The Sunday Sermon: From Vipers to Fields of Fruit

Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
12/12/2021

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” John the Baptizer’s pronouncement is not typically how we greet folks at church these days. Certainly, it’s not how your newly minted Associate for Congregational Life, moi, would open a conversation about, say, stewardship, or fundraising. I can’t imagine our Bishop Susan of Presiding Bishop Curry opening almost any conversation this way either.

All joking aside, John’s words echo through the ordinary, cutting a sharp relief from the opulence of so much in our contemporary society, drawing our attention to repentance. So of course, his audience then and we now are forced to ask the question: ‘“What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”’ This is a not-so-subtle call towards a sort of leveling of things in the Gospel of Luke. Indeed, just before this passage John the Baptizer was quoting Isaiah:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

            This leveling, our straightening out of things in expectation of God’s coming salvation pervades Luke’s gospel, as it brings into view people who would normally be on the fringes of society regardless of the era. The poor, the sick, the impoverished, the neglected, and the dispossessed are often directly involved in Luke’s stories. In that sense, John the Baptizer is no exception in drawing our attention to those uncomfortable edges of our common life. Where he is exceptional, at least in my view, is his total dedication to that very cause. As Dean Penny stated in her sermon last week, John the Baptizer didn’t follow his father’s footsteps towards the priesthood, he stayed on those very margins, and looked like it.

            And in our passage from today, John the Baptizer goes even further with an unlikely crowd who come to him: tax collectors and soldiers. In classical Palestine, tax collectors, particularly those who were from occupied communities, such as the Jewish people, were considered traitors with corrupt practices. They ask him: ‘“Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”’ Even the soldiers, likely fellow Jews under the employ of Herod Antipas, sought a step towards repentance. ‘Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”’

            Note that each version of repentance John proclaims are actions, not merely thoughts and prayers. Repentance is not just a change in thought pattern or sense of the heart, although it must begin there. Repentance really is meant as transformation of action as well as mind. The word Luke uses here for repentance here is “μετανοία” which etymologically is “understanding-after”. It implies reflection, or discernment, after one has lived and chosen actions. At its core, it is about making amends for the actions we now realize were harmful, such as not sharing with the poor, such as being corrupt, such as abusing power.

            Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to simply revert to thoughts and prayers in the wake of harms we have done. Saying “sorry” is relatively low cost. Changing our minds, or merely saying the right words is feasible, whereas truly making amends requires some sort of cost to us, like shedding power, profit, or privilege. Those are true challenges. If this makes us uncomfortable to think about, then we are taking John’s message seriously. For John the Baptizer, it’s not enough for us to merely say the right thing or write the righteous thing down and put it on a plaque, and it is not enough to proclaim with authentically living the proclamation. It sets us up for tough decisions, requiring a great deal of discernment. But there is a tension between the need for discernment and amendment of life on one hand, and the urgency of change on the other.

            To quote the gospel again: ‘As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”’

            Now, I want to be clear that when I read about the winnowing fork and an unquenchable fire, I am not worried about hell or damnation. The one who is coming, according to John, is ready to baptize with fire, so how can an unquenchable fire be bad in this case? Instead, working with John’s agricultural metaphor, remember that farmers throughout the world burn chaff to fertilize the field for future planting. I personally believe this is what John is getting at, that the unquenchable fire is the Holy Spirit’s purifying flame of repentance and hope. Then the unquenchable fire is discernment that allows our past mistakes to give new life to our future.

That’s far more in-line with the metaphor John uses and offers a straightening or leveling of any mercurial crookedness in our lives. Of course, we will not accomplish all this perfectly on our own as humans. That’s why it is helpful, I think, to see the unquenchable fire as God’s Spirit perpetually purifying us, rather than as a tragic end. God is never done with anything, and even our mistakes can become fertile ground for planting new things to bear great fruit. How else could an unquenchable fire be perceived as good news to those present with John, or in our own time?

            The God who is never done with anything, the God who is a patient and abundant gardener, continually calls us through prophets away from withering and despair into wholeness. The things that need unquenchable fire are not in and of themselves evil. Remember that a seed is vulnerable, and that chaff is necessary for the seed to be protected before it is ready to sprout. Only once the seed begins to grow does chaff become useless. But that’s precisely why you burn it, to bring it back into usefulness, in a form to be spread on the fields of our lives in hopes of an even greater harvest cycle.

            In our repentance, we shed the old habits to give new life to who we are. We are watered in baptism, grown in light, and bear fruit in due season. We bring humility to where we puff ourselves up, we make straight our crooked ways, and shed old ways to discern what we are called into next, with God’s help. The Holy Spirit transforms the chaff of our lives into the seedbed of God’s infinite possibilities. And it is on those margins, with the poor, the sick, the impoverished, the neglected, and the dispossessed, that we will see the greatest fruits of compassion, humility, mercy, and love.

            If we heed the call of John the Baptizer, we can, through the power of the Holy Spirit, transform from a brood of vipers into fields of life-giving love. We are not perfect, but we’re not merely our mistakes. In God’s eyes, the good outweighs the bad even on our worst days, because the possibility of purifying ourselves is never ending. Perhaps it’s even good to have a lot of chaff in our lives, because God can prepare more fields for fruit with it. John knew that, Luke knew that, and Jesus will show us the way to grow. Amen.

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