Sunday, December 13, 2015

Called and Freed to Be Ordinary Radicals

I love John.  John the Baptizer.  What a guy…what a character!  Dressed funny, eating strange things, and never afraid to speak his mind and to be a mouthpiece for God.  He tells truth boldly and with no trace of fear.  I just love him.  He’s one of my most favorite Biblical folks.  One of my favorites, even though I must admit to being a little uncomfortable whenever I read what he has to say.
“You brood of vipers!”
And although that is so outrageous as to be a little laughable in this day and age, the thing about truth-tellers is they capture our imaginations precisely because they make us uncomfortable.  Maybe we are tempted to dismiss John as “a crazy wild man” because of his appearance and his words, but through them, we are captivated.  He is a prophet, an inspired teacher and proclaimer of the will of God.  He’s a radical.  The people in the crowds have come to the water to be baptized by John, and he greets them, “You brood of snakes!  What do you think you are doing slithering down here to the river?  Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment?”[1]  Do you think simply saying “I’ve been baptized!” will save you?
I think often, especially as Lutherans, we are often tempted to say, “yes” to that question.  After all, we hold mightily to the truth that we are “saved by grace through faith apart from works of law.”  And that is true.  We who believe in God are given complete grace, mercy, and love.  However, the salvation and redemption and re-turning to God that comes through faith and through our baptismal covenant with God does not save us from judgement if we don’t own that baptismal claim on our lives and do something with it. 
In other words, it’s not enough to acknowledge what we are saved from (sin and death), but we also ought to spend some real time meditating on what we are saved for.  And then do something with it.
(Pastor Dan said it really well today in Sunday school when he said, "We don't need our good works, God doesn't need our good works, but your neighbor sure does.)
John says, “It is your life that must change, not your skin.”[2]  “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’[3]” His message is clear. Don’t assume that because you have a religious heritage or a tidy religious upbringing or because you are baptized, or confirmed, or go to worship on Sunday, you belong to God’s people.  In other words, your life, your relationship to your neighbor is more important to God than your pedigree.  If the people who identify themselves as God’s people do not live in relationship to the world as children of God through their actions…through the fruit that they produce…God can always start over with people who are willing to bear God into the world through their obedience in word and in deed.
Now here’s the part in the Gospel lesson that sticks out to me as a little hopeful.  Instead of throwing up their hands in dismay, the crowd engages John by saying, “if who we claim to be isn’t enough to escape judgement, then what are we supposed to do?”  And John responds with a practical list of things, “If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have more food than you need, share it.”  And this is important, John leaves no wiggle room, no room for disobedience for those of us who might say, “Well, I’m not rich…I don’t have excessive wealth or things.”  John says clearly, “some people in your community don’t have enough to survive, so if you have anything at all, share it.”[4]  Again and again in the gospel, we see condemnation of the rich.  If you are wealthy, even if you have acquired it without hurting anyone, God offers admonition to share and promises woe if we don’t share with the poor.  (this is echoed later by Jesus in the Beatitudes).  It is not enough that you don’t actively hurt your neighbor by cheating or stealing or by paying unfair wages.  You must also not injure your neighbor passively by ignoring her.  If we see a need, John (and Jesus) say we are to meet that need.  It is not enough to say “hey, I got all this stuff fair and square”…we must give what we don’t need to those who do need it.  Note:  I did not say share what we don’t want.  That’s easy enough.  I said, “share what we don’t need.”  But it’s difficult to do in practice because we earthly creatures are afraid of what might happen to us if we don’t hold tight to what we’ve got.  We are bound to our material possessions and eager to cling to them, even if we see someone else struggling.  We are tempted to say, “She should have gotten herself an education.  He should get himself a job.  Make better choices.  Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, people, it’s the American way.  I did it, you can and you should do it too.  Reap what you sow.  Etc.”
John says that’s not the way to be for children of God.  Our job is not to judge.  Our job is to care for one another and all of creation.  If you have two coats, give one away.  Not, if you have two coats, determine whether or not the freezing person in front of you has done enough to deserve your charity.  If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have more food than you need, share it.
I think about the extra bed in my house, the full pantry, the loaded closets.  I am convicted, too.  
Uncomfortable, isn’t it? 
The next questions to John from the crowd come from tax collectors and soldiers and they also say, “Teacher, what do we do?”  And here John addresses ethical behavior for people in power.  This moves beyond sharing to address behaviors that cause poverty. John tells the tax collectors and soldiers to stop abusing people in order to make more money. Don't take more than the minimum, don’t shake people down, and don’t blackmail them. Be content with your wages.[5]
All of these admonitions seem simple enough.  Share, be kind, be honest. 
And I think it really is that simple.  But somehow the execution of those things seems abundantly difficult when we hold them up to the kind of world we live in. 
There are some scary things happening out there.  Mass shootings, terrorist threats, police brutality against people of color, and cover ups by those civil servants sworn to serve and to protect us. 
It is tempting to turn inward to declare those things “someone else’s problems” and to “take care of me and mine”.  The other temptation is to look at the magnitude of suffering in the world, those beaten or murdered or chased from their homes, children in this country and in others who are sick and suffering and starving…to look at all of that and to throw up our hands and say, “it’s too much, I can’t fix this.”  But that’s not what we are called to. That’s not the baptismal claim on our lives. 
We are called to love and to serve our neighbor…who is everyone.  And if that sounds overwhelming, what if I say it a different way?  We are called to love and to serve our neighbor…who is anyone?
That means we have the opportunity to be ordinary radicals every single day.  That means interjecting hope into dim spaces…providing a spark of extraordinary in the lives of any person we might encounter.  What if we go into the world looking for ways, little ways, to be kind…to be honest?
Radical means relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.  What if we work to fundamentally change the way we as a community interact with one another one little encounter at a time?  That, my brothers and sisters, is completely doable.  Through ordinary things.
Last night, my girl Helen told me about a child in her school.  This little girl is about 10 years old.  She is Muslim and wears hijab, a head scarf, as an outward expression of her faith…even though she is the only child in her school to do so.  Helen says that when other children pass this girl in the hallway, they whisper “ISIS” to her.  As though this little girl could possibly be connected to or responsible for extremists on the other side of the world.  She is being bullied, ostracized, shamed, threatened because of her faith…her firm belief in Allah. 
Helen came to me last night with grief for this girl.  “How do I help, Mama?  What can I do?”  And so, Helen and I spent last night talking about Islam, about what it means to be Muslim, who Allah is.
Do you know what the name “Allah” means?  It simply means “God alone.”  And Muslim is an Arabic word that means, “one who surrenders to God.”  Helen and I have come to understand that although we believe and proclaim Jesus as God and Savior, we must be Muslim, too.  Ones who surrender to Allah…ones who surrender to God alone. 
Helen has figured out that she and this girl are not so very different after all, and that to be Muslim means the exact opposite of what ISIS stands for.
So, “How do I help, Mama?  How can I be this girl’s friend and supporter?”…my 11 year old girl has already seen the hurt and shame and anxiety and distrust on her schoolmate’s face brought about by the fear and hardened hearts of other children…fear borne in ignorance.  Helen has figured out that if everyone understood what it means to be Muslim, this girl would not be being treated so badly. 
So, we decided that Helen will introduce herself to this child of God, this child of Allah, by saying, “My name is Helen.  Your hijab is lovely.  Will you teach me how to tie one?” 
This is a tiny thing.  But it is powerful.  It addresses the visual symbol of this child’s faith which the world is using to shame her…and calls this symbol beautiful.  And by acknowledging the beauty of the faith symbol, Helen is acknowledging the beauty of the faith.  And by asking to learn more about it, Helen can instill value in this child’s faith from a Christian perspective.  Not that this Muslim child needs Helen to validate her faith…but the Christian children at the elementary school seem to need to see that.
My girl is an ordinary radical.  Willing to fundamentally change the way this Muslim child experiences school in Prattville, Alabama.  And, Insha’Allah, God-willing, fundamentally changing the ways both Helen and other Christian children interact with her.
Sharing a coat.  Sharing a lunch.  Sharing a carefully worded compliment.  Sharing a moment in time which says explicitly or implicitly “I am with you.”
That’s what we are saved for.  That’s what our Baptism calls us to do:  bearing Christ into the world with our hands and our feet and our mouths until he comes again.
We are called and freed to be ordinary radicals.  In the name of Jesus.

Thanks to
The Message
Working Preacher
for assistance this week.