Matthew 3:1-12 Isaiah 1:1-10
I received a story in an e-mail from someone a few years ago with which I would like to start this reflection.
It’s a story about two brothers living on adjoining farms. An issue developed between them one day which grew into a really nasty rift. Bitter words and weeks of silence resulted. It was the first serious disagreement between them while farming side-by-side. They shared machinery, helped each other with chores and even shared seeds with one another.
There was a knock on the older brother's door one morning a few weeks after the silence started. He opened the door to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. The visitor said, “I’m looking for a few days of work. Perhaps you have a few small jobs here or there that I could help with? Is there some way I could help you?”
The older brother responded: “As a matter of fact, yes, I do have a job for you. If you look across that creek, you’ll see a farm. That’s my neighbor. In fact, it’s my younger brother! Last week, there was a meadow between us. He recently took his bulldozer to the river levee, and now there is a creek between us.
“He may have done this to spite me, but I’m going to do him one better. See that pile of lumber by the barn? I want you to build me a fence - an 8’ fence so I won’t need to see his place, or his face, anymore.”
The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails, and the post-hole digger, and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.”
The older brother had to go to town, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day. The carpenter worked hard all day – measuring, sawing, nailing. About sunset, when the farmer returned, the carpenter had just finished the job.
The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. There was no fence. Instead, there was a bridge . . . a bridge that stretched from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work, with handrails, and everything!!
And then the older brother noticed his younger brother coming toward them with his hand outstretched. And the younger brother said as he approached his older brother, “You are really something, building this bridge, after all I’ve said and done.”
The two brothers met in the middle of the bridge and embraced. They turned around just in time to see the carpenter hoisting his toolbox onto his shoulder.
The older brother said, “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you.”
The carpenter said, “I’d love to stay on, but I have many more bridges to build.”
Diana Butler Bass shares in her book Broken We Kneel about the 8:30 a.m. service at the Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D. C. It's planned with the homeless in mind. It’s not unusual during the worship service to have one of the 200 worshipers talking rather loudly to an invisible friend. It’s more than likely that several men will be asleep on the back pews. There will be some who will be standing and singing. It’s “an amazing cross section of humanity for a church,” writes Butler Bass, “unruly, disorderly and utterly hospitable. And holy.” She writes in her book about being told by one of the church members who started coming there when she herself was homeless, “Epiphany is the first church I ever visited that treated me like a human being. Nobody looked at me as if I was going to steal something.” (1)
A pastor was interviewing with the call committee of a church (obviously not a United Methodist Church). The stories the people told made the pastor aware that the church was made up of a lot of different kinds of people – rich and poor, young and old, persons from a wide range of different denominational backgrounds. There were people in the membership who came from some really troubled families and people there with currently troubled families. And yet they obviously got along remarkably well.
The pastor finally asked the committee how they’d been able to assimilate such a variety of people into their fellowship. One of the elders responded: “We just have to love one another. We’re all God’s children.”
It was then that the pastor remembered the logo on the church stationary and understood what it meant. The logo read: “Where hope and hospitality embrace you in the name of Jesus.”
A rowdy, dirty group of homeless men went one year to a church’s annual Christmas dinner. The church’s dinners were family affairs – people off the street, parishioners’ parents and siblings, theater folk who had nowhere to go on holidays – always a weird and wonderful mix. But, everybody didn’t necessarily always get along. One year a group of men managed to annoy somebody’s mother from the suburbs.
The church had a director of music who was quick on his feet. As he sensed tensions rising, he slid his small body behind the piano in the downstairs parish hall and began to boom out the opening lines to “Jingle Bell Rock.” He had an amazing sense of the pastoral ministry of music. By the time they got around to the chorus in “Angels We Have Heard on High,” the homeless guy and the suburban mother, both of whom it turned out had great voices, were standing next to each other harmonizing.
Glimpses of God’s kingdom – glimpses of Isaiah’s vision of God’s kingdom – that’s what these stories describe.
Thundering down through the centuries we have heard another voice every year on this 2nd Sunday of Advent. His voice always rather loudly commands: “REPENT!” As far as that locust and wild-honey eating, rummage-sale dressed character, John the Baptist, was concerned, the way to get ready for the coming of the Messiah – the establishing of God’s kingdom – the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision – the way those who would be a part of the kingdom should act is to eat a little, maybe a whole lot of, humble pie. It involves taking stock of our lives and admitting our human condition – our human frailties – our bad thoughts and our questionable behaviors. It involves us being remorseful – feeling sorry for having done or thought things that create a chasm between us and God or others.
John also makes it quite clear that the repentance he believes is necessary involves a whole lot more than simply feeling sorry for doing wrong. John noted that there must be some “bearing fruit worthy of repentance” (vs. 8).
I would suggest to you that when we "bear fruit worthy of repentance" we catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God Isaiah so beautifully and poetically described in the text - glimpses of wolves living with lambs and leopards lying down with goats and cows feeding with bears - when we see homeless people and church people enjoying dinner together and singing together. We catch glimpses of infants playing near to the entrance to snake’s dens without any fear when those considered outsiders are offered the gift of hospitality – when the rich and poor – the young and the old – persons from every theological angle possible, all ready to experience the natural feelings of hostility, experience instead hospitality.
We catch glimpses of Isaiah’s vision of God’s kingdom when the church bears fruit worthy of repentance – when our mottos aren’t just a cleverly arranged bunch of words read once in awhile or used to take up some space on the front of a bulletin, but words which capture the essence of a church's life together. That church with the logo “Where hope and hospitality embrace you” glorified God by welcoming one another. They were a glimpse of Isaiah’s vision of what God’s kingdom is like. The church is called to be a glimpse of God’s kingdom – a place where and a people who provide hope – a welcoming, hospitable, bridge-building place and people.
That e-mail I received a few years ago ended with a few one-liners that offer some additional ideas about some things we might want to keep in mind when contemplating what some other fruits worthy of repentance might be.
* God won’t ask you what kind of car you drove, but God will ask how many people you helped get where they needed to go.
* God won’t ask the square footage of your house, but God will ask you how many people you welcomed into your home.
* God won’t ask about the clothes you had in your closet, but God will ask how many you helped to clothe.
* God won’t ask how many friends you had, but God will ask how many people to whom you were a friend.
* God won’t ask in what neighborhood you lived, but God will ask how you treated your neighbors.
* God won’t ask about the color of your skin, but God will ask about the content of your character.
The fruit worthy of repentance for each of us and for a church is hospitality. People need to belong – need to be warmly received – need to be greeted no matter who they are – need to be accepted – need to be loved.
1. “The InnoCentive SOULution,” Homiletics, November/December, 2004, p. 40.