December 3, 2009
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might, come among us; inspire us with your Word and fill us with your joy, we pray. Amen.
More than 20 years ago author and Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum captivated the minds and hearts of readers with a volume of essays written to summarize and illustrate his Credo, his belief system, his philosophy of life, if you will. All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten captured the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years, and even now, its simple wisdom resonates deeply with us as we struggle with living in an increasingly complex world.
In his first chapter, Fulghum writes,
Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school. These are the things I learned:
- Share everything.
- Play fair.
- Don't hit people.
- Put things back where you found them.
- Clean up your own mess.
- Don't take things that aren't yours.
- Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
- Wash your hands before you eat.
- Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
- Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
- Take a nap every afternoon.
- When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
In the years since these words were published, Fulghum has been both praised for capturing the essence of what is important in life, and criticized for been too simplistic, too saccharine, and trite. What strikes me, as I reread these words, though, is how similar they are in theme to John the Baptist’s replies to his audience in today’s gospel when asked, “What then should we do?”
We don’t often think of John the Baptist as one who gives advice on how to live—at least not specific advice. “Prepare the way,” we hear him cry; “Repent, and make way for the one who is to come.” But what does it mean to repent, anyway? When we repent of our sins, most of the time we mean that we are sorry, and that we won’t do it—whatever it is—again.
That’s fine as far as it goes. But the Greek word which we translate as repent—metanoia—has a deeper meaning. Metanoia connotes turning away—turning away from those things that are bad for us, that are evil, that separate us from God. But when we turn away from those things, are we turning towards a vacuum? What is it that will replace them? Any good behavioral psychologist will tell you that to get rid of an undesirable behavior, you must replace it with one that is more desirable. So when we turn away from our sins—from those things that separate us from God—we must turn towards something new, something that will draw us ever closer to God.
John the Baptist is preaching in the wilderness to a varied audience, one comprised of the crowds who flocked to hear him, often poor and marginalized themselves, but also soldiers and tax collectors. It is to this scruffy, rag-tag group that his comments are directed today. To the crowds he says to share what they have; to the tax collectors, whose jobs regularly included extorting extra funds to line their own pockets, he advises not taking more than they should. And to the soldiers, who like the tax collectors, had the power to take more for themselves, he says, “Be satisfied with what you have.”
Don’t be a bully.
Yes, it’s that simple. Like Robert Fulghum’s advice, it’s the stuff you learned in kindergarten. And yet, at the same time, it’s radical.
It’s radical because it’s the kind of behavior that we preach to our kids and claim to embrace ourselves, and in spite of that, it sometimes runs against our very grain to actually do it. It’s the kind of behavior that we don’t hesitate to put aside when doing so serves us better. Its very simplicity makes it vulnerable to our darker sides—our desires to get ahead, to put our self-interest first, to exert our power over others because we can.
It seems too easy, and yet it is so hard.
John the Baptist likely knew this, preaching at he did in the midst of his stern warnings to prepare the way…look at how he started off: You brood of vipers! Don’t rest on your laurels, don’t feel safe because you are descendants of Abraham! Trees that bear no fruit are torn up by their roots! Beware!
Only when he has completely grabbed the attention of his audience, only when he has them shaken up a bit, does he go on to give them the good news. Another is coming, one who will baptize them in the spirit. And in the meantime, this is how they should live.
The one who comes after John, Jesus the Messiah, of course, takes up this same good news, preaching it over and over again.
Don’t be a bully.
We preachers who dwell on this message have sometimes been accused, like Robert Fulghum, of being trite. We’re accused of reducing the gospel message to nothing more than a lesson in ethical behavior. We’ve been charged with making Jesus (and John the Baptist, since he’s our preacher today) nothing more than a teacher of morality, and of overlooking the message of the cross. But I think that charge is unfair. Because this message is at the VERY HEART of the gospel. It’s what Jesus taught all the way to the cross, and he sums it up when he summarizes the law: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like unto it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. And if you do that, it becomes the well-spring from which everything else Jesus preached naturally flows. It becomes the foundation on which the kingdom of God that Jesus promises us is built. It becomes the linchpin in our salvation.
John foreshadows that message with his prophetic cry today. His rag tag audience asks, “What should we do?” and he answers them. We come before God each and every week often asking that same question, “What should we do?” and John’s advice is good for us, too.
Don’t be a bully.
What might our world be like if we REALLY behaved that way? Not superficially, not just when it suited us, but ALL the time, in every situation? I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that if we really behaved that way—in all places and in all times—that we’d be ready for Jesus to come. We’d be ready for the joy Paul describes in his letter to the Philippians. We’d be ready for the savior.
So what do you think? What should we do?
Don’t be a bully.
Love God and love your neighbor.
Open your hearts to the joy that is the Christ Child.