Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021
“Be Kind” Rev. Brent Gundlah

“Be Kind”

         Having done this whole pastor thing for a while now, I’ve come to understand that all preachers develop their own unique style, their own way of sharing the good news. Unsurprisingly, when I read or listen to other people’s sermons I inevitably think, “Could I have pulled that off?” or “Would I have said that?”

         Today’s lesson from Luke’s Gospel is part of a sermon that John the Baptizer delivers “to the crowds that came to be baptized by him,” and so when I read it I found myself asking those very same questions.

         John certainly makes an interesting choice to begin his reflection — though it’s not one that I likely would have made. I mean starting out by calling the audience that came from near and far to hear you preach a “brood of vipers” is one way to get everyone’s attention, but some people are bound to find it off-putting too.

         If I were to do that here at HUCC, some of you might even get up and leave; and I wouldn’t necessarily blame you for doing so (for the record: I don’t think you are a brood of vipers; you’re actually pretty nice people — and I’m not just saying that so you’ll stay).

         There’s an old adage that says you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar; but John decides to go with vinegar here. I can’t really say why; he must have thought that this was what these people needed to hear right then and right there. But it still seems like an odd choice to me; it’s definitely not how I would have done it.

         And this is also true about the Lectionary’s selection of this passage as our Gospel text for today; I certainly wouldn’t have picked it. On this third Sunday of Advent — this day that’s supposed to be focused on “joy” (look: we’ve even got the pink candle over there to prove it) — this reading appears to be out of place; there’s nothing obviously joyful about it.

         Perhaps it was a mistake — an administrative error at Lectionary World Headquarters — that allowed this one to be dropped on us right in the middle of Advent. All of this talk about vipers and the wrath to come; of trees being cut down and thrown into the fire; of baptisms of fire; and of the wheat chaff being burned in — you guessed it — unquenchable fire. Where is the joy in any of this?

         It couldn’t have been easy for John to call this enthusiastic crowd that came to see him a “brood of vipers” and, I’ve gotta tell you, it’s not easy for me to stand up here in front of you and preach on a text like this — especially in the third week of Advent. Trust me, though — there is somejoy to be found here amidst all of John’s tough talk, but it’s going to take a little effort to find it.

         It’s kind an obvious thing to say, but the Bible overflows with commandments — the Hebrew Scriptures contain over six hundred of them. Some are positive (“thou shalt do this”) and some are negative (“thou shalt not do that”), but there’s a heck of a lot of them to remember; it’s pretty difficult to keep them all straight.

         So when John shows up there in the wilderness, in that hot mess of a world, preaching the need to get on the right path, to repent or face the wrath to come, the crowd had to be pretty anxious. What does it actually mean to “bear fruit worthy of repentance?” Come on, John bring it home for us; what should we do? And they really want to know the answer, because they ask him the same question not once, not twice, but three times in the space of just four verses. And listen to the answers that John gives them:

         To the crowd he says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

         To the tax collectors he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

         And to the soldiers he says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

         Share. Don’t be greedy. Be honest. 

         Think about that for a second. All of biblical ethics — all of those commandments — can be summed-up in these three imperatives, which themselves can be distilled down to one simple rule: Be kind. Or, if you happen prefer your commandments phrased negatively rather than positively: Don’t be a jerk. It’s that simple.

         In this busy season, as we’re pulled in a million different directions — as we sit here in church just a week before Christmas thinking about all the things we still need to do — in the midst of a two year-long pandemic, no less — we might also want, as John says, to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

         But how? What should we do? Our plates are already full.

         Be kind.

         Ask a simple question, get a simple answer. In these complicated times, surely there’s a measure of joy to be found in that.

         Imagine if someone came up to you after church and asked you to bake four dozen cookies for an event this afternoon. I understand that, for many of you, this would not be a challenge. I, on the other hand, don’t know a thing about baking, so this would provoke some anxiety in me. If I found myself in this situation, I might reach out to someone who bakes and ask them, “What should I do?”

         With the clock ticking and my stress building, I’d be pretty frustrated if that person were to launch into some abstract discussion about cookies. What is a cookie, anyway? What makes a cookie different than a cake? How many kinds of cookies are there? Let’s list them all. If a cookie fell in the forest and no one were around, would it make a noise? 

         But if my cookie lifeline were to say instead, “You’ve got this. Go get some flour, sugar, baking powder and chocolate chips. Then mix them up in a bowl…” and so on and so forth, I’d probably feel relieved.

         When confronted with a seemingly insurmountable challenge that leads us to ask “What am I supposed to do now?” receiving a straightforward and actionable answer can be a source of real joy. And that’s what John gives the crowd us right here.

         Come on, be honest — this is a to-do list that we all could get through if we put our minds to it. If you have some extra stuff that people in need could use, then give it to them. Don’t cheat. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. We’re not being called to turn water into wine here, folks; the things John mentions aren’t really all that hard to do. And there’s joy to be found in that too.

         I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel really inadequate — as a Christian and as a human being. I picture John wandering around out there in the wilderness in his shirt made of hair, eating bugs, preaching the gospel and paving the way for Jesus and I think, “Wow. I probably couldn’t do that.”

         I envision Mother Theresa giving away everything she had to live with and care for the poor on the streets of Calcutta and I think, “Wow. I’m not sure I could ever do that either.” And I reflect on Jesus’s life and ministry and I think, “There is no way I could possibly do that.”

         The risk in this kind of thinking, though, is that it might lead us to throw our hands up in the air and say, “Why even bother? I can’t be like John the Baptist or Mother Teresa or Jesus, so what’s the point of even trying?”

         But John doesn’t let us off the hook quite so easily, because there’s much that we can do to experience and to share the joy of God’s reign in this world. And that’s what John is asking of his audience.

         If you feel called to imitate the saints then, by all means, go for it; but that’s definitely not for everyone. John is being much more realistic; he’s simply pointing out that there’s a whole lot of room for us to improve in the context of our everyday lives.

         Not quite ready to surrender all your worldly possessions? Okay, but how about giving a few bucks to a service organization?

         Maybe walking around in a hairshirt, snacking on locusts and yelling “repent” at people isn’t your thing, but what if you cleaned out your closet and gave all of those clothes you don’t ever wear to people who need them?

         These, of course, are things that people in this community already do — at the holidays and throughout the rest of the year. And we give our time and our treasure and our talent to do them not only because being kind and helping other people is what we are called to do, but also because doing these things brings us joy. It feels good to be kind — and this is a good thing.

         Make no mistake about it — being a true follower of Christ means making sacrifices, it means giving of ourselves; but this need not be a joyless activity.

         So let’s continue to search for ways to be kind that bring joy to others and to us, and then let’s get out there and do those things.

         It really is as simple as that.