Monday December 28, 2009
by Rev. Courtney Pinkerton
Pastor, Church in the Cliff
John said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him,
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to escape the wrath to come? Produce good fruit as a sign of your repentance. And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Sarah and Abraham as our mother and father,’ for I tell you that God can raise children for Sarah and Abraham from these very stones. The ax is already laid at the root of the tree; every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and tossed into the fire.”
The crowds asked John, ‘What must we do?’
‘Let the one with two coats share with the one who has none;
let those who have food do the same.’
There were tax collectors too who came for baptism, and these said to John,
‘Teacher, what must we do?’
John said to them,
Exact no more than your fixed rate.’
Some soldiers asked him in their turn,
‘What about us? What must we do?’
John said to them,
‘Do not bully anyone! Do not accuse anyone falsely!
Be content with your pay.’
A feeling of expectancy had grown among the people,
who were beginning to think that John might be the Christ,
so John declared before them all,
‘I baptize you with water, but someone is coming,
someone who is more powerful than I,
the strap of whose sandals I am not fit to undo.
‘This one will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
‘A winnowing fan is in his hand to clear the threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into a barn;
but the chaff will be burnt in a fire
that will never go out.’
Luke 3:7-18 (Inclusive Text)
So I fell in love with John the Baptizer during Advent and find his teachings a good corrective for the bloated post-holiday feeling. His message seems as severe and wild as the desert he inhabits. I am hungry for a tradition that asks something of me as a practitioner-and I join in with the crowds, with the tax collector, with the soldiers asking ‘what then should I do?’
And the baptizer delivers. He demands radical re-orientation, metanoia, and a rupture in the routine of everyday life. He reminds all who have ears to hear that from the moment we pass through the baptismal waters the mark of Christ is upon us. And that life in God bears fruit. God is the sap which rises up within us and feeds every limb.
John provides a graphic image of the ax at the base of the tree. It is a fierce one, but it makes me ask, what might I be capable of, what might we all do together if we carried less dead wood? If every cell of our body was humming with the energy and potential that comes with being awake to the moment and loving the Christ in all we encounter?
But how are we to connect these themes of repentance and the urgency of John’s message with the joy of the incarnation which we celebrate during these twelve holy days and twelve starry nights of Christmastide?
I tell you I am ready to be delivered from the ‘pursuit of happiness’ which characterizes our country. It is tiring to try to stay happy. I am starting to suspect that there is a different way of living and that it is available to me in the here and now. I find it when I wash the dishes to wash the dishes, rather than speed through so I can enjoy a cup of tea with my husband. Or when I love the loud children who fill my home as if they were my own-wiping their noses, gathering and washing their dirty socks, rinsing another sippy cup. Sometimes in these moments when I don’t chase my desire for some experience beyond the one I am currently having, joy is available to me. I wonder if maybe it is there all along. To pick up on John’s metaphor of the tree, joy is a gift from God drawn up through the tap root. It is not something to pursue rather it is found in embracing the humble particularities of the life we are called to live. And on this Way of Jesus, there are a thousand callings and ways to live marked by generosity and gentleness, but they all lead us deeper into the heart of community.
And so what if you can’t find your joy this season? What if you feel heavy with dead wood and no sense that the sap is rising? Rupture is painful. And at times the rich days of Christmastide can seem to carry more pain than good: memories of childhood holiday seasons full of family tensions, or maybe a current-day experience of longing for something more.
It is this pain which also rightly draws us to participate in communities of healing and to become communities of healing. God breaks into the world anew each time we tend to another’s wounds. One should never sit alone in the darkness of metanoia. God is there in the desiring of something different, in the shifting of perspective and the seeing anew of a familiar landscape. And God is there when we hold each others’ hands and trust the beauty of the process.
Joy and all good things.