Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 13, 2015

2015.12.13 “Common Decency” – Luke 3:7-18

Central United Methodist Church
Common Decency
Luke 3:7-18
Pastor David L. Haley
December 13th, 2015

 saint-john-the-baptist

John 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. Bear 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. Even now the ax 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.”

And the crowds asked him, “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. ”Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 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.”

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.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” – Luke 3: 7 – 18, the New Revised Standard Version

 

Welch-McCarthy-HearingsCommon decency. While those words have a meaning in themselves, they were given special meaning during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, when anti-communist crusader Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin sought to smear before a nationwide television audience, a young attorney named Fred Fisher, for having communist associations. Fisher was a junior attorney in the law firm of Joseph Welch, the chief counsel for the United States Army. Despite Welch’s rebuke for his reckless cruelty, McCarthy kept trying to renew his attack on Fisher, which finally prompted Welch to say:

“Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers Guild. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

While it was not Welch’s rebuke alone, but the courageous reporting of such journalists as Edward R. Murrow, the Army-McCarthy hearings became a turning point in the Red Scare that McCarthy had used to damage the lives and reputations of honorable people across the country.

Now, two weeks from Christmas, we again live in a time of fear, when common decency is questioned. Those under suspicion this time are not eastern European immigrants suspected of being communist, but middle Eastern Muslims, and Christians, and refugees, suspected of being terrorists, which would be like making all Christians suspect for the acts of violence committed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Once again, as in McCarthy’s time, inflammatory politicians manipulate fear to political advantage, tempting not only fearful people but good people, to forget who we are, to forget what our deepest values are, and to change how we live. Once again, it is time to ask, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? “At long last, have you no sense of decency?”

I would submit that it is just such common decency that is asked of us in today’s Gospel, by the One sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, the fiery apocalyptic prophet named John the Baptist.

If you think Donald Trump is incendiary, wait until you meet John the Baptist! While Christians today think pastors with tattoos and piercings exotic, John took religious exotica to a whole new level. Given how he talked to those who had come out to hear him, calling them “brood of vipers,” reminding those proud of their Jewish ancestry, that “God is able to raise up from stones children of Abraham,” talking about “the axe lying at the root of the trees,” we might wonder if John himself had common decency?

Why would anyone leave the comfort of Jerusalem or the confines of the Temple, to go out into the wilderness to hear such a wild man preach?

Because – in their time as in our time – fear and discontent were rampant. The homeland of the Jewish people was under occupation by the Romans, who mocked their religion and their allegiance to God alone, not Caesar and the Roman gods. While most people had no choice but to buckle under the boot of Rome, some became rebels, leading insurrections, quickly exterminated. Others, like the Essenes (who may have influenced John) – fled to the wilderness for ritual purity and to wait for the coming of the Messiah. Believing that the Messiah was immanent, John preached to prepare people’s hearts and minds, for repentance, to call them back to their best selves. One of those who would heed John’s message was a young man from Nazareth named Jesus, John’s cousin. But let’s not get ahead of our story.

But what’s most interesting is this: given his apocalyptic fervor and his prophetic demeanor, what John asks of them and of us seems mild, even lame. When the crowds ask, ”What shall we do?” John tells them that they are to be honest (“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”), kind (“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”) and to work hard (“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”). Isn’t this what we learned in kindergarten, to share and be nice to one another? Surely, John, is this all it takes to avoid the final judgment and enter paradise?

According to John, the answer is yes. Whether the end of the world or the long-awaited Messiah is coming or both, the Kingdom he inaugurates doesn’t arrive through grand actions or heroic deeds, but through such simple acts as sharing what we have, being honest with each other, working hard and resisting the urge to be bullies. By doing such things, even ordinary people help usher in the kingdom that is coming, that Jesus will soon announce. What John asks of us is that regardless of when or how God’s kingdom arrives, we are to live like it’s here, regardless of what the demagogues of our age or any age say.

On the face of it, it seems TOO simple.  But is this not what the ancient prophet Micah meant when he said:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8)

Aren’t these the values we want to pass on to our children? Recently the Today show (November 24, 2015) hosted a segment about what values we want to teach our children. According to an NBC poll, honesty topped the charts (43%), followed by kindness (29%), a strong work ethic (11%) and others. Doesn’t that line up with John the Baptist’s message in our Gospel today? Don’t we want our children to have common decency?

What would it look like if all political candidates running for president demonstrated common decency? What about elected leaders? What about law enforcement officers? (To be fair, I believe the majority in all these categories do practice common decency.)

What about us? What would it look like if we went from church looking for not for opportunities to be grandiose and heroic, but to be honest, kind, and hardworking? Acting on the belief that in a culture that is impatient, immature, and fearful; being honest, kind, and hardworking can really make a difference. Even in the darkness of the dangerous world we live in, what might happen if we do not retreat from, but redouble our efforts to be honest, kind, and hardworking, to meet the needs of those around us, to reach out to those who struggle, to witness to our belief that the life, death, and resurrection have made a lasting and irreversible difference in our lives.

In a world that sometimes feels like it’s falling apart, these seem like small gestures. According to John and Jesus, however, there are no small gestures, only random acts of kindness and goodness that demonstrate our common decency, make a difference in the world, and make real the kingdom of God on earth.

Just one example: of all the countries in Europe that have suffered economically, Greece has likely been hit hardest. So you might think that when hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees wind up on their shores, they would be the least sympathetic and the most averse to helping, while they themselves are in such bad shape. But exactly the opposite seems to be true. Here’s one example to illustrate.

TwoPicturesThese two pictures were shot on the same day in the Greek capital of Athens. They could well carry the title “before and after.” The photo on the left (before) was taken by photographer Alexandros Michailidis in Victoria Square, where many refugees stop before continuing their journey across Europe. It’s a photo like countless others, depicting the despair of people who have lost everything. The photo on the right (after) was shot in the house of Athens resident, Ariadni Theodosiadou. The same family that was getting drenched in Victoria Square, she welcomed into her home, offering them food, a warm bath and, most importantly, compassion.

Ariadni says, “It all started when I was sitting at home one night when it was raining, when, watching the news, I realized that while I was cozy at home, right next to me there were people in very difficult conditions. I thought it was completely inhuman to sit around not being able to help. So, the next morning, I went to Victoria Square, got clothes from my house and some food from the supermarket. What I saw was over- whelming: children of all ages, mothers, all of them wet, in a terrible state . . . I handed out the clothes and food and then a kid from Syria came over. He appeared to be living in Greece because he spoke Greek and he was probably there to help out, too. I asked him to tell these people that a family could come over to my place if they wanted to. It was completely spontaneous. I thought it was the least I could do in this situation.

The boy came back with 30 to 40 people.

“I thought at that moment that maybe my first priority should be the children,” Ariadni explained. “So I took this family I saw, a mother with a 21-year-old son and a daughter of around 20, who had two daughters herself, one 6 months and the other about 7 years old.”

At her home, no one communicated with words – her guests didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak their language. She couldn’t ask about them, about their story, what had forced them to embark on such a harsh journey, how such a young woman had a 7-year-old child, what they had been through and where they were going.

“We were communicating with gestures but our under- standing was perfect. When they started feeling more comfortable, something magic came out of this, ” she said.  She doesn’t even know where they came from. “I didn’t ask and I didn’t care. Asking would have been racist and pointless,” she said. “If you want to offer help you don’t ask for an ID. I saw babies who were wet, I am not going to ask where they are from, I will try to protect them.”

Ariadni said her spontaneous action made her feel good. “I managed to put a smile on the faces of people who had been through so much. The kids didn’t stop laughing.”

“The reason I made it public was because I thought that more people should do the same,” she added. “What came to me spontaneously, others could also do. Just one person won’t change anything. But if others did it too, there would be no kids staying on the street.”

After posting her photos to Facebook, Ariadni got dozens of responses. Some people were touched and asked her how they could help and where they could take stuff. “It gave me enormous joy. I thought this country has hope,” she said. Others asked her why she didn’t help Greeks in need. “Us Greeks should give a good example for those in need, in the tradition of ancient Greek hospitality,” she told them. “For Greeks who don’t have food to eat, for refugees who don’t have shelter, for stray animals tortured on the street. Let’s not always judge and let’s find the compassion within. Only in this way can this country move forward. With love.” (Angeliki Kougiannou, “The Two Faces Of Greece’s Response To The Refugee Crisis”, Huffpost Greece, October 01, 2015).

“Common decency,” we call it. Despite what demagogues may say, let us not retreat from it, but practice it, in the name of our Master Jesus. Amen.

(As many weeks, I want to acknowledge my gratitude to David Lose’s insightful commentary on this text, “Ordinary Saints,” (12-7-15) at his blog “In the Meantime.”)

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