Epiphany I, Year C
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth– everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the
Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John 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. His 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."
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Our inability to discern good from evil can be evidenced in the current political situation. Who is good? Who is evil? The common political rhetoric found in the current administration labels as evil all that will not ride the coattails of the imperialist claims of the United States. America is the upholder of good and truth and justice in the modern world. We hold the torch of discernment. We believe in freedom, democracy and peace, therefore, God must be on our side, since God is good. All others are evil.
This labeling effect is really a libeling effect. It is the first step in the creation of scapegoats. We decide who is to live and who is to die (who is to go to heaven and who is to go to hell). Our enemies are those who will not follow us on this path to world improvement. This is the mythology of the victimage mechanism and you can see it or hear it everyday in the news. Since bad people do bad things, one can tell the tree by its fruit. Get rid of the bad trees and what you have left is an Edenic paradise or the administration’s view of America’s role in human history.
From whence comes this kind of thinking? It should come as no surprise that virtually all of the high level officials in the Bush administration come from Evangelical backgrounds, even if they do not espouse, live, or take seriously their upbringing. The dualisms inherent in Evangelicalism have produced the polarization that occurs in the Bush administration’s policies of separating good from evil. Our text today will serve as a warrant for further discrimination as they hear it in church today. They (and we) are locked in the sphere of the lies of victimage.
What is good news about any of this? If we kill off all of the terrorists on the planet, if we eliminate all of the dictators will it be a better world? We cannot even begin to eliminate the hate in our own hearts and our own tendencies to act like little dictators in our homes or on our jobs. Tolstoy has said that while everyone wants to change the world no one wants to change themselves. Look around and listen to people. They actually believe that if enough ‘good violence’ is applied to ‘bad violence’ that good violence will ultimately prevail. World history is little more than a glorified spaghetti western.
If this is all John the Baptist was preaching we may well wonder what it was that Jesus saw in him and we may further wonder why Jesus would choose to be his follower. But as we saw in Advent, the preceding ‘speech’ of JTB makes abundantly clear that the way the establishment treats the marginalized is the true standard of evaluation. Separation of good from evil does not have to do with those who pray vs. those who do not pray; those who believe in God and Jesus from those who don’t; those who are patriotic from those who are critical; those who ‘obey’ (sic) the Bible from those who do not.
Separation is clearly marked by the boundaries of those on top from those on the bottom and it is our behavior towards those on the bottom that reveals where our hearts are oriented. The same principle of ‘judgement’ can be found in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. In no case in this parable is violence used as a form of deliverance. Compassion, empathy, caring actions, these are the distinguishing marks of the sheep. Ignorance, apathy and bad judgement are the marks of the goats.
We then ask the question again: what is good about the good news of JTB? Is it simply that Jesus is coming? No. It is more than that. It is the prophetic promise that one is coming who will purify us from our poor discrimination and empower us to live in the wholeness that is God’s future.
The Anglican communion is in the midst of such a crisis. So-called Evangelical Anglicans (who hold to the tenets of a sacrificial hermeneutic) are currently dividing good (heterosexuals) from evil (homosexuals) and they are holding conferences and synods and all manner of conventions to stop what they perceive as a corruption of the church. Some Evangelicals wave signs that say ‘God hates fags’ or they march in support of the death penalty or they are flag waving justifiers of ‘good violence.’ They fail to see that they operate with a hermeneutic of hate and intolerance, a hermeneutic foreign to Jesus.
They produce a theology of fear and of judgement. There is almost nothing in their message that constitutes good news. And yet, in the name of the Savior of the world, they will split their communion over a fallacious interpretation of Scripture.
Some Sermon Thoughts
How do we preach on this winnowing of chaff from wheat without 1) falling into the common trap of sacrificial thinking or 2) ignoring the strength of the words or arguing them into meaninglessness?
John makes clear one thing. There are some attributes of life in the world as we know it that have no place in the kingdom of Jesus. As Michael has reminded us above, it is the very pattern of dividing God’s children that troubles John, the habit we have of seeing our sisters and brothers as “other.” This “otherness” allows us to begin labeling and scapegoating, it permits us to see the injustices suffered by “others” as something essentially unrelated to our own being in the world.
This is a way of seeing that we are absolutely called to cast aside if we are to enter into this kingdom. I think that we can, as preachers, take John’s urgency seriously as we call on our congregations to winnow themselves, while refusing the temptation to take the fork to their neighbors!