Sunday, December 17, 2006

Joyful, Costly Grace

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
Year C: The Third Sunday of Advent
December 17, 2006

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Philippians 4:4-9
Psalm 85
Luke 3:7-18

Joyful, Costly Grace

You know, Advent is kind of a two-sided season. On the one side we spend these four Sundays getting ready for the big celebration of Christmas. And so hopefully in the midst of all the usual holiday busyness we spend some time reflecting on what it means that God so loved the world that He sent us Jesus. But then there’s that other side of Advent when we are supposed to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus – the last days, the days of judgment. And so hopefully in the midst of all the usual holiday busyness we spend some time reflecting on parts of our life that need some work – the times when have we failed to love God and love our neighbor. That’s why during Advent churches like ours are decorated in purple – the same color we use during Lent.

Now, the way it’s supposed to work is that the first two Sundays of Advent are when we focus on the Second Coming – so they’re more serious and somber. But, the second two Sundays are when we get ready for the joy of Christmas. And today, the third Sunday of Advent, is supposed to be the most joyful – that’s why we break from the purple and use a pink candle.

Of course you all know that when I realized that I would be leaving House of Prayer I didn’t feel very joyful at all. But when Pastor Judy and I decided that I would end my time here today, I thought well at least it’s the third Sunday of Advent – the most joyful Sunday of Advent. So even if we’re not feeling particularly joyful at least I can count on today’s lessons to lift our spirits.

And things started off well didn’t they? Those readings from Zephaniah and Philippians are joyful aren’t they? Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Psalm 85 is one of my favorites with that wonderful line “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” And then we turn to the Gospel and once again we join the crowds going down to the Jordan to be baptized by John.

And John greets us with – “You brood of vipers!” These people who are so eager to be baptized – John calls them snakes! Hey wait a second! What happened to the joyful third Sunday of Advent? I mean, we have the pink candle and everything! Why would the church offer this reading today? It certainly doesn’t sound very joyful to be called a snake!

I mean, it’s not a compliment right? We wouldn’t say, “Oh, Chris is a great guy – he’s a real snake!” No, we call people snakes when they are mean, selfish and sneaky. Snakes probably get a bad rap, but it’s no accident that the devil takes the form of a serpent in the Garden of Eden story. Snakes are slithering, slinky and scary. It’s just not very nice to call someone a snake.

Especially these people going down to the Jordan – they seem to be doing the right thing. I mean, they are going to John to be baptized – it’s not like they’ve gone to make fun of him or to hurt him. It doesn’t seem very polite for John to welcome these people by calling them “a brood of vipers” – a bunch of snakes. It sure doesn’t seem like a good way to grow your church! Could you imagine if we welcomed people here to House of Prayer by calling them snakes? During the announcements we could have them stand up, tell us their names, and then we’d all shout – you brood of vipers!”

But, despite the insults, people keep coming to John to hear him preach and to be baptized by him in the Jordan. So what’s John up to? Well, he knows these people. He knows that they think all they have to do is get dunked in the Jordan and everything will be all right between them and God. These people think that just because they are Jews – sons and daughters of Abraham – then they are all set. John rejects all those assumptions and warns them - and us - that faithfulness to God is not so easy – it’s not about getting a splash of water or belonging to a certain group of people. John tells them - and tells us - that faithfulness to God requires us to repent and to sacrifice. Really John is saying we need to change our ways. Why? Because when we repent and sacrifice we open our hearts and allow God to transform us. Not easy, but definitely worth it.

You know, I’m reminded of my time as a high school teacher. At the start of the school year every once and a while a kid would let me know how happy he was that he got a teacher we’ll call “Mr. Smith” - who everyone knew was very easy. Probably hoping to get me to react, the student would say something like, “It’s great, Mr. Murphy. In Mr. Smith’s class we don’t have to read the textbook or have tests and quizzes. We just get to talk about politics and sports. He’s so cool!” I would nod and smile and say something like, “Good for you – sounds like you’ve got it made.” Then a few months would go by and I’d see that same kid and I’d ask, “Hey, how’s it going? Are you still enjoying Mr. Smith’s class?” And very often the student would put on kind of a half smile and admit that, although Mr. Smith was a great guy and all, he did kind of miss the reading and the quizzes.

I guess this actually was a pretty good learning experience for kids like that. Because in school as in all of life it’s only through challenge and sacrifice and, yes, some suffering that we are able to grow and move toward fulfilling our potential. It’s only through challenge and sacrifice that we are transformed. Not easy, but definitely worth it.

So John warns the crowd and warns us. If we’re serious about being faithful to God, it’s going to cost us. If we’re serious about being faithful to God, we’ll have to give away that second coat. If we’re serious about being faithful to God it’s going to cost us.

Maybe some of you have heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German pastor, theologian and martyr who was actually very much influenced by the time he spent in the 1930s studying at Union Seminary in New York. While he was in New York on Sundays he would visit some of the black churches in Harlem, most especially Abyssinian Baptist Church. There he fell in love with the Spirituals and he was moved by preachers who knew and preached that faithfulness to God came at a cost.

Later Bonhoeffer wrote a wonderful book called The Cost of Discipleship. In it he wrote about what he called cheap grace and costly grace. He writes that cheap grace is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Bonhoeffer doesn’t come right out and say it, but cheap grace is no grace at all.

For Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John the Baptist – and I believe for all of us – the only real grace is costly grace. Bonhoeffer writes that costly grace is “costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.” For Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John the Baptist – two men who gave their lives for the truth - the only real grace is costly grace. And for us, too, as followers of Jesus Christ, the only real grace is costly grace.

In a real way I know that this morning I am what they call “preaching to the choir.” If ever there was a church that knew about costly grace, it’s this beautiful House of Prayer. Over the past year and a half as I have gotten to know you – to know this place – time and again I have been deeply moved by the many sacrifices that you have made to keep this church going. I have been inspired by the generosity and genuine care that you show each other week after week, year after year. I am sure, like my high school student, there have been many times when you wished just for once it could be easy – that it didn’t have to always be such a struggle. I am sure that like those people who stood before John the Baptist there have been times when you thought that you were entitled to have this church and shouldn’t have to work so hard at it. But if it were easy I’m not sure the Circle of Prayer would be quite so powerful. If it were easy, I’m not sure this church would be as special as it is - and be so difficult for me to leave.

Like John the Baptist and Dietrich Bonhoeffer we know that there is only one way. We know the only real grace is costly grace. We know there is no Christmas without Advent. We know there is no forgiveness without repentance, no love without sacrifice, no life without suffering. And as I’ve said before from this pulpit, if we ever forget that the living God is a suffering God – here at House of Prayer there’s a powerful reminder hanging right over the altar.

You know, it’s interesting that John chose to call those people snakes. I’m sure John was trying to insult them – or at least to get their attention. But although they are slithery and slinky and scary, snakes also have the amazing ability to shed their skin all in one piece. They shed their skin to get rid of parasites – they shed their skin to stay alive. Although in our tradition snakes have been mostly associated with evil, other cultures have seen the snake – with its ability to be transformed by shedding its skin - as a powerful symbol of renewal and resurrection.

And really, isn’t that what John the Baptist was trying to teach the crowds? Isn’t Baptism all about renewal and resurrection? Isn’t our Christian faith all about renewal and resurrection? And isn’t House of Prayer all about renewal and resurrection? Look around – God is faithful. All the hard work, all the sacrifice and suffering has brought House of Prayer to this time of renewal and resurrection. We can taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Together, thanks be to God, we snakes are shedding our skin and beginning a new life!

What do you know? This Third Sunday of Advent is joyful after all.