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The Right Thing

Sermon - 12/13/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 3:7-20

Rejoice!  We have a lot of things to rejoice about this morning -- I see Glen Campbell back there with his button of his son, John, featured in the Register Guard of the state champion Sheldon Irish football team!  The game of the century last night at Reser Stadium in Corvallis.  John made one of those touchdowns, had a great kickoff return that setup another touchdown, so all of the Campbell family is rejoicing this morning.  What an incredible game.

And then, our Board President, Eliza Drummond, ran in the Sacramento Marathon last weekend and qualified for the Boston Marathon [applause!].  Coming in at just under 4 hours in the 26 miles.  I feel her pain -- I worked out on my elliptical machine for 15 minutes, I know what it's like :).  At that rate, in 4 months I'll be caught up with Eliza!

Our passage this morning, continuing in the story of John the Baptist we introduced last Sunday, from the 3rd chapter of the gospel of Luke, verses 7 through 20:

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers 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.’

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.


So let me get this straight -- John is in the wilderness, surrounded by a brood of vipers, preaching about this coming wrath of God using images of axes chopping down trees and chaff thrown into the unquenchable fire, and he gets himself arrested for criticizing Herod (and we know the end of that story, he gets beheaded), and this is the good news?!  Am I missing something here?  I'm afraid to hear what the bad news might be.

We often focus on John the Baptist during Advent because Advent is the time of preparing for the coming of God into our world once again.  So looking at how John prepared the way for Jesus back then tells us a little bit about that.

And the first thing that jumps out at us when we read these stories is this harsh judgmental tone and rather violent rhetoric that seems antithetical to that peaceful story of Christmas of the babe in the manger and all our images of Jesus, mild-mannered and gentle and compassionate and loving.

Kind of like the letter I received in the mail just last Sunday:

"A Message from the Lord God Almighty" [always good when it comes in black & white, just to be clear].

"To all church leaders in America who remain silent on the news of this my day of judgment.  Why did I allow you to become a church leader?  [Indeed, that's the question I've been asking myself -- why Lord?  Why me? :) ].  Was it not to spread my word and my word alone?  Now, therefore, I the Lord give you this command:  begin to warn my people now about my day of judgment.  That this land is about to swallow a bitter pill, launching a torrent of unprecedented disasters that will crush the pride of Americans and shame the land that is champion of the world.  Begin to show my people how they can survive it, teach them to pray, to increase their obedience to my laws, to pass on this warning to their loved ones and fearlessly wait.

If you refuse to warn them about the urgency of my Word, I will bring you down in shame and toss you out of the church and I will send you to Hell to join the devil and his angels".

So, I've done my job, I'm off the hook :).  It's interesting to note that the letter came from some ministry in Ohio.  Well, she'll find out on January 1st whether or not the Lord speaks from Ohio or from Oregon.  A little more riding on this Rose Bowl that usual :).

But seriously, it always amazes me when I get things like this, although typically these days they come by E-mail rather than snail-mail, after 2,000 years of waiting and people making predictions and warnings and all of that, and all the scriptural warnings about those who make such proclamations (to know the time, to know the mind of God) that would presume to proclaim such.  I'm amazed, and saddened by it.

But if we find this message from "The Lord God Almighty" rather jarring, imagine what that message of John the Baptist sounded like in ancient times.

You see, what makes the preaching of John so awkward and uncomfortable for us is that he's not looking at the Roman occupiers when he says "You brood of vipers".  He's not talking about the priests of the Temple or the prostitutes in the street.  He's not talking about rich or poor.  He's not talking about soldiers or tax collectors.  He's looking at the whole crowd.  He's talking to us.

In the call to worship last Sunday there was a typo.  The line was "God is with us to bless and confront us".  Surely it should have been "comfort", right?  And we sat there and tried to figure out if this is what it was supposed to be, or not.  I wasn't sure, but we went with comfort, we figured it was safer.  But sometimes we do need to be confronted.

Precisely why we rang the chimes this morning, 350 times (plus a few for the benefit of the news crew out there :), because this is one of those times when we need to be confronted with the harsh, uncomfortable reality [of global warming] and not be distracted by the bogus claims of "climate-gate" created by a couple of scientists in their unfortunate/apparent manipulation of a little bit of data.  The reality is that the overwhelming consensus of climatologists is that climate change caused by human activity is a reality.  And as we close this first decade of the new millennium, it is already clear that this will be the warmest decade in human history, if not all of history.  Doesn't mean we won't continue to have cold spells like we did this past week -- weather is a different issue from climate, although they are related.

But if we do not succeed in lowering greenhouse gases to a sustainable level -- 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere -- we will drastically alter the face of the earth with devastating consequences by the end of this century. 

You can read the editorial in the newspaper today, John Pitney at First United Methodist Church and I, wrote for the Register Guard.  I was rather chagrined to note when I picked up this morning's paper our editors chose to pair that, to balance it out, with an editorial by Sarah Palin.  So it makes us appear that we're taking on the former candidate, the former Governor of Alaska.  Of course, which one did they put on the front page of the editorial section, right?  :).

At any rate, Ms. Palin says she knows climate change is a reality, she has seen it -- from her own house :).  But she says that she questions whether or not it's caused by human activity, that it may be part of the natural cycle of the earth.  And, furthermore, she says, the cost of emission reductions far outweigh any potential benefit.

Hello?  We're talking here about catastrophic changes the earth.

Now, there's a chance -- and she's right about this -- there's a chance that the scientists could be wrong.  The question is:  how much are we willing to bet on that?

Thomas Friedman, I thought, wrote the more telling piece this week, appeared in the paper on Wednesday, using the principle argued by then-Vice-President Dick Cheney that if there's a 1 percent chance that Al Qaeda could acquire nuclear weapons that you can't take that risk, and you have to take precautionary measures.  And so Friedman said that, yeah, there's no guarantee that the scientists are correct, but surely the odds are greater than 1% that they are.  And furthermore, the consequences if they are correct, are much greater than that of a nuclear-armed terrorist group.

Now think about that.  The consequences of climate change being much greater than a nuclear-armed terrorist group.

How much are we willing to risk that over a thousand scientists working in collaboration as well as independently, that they're wrong?  That this is all some grand hoax perpetuated or caused by a few that have manipulated the data for what reason I cannot imagine.

And we continue to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a record pace, now at 390 parts per million (ppm), increasing 2 ppm every year, which is 40 ppm over what NASA scientist James Hanson and his team of 7 others have concluded is sustainable for the earth.  And he is using data that has not been questioned or refuted.

So maybe John the Baptist is right.  To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the brood of vipers, and they is us.

So there are times when harsh judgments and sharp criticisms are needed and Advent, the time of preparing for the Lord's coming, is such a time.

But it's not about judging for judgment's sake, rather it's judging to bring a conviction.  Not a conviction as in a sentence of punishment, but conviction as in a change of heart.  Conversion.  Repentance.  Or as our new slogan for the church says, transforming lives, transforming Christianity, and transforming the world.  That's what it's about.  That kind of transformation that impacts everything.

What must we do?, the listeners of John asked.

What must we do?, the tax-collectors asked.

What must we do?, the soldiers asked.

What must we do?, we ask.

And it's rather striking that John's answer is not "Believe the right things!" so that you don't go to hell.  But do the right things.  Share your food, and even your clothing.  Much in the same way we have been doing this past week with the Egan Warming Center downstairs [bringing in the homeless whenever the temperature drops to 28 degrees or below].  Don't cheat anyone.  Don't threaten anyone.  Don't abuse your power.  Be satisfied with your fair share.  Now there's a message for us, especially as we listen to the developing nations in Copenhagen at that gathering [on climate change] saying to the rich/developed/wealthy nations 'You know, you are the primary contributor, you are the ones that need to take a look at what your fair share is'.

Now, this is not to be an exhaustive list by any means, but it provides a basis for an ethical code to live by.  Doing the right things, as defined not by your self-interest, but by the interests of all those lives you touch, upon whom you have some impact. 

Right before the service, Arthur, who is one of the homeless folks we have taken in, lives out in our parking lot, brought in this selection out of a book he's reading -- "Stealing Jesus; How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity", by Bruce Bawer.  In it, he tells the story of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which (if you remember the story) Huck has helped a slave, Jim, escape from his owner.  Only Huck is having doubts about that, because the message he is hearing from society and from the church in particular is that that's theft.  That's wrong.  Slavery, you know, is God's will, and therefore he should turn in this slave, otherwise he is risking his soul to eternal damnation. 

And so in this moment of conversion he decides he'll write a letter, send it to the slave owner to reveal where Jim is hiding.  And then he thinks about how kind, and good, and gentle that Jim has been, what a good friend he has been on this journey they have had together.  And he looks at that letter, and Huck says:

I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.  I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:  "All right, then, I'll GO to hell."  And tore it up.

And so Bawer writes:  "Though his society and its churches, which have set God up as a supporter of slavery, tell him he's wrong to help Jim escape and will go to hell for it, Huck's love and his conscience compelled him to help Jim anyway.  In the end, by acting in accordance with his love and conscience, Huck does the truly Christian thing.  The true disciple of Jesus, Twain tells us here, is not someone who follows church dogma out of fear of hell, it is someone who, in defiance of everything (up to and including the threat of hell-fire) does the right thing out of love".

I'm not sure if Arthur knew the title of my sermon or what, but he hit the nail right on the head.

President Obama, I thought summed it up well in his speech in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on Thursday, he said:

"The one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.

But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place".

And then the President went on to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, in noting that he was there on this day largely because of the work of Dr. King.  And quoting from Dr. King's acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize (I believe that was in 1967), he says:

"I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him".

And so the President told the Nobel audience:

"So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls".

The world as it ought to be.  The spark of the divine that still stirs in each of our souls. 

And he then concluded with these words:

"We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that — for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth".

That is indeed our work.  It's the work of Advent.  It's how we prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.

To do the right thing for the benefit of all, and for all the earth.


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