Shuck and Jive

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Fruits of Letting Go--A Sermon

The Fruits of Letting Go
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Luke 3:7-19

My father gave me a great gift. He taught me how to play chess. When I was a teenager we would play in chess tournaments in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and sometimes we would go to California.

One year we went the Paul Masson winery for a tournament. This was in the wine country of California. We toured a winery while there. The tour guide showed the winery and the fields where they grew the grapes.

I noticed that the grape vines were really scrawny. Almost like sticks. I was expecting a lush bush with grapes. Anticipating that the host told us that the grapes are pruned in such a way that all of the energy of the plant goes to the fruit as opposed to branches and leaves.

Pruning is a way in which the gardener tries to focus the energy of the plant toward producing fruit. Rather than the energy of the plant going to branches and leaves it goes to fruit.

Plants would be replaced as needed. A plant that doesn’t bear fruit is worthless. It takes up space and energy. The unproductive plant is used for burning.

So John the Baptist is using this metaphor to get people to think about their own lives.
  • Am I doing good stuff with my life?
  • Is it aimless?
  • Am I going through motions?
  • Am I growing useless branches here and there?
  • Am I producing fruit?
John is asking the folks who come to him for baptism, “Is your life fulfilling?”

I think he would have meant fulfilling in the fullest sense of that word not in a self-absorbed way.

Nor is it a legalistic, fear-based, guilt-based thing.

John the Baptist gets a bad rap. He has been viewed by much of the tradition as a firebrand, turn or burn, repent you sinner, kind of figure. The common spiritual model of fall into sin and repentance reinforces that aspect of guilt, fear, and self-loathing. But that isn’t how we have to see him. So let’s go of that.

Let’s read John the Baptist in a different way.

We aren’t going to let go of John’s urgency or his high energy or his honesty, but we are going to let go of the guilt, fear, and shame that often comes with the fall/repentance path of spirituality.

Creation Spirituality invites us to look at John the Baptist, Jesus and the Christian wisdom tradition through a four-fold spiritual path.

1) a path of wonder and amazement about being alive in this fantastic universe,
2) a way of letting go rather than clinging to that which we need to let go,
3) a way of creativity and strength,
4) and a way to use that creativity on behalf of compassion

No shame here, no beating up of oneself. There is no spiritual benefit for beating up on ourselves or for feeling bad about ourselves. No points for that. I do that on occasion. I beat up on myself. I am glad when I hear that I don’t have to do that. When I hear that I do it less. I am a blessing. A good person. So are you. We all are. We don’t have to do that.

We need to be honest. Yes. We need to evaluate. Yes. But we don't need to beat ourselves up or invent a God who beats us up.

The word translated as repent is metanoia which literally means change or turn. As in change in direction or turn toward a new way of living.

So John is asking them if their lives are fulfilling and authentic. He is challenging them to turn and to change and to bear fruit.

To do that, we need to let go of unhealthy parts of our lives that are not fruit producing. To mix some metaphors, if we are
spinning our wheels,
drawing from a dry well,
bearing branches and leaves but no fruit,
then it might be time for a turn.

John the Baptist gives them a ritual to go with their new conviction. A baptism. A jump in the river. A cleansing to start anew. He says this is just water. The Christ, the Spirit, the creativity of the universe is the real power. This power is on the way. We think of Christmas as creativity of Christ being born within us.

So the people are excited about this.
We are too.
We want that.
We want to bear fruit.
To be a blessing.
To have what we do be meaningful and helpful.

Sometimes that change that turning might be a recognition that we are a blessing already but we aren’t aware of it. That is the story of the Wizard of Oz, right? The wizard who is a good man but a bad wizard gives awards to the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion. They all are lacking wisdom, compassion, and courage respectively. But the wizard shows them that they already possess these qualities. They already are a blessing. They just need to recognize it.

It could be that we are already bearing fruit (and I would say we are) but we don’t think of it as such. We are doing good work and are already a blessing.

Back to our story. The people ask John the Baptist: “What do we need to do?”

Here is his answer:

Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.

That is to the heart of the matter. The great accomplishment of civilization is that people didn’t have to live hand to mouth. The agricultural revolution allowed for surpluses and for towns and cities and educated classes and governments and roads and standing armies and all kinds of marvelous things.

It also resulted in great inequities. While on one hand some had food to waste, others starved.

John the Baptist is speaking to those whose privilege has allowed them to benefit by this economic system. In John’s audience there might have been those who had no coat and who had no food. What is recorded is John’s speech to those who did have extra coats and food. John is putting the responsibility on those with means and privilege to turn the system so it is more just.

This is not a matter of individual charity. This isn’t about giving a can of corn to the homeless shelter at Christmas. That is a great thing to do. John is asking a great deal more. He is talking about changing our values and the way we live. If we always shared the surplus we wouldn’t need homeless shelters.

I can’t read this passage and not think of the health care debate. Where are our values? .

“I have health care. What should I do, Mr. John the Baptist?”

I think John might have replied,

“Well why don’t you see to it that others have it as well?”

John believes that some great change is upon them. The axe is at the root of the tree, he says. This change, this metanoia, this repentance, this turning will involve a reversal of sorts. When the angel announced to Mary that she was to give birth to Jesus, she said,

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Throughout the gospels Jesus is quoted as saying,

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

Wisdom teachers are always aware of the change and the turning that is about to take place. Only the foolish think that things stay the same.
Life is change.
Let us let go and let be.

The values of this age, the values of domination and injustice, are about to be turned upside down. That is the message of the gospel. John is inviting people of privilege to be a part of this change and to bear fruit for this change.

Participate in economic justice…food, clothing, shelter, health care…move from clinging to sharing.

Then the text reads:

“Even tax collectors came to him to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher what should we do?”

And he said to them,

“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

If that were to happen, the system might collapse. It isn’t as if tax collectors were salaried employees like IRS agents. Their job was to shake you down, pay their quota to Rome and keep as much as they could for themselves. The tragedy is that the collectors were the oppressed extorting their own people. Rome did what it did well; it divided and conquered. It pit the people against each other. The taxes were heavy and they were collected by their own people so the rage was directed at them as opposed to Rome.

It is interesting that Luke records the three major sources of oppression by the Roman Empire over the Jews.
  1. Surplus and inequity,
  2. taxation, and
  3. armed occupation.
That is the third group that comes to John:

Soldiers also asked him,

“And what should we do?”

He said to them,

“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.”

It is easy to see that the reason soldiers extorted money is that their wages were not satisfactory. Rome counted on the soldiers to extort. That is how the system worked.

The interesting point here is that John is setting up a revolution. John’s baptizing is changing the loyalties of those who are benefiting from or who are directly involved in Rome’s domination of the Jews. He is targeting the wealthy, tax collectors, and soldiers, and challenging them to do justice and to change things from within.

This is how first century historian Josephus put it regarding John the Baptist. Josephus writes in this elevated elitist language:

Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause…

As Josephus knew, John the Baptist was beheaded because he was meddling. He was up to mischief. He was talking about a new way of living as opposed to systems of economic exploitation. He was about nothing less than changing the values of Empire itself.

The Church, because the Church has historically benefited by the power of Empire, turns John the Baptist into a fundamentalist hellfire preacher obsessed with pecadillos and getting into heaven. A careful reading of the text shows that he was more interested in social, political, and economic justice.

So what about us? What do we do with this interesting story in the Bible?

What I take away from this story is that our personal fruit bearing, and the corresponding pruning that is required to bear fruit is connected to our social good. Bearing fruit is about living with Earth and all its life in a just way. Whatever pruning, letting go, bearing fruit that we are invited to do, it is all connected with being a blessing. We are here to be blessed by the universe and to be a blessing in return.

One of my favorite quotes is from Gary Snyder.

If we are here for any good purpose at all...I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature. A gang of sexy primate clowns. All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.

The second thing I take away from this story is that those with privilege are not left out. This story is not saying the poor are all good and the rich are all bad and there is nothing you can do. In each case, those who come for baptism are those with means who are invited to use their means for good.

There is hope there. Those with privilege are not simply condemned but are invited and challenged to use their privilege for good.

To help somebody.

I have a song to go with that. This is Susan Werner. Crank it up.

Let’s produce some fruit.