Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
December 16, 2018
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
Lectionary Readings Referenced:
For better or for worse, we need people in our lives who will call things out exactly as they see them. You all know what I mean: someone who is unafraid to pull us aside when we need to attend to a “wardrobe edit” or when we have some spinach caught in our teeth, or perhaps more importantly to let us know when our words or actions may have caused another person pain. These minor prophets of our lives hold a vital truth-telling role: calling out our flaws, reminding us who we really are, and ultimately helping return us to the state of our best selves. We need someone who loves and cares about us so much that they are unafraid to tell us the honest truth, even if it stings a bit.
This morning, we are the recipients of that gift of unabashed truth-telling. In a move that no homiletics instructor has ever recommended, John the Baptist prophetically begins his sermon to the baptized faithful gathered around him by calling them out: “You brood of vipers!”
In spite of what might be anticipated following such vivid in-your-face truth-telling, the crowd did not flee away. While that might seem counterintuitive at first, I have to tell you, I completely understand. You see, I have a history with those words in this Gospel being spoken to me, too.
The day I remember hearing those words was another 3rd Sunday of Advent..another December 16th to be precise…six years ago. On that particular Sunday morning, I was sitting in my familiar, comfortable spot in the alto section of the choir in my neighborhood parish. But, I was struggling to make sense of the restlessness in my soul. Just two days earlier, the world had been rocked by the senseless and tragic deaths of 20 children and 6 adult staff members of Sandy Hook elementary school. That Friday morning was like any other: I dropped my daughter off at her school, oblivious all day to what was happening in another community, in another town. Like many of us after hearing the tragic news of that day, I picked up my safe and alive daughter that afternoon and hugged her, wishing I could just step away from it all and take solace in my comfortable life, to keep my family secure and to reassure her that I could guarantee she was always going to be safe and everything would be OK. But there was an unvoiced and painful awareness that the guarantee of safety I wanted…especially safety for all…wasn’t possible in the world in which we live, in the way we humans live together in it.
I vividly remember the Gospel procession passing by me that Sunday morning and feeling the weightiness as I watched my priest lift that Gospel book, readying to proclaim good news on a day when I knew that I didn’t feel it. Frankly, I’m pretty sure that none of us felt it. And yet, we were joined together, as one community in this collective, liturgical action. And as our ears and hearts opened to receive this same Gospel lesson, we heard those illusion-shattering words descend upon us. And it was as if I heard it spoken right to me: “You brood of vipers!”
In a split second, I found myself right there in that snake-pit staring at the tree which bears no fruit. I wanted to extract myself from the slithering masses of hatred, hopelessness and selfishness which seemed to be everywhere I turned. But we are one community, and one world. And I knew the strongest among us had nothing more than we were willing to share with the most vulnerable in our midst.
It would seem that even after thousands of years, prophets still have a way of cutting right to the heart of matter and making the way for God. Just as quickly, in that next moment, I knew in an unshakable way that this kind of divine encounter with the honest truth only happens because it is God who loves us all so much.
So I paused to really listen to the words of the prophet of old now speaking again in our midst, and I noticed that no one in the crowds gathered around John the Baptist seemed shocked or asked “Vipers?? What vipers?” No one argued for the merits of holding onto the barren branches of apathy and the bitter fruits of injustice, either. They knew. We know. In response, they met the honesty of the prophet by asking an earnest question, “What, then, should we do?”
John didn’t leave the crowd wondering over the details. His call, after all, was to prepare them. And so, he gave the crowd crystal clear advice on paving the way for the One who was and is to come. John’s prophetic exhortation to make way for the divine involves stepping away from the selfishness, greed, and prideful arrogance of thinking that anything we seem to have or anything we have the power to do is of our own creation. And so, he let the crowd know how to bear fruits worthy of repentance: if you have what you need in this world, give the extra away. If you have been given authority over others, don’t use that to your advantage. Just because you live or work in the snake-pit, don’t give in to the threats and lies in an effort to save yourself. Give what power and possession you are clinging to away so that your heart will be open, and you will make room for God.
It seemed like exactly the right question I needed to ask, too. So, on that Sunday six years ago, convicted and moved by the prophet, I had the nerve to ask it: “God, what should I do?” And much to my surprise and terror, God answered. “Here. Sarah. I need you here.”
I remember crying. The tears that I was crying that morning weren’t even for the victims of that horrible tragedy, or for the empathetic pain of those around me. They were, in fact, the same kind of angry tears that I hold back when someone tells me something I don’t want to hear. You know what I mean: when we ask a question that really has an answer we want and expect to hear, like “you’re doing great!” or “don’t change a thing!!” But instead, we are told something that activates our fears, our vulnerabilities and our desire for self-control. My work, I justified to myself, was already impactful; my life was comfortable; my education was done; my loans were paid off. So, serving the Church was not the answer I expected and it certainly wasn’t what I wanted to hear. My tears continued to flow, though, as something holy and beautiful happened, and I realized that I was loved so much that I was invited to go to the most unfathomable corner of my own wilderness and preach the Gospel to people who were just like me: immersed in their grief, caught up in the changes and chances of life, struggling to make sense of the world we live in, wrestling with self-doubt, desiring true vocation in a world that preaches vain prosperity.
God shakes us up, and God loves us. And, with a nod of serendipity to the lectionary, it was the words of today’s Epistle lesson that were offered to me in the earliest days of my discernment in which I have continued to find my grounding as vocation and call have formed me:
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, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
You see, John wasn’t a random voice calling out in the wilderness, either. John was called to his wilderness. The reason he could call the people to repentance is that he had already stood in that place himself. He knew the peace which surpasses all understanding which is not human-sourced; it can only come from God. The call God had placed on him sent him to the wilderness, and took him away from the comforts of his life. His vocation, as he pointed out repeatedly, was to prepare people for the Messiah coming after him, when it would no longer matter who you were, or into what lineage you were born, or whether you were wealthy or poor, or if you worked as a tax collector or soldier. The Messiah was coming for everyone, to change everything. Then and now, in the best and worst of times in this world which we inhabit, the immensity of divine love invites and desires and beckons our participation to live and work and worship as one community, the Body of Christ. But first, as John knew, we need to make room.
Our contemporary saints, our Great Cloud of Witnesses, also offer us prophetic wisdom for our Advent preparations to welcome Christ incarnate. Óscar Romero, Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvadore and outspoken advocate for the poor and marginalized…who, incidentally, was murdered in his wilderness in 1980 while celebrating mass the chapel of the hospital of the divine providence…offers us these words that invite us to deeper reflection:
“No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God- for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”
God speaks to each of us as we stop to open our hearts, and as we earnestly ask, “what then shall I do?” The world around us may seem to fall apart; but our hope waits on the God who loves us so much that sometimes we will be told what we don’t want to hear. If you ask, God will answer, sometimes in the most unexpected of ways.
This Advent, don’t worry about anything, but ask God for everything. Allow yourself to be loved so fully that you can be vulnerable, opening to see your own poverty of spirit where God desires to dwell. Later in this service, it will be my role as Deacon to dismiss us to go in peace to love and serve the Lord after we celebrate this Great Thanksgiving together, but there’s a deeper invitation within those words as well: Go forth to be uncomfortable, to be convicted by the needs of this world, to evaluate your life not for how good it makes you feel but for what it speaks to the world about God-with-us. Then, just as John invited people to the waters of Baptism, we can allow the love of God incarnate to fill us anew with the joyful and life-giving potential to liberate love in all the corners of this world, including this very place we find ourselves, right here and right now.
Michelangelo Cerquozzi; Saint John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness
Southend Museums Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/saint-john-the-baptist-preaching-in-the-wilderness-2822