From Luke 3:
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.”
I confess that I rarely remember sermons, even my own. What did I preach on last Sunday? Give me a minute. I know I can pull it up.
So it’s striking to me that I remember a sermon given in Advent over 30 years ago. It was a sermon drawn from the gospel we read yesterday in church, delivered in a church filled with people in powerful positions. (That passage is included above. Read it before you read the rest of this column so I can share why the sermon from the late 1980’s meant something to me.)
But before we get to that, let’s talk about memorable sermons. Did you notice in the passage that John the Baptist had a distinctive (and memorable) preaching style? When I start a sermon, I sometimes begin with a winsome joke or squishy story I got off the internet. Warm up the crowd, you know.
Not John the Baptist. He looks out on the crowd that made a big effort to hear him in the desert. They had passed up a lot of pulpits along the way. And what does he do but greet them as a brood of vipers. A career killer for most preachers. But the more John does that kind of thing (hardly the stuff of a Dale Carnegie course or Toastmasters), the more people came to hear him. I think the reason is because people knew, as I know about myself, that there’s a bit of the snake inside each one of us. We mask it pretty well, especially in the Episcopal Church where we savor salvation by good taste. But John issued a rigorous assessment, and the people buy it, because they know on some level it’s true. On some level, I imagine they want to change.
So they are prompted to ask: Well then, what are we supposed to do? That question at the end of a sermon is the mark of a good sermon. John’s answer was clear, simple, practical, again a key to a memorable sermon.
Folks in the crowd asked what they should do. He told them that if they had two coats, they should share with someone who didn’t. Same with food in their pantry. If they had more than they needed, they should share it. I don’t think there has been a moment in my privileged life when I didn’t have more than I needed. That’s a blessing for which I give thanks. But it’s also a spiritual challenge, as my ability to hoard suggests there may be some viper in me.
Tax collectors asked what they should do. I might have expected John to tell tax collectors that they had to give up that vile profession by which they collaborated with oppressor and ripped off neighbors. Instead, John the Baptist tells them: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” In other words, stay where God has put you. Bloom where you are planted. Bring the values of God’s life to your life. Bring the values of the Jesus Movement to the movement of your own spiritual journey. The impact of honesty in a profession marked by extortion will be a great witness.
Soldiers asked what they should do. “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Again, I might have imagined John telling the soldiers they needed to go AWOL. Instead, he tells them to stay put, to navigate their lives with integrity and honesty, or as Michael Curry has been saying of late, to focus more on the power of love than the love of power.
The point of the sermon I remember from years ago was the same as John the Baptist’s teaching. We are called to let our transformed lives transform the places where we are right now. If we want to live as followers of Jesus, we can do that right now in the place God has placed us. Faith unfolds in real time, in real life. The point I remember? The preacher told us: Live your life, in your home, in your office, in traffic, in church, as a citizen, with integrity, with honesty, with charity, with humility, with kindness. If we have been given any power, let it be guided by love. Let your light shine.
I heard that message from that sermon long ago. I still think about it. I’m still working on it.