“Turn Yourself Around”
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
December 12, 2021
Today is Gaudete Sunday—the Sunday of Joy, the “pink” Sunday. In ancient times, Advent was a very somber time—evidenced by the purple candles, purple vestments, and drapes of purple—for Advent was the time of preparation for the coming of God, a very serious endeavor. But one Sunday, this third Sunday, was allowed to be less somber. Thus pink, Gaudete (which in latin means rejoice).
So, let’s have a least a little “joy” in this sermon. I’ve titled it, “turn yourself around.” Stand and Sing with me—“put your right foot in, put your right foot out, put your right foot in and shake it all about, you do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself around, that’s what it’s all about!” If you remember nothing else from this sermon, may you forever remember that to “turn yourself around” is what repentance is all about.
So this is “joy” Sunday, but in the perverse way that God and the God’s Word has in making things feel upside down, today we don’t get a story about a baby, or about blessings, or even a break from the apocalyptic push of the last few weeks. No, on this “joy” Sunday (at least in the gospel) we get John the Baptist calling us “a brood of vipers” and insisting that we repent and be baptized—in other words that we turn our lives around.
What I find fascinating in this story is that John has customized his repentance manual. He has specific instructions for the crowds, for tax collectors, and for soldiers. John must have been a spell-binding speaker because it seems that everyone who was at the edge of the Jordan River began to question, “What should I do to turn myself around and turn myself toward God?”
See, it’s one thing to yell at people and tell them they are bad, and that bad things are coming that that they are going to reap what they have sowed…that’s usually how we see prophets, those wild-eyed ones standing on soap boxes on the street corner that we pay no attention to. John somehow got people’s attention. And made them ask “What can I do?”
As I began to think about this sermon, I thought of the familiar “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. That piece, about a very mean and tight-fisted and rich man named Scrooge, has wormed its way into generation after generation’s psyche. Scrooge is visited by ghosts, Marley and the ghosts of past, present, and future. They don’t preach at him (well maybe Marley, his old business partner does), but the others allow him to see his life, and the life of those around him, with open eyes. And by the end, Scrooge does turn his life around, because (at least in part) he wants to make a difference in Tiny Tim’s life, and in his own. It is the perfect Advent story—with its mix of sorrow for poor choices, a facing of who you are, and the possibility of making a change, of dancing and skipping and laughing as you surprise people with the renewed you.
It falls to the preacher on this day to be a kind of ghost guide for all of us—in the spirit of John the Baptist and his message. This is what I hear.
1) This is important. Did you hear me? This repentance thing is no joking matter. That’s why John is calling his admirers “a brood of vipers” and telling them that they can’t count on staying in God’s good graces just because they had the right genetics. And maybe we need to be shaken into that reality ourselves. We don’t just get to coast along because we have gotten baptized as babies, or put our offerings into the collection plate, or proudly tell people what church we belong to. “That’s not enough,” John says. Whether it’s ghosts in the night, or yelling “brood of vipers” our attention needs to be gained so that we are willing to listen, to hear that God requires more from us.
2) The more that God requires is a response from us, a physical action. That’s what we see in the gospel. Everyone is asking “What can I do?” The crowds ask it. The tax collectors (those who are taking monetary advantage of people) ask it. The soldiers (who are enforcing an oppressive regime) ask it. It seems clear that the message is universal: it’s for the faithful, but it’s also for those that might seem to be on God’s “naughty” list. And it’s not enough to hear the message that we need to change some things—not just making the valleys higher and the mountains lower (out there), but making internal renovations as well. The Gaudete moment in all this is being offered the opportunity to try again, to make a change, to turn ourselves around. That is the good news from God. Our failures and short-comings aren’t chiseled in stone—we have a “second chance” card. But we have to play it. We have to ask. We have to respond.
3) And what do we do? Now comes the hard part. I do not want to try to be the Baptist telling anyone the answer to the question “What can you do?” Yet, I feel that I need to offer us a way to figure out what John might have said to us (even if I might not be able to offer specifics for each of us). Let’s look at what his answers were.
To the crowds: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
To the tax collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
To the soldiers: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
I have to tell you that I was a little disappointed as I looked at these. Where is the earth-shattering change of “a new heaven and earth” promised by the Messiah’s coming? Where is the regime toppling advice? Where is the “go get ‘em” mentality? The words seem so mundane.
Share what you have.
Don’t be greedy.
Don’t use your power over others.
They could be part of Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” But as I thought about the gospel, what we know of Jesus’ message to us, it too is often deceptively simple.
Love God, and love your neighbors as yourselves.
Love your enemies.
What you do for the least of these…
I have two minds about this. With all the reading and talking some of us have done in the last year about how systems change and whether we can do it from the bottom up, it seems negligent to say, let’s just focus on what small things we can do, the simple things—like sharing, and stopping our own impulses for greed and power. No, repentance has a public aspect. We must hear the gospel as calling out those systems and institutions that have perpetuated the wrong. And we need to work on dismantling and remaking.
On the other hand, I know that kind of work can seem demoralizing—the problem is so big and we are so small. And this is where I think John’s simple, specific message can be helpful. Ok, you are in a valley and can’t even think about tackling those big problems, well, you still can participate in the coming reign of God. Because we all have something to share, whether it be a coat, or food, whether it be money or access to it, whether it be remembering our own places of power and not using them against others.
Sometimes “doing something” might be different than we think. Sometimes it means being willing to put another’s needs above our own. “Rabbi Elliot Kukla once described a woman with a brain injury who would sometimes fall to the floor. People around her would rush to immediately get her back on her feet, before she was quite ready. She told Kukla, ‘I think people rush to help me up because they are so uncomfortable with seeing an adult lying on the floor. But what I really need is for someone to get down on the ground with me.’” (From David Brooks “What Do You Say to the Sufferer?” NYTimes 12/10/21)
So I say to us all, as we participate in the rush that is the Christmas and New Year’s season swirling around us, remember what is important, remember to ask “What can I do?”, remember to respond. We can start with something small, and let it turn everything around.
And sometimes “doing something” can be quite spectacular. We all remember the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA. That rally happened, in part, because the city council was discussing removing a towering statue to the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a standard bearer of the Old South and a symbol for those who want a different sort of America. The rally produced those horrific images of parading tiki torches and the clashes the next day which led to the death of Heather Heyer.
Finally, this summer, five years later, the Lee statue, along with another statue to Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson, were taken down. But what to do with them? The city council received offers from six various organizations to take the statues. After careful consideration the Lee statue is going to be given to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center whose proposal was titled “Swords Into Plowshares.” They plan to melt down the statue (all 1,100 pounds of bronze) so that a new piece of artwork can be created. Their proposal said this: “Our hope with ‘Swords Into Plowshares’ is to create something that transforms what was once toxic in our public space into something beautiful that can be more reflective of our entire community’s social values.”
Today is Gaudete Sunday—the “joy” Sunday. May we continue to be prodded by God’s prophets into examining ourselves and our world. May we be willing to ask that difficult question “What does the Lord require of me?” And may we hold onto the hope that our response, small and large, will take its place in the journey of making ourselves and all around us, ready for God’s coming into our world.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.