Advent 3, 2009
In my sermon two weeks ago, I talked about all the themes of repentance and coming apocalypse that are contained in the readings for Advent; after the service one of our members said, “You know, I never noticed that before. And to be honest, I just ignore all that stuff anyway.”
I suddenly got a vision of John the Baptist 2,000 years ago; it’s a clear, sunny day in a village in Galilee and he arrives in the town square and starts fulminating with this sermon we hear this morning. A group of shoppers gathers around him and listens politely while he wades in on them: “You brood of vipers, the wrath to come, the winnowing hook, the ax laid at the roots…”
When he’s done there’s a moment of silence; the crowd blinks, someone says, “Eh,” and everyone walks away.
“Who was that guy,” someone says? “Eh, who knows? Some guy, talking crazy…”
In other words, what I’m getting at is that we tend to hear the sermons we want to hear; we tend to believe what we’ve decided to believe ahead of time. When someone comes along with an inconvenient truth – some fact or bit of evidence that doesn’t fit with what we already have decided to believe, we will simply not notice it – literally in many cases. Social psychologists call this “confirmation bias.”
We all do this – no one’s immune. The other day our deacon, Pamela, told me that [name of delicious candy withheld] – which happens to be one of my favorite foods – have, of all the candies, the highest quantities of insect parts inside them. She even told me the story of how, on two successive occasions, she bit into one and found – well, I don’t want to spoil your breakfast, but it’s like the old joke: what’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?
Half a worm...
Now, I have no reason to think she made that story up… but on the other hand, you know what? “Eh!” I’m not giving up my favorite food.
We hear what we want to hear – and if we are unfortunate enough to be stuck in church while the preacher goes on a John-the-Baptist rant about broods of vipers and winnowing hooks, we’ll just wait him out and then say, “Eh.”
It’s a tricky thing, being a preacher – you hate the idea of people saying “Eh” while you’re preaching… you want people to actually hear the truth of God as it has been revealed to you… you know that it doesn’t do anyone any good to get all John-the-Baptist-y on your people because it’s only going to drive them away – but on the other hand there is this truth as you understand it; and you’ve made a sacred vow to represent that truth.
How much to challenge, how much to comfort – a tricky question. It’s especially tricky because we’ve learned a few things since the days of John the Baptist. We’ve learned, for example, that anger and shaming almost never helps a situation. Neither does fear. John the Baptist had no problem pointing his finger in anger, scaring them into listening, shaming them into repentance.
But even the gloomiest of the gloom-and-doom prophets tended to balance their messages with visions of sweetness and light; it’s as if they knew, intuitively, that anger and punishment only gets us so far. Even Zephaniah, as gloomy a prophet as ever there was, has this section that we read this morning (Zeph. 3:14-20), full of exultation and joy and the promise of a better tomorrow.
I think it’s this knowledge that anger and fear and shame only get us so far that leads some of us to dismiss the judgmental words of the prophets so quickly – maybe a little too quickly.
Some of us grew up in households dominated by an angry, punishing person. The image of John the Baptist yelling and ranting only serves to reignite the traumatic experiences of our childhood and we have no hesitation to dismiss it.
Of course. That makes perfect sense.
Except, of course, the truth is that whatever John the Baptist was angry about, it had nothing to do our childhood traumas. I wonder if for some of us a different response might be possible; I wonder what might happen if we were able to not get triggered by our own issues and consider whatever it was that John the Baptist was really angry about. Maybe we would discover that it was something that we, too, were angry about – and rightly so. And this then would invite us to explore our own issues with anger.
Most of us have anger issues of one kind or another. The anger of the prophets might just alienate and frighten us. But there is such a thing as healthy anger, isn’t there – when it is expressed appropriately and safely? Of course, we are Episcopalians – we are, if nothing else, polite unto death. But there is such a thing as righteous anger, like the anger of the prophets.
I don’t mind saying I get angry. I get angry over the way our immigrants are treated; I get angry when people I love can’t get basic health care; I get angry at the millions of dollars the drug companies are spending to keep it that way. I get angry that no one seems to get angry anymore.
Maybe you have your own righteous anger. I hope you do. The Bible is clear: anger at injustice is no sin; righteous anger is a blessing.
And Jesus, also, is clear: shame and fear are never helpful.
When Jesus comes across the mob about to stone the adulteress – this is the ultimate act of shaming, isn’t it? - he says, “Those without sin: cast the first stone.” (John 8:7)
He doesn’t shame anyone; not even the people with the rocks in their hands. Instead he points to the fact that we all sin; we all are in need of repentance.
I knew a man back in Boston – a good man, a member of this big prestigious church I was going to at the time. He lived in a nice house in a wealthy suburb outside Boston; but he had a shameful secret, which was that he grew up in a violent home. He was physically abused often by his angry and shaming father; and as an adult, to his enormous grief and shame, he found himself hurting his wife.
Then one day his priest – a mentor of mine – got a call from this man’s wife. So he paid them a visit. This priest was a gentle man. He didn’t threaten and he didn’t scold. He made sure that the wife was safe; and then he made sure the man understood three things: first, that his secret was out; second, that there was no need for shame; and third, that help was available.
Somehow that priest told the truth in a way that the man could hear; and on that day three things happened: he confessed his sins and asked for forgiveness; he moved out so he would no longer be a threat to his wife; and he started getting some help.
This was the good news gospel truth for that man and his wife: that they were not alone – everyone is imperfect and there is no shame in admitting that, no matter how nice your house is – and that there was a way out. They did not need to be trapped in their cycles of anger, shame, and loathing. They were blessed.
Sometimes the good news is hard news. But this is the good news of Jesus Christ: that no matter how much shame we feel, we are blessed. No matter how loathsome we think we are, we are loved. In our deepest failings and our worst sins, we are forgiven.
This is what gives us the courage to face our failings. That’s all that God asks of us: that we take a breath, and confess the truth of our lives, ask for help, and accept the help that is offered. God takes care of the rest.
This is the Good News: it is what inspires Paul to say these words of joy:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.