December 13, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Garrison Brubaker
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Canticle 9, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
One of the strongest temptations for those of us who have identified ourselves as Christians for a while or come from a culture or family that considers itself Christian is to believe that we have it mostly together. The temptation is to hear a hard and provocative voice like John’s and think deep down, he’s talking to somebody else. We would already be one of his disciples, not part of that crowd that seems to be gathering around him now that he is becoming popular, that seems to be jumping on the bandwagon of what was at first dismissed. It’s almost as if John had become trendy!
To be honest, John intimidates me. I’m not sure how I would have reacted to him. I know that the Johnes I meet in my life today unnerve me and my first reaction is often to defend myself. I can slip into that false sense of security or self-righteousness that says, but I’m a Christian, I’m a decent person, or as we hear in the story, I’m a child of Abraham. John is hard; he is asking a lot. He is asking us to do soul-searching about what we really are living for. It can feel very negative, this passage. But I think actually it is quite hope-filled. And here is why: I think it and the passage from Zephaniah are about homecoming and coming home.
The word repent comes from a root that means turn around, come back to where you are supposed to be and to whom you are meant to be. It means to tell us that we’ve gotten off track somehow. We’ve gone off on our own way, often dragging our God-talk with us, and have gotten in a mess. The Bible, as it usually is, is speaking in both communal and personal terms. What we do as persons shapes our society and the society we have shapes the persons that are raised within it.
John points out the communal by responding to three groups of people who are power-brokers within the society: the crowd that tends to follow what is the norm of the powers that be, tax collectors and soldiers. Without digressing into a detailed discussion, suffice it to say that these last two in particular were in positions to abuse their power and they did. This is what John is countering. It’s not hard to find contemporary corollaries: the abuse of markets and financial power by firms on Wall Street, banks and others in pursuit of that highly-valued dream of wealth; paramilitaries or occupying soldiers who intimidate populations and who all too often kill or abuse the innocent. John points out the collective problem that needs to be turned away from, but he really gets to the heart of the matter by saying that it is the work of each person. Without our individual change of heart, society will not be able to take another course. It is always about both our selves and our participation in the larger community. And this change of heart is about coming home to God.
Coming home to God is the hope. It is where we can come with all our mistakes and scars and selfishness and hurts and say here it is God; I know it isn’t pretty, but you love me anyway and can use me for your will and to be a bearer of good fruit, your fruit, in this world. God promises in Zephaniah that he will bring us home, that he will gather us together. We will be restored to wholeness. But we must turn towards it or we will continue to miss it. How we respond, for instance, at Copenhagen or not is a very vivid example among many of this call to turn…and our ability to miss it. The turning makes possible the fruit; it isn’t having so many bushels of apples to give to God or so many flats of blueberries that gives us the seal of repentance. Repentance, which is the turning and that coming home to God, happens when we open ourselves to God and the fruits are the next manifestation. It’s not about earning, it’s about turning and trusting the fruits will be there in our hearts and lives. Often that’s the hardest part—trusting, trusting that if we turn or do the hard inner work we will indeed come home to God, to a place of wholeness.
When I was in Seattle I found myself in a dead-end job at a non-profit. I was frustrated because I wanted and could do more, but also was scared to leave since the job had benefits and I’d only been there for about a year. I didn’t want another employer to think I was flaky. Out of the blue I got a call from a company I had come into contact with before in a previous position. While working at a fishing company I had worked with them to arrange bunkering of our vessels while out at sea with fuel. They had an opening, remembered me and my Russian language skills, and offered me a job. At first it seemed like a godsend. The pay was much better and the work was much more challenging. The downside was it was more of a sales position, which didn’t thrill me. But I talked myself into it for ego reasons, for the lure of more financial security (including the most pious rationale of saving money for seminary!), for experience that would make me more marketable, etc.
I started work, and it just felt wrong. I found myself for all the “right” reasons working in a situation that was drawing me away from myself and from what I hoped for the world. I knew how fishing was done in the Russian Far East. I knew that quotas were being ignored, that overfishing was happening at an alarming rate, that the desire for as much profit as possible by large companies, the habit we have of expecting things such as cod to be available all the time and for an affordable price, and desperation for income by fisherman on the edge were all contributing to it. I saw a future that would mean no fish within a few years and all the despair that would come along, but a system that couldn’t adjust. I saw co-workers who were so lured by the idea of bonuses that they never saw their families. All that mattered was the money. I literally started to feel like I was losing my mind. It got so bad that I couldn’t even speak Russian, a language I was quite proficient in at the time. I was getting lost. No one would question my decision to stay for it was a good job, with very good people, at heart providing a necessary service, but something was just off kilter. I realized that I could not stay there and stay sane, stay true to who I was and the hope I had for a world where we could fish and at the same time sustain the seas for the future.
Terrified, I left the job with $3,000 to my name and no employment lined up. Yet as scary as that new situation was, it was different. I had come home to myself. I had listened and trusted that God was inviting me to something else that I wouldn’t find there. I had to make the turn not knowing the future, but believing that it would bring light to my soul and drive out that darkness that was crowding in. John came to me as a voice of breaking apart in the night. John came as nightmares. It was like being in the firestorm though whether of the Holy Spirit or burning chaff I couldn’t tell. And John finally came as the courage through the encouragement of a friend to say I will not stay and it will be okay.
This is one story in my life of repenting and being brought home. It deepened my trust in God and in Jesus. It confirmed some of the core ideas of Christianity for me and how I believe we are to live with each other, even if at times following that is costly or out of step with the rhythm of the world around us. I touched again that light of Christ within that could give me a deep peace and sense of God’s presence even in the midst of all the struggle and anxiety. I came home to God that was residing within me, inviting me to a new place of peace and hope and possibility to bear fruits of compassion and justice and service.
For us, the ultimate gathering is being gathered into the Body of Christ. We await his coming again into the world so that we can renew our experience of that coming home, of us coming home to God and God coming home to us. This two-step dance is the pulse of the universe and of the divine. It is there, beckoning us, if we stop and turn and say yes. It is the dance of a lifetime. We always have further to dance, more steps to learn, more joy and light to discover. We are promised that our trust is exactly what opens the door for God to come in. We are asked to trust so that we can be prepared for God to come home and find a welcome, a ripe field full of wheat ready to be shared.
We don’t have to have it all figured out, (who among us does?), or be perfect. We come and turn where we are so that we can begin to go towards where we want to be: ever more true imitators of Jesus in this world as a community, this part of the Church universal, and as persons. God will come; God is coming. Jesus is waiting once again to break into the world with the Good News of the Gospel. It is a never-ending story of hope and love and turning, and we are wanted for this dance. The light that enlightens all people is coming into the world; that is the promise of Advent, the turn God in Jesus is making towards us.
In this season of preparation and turning I think of a priest I knew in New York City. Every Sunday before celebrating communion he would pray that when we received Christ that day he would find our hearts to be a dwelling place prepared for him. I can think of no better prayer and no better hope for us this Advent season. Amen.