“What Should We Do?”; Luke 3:7-18; December 13, 2015; FPC Holt

“What Should We Do?
Luke 3:7-18
December 13, 2015, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

SLIDE 1 - john-the-baptistJohn the Baptist was a great many things, but subtle was not one of them. From the very first account of John in action we hear of him moving about in his mother’s womb to alert her to the presence of Jesus growing within Mary. And this action is echoed throughout the rest of his life as he is always making a ruckus demanding that people pay attention to the presence of Jesus.

SLIDE 2 - John the baptist with crowd In our text today we hear him confront those who have just been baptized in a very unsubtle way. Keep in mind these are the ones already seeking Christ, who have sought out John specifically so they may be baptized into this new way of being. But John doesn’t want them to use their baptism or God’s grace as an excuse to become complacent. Now that they have this new life they are to bear fruit, they are to thoughtfully and passionately follow the life that God has set before them.

SLIDE 10 - What should we do “What should we do, what should we do, what should we do?” The crowds ask this three times in our passage. It is important to think about why they asked this question.

SLIDE 4 - John and crowdThey were interested in how to live faithfully, how to bear fruit as followers of God. They were probably afraid of the wrath of God, but they seemed equally afraid of separation from this new community of believers that was just beginning to form around the ministry of John the Baptist, and soon, Jesus of Nazareth, the messiah. John tells them that they are not secure in their faith by their religious lineage, their affiliation with Abraham, but rather only by their own individual repentance and seeking to be in right standing with God. This is a faith that required, well, faith.

But the action resulting from faith was not just an inward emotion of repentance, it was the lived out action of enacting God’s grace in the context of everyday life. Deciding to follow God this completely requires a change in how we live our lives. It required some serious discernment about what their lives would look like now that they had been so utterly transformed.

SLIDE 5 - Fork in RoadDiscernment is one of those words that we tend to use in pivotal moments in our lives. Figuring out where to go to college, what career path to take, who to marry, all of these decisions are best made with serious discernment. Which means taking the time to figure out what is best, not just financially or logistically, but spiritually. What will bring you deepest joy? How can you best glorify God?

But discernment should not just be limited to those big decisions, rather our understanding of God’s desires for our lives should inform our every action.
SLIDE 6 - Dark and LightThe youth of this church are used to doing “highlights and lowlights,” as a way to reflect on their lives, where they experience joy, and where they experience sadness. In spiritual discipline terms this practice is called “examen.” Another way to look at this is what is life giving and what is depleting? Or what makes you feel closest to God and what makes you feel far away?
SLIDE 7 - Sleeping with BreadThere is a book I’ve read about examen, talking about how to recognize God’s presence within and among our experiences, called “Sleeping with Bread.” The introduction explains the title saying, “During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”
The authors of the book use this story as an example of how clinging to the things that give us life help us to be better equipped to serve God and others. And the way that they discern what is life giving is through the examen process, pausing to take account of what has made them feel close to God and what has made them feel distant, keeping track of these patterns throughout the weeks, months, and years, and working from that full knowledge of their relationship with God to shape what direction they should take in their lives.

In our passage today, John shares with those gathered in no uncertain terms that now that they are baptized their work as Christians is by no means finished. They must now live lives of fruitfulness. Using examen and prayerful discernment, we become attentive to God’s presence and direction, which can help us figure out what to do, as well how we may best live into our baptized lives.

SLIDE 8 - What should we doIn Luke 3, verses 10-14 we read: “And the crowds asked [John], ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers 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.’”

“What should we do?” This is the same question asked by crowds listening to Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:37-38) and in that instance Peter gives a bold message,  “Repent! Be baptized! Receive the Holy Spirit!” By comparison Paul’s teaching seems quite tame. While John the Baptist begins strongly by calling the gathered crowd a “brood of vipers,” he then continues to give the rather basic instructions of “share, be fair, don’t bully.” Not exactly earth shattering stuff, but bold in its direct application.

SLIDE 9 - Bear Good fruitThrough this, John offers specific actions to explain what it mean to bear “fruits worthy of repentance.” If you have more than you need, he says you must share. To the tax collectors who could profit from asking for a little or a lot extra in their collections, he tells them to take only what they are owed. And to the soldiers John tells them not to take advantage of their position of power.

Luke 3:9 tells us “every tree…that does not bear good fruit is thrown into the fire.” What are the fruits that you are bearing in your own life? Where are the places in your life where you are holding back?

Pastor and professor David Lose offers this insight into what John is asking of this crowd. “Most peculiar perhaps, is the “eschatological location” of the good fruits.  Tax collectors are not called to sever their relationship with Rome, nor are the soldiers exhorted to lives of pacifism.  Even in light of impending [end times] judgment, they are called to serve where they are; to take their stand for neighbor amid, rather than apart from, the turbulence and trouble of the present age; and to do good because, rather than in spite, of their compromised positions.  By sandwiching such ordinary instruction amid [end times] warning and messianic expectation, Luke’s John hallows the mundane elements of daily life.”

So, what should we do? Look to your own life: what are the ways you can allow your neighbor to live more fully?  What are our own fruits of repentance we may offer for the good of all?

You are tasked with paying attention to the ways God is directing your life, and responding in ways that further God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. May you live fully into this task God has set before you. Amen.

“Hungry,” Luke 12:13-21 and Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; August 1, 2010, North Presbyterian Church

In honor of this evening’s opening showing of the Hunger Games, (Yes, I have read all three books, and yes, I will be at the midnight showing tonight) I am reposting a sermon I preached in 2010 about hunger.

Hungry
Luke 12:13-21 and Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
August 1, 2010, North Presbyterian Church

I’ve never really liked Ecclesiastes. It’s always seemed quite disheartening really. The author of Ecclesiastes goes chapter by chapter talking about the different things humankind strives for, but how each is “vanity” and like “chasing after the wind” or in some translations “feeding on the wind.” This isn’t exactly something you’d see on a motivational poster in someone’s office or hear in a commencement address. Fortunately for us, this is not the only book in the Bible, nor is it the last book. God does not leave us in frustration or hopelessness. This book gives us a diagnosis of the human condition, but it does not give us the prescription. What Ecclesiastes tells us, is that we as human beings are hungry. We are hungry for something beyond what we can we can work to make or go to the store to buy. We are hungry for something real, something tangible, something lasting. We are hungry for fulfillment. We are hungry to stop being hungry. We are hungry for God.

Imagining the hunger of Ecclesiastes I can’t help but picture a scene in the movie Hook. The movie Hook is about Peter Pan after he leaves Neverland, grows up, gets married, and has kids. He is a ruthless and successful businessman who never seems to be able to find time to make his wife, children, and company happy. On a visit back to his wife’s grandmother’s home, Wendy Darling, who is the Wendy that we know from the story of Peter Pan, his life is jolted by a visit from the nefarious Captain Hook, who kidnaps his children and forces him to go back to Neverland to save them. Peter, with the help of Tinkerbell makes it back to Neverland, meets up with the Lost Boys, and gets trained in how to become who he was before, Peter Pan. After a long day of training, the boys sit down at a table full of plates, cups, and silverware and the boys begin to eat. The trouble is Peter doesn’t see any food in front of them. He gets into an argument with the leader of the Lost Boys and finally decides to go along with things and “pretend” to throw his food at the boy. Peter is shocked to see the food materialize, hit the boy in the face, and a food fight ensues. Peter then feasts with the boys and everything changes. This meal feeds him in a way he forgot he was hungry. It helps him to reconnect with his imagination, his hope, his creativity, and eventually his family. For so long he had been striving towards things that weren’t feeding him, weren’t helping him connect with who he was and who he was called to be.

Today we will be celebrating communion. Communion is not the food of the movie Hook. It is not imaginary. We have before us real bread and real grape juice. And, barring any mishaps, we will not be having a food fight here this morning. But the feast before us also requires a bit of imagination on our part. In the Upper Room, Jesus broke bread and poured wine and told His disciples, “This is my body broken for you” and “this is my blood” shed for you. In this Eucharistic feast, Jesus asks us to imagine His body as the bread and the juice as His blood. In doing so, we are able to connect to our very real God. A God that came to earth, lived walked, moved, breathed, and yes, hungered and thirsted.

When we join with one another in communion we eat not for the nourishment of our bodies, for communion will likely not fill up any physical hunger you may have, but we eat for the nourishment of our souls. We eat to taste community. We eat to taste forgiveness. We eat to taste fulfillment.

A lectionary commentary that I like to use in writing sermons is called “Feasting on the Word.” As the series website explains it, this book is made up of many “writers from a wide variety of disciplines and religious traditions. These authors teach in colleges and seminaries. They lead congregations. They write scholarly books as well as columns for the local newspaper. They oversee denominations… they serve God’s Word, joining the preacher in the ongoing challenge of bringing that Word to life.”[1]

I like to imagine its authors sitting at a banquet table, silverware in hand, napkin on laps, and Biblical texts spread out in front of them. In “tasting” various texts they speak to one another, trying to explain how the flavor, texture, and scent of the Word all come together on their spiritual taste buds, to feed their own theological hunger. I imagine that they approach Scripture treating it not as a simple snack of some words strung together but as a feast rich with the flavors of grace, redemption, love, and compassion. They come to scripture expecting to see God revealed, and in their own delicious discoveries of the texts they help others to recognize the taste of God.

As we share in communion we are reminded that Jesus is the “Word that became flesh,” who yearns for us to “consume” Him, to have “communion” with Him in the Eucharist and in the word so that we “may have life to the full.”[2]

There is a book I’ve read about spiritual disciplines, talking about how to recognize God’s presence within and among our experiences, called “Sleeping with Bread.” The introduction explains the title saying, “During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”[3]

Ecclesiastes tells us of the great hunger that we feel for life, a hunger only satiated by God’s presence in our lives. When these children were hungry, only food could calm their fears and help them to know that they were safe. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “there are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” To these children, God was in the bread. That was what they ached for and what was provided.

Sharing God with the world means feeding both the physical and the spiritual hunger. The trouble is sometimes differentiating between the two. In scripture, Amos said: “There is a famine upon the land: not a famine of bread, or thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord.”[4] In our world today there are famines. There are famines created by improper distribution of food in countries with political instability. There are famines for thirst in countries without technology or resources for digging wells for healthy drinking water. Though food, water, and money, will help to alleviate some of the effects of these problems, what we are dealing with is more than a famine for resources, it is a famine for compassion, for love, and for justice. This deep societal hunger can only be filled by actions fueled by the bread that keeps us from never going hungry, God.

There was controversy this past week over a t-shirt for sale at Urban Outfitters that had “Eat Less” printed across the front of it. Various celebrities and bloggers responded on how they felt about the message of this shirt. Some said it was offensive and promotes a culture that encourages and glamorizes eating disorders. Others said that it was a witty response to too much consumerism in American culture.

I wonder why this shirt was created at all. Our culture does have issues with consumerism, but this is not any kind of message of healing, compassion or kindness. Wearing this shirt will not promote any positive change or relationship in how we interact with food or how we provide for one another. The reality of this is not that we need to be promoting eating less or eating more, but eating differently. Eating in a way that truly nourishes who God created us to be. Partaking in both physical and spiritual nourishment. Fueling our bodies in ways that create opportunity for others to be fueled.

Society is not structured so that humankind may be fed in the way that it needs. Even when we eat, we are not being truly nourished. Milk costs $3 a gallon, soda is less than a dollar, so many parents are faced with hard decisions about what they are able to provide. The cheaper choice may quench a family’s thirst, but their hunger remains. They consume plenty of calories, but do not get the nutrients they need for healthy growth, development, and well being. They are not nourished.

There are “all you can eat buffets” where even the title states that the goal is not to eat until you are nourished, but to eat until you can eat no more. You may be full, even sickeningly so, but you will not be nourished.

Food is used as a means of power in far too many ways across our society. It is denied from the poor to keep corrupt governments in power. People with eating disorders may deny their own bodies of food to seek power over self-esteem or body image. Food is used as a distraction, a comfort, a crutch, a band aid, a replacement for what we are really hungering for. Far too often it is used as anything but nourishment.

God knows that we are hungry. God knows that what we need is life-giving food. We need this bread and this juice. We need reminders that among all the hungers of this world, when we partake in the forgiveness Jesus gives us, we will never be spiritually hungry again. God is real and present and available. Anything less than God will keep us hungry. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[5] May you seek this week to be fed and to help others be fed with the nourishment that only God can provide. Amen.


[2] John 10:10

[3] Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, by Denis Linn, Shelia Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, p. 1

[4] Amos 8:11

[5] John 6:35