Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10 ; Psalm 72:1-7,18-19 ; Romans 15:4-13 ; Matthew 3:1-12
Grace and peace be with you my brothers and sisters in the name of our God who has prepared a way home for us in the wilderness. Amen.
If you’ve scanned the front of your bulletin you’ve noticed that among the commemorations for this week there is a listing for “Las Posadas.” This celebration, your bulletin notes, has deep roots in Mexican culture and takes its name from the “posadas,” or lodgings, sought by Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem that we read about in the second chapter of Luke. It is a nine-day celebration beginning on December 16th and stretching until Christmas Eve, and traditionally a family or group of families will get together to host the posadas in their home for each of the nine nights. On the night that you host, you play the part of the Innkeeper and your neighbors come to your door as pilgrims, or peregrines, looking for a place to stay. Just like the Christmas caroling that many of you are used to, the neighbors will sing songs and carry candles. Some of the carolers may hold figures from a nativity scene of Joseph leading a donkey carrying Mary on its back. Traditionally the pilgrims have to go to more than one home before someone will let them in, recalling to us the story of the innkeeper who turned away the holy family and sent them to rest in a barn.
Even though Las Posadas won’t get going here in the neighborhood for another week or so, it’s been on my mind this past week for a couple of reasons. I got an invitation from Humboldt Park United Methodist Church to take part in a prayer vigil this coming Tuesday night, which I’ve accepted. The vigil is a show of support by people of faith and houses of worship in our neighborhood who would like to see the Sachs building at Kedzie, Diversey and Milwaukee Avenues– which has stood largely empty except for the Payless Shoe Store at street level – redeveloped into supportive housing for low income residents of our community. This is a plan that’s been endorsed by our neighborhood association, and it’s one that I think puts substance behind our often stated desire to keep Logan Square a community for all people: Anglo and Latino, working and poor, long-time residents and new arrivals, wolves and lambs, calves and lions and children. There are other plans that call for the building to be redeveloped as lofts and condos at price points that would signal another step away from mixed income living in our community, and I think it’s important to be at the prayer vigil as a person of faith to witness to the difference our faith makes in how we live our lives.
Talking about the difference faith makes in our lives is sometimes hard for Lutherans to do. We are raised with the mantra “justification by grace through faith” and bred to cling to the truth that God loves us not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who God is and what God has done. We can get a little shy when it comes to talking about how that grace moves us to action in the world, but the truth is that Lutherans are often working quietly in our communities for good. As an example, Lutheran Services in America – the alliance between the ELCA and the Missouri Synod – serves over six million people in the United States and throughout the Carribean each year, which is the equivalent of one in every fifty people in that region. Our teaching and our hope as a church is that we are moved to be a part of the world’s healing and reconciliation not out of fear or duty, but out of thankfulness for the ways that God has already been moving in our own lives for healing and reconciliation.
This is what John the Baptist is referring to when he says to the people who have come to hear him preach at the banks of the Jordan, “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” People have left the city and come out to the wilderness to hear this wild man preach, and to be baptized by him. He has been heralding the advent of God’s messiah, pointing towards the future, and proclaiming that the world is about to turn – to turn head over heels – to turn the normal way of living and doing upside down. John says that there’s a new world order coming, and some of the people seem to have come to the river’s shore to get baptized as an insurance policy – to make sure that they’ve got a passport that will let them into this new political reality. John wants none of it.
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Mt 3:8-9)
The hypocrisy that gets under John’s wooly skin is the way that these people have come to hear him preach and to be baptized, but only as a backup plan or a novelty. Because what they also believe, what they draw their sense of identity from, is that as children of Abraham they are already a chosen people, a nation of the elect, and with that belief at the center of their faith there’s really no reason to receive what John has to offer, except perhaps as entertainment.
It’s a very dangerous thing that we do here on Sunday mornings. We gather for a four-fold pattern of worship: we gather to be greeted and blessed; we hear words of scripture holding the promises of God’s grace and mercy; we share a meal as a sign and significance of the meaning of that grace; and then we send each other out – but for what? We call this assembly a worship service, but who is served? We speak of the freedom of a Christian, the advent of the reign of God – but who is being freed and who will be included in God’s reign? To say these things, to say them over and over, means to create an expectation.
I met with Bishop Wayne Miller earlier this week in his office, just an informal meeting really – spending some time getting to know each other. Among other things we talked about the church’s struggles with fundamentalism and secularism. We talked about the fact that in a nation where increasingly fewer and fewer people see a need for church in their lives we must ask ourselves if the church that we love so much is still reaching out to those who have real and profound needs in their lives – needs for community, needs for meaning, needs for healing and love – or if we have become, like those who went to see and hear John preach and baptize, so sure of our history and lineage and pedigree, not as children of Abraham – but as children of the church, that we have come to treat this worship as a service to us, entertainment, instead of a service to the world.
John points forward, to a coming messiah who will break open the very small circles we draw around ourselves, and who will usher in a world of circles so wide that not a single one of us will be left outside. This messiah is a branch of the Jesse tree, but the baptism this messiah brings scatters itself wide in the wind, like those little helicopter pods that blow halfway down the block.
Halfway down the block, around the corner, by the monument at Kedzie and Logan we’ll be gathering on Tuesday night at 6pm. There are pilgrims traveling amongst us, knocking on our doors, asking what service we have to provide for them. Wondering if our worship leads us to bear fruit worthy of the gift of our baptism. What will we say?