SERMON 12/16/12 Advent 3C
The headlines are ominous these days: Chardon High School, Chardon Ohio (three killed/three wounded), Oikos University, Oakland, CA (Seven killed/three injured), Century 16 movie theatre, Aurora, CO (twelve killed/48 injured), Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, Oak Creek, WI (six killed), Clackamas Town Center, Clackamas, OR (two killed) and the most recent horrific news, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, CT (20 children, six adults killed). The event is beginning to sink in for many of us. The anxiety, uncertainty, fear, unimaginable sadness is still ripe for the residents of that New England town, and for many of us. We hear the promises of the one who will not forsake us, and yet we wrestle with our raw sadness, anger, and frustration, as we look to Jesus and in the midst of this tragedy, we ask, “Teacher, what then should we do?”
Terri and I were in the Port Charlotte mall Friday, doing our Christmas shopping when the news came to us unexpectedly. I was in the restroom washing my hands when suddenly this gentle man, with tears in his eyes asked me, a total stranger, “Did you hear the news?” “No, what news” I said. He replied, “Another shooting in New England and this time, the victims are children in an elementary school.” I was stunned, shocked and numb, and all I could think of was the words from today’s gospel reading, “Teacher, what then should we do?”
In first century Palestine, when John was baptizing and preaching “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” the atrocities of humanity were just as horrific as what we have witnessed in the past week. Two thousand years ago, human brokenness stood by as tragedy, sadness, anger, frustration, oppression, and a total lack of human dignity, safety, justice, and peace abounded. The crowds, the tax collectors, and even the soldiers, who found themselves in the midst of a hope-less life and were confronted with their responsibility to repent asked the Baptist, “What then should we do?”
We the Church, bear witness to a theological answer to the question, “What then should we do?” We are followers of the one whose “mission was to ‘bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, send the downtrodden away relieved’.” (Luke 4:18) 1 Jesus is the bearer of good news that demands ethical justice in the midst of unethical atrocities. Walter Burghardt asserts, “Ethical justice is indispensable for human living. Without it, life on earth becomes a jungle, the domain of the shrewd, the swift, and the savage. But inadequate for Christian living. Here we need biblical justice, God’s own justice: fidelity to relationships that stem from our covenant with God. Right relationships: among men and women, with God, and with material creation.”1
When we inflict injustice on each other, when atrocities against our neighbor go unchecked, when lives are torn apart by human evil, the one who cried at his friend Lazarus’ grave, cries for his creation. “Teacher, what then should we do?” We must bear fruit of the Good News of hope in God’s promises. We must bear fruit, we must proclaim justice, live justice, work for justice so that Good News will be manifested in and through us, the Church!
“We have Abraham as our Ancestor” was the cry of some of the crowds when confronted with the need for repentance. John was telling the people of Israel that benign association was insufficient for salvation. Benign fellowship is not being the church either. In other words, being transformed into God’s people has less to do with membership and more to do with repentance (turning), so that our witness of hope in Christ will bear fruit in a world fraught with injustice, pain, and unimaginable calamity.
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” (Philippians 4:4-7) “The church must be reformed again and again, converted again and again in each day in order that it may fulfill its task.” 2 William Willimon recently wrote in Christian Century, “We have deluded ourselves into thinking that the Messiah whom we await is the great cosmic affirmer of everything we hold dear and of all our illusions. But Hans Kung reminds us: We are to preach metanoia. We must entice people from the world to God. We are not to shut ourselves off from the world in a spirit of asceticism, but to live in the everyday world inspired by the radical obedience that is demanded by the love of God.”2 We must in the midst of tragedy, injustice, and human brokenness, declare by words and deeds that there is hope; hope in the love of the one whom we call Lord.
Friday afternoon, after my encounter with the man in the mall, after being confronted with the tragedy in Newtown CT, this question continued to ring in my ears, “Teacher, what then should we do?” I kept wrestling with how we, the church might respond. How might we boldy, with courage, grounded in our faith, declare Good News in the midst of ominous headlines. The answer came to me in prayer, “the Church must do what she does best, open her doors for prayer, offer solace where pain abounds, and do so by gathering the world, and by offering them the hope of God’s love.” Last night, many of us and our sisters and brothers from a local Methodist church, gathered here in this space for prayer for the children, parents, grandparents and loved ones who grieve the tragic events of December 14, 2012 in Newtown, CT. We invited those who were hurting, those who are anxious, those who could not express the emotions of this event, to come, rest, and pray. In this liturgical vigil, using words from saints past, we bore witness to the one who gives us hope, who cries with us, who yearns for peace and justice, who gave himself as fulfillment of his promise of love. Last night we shared with this community “this Lord (who) comes as the one who will turn everything upside-down, even us, until all creation is under his rule.” 2
This gathering, sharing, and witnessing to God’s love is really the mission of the church. It all begins when we turn and are transformed; when our hearts are turned away from ourselves and toward the other. In this Advent season, a time of waiting and expecting the coming of our Lord, “let us not flee his judgment with sweet platitudes. Let us heed the words of the prophet and bear fruits that befit repentance, giving up our alibis and false hopes and repenting through work that corresponds to God’s advent among us.” 2 May we through our witness, offer an answer for the world’s desperate question, “Teacher, what then should we do?”
1 Burghardt, Walter J. “Just A Church Or A Just Church?.” Living Pulpit 9.4 (2000): 10-11. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.
2 Willimon, William H. “What Then Shall We Do.” Christian Century 99.39 (1982): 1246-1247. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.