“We don’t always do what we always do.”
That’s what one of my favorite church musicians said about the liturgy, and about life in the church generally. I appreciated her nod to flexibility in an admittedly traditional context. I sense she was listening to the Spirit, not locked into some rigid vision.
Her comment came to mind when I eavesdropped on the sermon offered by John the Baptist to that crowd in the wilderness, a sermon we read in church yesterday. It’s the crowd he so pastorally labeled a brood of vipers. (I’ve not yet tried that in preaching, though there was occasional temptation. An excerpt from that sermon is below.) I consider his sermon exemplary, because at its conclusion, the crowd asked what they were supposed to do in response. I think a sermon should do that. It’s a wonder they listened to him at all. Yet his truth-telling helped them hear a call to live life differently. It’s an ancient example of what I call the “so-what factor.”
So let’s compare and contrast what John said to what Jesus sometimes said to followers. Jesus told Peter and John to leave their fishing nets and follow him. Give it all up. Matthew got up from his tax collector table and left it all behind to follow Jesus. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and follow him. John the Baptist didn’t say that. If I put myself in John the Baptist’s shoes, I’d probably tell tax collectors that they needed to quit loathsome, corrupt jobs and do something more holy. Instead John tells them to stay put and transform the place where they are. I’d probably tell Roman soldiers, instruments of oppression, to quit their posts. Instead, John tells them to bring integrity to the place they serve, to be content with what they have. In a certain way, that sounds more spiritually challenging than if he simply told them to quit.
And if you don’t identify this morning with sleazy tax collectors or oppressive soldiers, there’s something in John’s homily for everyone. He tells the crowd to share what they have, something everyone can do, right where they are. His words were echoed by St. Ambrose in the 4th century who said: If you have two shirts in your closet, one belongs to you and the other belongs to the man with no shirt.
Three points here.
First, the call that we hear is not cookie-cutter. It may not be the same for everyone. We may not all be asked to do the same thing as someone else, or the same thing we’ve done in the past. We may not be all asked to make the same sacrifices, to follow the same path. We don’t always do what we always do.
Second, the call that we hear may invite us to spiritual growth right where we are. The call may come to a place that is tough to redeem, a place that is ethically complicated, an office with snarly politics, a home with broken relationships, a community divided by injustice. Our faith tells us that God’s spirit is present in all those places, able to transform, redeem the places in which we live and work. (Not that I always act like I believe that is true, but pretty soon we’ll get to hear Mary say that with God all things are possible.)
Third, we all don’t have to do everything. But we all can do something to help welcome Jesus into our world, to make a difference. What then shall we do this week?
As Advent winds up, place yourself in the crowd, as you hear John announce that Jesus is on the way. Join that crowd in asking about the so-what factor. It may well be a call to move, to grow, to deepen, to serve. It might call you to some totally new place. And it may also mean that you live out that call right where you are, which is often more challenging, and which can begin right now, in some new way this Monday morning.
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”In reply, John the Baptist 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.”-Luke 3