Sermon at St. Michael & All Angels, Dallas, TX
Advent 3, Year C
by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Sing aloud, shout for joy, rejoice and exult, O Jerusalem. You, too, O people of Dallas! Get your gladsome hearts soaring, cry aloud, ring out your joy. Rejoice, and know that God will guard your hearts in the peace of Christ.
There's an ancient Advent tradition that says sermons are supposed to deal with death, judgment, heaven, and hell, a week for each - and this is heaven week. That tradition comes from a time when Advent was highly focused on the grim realities of the human condition, more on judgment than the coming of the prince of peace. You can hear that shift from death, judgment, and hell to heaven in the reading this morning. We're supposed to lighten up and remember where we're going and who's coming to the feast, and who's going to host this feast.
We've been created for joy, and we're abundantly reminded of that in this season. We live in a world that seldom seems to find enough joy. One of the old rabbinical tales says that at the time of judgment, Moses asks each person, "did you enjoy everything that God gave you to enjoy?" Do we look for joy in every moment, do we search for the hand of God at work in the world about us?
I've seen joy in some of the world's most troubled places, where most cynics would insist that there couldn't possibly be anything to celebrate. The Diocese of Jerusalem runs Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, serving anybody who turns up, Muslim or Christian, able to pay or destitute. It's an amazingly joy-filled place. When I visited there a year ago, a Muslim man who was a patient sat in his bed, shook my hand, and sang the praises of the hospital and those who worked there. Yes, there is violence and deprivation and injustice all around, but there is also joy.
I do believe that joy is where John Baptist is going, even though he starts out with "you brood of vipers!" He is talking to the nay-sayers, the joyless cynics who come out from Jerusalem to see a sideshow in the desert. They've come out to judge this prophet, not positively, rather than let him call them to judgment and repentance. John's challenge is about the poison of cynicism, the denial that God is working around us even in the grimmest and darkest parts of human existence.
Vipers are poisonous snakes who latch on to whatever they bite and continue to inject venom. They're often small and hard to notice, and in the Middle East, they're likely to congregate in the same kinds of places that human beings go looking for refuge - a cave out of the sun, the shady side of a rock where you might go and try to find a cool spot. Calling these religious leaders vipers is quite intentional on John's part - they're the folk who inject poison and suck the joy out of human community, the folk who find something wrong with every new idea or attempt to build the kingdom. You've heard them, "no, that won't work; we've never done it that way before; you're doing it wrong; those people can't come in here!" John says, turn around - that's what repentance means - look again toward the source of all that is, and give us some fruit! No more sour grapes!
John's images of judgment are pretty stark - axes and burning trash piles - but the reality is that without joy, without connection to God, a person or a community effectively saws its own branch off the vine or the fruit tree. Joy comes in building a community of justice, John says: share your coats and your food, don't extort from anybody, don't misuse your power for your own enrichment, and be satisfied. Accumulating stuff beyond reason means that others are likely to go without.
Zephaniah sings the same song of joy. Rejoice, O people of God, for he is renewing you, he is healing the lame and gathering the rejected, he is bringing home all who have been shamed. John and Zephaniah and Isaiah proclaim his coming into human sorrow and distress to heal and redeem. The Messiah is coming, says John, and he will baptize you with spirit and with fire.
What is that fire? Some killjoys insist that it's the fire of hell, it's not hell week. That's a pretty odd thing to connect to baptism. The more orthodox understanding is connected to the tongues of fire at Pentecost. I'm convinced that fire is related to Christian hope, that attitude that approaches the world expecting to find joy, the kind of joy that doesn't ignore the reality of human suffering, but instead enters in and finds God already there.
The kind of mission work that your Jubilee Center is engaged in is a wonderful example. Installing surveillance cameras may seem like a weird way to look for joy, but when you do it in order to bring down crime rates, and expect that the community will flourish, it makes enormous sense. The community begins to rejoice as it begins to heal.
What do you think of when you hear, "exercise class"? Does that lift your hearts? How about "cooking class," as in how to plan menus and cook healthy meals? Not the first place I'd look for joy, but Jubilee Center is bringing the joy and hope of greater health to an entire community.
How about urban development and building houses? Also a source of deep joy, as the hope for a dignified human life is built in the midst of the city of Dallas, through the work of Jubilee.
Notice what that name Jubilee means - rejoicing, particularly the kind that comes in a year when all debts are paid and society is put back on an equal footing. Ancient Israel insisted that every 7 years debtors should be released, and in the 7th 7-year cycle, all land should be returned to its historic tenants. It was a way of ensuring that everybody had at least one coat, and enough to eat, because each family had enough land on which to grow food or pasture animals. The Jubilee Year, that 49th or 50th year of setting debts aside, is the kind of community repentance or reordering that engenders joy for all.
Now that kind of economic redistribution challenges most people who are already reasonably comfortable - we're afraid that we're going to lose our security. John's point is that repentance involves change toward greater justice and the healing of everybody. And the coming baptism of the Messiah, the baptism of holy spirit and fire, will only deepen and encourage that ability to turn around and move again toward God. That baptism of holy spirit is about strength and courage to keep turning Godward, and the baptism of fire probably goes in two complementary directions.
Think about what a wildfire does by clearing the undergrowth. And think about the fire that burns brightly in our hearts when we're fully engaged in doing the Lord's work. That baptismal fire is connected with joy - being alive in Christ, knowing the joy of the Lord, with the obstructions burned away - those sins and distractions, what John calls chaff.
That baptismal fire, in both senses, does transform the world, through each one of us and our communities.
Right before I was installed as Presiding Bishop, I was invited to an awards ceremony in New York. It was a celebration of women who had done something to change the world, and I really didn't want to go, mostly because I haven't made much of a habit of looking for Jesus in the pages of Glamour Magazine. I felt more than a little burned by the insistence of some of the Church Center staff that this was something I had to do. What I discovered among those women was a profound sense of passion - the same kind of fire that John is talking about. One of them was Somaly Mam, who has spent years getting girls and young women out of sex slavery in Asia, even buying them if she has to, and working to heal and redeem them, in the midst of a community that will love them back into wholeness. Another of those women was a singer whose name I'd heard, but knew nothing about, an African-American woman named Queen Latifah. When she was introduced, the audience absolutely erupted - it was filled with hundreds of teenaged girls for whom she was an inspiration and to whom she offered the fire of self-respect and dignity and the hope of change. Yes, I was more than a little burned - in both senses. And the passion to seek the fruits in unexpected places was rekindled.
That baptismal fire and spirit brings greater joy and deeper connection with the source of all joy. What fruit will you bear? Where is that fruit, dripping with joy? Where will you search for joy?
[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]