Inconvenient Discipleship

Sermon on Luke 3:7-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

This past Friday, my family and I ventured out to procure our Christmas tree. We were in a festive mood: we had a good friend in town, our 17 month old was happy and well-rested, and everyone was finally ready to decorate the house for Christmas. imgresBut when we got to the tree farm, our holiday spirit vanished pretty quickly. The weather was clammy and uncomfortable, the ground was muddy and covered with forsaken tree limbs, the remaining trees were scraggly and hard to come by, and somehow there were gunshots in the distance. It was a little like looking for a tree in a Cormac McCarthy novel. By time we had acquired our tree, I was thoroughly exhausted and feeling not at all festive. As it turns out, my Christmas spirit lasts only as long as it is convenient.

Or perhaps, that experience was preparation for this morning’s gospel reading. Today we return to the banks of the Jordan, to hear John the Baptist angrily call his people to repentance. In the gospel according to Luke, John’s wrath is particularly evident: “You brood of vipers!” he charges. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance, because every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” John, like the fire and brimstone prophets of old, is putting the fear of God into his audience, which is further illustrated by his chilling depiction of the coming Messianic judge: “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.” This fear-based evangelism is not an unfamiliar strategy, and it seems to have been effective for John. Luke tells us that the people who gathered at the Jordan, even the tax collectors and soldiers, were moved to ask what they should do, how they might forestall the coming wrath. Given John’s rhetoric elsewhere, you would think that he would prescribe dramatic acts of contrition. Instead, John’s instructions are astonishingly straightforward. To the soldiers, he says, “Don’t extort money by threats or false accusations.” To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And to everyone else, John the Baptist says simply, “If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have one.” The juxtaposition is startling. Here’s John the Baptist, in a pique of prophetic rage, telling those he has just warned about divine judgment that discipleship isn’t all that hard. In fact, there’s a level to which it is convenient: if you have extra, share what you have left over. It’s really that simple. If John were writing a self help book, it might be titled, “How to succeed in discipleship without really trying.”

John the Baptist shows up in our lectionary fairly regularly, especially during the season of Advent. This is interesting, because this season reminds us that there’s a level to which John got his prediction wrong. At the very least, he seems to have misunderstood the nature of God’s judgment. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus, the one John was preparing us for, wields neither a winnowing fork nor an ax. Later on, in fact, John’s disciples ask Jesus if he is indeed “the one who is to come,” implying that John was disappointed with how the ministry of Jesus was unfolding. In the other gospels, Jesus picks up where John left off, telling parables about separating the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the chaff. But in Luke’s gospel judgment occurs not when God separates the wheat from the chaff, but when people are confronted with and indicted by their failure to apprehend the grace made known in Jesus Christ. In other words, the proclamation of Jesus in Luke’s gospel is fundamentally different than that of his cousin John.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than their different approaches to generosity, particularly when it comes to coats. When John exhorts the crowds who come to be baptized, he tells them that discipleship isn’t all that complicated; it’s as easy as giving away your extra coat. But a few chapters later, in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says “from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” imgresThe implication is that as the person who stole your coat is running away, you should call out and say, “Hold on; you forgot something.” John frames generosity this way: if you are warm and your sister is cold, you should do whatever you can to make your sister warm, as long as that does not make you cold. Jesus, on the other hand, frames generosity in a far more dramatic way: if you are warm and your enemy is cold, you are called to do whatever it takes to make her warm, even if you end up cold. For John the Baptist, generosity is about common sense; it’s about doing what anyone an ounce of compassion would do, about sharing what wouldn’t be difficult to part with. For Jesus, discipleship is an inherently risky proposition; it requires us to become vulnerable, to give of our very selves. Jesus calls us to look beyond what is convenient or safe and risk ourselves on behalf of others. This risky model of discipleship asks us to think about the humanity of Syrian refugees before we think of them as potential enemies. This is an inconvenient discipleship; it transcends common sense and fundamentally changes the way we understand the world.

One night in 2008, Julio Diaz got off the No. 6 train in the Bronx. Suddenly, a teenager brandishing a knife stopped him and demanded his wallet. Diaz immediately complied with the young man’s request, but as he ran away, Diaz called out and said, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.” As Diaz removed his coat, the teen asked him what he was doing. Diaz replied, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money.” Bewildered by this astonishing demonstration of generosity, the would-be mugger accepted Diaz’s invitation to have dinner at the diner he visited every night on his way home. When the bill came, Diaz said that he would be happy to treat, but that the young man had his wallet. Diaz made him a deal though: he would pay for dinner and give the teen $20 in exchange for returning his wallet and handing over the knife. The young man complied without hesitation and went on his way. By risking himself, Julio Diaz saw the humanity of someone who had made himself an enemy. By thinking beyond safety and convenience, Julio Diaz was able to see the young man who robbed him, and indeed the world, in an entirely new way.

In these final weeks of Advent, we are called to reflect on the risk inherent in the incarnation: the fact that God came to what was his own, and yet God’s own people did not accept him. Yet in spite of this rejection, the Word became flesh, dwelled among us, and became the means for our redemption. When we recognize that the entire world has been and will be redeemed through the supreme risk at the heart of the gospel, we can see the world in an entirely new way.

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Here’s Jimmy

I have a confession to make.

Over the past several weeks, my wife and I have been ardent devotees of the Tonight Show.  Every weeknight at 10:34 (CDT), we stop whatever we are doing and turn on the television to watch Jimmy Fallon host a 60 year old television variety show.  We even watch the commercials.

UnknownThis happened quite by accident.  When we saw that Jay Leno’s tenure as the host of the Tonight Show was coming to an end, we decided to watch his final show and take a look at Fallon’s first outing.  Though we were immediately entertained and impressed, we didn’t think it could last long.  Surely Fallon’s habit of breaking or laughing at his own jokes would invariably torpedo the show.  We continued watching, mostly for the sick thrill of watching the show crash and burn.  But something weird happened: it didn’t fail.  In fact, it seems to have returned to the glory days when it was hosted by Johnny Carson. The Tonight Show has only gotten better, to the point that I can say with some confidence that it is currently my favorite thing to watch on television.

How did this happen?  How did a somewhat annoying television personality and his team revitalize a storied, yet struggling institution?  It occurs to me that there are three things Jimmy Fallon does as the host of the Tonight Show.  First, he has an enormous amount of respect, almost reverence for the institution that he has been tasked with stewarding.  Fallon frequently makes reference to the Tonight Show’s storied past, celebrating the lives of those who have performed and been interviewed  under its banner.  Second, Fallon is willing to use new means to engage his audience.  He is an avid user of social media and he encourages participation by the people watching at home.  Even if you’ve never sent anything to the show, you get the sense that your opinion and your participation matters. Finally, Jimmy Fallon exhibits an infectious enthusiasm for his work.  When he jokes with Higgins during his monologue or banters with The Roots during an interview or plays a silly game with his guest, he exudes a spirit of awe, a sense that he can’t believe he has the great privilege of doing what he does.  All of these combine to create a Tonight Show that is engaging, innovative, and exciting to watch.

It occurs to me that these three elements of Jimmy Fallon’s hosting of the Tonight Show are really important when we think about revitalization in the Church.  In some ways, the Church and the Tonight Show have been in similar places: both are storied institutions that have been struggling with questions of “relevance” over the past few decades.  I think, however, that Jimmy Fallon shows us a few things we can do to breathe life into our church communities.  First, we can have respect for the institution we have been called to steward, to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, from apostles and martyrs to church members of generations past.  At the same time, we must be willing to try new ways of engaging with the people in our communities, whether that is through social media or other means.  People should be able to look at our churches and feel as though they are connected to them, even if they’ve only visited once or twice before.  Finally, and most importantly, we must recognize what a great privilege discipleship truly is.  We have been given a wonderful inheritance and a wonderful opportunity to serve Jesus Christ in the world.  I pray that each one of us will have grace to recognize this opportunity and embrace the community we have been called to serve.

Hospitality

There’s a video making the rounds on various social media platforms.

For those who didn’t watch, the video follows a man dressed like a waiter as he delivers meals to homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles.  The meals are arranged on plate and require flatware.  As he delivers the food, he says things like, “Sorry about the wait, sir” and “Did you have the chicken?”  The people who receive these meals greet the guy with a mixture of surprise and appreciation.  Towards the end of the video, we see one recipient share part of his meal with an acquaintance.

On one hand, there is a very kitschy character to this video.  It’s dripping with sentimentality and a little self-congratulation, and was clearly designed to be shared as many times as possible (I’m just doing my part).  On the other hand, there is something very beautiful about this man’s service to the people in his community.  By dressing up as a waiter and serving a meal that requires a fork and knife, this man starts with the fundamental assumption that everyone is entitled to their dignity, no matter what their life circumstances may be.  More importantly, this video reminds us how important relationships are.  After receiving their meals, nearly all of the recipients introduced themselves to the guy dressed as a waiter.  Every encounter depicted in the video started a conversation.  Notably, it was typically the people being “served” who took this next step in building a relationship.

We often get caught up in the notion of doing things for those who are “less fortunate” than we are.  In some ways, there is nothing wrong with this.  If we have an abundance of something, we are called to share it.  But this is very basic discipleship.  This was the minimum standard that John the Baptist articulated to usurious soldiers and greedy officials at the beginning of Luke’s gospel.  Jesus calls us to a much deeper level of commitment.  Jesus tells us that if someone steals our coat, we should call them back and say, “Wait! Take my shirt too!”  I don’t think this is because Jesus wants us all to walk around shirtless (ahem, Matthew McConaughey); I think this is because giving someone our shirt after they have our coat requires us to build a relationship.  It requires us to call that person back and find out why they took our coat, to find out how we can work together to improve their experience of life.  Ideally, we are called to do things with those who need help, to recognize that we are all part of the same creation, to embrace the fact that we are all people for whom Christ died.