Sunday, December 05, 2010

Advent II

Matthew 3
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’* 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume 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. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 ‘I baptize you with* water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

Last week, my son’s girlfriend described my brother and me as two of the coolest old people she knows.

Do I laugh or cry? Do I feel joy or sorrow? How do I rationalize this bittersweet turn of events? Surely a 21 year-old can be trusted to determine who is cool (and who is not). But can she be trusted to determine who is old? No, she can’t. So I’ll take the descriptor, and wear it for a while, but my secret wish is to be edgy. Who doesn’t want to appear at least a little edgy?

Sadly, there is generally nothing edgy about being a minister. Try as I might, I just can’t seem to develop a sense of edge. I tried a leather jacket for a while, and just ended up looking like a middle-aged guy in a leather jacket. No one has ever said “watch out for that guy, he’s my minister,” at least not to my knowledge. And so, with my alarming lack of edge, I give you someone truly edgy, the Rev. Leslie Spracklin.

Leslie Spracklin had edge. We learned about Rev. Spracklin on a recent trip to Windsor, Ontario, as we were treated to a sample of the Rum Runner’s Tour of various Prohibition-era sites in and around the city. Carmen’s Aunt Marilyn has a starring role in the tour, with a dramatic turn as a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the storyteller who relates the tale of the infamous “Fighting Parson.”

Beginning in 1916, Ontario experienced 11 longs years as a “dry” province, where the sale and consumption of alcohol was illegal. Luckily for Windsor, and specifically the neighbourhood called Walkerville, the manufacture and export of alcohol was still perfectly legal. You just couldn’t sell it locally, or across the river in Detroit. Cuba was still buying Canadian rye, and became the destination of choice—and so a strange fiction developed where boats would cast off from Windsor in the morning and somehow make it back from Cuba by the afternoon.

This, of course, made temperance ministers like Spracklin fighting mad. He applied to the province to become a “special temperance enforcement officer” with the right to hire a posse and the right to carry a gun. Week by week, he would rail from the pulpit of his Methodist church, denounce the local rumrunners who became instant millionaires from the illegal trade, and flash his gun to accentuate the point. Leslie Spracklin had edge.

For months, the temperance battle raged: Spracklin would raid and destroy a tavern, rumrunners sprayed the manse with bullets, and in a brief confrontation with the most notorious rumrunner in town, Rev. Spracklin shot him dead. The reverend claimed self-defence, was acquitted twice at trial, and somehow lost the confidence of his congregation. He moved on to Michigan and found another congregation, one more responsive to his unique and edgy style.

From another bully pulpit, someone else with edge said these words:

‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume 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. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Jesus and John make an interesting pair. One says “consider the lilies” and the other calls his guests at the riverside a “brood of vipers.” One says we need to have the faith of a child, and the other is hacking down rotten spiritual trees and casting them into the fire. And yet, John the Baptism gains the remarkable honour of baptizing Jesus, the starting point of any recounting of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

This baptism by John, in the Jordan, has caused no small amount of scandal for the church. In part, I’m leaping ahead a month, but it remains key to understanding John to ponder his role in the Gospel narrative. For centuries, theologians have tried to imagine why the Son of God would choose to submit to baptism by John. Why participate in an upside-down ritual whereby the source and inspiration of every baptism would slip below the water himself? It simply makes no sense that the incarnation of God, the author of every sacrament, would enter a ritual that would seem to belong to him alone.

I would argue that John is Jesus’ edge. Jesus forgives sin, he tells parables, and he would much rather eat and drink with his friends. Sure, he has the occasional moment of edge, at least among those who would turn the temple into a Money Mart, but by-in-large Jesus just doesn’t have the edgy exterior of John the Baptist. In this sense they need each other, John to do the anger work, and Jesus to forgive everyone who deserves the anger.

Maybe this is best illustrated late in Matthew (21) when Jesus shares the Parable to the Two Sons:

28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father* went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

There are two things to notice in this passage: the first is that even when Jesus is confronting his arch-nemesis (self-righteous religious people) he can’t bring himself to fully condemn them. Tax-collectors and prostitutes are going to the Kingdom of God ahead of the self-righteous, and not in their place. He wants to have edge, and maybe cast someone into the fire, but he just can’t seem to bring himself to do it.

Second is the neat summary of John: “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him…” This, then, is the job description of “the voice crying in the wilderness.” John is the cry for purity, for holiness, for a baptism of repentance. Maybe it was John that Jesus had in his mind’s eye when he said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”


Down on Gerrard Street, very near to Yonge, stands a very impressive and very large brick building that is now the home of Covenant House, the largest youth shelter in Canada. If you look up, near the very top of the building, you will see the name of the original owner of this edifice, the long departed Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The building served as their Canadian headquarters, and it was at least as large as United Church House, and certainly surpassed the size and clout of every other social service agency in the country. By 1921 the WCTU peaked at 350,000 members worldwide, and has since all but disappeared.

If I asked the pulpit, it might reveal to me the last time a temperance sermon was preached here. I try to avoid hypocrisy, so I won’t be preaching one anytime soon, but I know for a fact that every Methodist and later every United Church pulpit pronounced the evils of alcohol. Call it our early righteousness period, when the church could be counted on the rage against the things considered a corrupting force in society, whether it be cards, or rum, or divorce, or shopping on the Lord’s Day.

One by one these evils fell away, sometimes beginning in society and spreading to the church and sometimes the other way around. However it happened, and whatever the issue, the church could be counted on to be the home of righteousness and usually self-righteousness too.

Again, we are left with the question ‘why share readings that call for righteousness when the church seems to have headed in another direction?’ Again, we get two answers. The first is we matured, and we determined that righteousness had less to do with penny-ante poker and more to do with injustice. The second is that we lost our stomach for old-style righteousness and decided that we are forgiveness people instead. We chose Jesus over John, without ever asking the question if there was really a choice to make.

As I wind up here, I don’t want you to get the impression I’m advocating a return to the old days of excessive righteousness. Once and a while some conservative Christian will ask me “Are you United Church people against anything?” No edge there. “We are opposed to gambling and nuclear war,” I will tell them, “and I can proudly say I’ve never started a nuclear war.”

I guess I’m advocating a return to tension, an Advent return to the days when we asked ourselves if our choices are good and right for ourselves, for our neighbourhood, and for society at large. I’m advocating a tension whereby we never say something is “inevitable” or “the way of the world,” much in the way that the proponents of Sunday shopping in PEI have been saying just last week. I’m advocating the occasion look back, to a place where maybe we weren’t so wrong after all, without citing any examples, and just leaving it to your imagination.

Advent is about holy tension, the John-Jesus divide between judgement and forgiveness, and the place of both in our life together. It is about preparedness, and walking the way, and looking forward to the birth of new life, and what that means for each of us. Thanks be to God, Amen.


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