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? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. … So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Clergy types are an awful contradiction of subversion and codependency. We want you to like us and we are always uncomfortably aware that this news which we call good is also really, really tough. So our silenced subversive selves quietly cheer the audacity of John when he starts his sermon by saying “You brood of vipers”. In a week like this one, where we are all trying to make desperate sense of what’s so meaningless, all of us cringe and are convicted when his next words are, “bear fruits worthy of repentance”.
In a while, we are going to have a brief liturgy that celebrates the graduation of several members of All Saints from Education for Ministry (EFM) which is one of the most rigorous adult formation programs of the Episcopal Church. I was very fortunate to start EFM the year after I graduated from college and was still living in New Orleans. Our mentor was the chair of the history department at Tulane and our group was astoundingly bright and educated. The studies were fascinating, but what was truly transformative for me was the weekly “TRP”–Theological Reflection Process, weekly efforts to take a small slice of life and break it open to find not only what ways it might have of showing us how God is at work in our lives—but to consider together, what it might be calling us to next.
True repentance is more than an emotion—it is a willingness to lean in a new direction, take a different path, return to what is most essential and important. EFM gives us a way to start that life-long process of repentance. When Eric Von Salzen joined All Saints in 2003 and came to talk to me about starting an EFM group I was thrilled—and I am even more thrilled now, that there are two lively, active groups in our midst. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
As wonderful as deep thoughts and stirring theological reflections can be—as giddy as it feels during a session of EFM, when you hit on the most fruitful metaphor imaginable to describe the situation you are analyzing, none of that matters if the insight does not translate to meaningful engagement with the broken and battered. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Today, Chuck Ebert is also going to recognize the volunteers of All Saints. There are any number of ways that your brothers and sisters in the West Campus are blessed by the volunteer efforts that originate here, and a few of us are here to express our appreciation for all you do. On a Sunday when we will read the litany of 27 names lost to senseless violence, what I am most mindful of is the ways in which you make the world a little bit safer, a little bit better, a little more hopeful for the children of the Centro who live life on the edge: “Miss Rosa, the policemen came to my house again because my daddy was hitting my mom.” “Reverenda, my husband has an infection in his brain and he can’t work for two months. I’m struggling to feed the children and pay the rent”. “My three year old died two months ago and I sent his body to be buried in Guatemala because I figure that one day I’ll get to visit his grave. If I buried him here and I was deported, I would never get to see his grave”.
That’s the world our children live in and it bleeds their hearts of hope and joy and innocence as surely as bullets do. The volunteer work coming from All Saints binds the wounds, helps make the fear bearable, opens windows and doors into a future otherwise unimaginable for them. You “bear fruits worthy of repentance”.
This is a remarkable community but I run the risk of making us too complacent, making it sound like we’ve arrived as I celebrate these truths about the goodness that resides here. This season of Advent is the season when we look with wonder and anticipation to the birth of the Christ child in our hearts again, but it is also a moment that reminds us, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that, The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. We should be profoundly, frighteningly disturbed by the things that happened in Connecticut.
Most of you know that Sherod and I are the parents of young woman whose mental illness includes violence. You know that earlier this year, we placed her in an intermediate care facility because we were no longer able to keep her or ourselves safe at home. Maria is now occupying one of 1200 beds in the entire state of Florida. In the entire state. As Sherod and I look out to the horizon, towards retirement, we’ve begun to ask ourselves, “where”? We have done some research about Alabama. It turns out that all the intermediate care facilities in that state have been closed down. There isn’t a single place for a person with Maria’s combination of needs to have the balance of staff support, enrichment opportunities, and care to live safely in Alabama. If we were to retire there, we would be faced with the choice of leaving her here. That’s just two states. Our whole country is failing too many people when we fail to adequately respond to the complicated, heartbreaking realities of mental illness.
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
“The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.” In this last week before Christmas, when consumerism reaches its crescendo, when we all become so easily absorbed in our own self-indulgence or self-pity, I pray that we will accept the grace that allows us to stop and look again. To listen more closely. To understand what John means when he says we are all a brood of vipers rather than get defensive and then, to make ourselves available to a grace that says it doesn’t have to be so. In the stillness that is at the heart of all that noise around us, a voice in the wilderness calls. Repent. Bear the fruits worthy of repentance.