Of Roots, Fruits and Repentance

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

Prayer of the Day: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the preaching of John, that, rejoicing in your salvation, we may bring forth the fruits of repentance; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Luke 3:8.

John the Baptizer does not mince words. “Think you’re special because you are a descendant of Abraham? A baptized Lutheran? A charter member of the congregation with deep roots in the community? God doesn’t give a flying fruitcake for your roots. In fact, the ax is about to fall on the roots of all fruitless trees, however deep, noble and well established those roots. It’s fruits, not roots that God cares about.”

Small wonder John’s audience is shaken to the core. “What shall we do?” they cry out in despair. John’s answer is almost too simple and direct. He does not direct them to a set of spiritual exercises, call them to a life of strict asceticism or the performance of some difficult heroic act. This isn’t rocket science. Share your food and clothing. Stop using your position of power for exploitation and personal gain. This sounds like simple common place morality.

But it is in the common place that one most frequently feels the pinch. The pastor of the congregation in which I grew up used to tell the story of a young man eager to join the communist party. The party leaders asked him a series of questions. “What would you do if you owned two houses,” they asked. Without hesitation, the young man answered,

“I would live in one and donate the other to the party.”

“And what if you inherited one million dollars?” they asked.

Again, without hesitation, the young man answered, “I would keep only what I needed to live on and give the rest to the party.”

“And what if you had two pairs of shoes?” they asked. Now the young man was at a loss for words. Obviously, he had two or perhaps more pairs of shoes and was not eager to part with any of them. If there is a moral to this tale, I suppose it is that we find it much easier to make great hypothetical sacrifices than real ones, however small they might be. Those, however, are the ones John is calling for: the extra coats in our closets, the food stuffed in our pantries, the income we frequently refer to as “discretionary,” the extra bedrooms in our homes, the excess real estate, endowments and funds held by our churches and whatever else we can unburden ourselves in order to fill the valleys of poverty, level the mountains of excess wealth, dismantle injustice and smooth the way to equity and wellbeing for all people. See Luke 3:5-6. That is what repentance looks like.

Repentance bears fruit. If it doesn’t, it isn’t repentance. It isn’t enough simply to confess one’s sins and feel sincere regret-though that is often a starting point. God knows that we white American Christians have good reason to regret our historic complicity with our nation’s legacy of slavery and the continuing curse of systemic racism left in its wake. We have good reason to lament the disparity in wealth, employment opportunity, access to health care and educational access between ourselves and the increasing number of impoverished people among us. But that is only the beginning. As author Marlena Proper Deida Graves points out in her reflections on this gospel lesson, … “producing fruit in keeping with repentance, as John compels us to do, means making amends. With the Holy Spirit’s help it means refusing to continue down destructive, death-filled, and toxic paths. It means choosing life in all its vulnerability, fragility, and glory-life in Christ. Such a life is a full life (John 10:10). Repentance in all its forms brings us life, healing, shalom. When we confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, we will be healed (James 5:16).” Christian Century, December 1, 2021, p. 20.

We and our churches have a tremendous capacity for producing fruit. There is, I know, a lot of hand wringing and consternation in mainline churches over the drop in regular congregational giving, loss of membership and increasing costs of maintaining our institutions. But these problems are more apparent than real when you recall that the original church could fit itself into a single room and that the only material stuff the church needs is a Bible, a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine and access to water. The rest is just frosting on the cake. Looked at from that perspective, my own Lutheran Church is filthy rich. Our concern should not be that we will run out of money, lose our sanctuaries or be forced to dismantle our institutions. Our concern should be that Jesus will return and catch us with money still sitting in the bank-along with that extra coat in the closet and all those cans of expired food in the pantry.   

So what shape might repentance take among us? What would John the Baptizer say if we had the temerity to ask him, “and we, what should we do?” We might try to explain to John that simply divesting ourselves is not a simple and easy task, that there are substantial legal, financial and operational obstacles to carrying out his radically simple demands. I suspect John would reply, “Who said anything about simple and easy? Since when has God ever called us to do what is simple and easy?”  

Here is a poem by Langston Hughes that speaks of freedom and liberation with the same passionate impatience we hear in the voice of John the Baptizer.

Freedom

Freedom will not come
Today, this year
            Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
            To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
            Freedom
            Is a strong seed
            Planted
            In a great need.
            I live here, too.
            I want my freedom
            Just as you.   

Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

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