowhere. They sprang up in communities and in on-line forums. They sprang up when we people looked the other way when racism didn’t touch them… when ableism didn’t touch them… when all the other isms don’t touch them… And they can spring up and spread here just as easily if we let it.
What did John the Baptist say to the people who came seeking a baptism of repentance and asking him what they needed to do? Start close in. Start with where you are. Start with the communities in which you live and work and worship. Don’t close our eyes to racism because it doesn’t affect us personally. Speak up when you hear someone make a racist comment, or a homophobic one. Start close in. It will be uncomfortable… speak up for Indigenous rights… get out of your metaphorical bubble, while remaining in your social bubble!
We have the seeds of destruction in organizations like the Proud Boys… we have the seeds of destruction in politicians who fan the flames of racism by wanting to take us back to the time when white men reigned supreme in our country… and everyone else was second class… Do we want to go back there? And we have the seeds of destruction in us… when we pretend it isn’t happening… because it’s not happening to us.
John the Baptist gave the people concrete ways to be concerned and care for people beyond themselves. How many coats do you have? It’s another way of saying, how much privilege do you have? Privilege brings responsibility too.
I have focused mostly on John’s baptism and words today… because in this passage, Jesus’s baptism only gets three verses.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Does anyone remember your baptism or confirmation? Or remember making those promises for your children? A little later in the service we will have an opportunity to renew our baptismal vows. Let me refresh your memory of one of the questions I ask: Trusting the gracious mercy of God, will you turn from the forces of evil, and renounce their power?
We haven’t talked about evil very much in the United Church in the last number of decades, but perhaps we should start again. We can name forces and organizations as evil without labelling the people in them as evil. The Bible would call these things powers and principalities. Organizations that twist the goodness and love in which we were created into something that is evil and sinful.
John O Donohue wrote, “Sometimes when we look out the world seems so dark. War, violence, hunger, and misery seem to abound. This makes us anxious and helpless. What can I do in my private little corner of life that could have any effect on the march of world events? The usual answer is: nothing. We then decide to do what we can do for our own, and leave the great events to their domain. Thus we opt out, and join the largest majority in the world: those who acquiesce. Believing ourselves to be helpless, we hand over all our power to forces and systems outside us that then act in our names; they go on to put their beliefs into action; and ironically these actions are often sinister and destructive. We live in times when the call to full and critically aware citizenship could not be more urgent. When we yield to helplessness, we strengthen the hand of those who would destroy. When we choose indifference, we betray our world. Yet the world is not decided by action alone. It is decided more by consciousness and spirit; they are the secret sources of all action and behaviour. The spirit of a time is an incredibly subtle, yet hugely powerful force. And it is comprised of the mentality and spirit of all individuals together. Therefore, the way you look at things is not simply a private matter. Your outlook actually and concretely affects what goes on. When you give in to helplessness, you collude with despair and add to it. When you take back your power and choose to see the possibilities for healing and transformation, your creativity awakens and flows to become an active force of renewal and encouragement in the world. In this way, even in your own hidden life, you can become a powerful agent of transformation in a broken, darkened world. There is a huge force field that opens when intention focuses and directs itself toward transformation.To Bless the Space Between Us
John the Baptist, Jesus, John O’Donohue, they all invite us to turn away from the forces of evil and start close in…
Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of living out our baptismal promises, amen.
Catherine MacDonald © 2021
January 10, 2021 – SMUC