12.16.18 Luke 3:7-18
The classic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” carries a message we often forget: your life DOES make an impact on your community. The choices you make do make a difference in the quality of life of your family, your neighbors, and even people you don’t know. Frank Cappra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” is one of our family’s favorite Christmas movies. In case you are not familiar with the story line, here it is: When his family business is facing closure due to a large sum of money falling into the wrong hands, George Bailey succumbs to the stress, attempts suicide, and is rescued by the bumbling angel Clarence. Clarence shows George what his community would have been like if he had not had an impact on it. In place after place and for person after person, George sees that his life had made a positive impact in many ways on an entire community through the decisions he made—whether it was rescuing his brother from the icy water, telling the truth to the pharmacist who made a mistake, helping people to own their own homes, or consistently treating people with kindness and respect. The images of life without him were very bleak for many in the community, and with the angel’s help, George recognizes that his life is valuable. The ending is filled with great joy and celebration as the whole community shows up in gratitude to George, pitching in funds to keep the business open.
Your choices are important. They do make an impact on your family, on your neighbors, on your community at large. That is a key part of John’s message to the crowds who came out to see him in the desert by the Jordan River. What you do does matter. Remember from last week that his role is like the setter on the volleyball team. He is setting it up for Jesus, preparing people to be ready to become Jesus followers. He knows they need to make some changes before they are ready for Jesus. He is calling them to take the kinds of action that show a change of heart and a change of mind. He calls them to generosity, to compassion, to honesty and to fairness. He does not call them to go do something special and unique, to give up their livelihood, leave their families and follow him around the countryside (Jesus does that later, but John does not). Instead John gives them instructions to go back home to their own communities, their own jobs, their own homes, and do the right thing. Nothing earth shattering. Nothing beyond their abilities. Go back home and do the right thing. Treat people with dignity and respect. Be fair. Share what you have so that no one comes up short. John has no concept that anyone would need more than one coat. In our day when we have closets full of coats for all kinds of weather and all kinds of events, we can have a hard time connecting to John’s practical rule of thumb—if you have two, give one away. Only keep what you need and make sure everyone else has what they need. That is a good practice in any time and place.
I read a story this week about a grandmother who used to take her grandson food shopping when he was young in South Carolina. Money was tight, and grandpa was a very strict budgeter because he had to be. The only area of household expenses that grandma had free rein over the allotted funds was at the grocery. She could make her own decisions on what to purchase. Every week she went to the store and purchased two bags of flour, two dozen eggs, two heads of lettuce, and so on throughout the store. Everything she bought, she bought two of. And then on the way home she stopped at the food pantry and gave one of everything she bought to stock their shelves. She never mentioned her purchasing patterns to her husband, and she made sure the grandson kept it quiet because she bought him a candy bar (and a second one to donate, of course) each week. One day, the grandson asked if they could buy one of the special cereals he had seen advertised on tv. “No,” said grandma. “It is too expensive.” The grandson said: “If we just bought one, we could afford it.” She stopped in her tracks, put both of her hands on her grandson’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “If we can’t afford two, we can’t afford one.” In other words, there will be no extras. Everything she bought she made sure she could share.
You could say grandma took John’s teaching too literally. Or you could say she lived with a generous heart that made sure others had what they needed. It seemed to work—her family was fed and so were other families in need. She chose to use the one area she had control over to make a difference in the lives of others, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, like I believe many of you do on a regular basis.
Getting ready to welcome the Christ means getting our lives in order, not just mailing out the Christmas cards, making the menu and decorating the house. John, the setter, was helping people to get their lives in order to welcome the Christ, whose sandals he felt even unfit to untie. This morning I want to focus a little more deeply on John’s words about fairness. Last week we heard him quote from the prophet Isaiah about making the road smooth enough for everyone to travel, filling the valleys and leveling the hills—I imagined making a ramp for easy mobility. This part of his message gives practical tips: be sure everyone is warm and fed; no extortion—only collect funds that are fair, no cheating, no harassing, don’t expect more pay than is fair. It seems to me that John is talking about treating people with equity. Equity is not the same as equality. The point is not just that you each have a coat, but that the person without a coat gets one that fits well enough for him to wear. Getting ready for the Christ means working toward this kindom of God that is fair to all, that treats members of the community equitably, no matter their zip code. You know as well as I do that every neighborhood does not have the same resources. In Baltimore you can cross one street and move from a blighted area into a well kept neighborhood in the blink of an eye. You can visit one school in one part of the city and another school in another part of the city and find great disparity in the physical and emotional environments. Ask any parent who is making choices about where to educate her children—not all schools are the same. We do not live in a place where all people are treated with equity.
There is a helpful way to understand the difference between equality and equity. Take a look at this image, and expand it to touch any parts of our life together—schools, neighborhood resources, home loans, cleanliness of the streets, etc. To treat everyone equally means that you give everyone the same resources—for example, the same books in school, the same shoes for the track team, the same quality of uniforms for the band. But the same books sit unopened in the corner if the students have not had the opportunity to learn the skills needed to make full use of the books, the shoes are not worn if there is no decent track to run on, and the uniforms are left in the closet without the years of experience in practicing music and the parental support needed to create a marching band. Fairness means treating people equitably, making sure that all have the same opportunities for success, health, safety—so that means that in communities of poverty and violence additional resources are needed to bridge the gap.
When we pray together as a community on Wednesdays at the bus stop in Edmondson Village, one member of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church who often joins us repeatedly asks God to guide our government leaders to “do the next right thing” as they serve the people of Baltimore. They are good words, words that I think John would agree with. When the people clamored for specifics, for practical suggestions about what it would look like to produce fruit that shows changed hearts and minds, John basically told them to do the right thing. To do the kinds of things you learn on the playground: share, don’t bully, play fair. Those rules apply if you are the president or the governor, if you are a police officer on the street, if you are a kid, a teenager or an older adult. Do the right thing.
Family of God, this Advent we again are getting ready. The days are drawing close. I really like the words of Lutheran professor and author Karoline Lewis: “No Advent is the same. Each Advent calls us to a different demonstration of why it matters to anticipate Jesus’ birth. Each Advent invites a different manifestation of why waiting matters. Each Advent brings hope for a different expression of why it matters that Christmas is near.” My prayer for you is that this Advent you will take time to ponder why it matters to you that Christmas is near. What words from John ring in your ears and pound in your heart? Godspeed. Amen.