Sunday, December 17, 2006

Third Sunday of Advent

Luke 3
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

It seems there are a lot of people who believe in destiny. Some surveys put the number at nearly sixty percent of the population believing that their fate is determined, or it was destiny that they arrived where they find themselves.

Some speak of their “lot in life,” as if there is some giant drawing of lots and each of us picks a length of straw that determines the outline of our lives. It is a compelling idea, and an idea with some formidable lineage. Remember the Fates? The Greeks gave us the Fates, your destiny represented in three women: one spun, one measured, and one cut.

The idea of your lot in life, however, goes much deeper than a woman with big scissors. It touches on how people perceive their place in the world or how the world places people within it. Case in point. Not long ago, women who pursued higher education were largely relegated to education or nursing. Their lot in life was predetermined not-so-much by any cosmic factors, but rather the limited imaginations of those who maintained societal norms. In other words, everyone. It was only through the gradual breaking down of these limitations that teaching and nursing became choices rather than the destiny of educated women.

Taking this topic a little further, is seems that researchers have found a link between how people perceive their lot in life and how well they heal. From the University of Bath, a study that reveals that people who report that they are content with their lot in life are less likely to be readmitted to hospital following surgery. They conclude:

"In a nutshell, quality of life is about people's perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns".*

In other words, it is not your actual situation that determines well-being so much as how you perceive your situation. The scientists concluded that feeling “fed up” with your situation is more dangerous than your situation itself.

Suddenly you are looking for the segue and the remote possibility that the preacher is saying that those who don’t have their Christmas shopping done should simply accept their fate and live contented. Not at all. The segue, if I can be so bold, is in you. Do you believe that you have a “lot in life?” If so, have you accepted it? Or do you prefer to believe that each day brings a random series of events that form the general outline of your life but have no overall direction or conclusion?


7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

John the Baptist didn’t have a copy of Dale Carnegie’s “How it Win Friends and Influence People.” He was a prophet, some argue the last great prophet, who took on the task of “telling forth” the unpleasant news that those around him needed to hear. Set up there in the desert, he was open to all comers. He preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and made it personal.

Like all good prophets (or parents), he anticipates the excuses before they arrive. ‘Don’t start by saying ‘We have Abraham as our Father’ or some other lame excuse related to lineage. God doesn’t care a whit that you’re children of Abraham: God could turn these stones into children of Abraham and they would have as much to brag about.’

As excuses go, however, it was a good one. Then, as now, we establish our lineage to establish our place. Or we establish our lineage to establish our credibility. I love Queen’s University, but I didn’t love the fact that the most common “getting to know you” question among undergrads was “what does your father do,” because the question summed up all the questioner needed to know about my family and me. By happy coincidence, when I started at Queen’s my father was briefly out of work, and so I had the pleasure of introducing the “human face” of unemployment to Canada’s next generation of leaders. Call me the snob anti-snob (anti-snob snob?).

What the religious leaders confronting John were on about was the abiding belief that your heritage defines you. It was their lot in life to be born pious Jews, and to become learned teachers, because that is what their fathers did and their fathers before them. Beyond that, the whole system was based on the belief that being born into the Covenant was enough to set you on a path to righteousness and faithful living.

Call it theology good and bad. On the good side, we have the belief that we are God’s and God has known us since the moment of our inception. Psalm 139 says “you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.” This is the kind of intimate relationship we enjoy with the Maker of All Things.

On the bad side, we have a bunch of scholars and religious leaders around John the Baptist claiming that their religious ancestry gives them immunity and supercedes any need to get right with God. To this Jesus would later inject the ultimate leveling aphorism: “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Mark 10.31). John first, and Jesus after him, would reject the idea that birth defined who you are, or that your fate is somehow sealed.

Tertullian, a second-century Father of the church, famously remarked that “Christians are made, not born.” In other words, you can’t be born Christian in the same way Windsors are born royal or Mac users are born better than the rest of us. It’s an interesting question, and I think Tertullian has been fighting an uphill battle from the beginning. Even our long-helm belief in infant baptism is a subtle claim that we are somehow born Christian and the rite simply bears that out.

At a recent Emerging Spirit workshop I began with the question “how old were you when you first entered the church and did you walk in or were you carried?” Of the twenty of so in my worshop, only two could claim to have entered church under their own steam for the first time, but quickly admitted that they were too young to actually remember the event. See the problem? There, in a workshop meant to train people to welcome adults coming to a church for the very first time, not one participant had the experience of actually coming to church as an adult.

Truth be told, I have been asking this question in a few places for a few years and have discovered that the vast, vast majority of people I have polled grew up in the church. It is familiar to them. They feel at home. It is their place and they have a very difficult time entering the experience of the people out there who see an aging brick building and feel intimidated. What are the equivalents? Remember the first time you flew? The first time you went into a funeral home? The first time you were confronted by a crying infant with the words “congratulations, some day this baby will be a teenager”?

The truth is, we need to go out and find the most alien and most unfamiliar activity we could possibly dream of and then we can understand why most churches don’t grow. And we can also understand why the churches that do grow have very intentional programs that require members to bring people to church. “Come with me, don’t be scared, there is nothing to be afraid of, not even the preacher.”

So if John is right, and lineage counts for nothing, and Tertullian is right, and Christians are made and not born, than what are we to do? First, give thanks. Give thanks that our fate is not predetermined and each and every person can enjoy a relationship with Jesus Christ. Second, give thanks. Give thanks that we don’t have a predetermined lot in life that limits our ability to become the people God wishes us to be. At this moment, somewhere…

Someone is giving thanks that the church is a place of new beginnings, where old ways of being and old perceptions of self can be left behind.

Someone is giving thanks that the church is a caring community where expectations of perfection and self-reliance are set aside.

Someone is giving thanks that this church provides help for those in need, regardless of creed or custom, and will continue to do so until Christ returns.

Someone is giving thanks that the church is place where they have found acceptance for who they are and who they chose to fall in love with.

And someone is giving thanks that Christians are made and not born, that they can find a place in this community of faith and know that lineage does not determine status, and that all of us are God’s children.

Thanks be to God. Amen.



Post a Comment

<< Home