“What then should we do?” The question, coming from a people to a prophet. I can tell John the Baptist is indeed a prophet, not a philosopher, because he does give the people something to do. He gives them a word, and invites them to make it flesh. Isn’t that what any prophet, or preacher, or even a politician desires? That the people whom they serve will actually live into that which they have been called? The trick, I believe, for any prophet, preacher, or politician is to examine themselves, and make sure before they say, or proclaim, or preach, that they are indeed doing the things that they are asking other people to do. They preach what they practice, and they practice what they preach, in other words. Society formalized this practicing what we preach in the form of liturgies, ceremonies, and services. And somewhere in the middle of these ceremonies an oath, or a vow is taken. It’s not taken in private, but in front of God and everybody else. This morning, I thought it be fun to look at a couple of vows and oaths that professionals take. I tried to keep it in the context of today’s story. So, for example, the question, “What then should we do?” Was asked by a crowd first, then specific professionals within that crowd. We have a tax collector and a soldier that forms part of that crowd. Since crowds don’t usually take oaths, I took the artistic liberty to think that maybe there was a couple in the crowd who was married. So, this morning, I’ll be reading marriage vows, an oath of office for a tax collector, and an oath of enlistment for those serving in the United States Army, and finally, since this group has been in the news so much this year, I found a police officer’s “oath of honor” to read to you this morning.
The Marriage Vows (Taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 427)
In the Name of God, I, N., take you, N., to be my wife, to
have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse,
for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to
cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.
Each tax collector before entering on the duties of his office shall take and subscribe to the following oath in addition to the oath required of all civil officers:
“I, , tax collector of the County of , do swear that I will
faithfully discharge the duties required of me by law as tax collector, and
that I will diligently collect all taxes required by law for me to collect
and faithfully pay these over to the persons authorized to receive the
same. So help me God.” (http://law.justia.com/codes/georgia/2010/title-48/chapter-5/article-3/part-2/48-5-121).
The wordings of the current oath of enlistment [in the United States Army] are as follows:
“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” (Title 10, US Code; Act of 5 May 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective 5 October 1962). (http://www.history.army.mil/html/faq/oaths.html).
Police Officer’s Oath of Honor. Slightly different than the oath taken at office. (http://www.iacp.org/What-is-the-Law-Enforcement-Oath-of-Honor).
On my honor,
I will never betray my badge,
my integrity, my character,
or the public trust.
I will always have
the courage to hold myself
and others accountable for our actions.
I will always uphold the constitution
my community and the agency I serve.
Many of my own, personal heroes and heroines, are the day-to-day people who put their head down, show up, and do the work that they are supposed to do. They don’t get a lot of praise, mainly because they don’t want the attention. Often times, they don’t even get recognized for the little and the big things that they do to make life a little easier for all of us. The people I’m referring to are definitely not the ‘brood of vipers’ that John is referring to. No. The brood of vipers was those persons and professionals who had forgotten the oaths that they took, had easily misinterpreted the vows that they made, or all together forgot who and whose they were. They were a people whom God had a covenant with, but for some reason, and somehow, they had forgotten this covenant, this promise, this peace. And along comes John the Baptist, and he calls them out. What a good friend John was for not letting the persons he was closest to get away with what they were doing, or how they were acting and reacting. In fact, he called them to repentance. And what exactly were they repenting of? They were repenting of their self-centeredness, their egotism, and narcissism. They had forgotten the oaths they swore to uphold. And what do oaths represent? They represent something that is huge. Some thing that is bigger than us. Something that is bigger than the person taking the oath. The sin (or at least the temptation) is to identify us as It. “I am the one true soldier/tax collector/citizen; therefore, I can take the law into my own hands. I can choose to share when it’s convenient for me. I can do whatever I want.” But like an oath that is bigger than we are, and will be around long after we are gone, John points to the ultimate promise, the ultimate covenant, and the ultimate peacemaker. He points to something paradoxically outside himself, but somehow and some way experiences it as a part of himself; and not only a part of himself but also a part of his brothers and sisters. He points to the Messiah; the anointed one; the Christ: Who was and is and will be forever and ever. Repentance reminds us that we are not It. We are not the center of the universe. That part’s already covered for us. So, when I feel unworthy, I look to God who is worthy. John reminds us of that. When I have forgotten the vows and oaths that I have taken, I turn to God who is still keeping His side of the deal. This is good news. This is grace. This is promised to all. And what a relief. Instead of pushing people to do what you think is right; you are invited to walk alongside of them. “Don’t just do something – stand there,” Bishop Neil Alexander used to say. In other words, pay attention. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” How can we tell who doesn’t have a coat if we are caught up in the cult of busy-ness? “What should we do,” was asked three different times, and John did give the crowd something to do or something not to do, but it was not for the sake of busy-ness. It was for the sake of Being: Being that which God already knew one to be, as well as standing there and living into the oath, the vow, the covenant one had promised to uphold.
In a moment, we’re going to renew our Baptismal Vows, our Baptismal Covenant (found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 292) or promise that we make and made to God, self, and one another. Are there times that we have broken, damaged and dismissed our side of the deal, or even ignored it all together? Are there times when John the Baptist might have called us a “brood of vipers.” Yes. I think so. I’m as guilty as anyone else in this room. But where I find confidence is in remembering who and whose I am. These vows help me to remember this, and challenge me to be on guard, to repent, and to turn to God time and time and time again. And on those weeks where I don’t renew my vows formally, I’m invited to the altar. I’m invited to the table of the Lord to receive something that I am unworthy to receive, yet I do receive it because I worship a God who is worthy. That’s what the people listening to John needed, and that’s what we need right now. Not a politician, policy, or procedure. Not a law, politically correct language, or luxuries. What we need right now is the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ to snap us out of our narcissistic ways, to take us by the hand and walk alongside of us in our day-to-day, moment-to-moment mundane lives. “He coming”, says John the Baptist. “I’ll wipe away your sins with water, but he’ll burn them in the fire of justice.” “I’m unworthy to untie the thong of his sandals, but he’s worthy, so pay attention, be alert, snap out of it, sleepers awake…he’s coming.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but when the whole world is scared, and anxious, and fearful, and falling a part. When hearts are hardened instead of softened, and the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, I (for my own sanity) have to look outside myself – not to a politician, policy, or new law, but to Jesus – my Savior. Why? Because there is no fear in him. There is no anxiety about him. He is walking alongside of me, and sometimes in my deepest anxieties, he is carrying me, holding me, and loving me. And it’s funny to say I go outside myself, because really I don’t. I go inside myself, to my inner room, to my heart of hearts where Jesus is whispering to me that everything is going to be okay.
It’s hard to follow Jesus in a culture of fear. It’s hard not to give into the temptation to hate, to suspect, and to ignore. And even though I said that my heroes are the ones who put their heads down, show up, and do the work that they were given to do, I also know that sometimes you just have to be, and let be. Sometimes we have to remember that we can’t figure all of this out on our own. That’s giving into our own narcissistic tendencies. Instead, we go outside our egos by going inside our hearts and discovering that still small voice who’s inviting us to keep alert, to keep awake, to be still and know that I am with you…with you [Brandon, Saint Julian’s, United States of America, Syria, Paris, Charleston, San Bernardino, in your cancer, in your broken family, in your loneliness, anxiety and fear]. I am with you always, says Jesus…even until the end of the age.
*Sermon preached at Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church on the Third Sunday of Advent.