Welcome to “Change the World 101.” My name’s Jeanne; I’ll be your instructor. Some call me Jeanne the Baptist, because I’m all about inviting people to repent of their sins and be purified by dunking in the water. I’m here to share some good news with you today. Buckle your seat belts. You might need safety helmets as well. Change the World 101 is a vigorous course.
So here’s the good news: You are all a brood of vipers. You are all flawed, corrupt, and caught up in a corrupt system. You think you will come out on the good end of Judgment Day—that you will be among God’s elect—because you come from good people, and you yourself are a good-hearted person, and your people always land on the top of the heap. But I’m here to say that’s not going to save you. Having the “right” color of skin, the “right” education, coming from the “right” people—none of that is any guarantee that things will work out “right” for you. Jesus is coming to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus is coming with his winnowing fork in his hand, to sort the wheat from the chaff, to gather the wheat into the granary and to burn the chaff in the fire.
At this point maybe you are wondering how this is good news. It all sounds so harsh and apocalyptic. Maybe you are saying to yourself, “For this I bothered to get up early on a Sunday morning when I could have slept in, gone to brunch, read The New York Times all the way through, done the crossword puzzle?”
Hang on. I’ll get there.
Here’s why this message is good news. See, even as you say, “Everything’s good, everything’s fine,” you know that the current systems are broken and oppressive. Maybe you have been caught up in that brokenness and corruption, because you couldn’t imagine any other way to be. Everyone else is getting their cut; why not you? Maybe the actual wages you’re paid aren’t great, and you could sure use a little more on the side. Everyone else uses fossil fuels; how can we not? It’s just the system we’ve inherited.
But that small voice inside keeps nagging that this is wrong. You know you need to purify yourself and find a different way. You just don’t know what that’s going to look like. So here I come, offering purification through baptism of repentance, and talking about a different way. That’s the good news. There is a different way.
If you know that God cares about justice, this message suggests that justice is on its way soon. God hears the cries of the oppressed, and the moment is coming for judgment and restorative justice.
Justice is not the same as revenge. We can’t be motivated by revenge. Justice is restorative: it’s about finding out who doesn’t have it, and giving it back to them.
You weren’t the ones who took justice away from people, at least not intentionally. You didn’t do it. But you probably benefit from our unjust system. So that’s why we have to have a good and humble look at our role. Joshua Abraham Herschel says, “Not everyone is guilty, but we’re all responsible.” And if we’re responsible, then we can make changes. We can be agents of change for justice.
It’s hard to face injustice, especially if we benefit from it. James Baldwin says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” We can face hard truths if we do it together.
Hearing yourselves being called a brood of vipers could be good news because it doesn’t avoid the truths of these broken times. When I first started reading about climate change, even though the truth made my gut churn, I was relieved to hear people naming it and then saying, “Here’s what we need to do.” I’m here to name the evil and corruption, and if you respond by saying, “What then should we do?” well, I have a few specific ideas:
These are doable steps. Notice that I don’t say, “Stop being a tax collector. Stop being a soldier.” I certainly could have said these things. I’m just telling you the first step. Jesus is coming to teach the advanced course, and he will have further instructions.
I’ve been talking about privilege: coming from the “right” people, or having the “right” education, and so on. You don’t have to give up your privilege. You do have to share it, or use it to benefit those in need. You do have to live into a just society as if it is already here. Our society needs soldiers and tax collectors along with everyone else. But you don’t have to buy into the corruption. You can work for a just world wherever you are.
Recently from this pulpit you heard about the six steps of practicing hope as a discipline: presence, gratitude, loving the world, accepting what is, taking action, and persevering. What we’re talking about today is accepting, “Here’s how it is,” and then saying, “How do we take action? What should we do?” We accept what is, and we are ready to take action, steps 4 and 5 in the practice of hope.
That’s why this harsh message is good news. I, Jeanne the Baptist, can be blunt and honest about how the world is and how we are; and then I give specific steps toward living into making things better.
So how is our world today? We are still dealing with lots of national and world leaders who wield lots of power. We are not those people. We are people with no particular standing or power out of the ordinary. But we can live honest lives in the face of corruption. That is revolutionary. It is countercultural. We can seek justice with and for those who are oppressed—people fleeing terrorism in their own countries and requesting asylum at our borders, for example, which is not illegal. Or we can seek justice for those mown down by gun violence. Or justice for those experiencing discrimination based on race, income, sexual orientation, gender, education level, and so on.
When we see extreme hurricanes becoming the norm because of climate change, we can send some of our people to Puerto Rico to help rebuild homes. There is an opportunity coming up for such a trip during one week in April; talk to Rick or Cora or your pastor if you’re interested in going or in helping others afford to go. This is a chance to see what is literally broken and to help fix at least one little bit of it. And to be changed ourselves in the process.
We begin from a place of abundance: share. Share what you have. Poverty is no accident, and it is not the fault of the poor. By definition, the very way our society is set up, there will be winners and losers, rich and poor. There always will be. If we are fortunate enough to have plenty, we must look around for who is in need and endeavor to assist where we can.
In this third week of Advent we’re focused on joy. We can’t get to joy by circumventing truth. Truth-telling is an essential step. So we look at the hard truths, and we repent of any part we have played in them. Repentance means turning around, turning back to God, and living a different way. The core of the faith journey is to acknowledge flaws and seek to do better.
I baptize with water: you can touch water. It’s not going to kill you to dunk in it. To prepare for Jesus, we start with water and repentance. Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit—that’s less tangible. Jesus baptizes with fire: highly dangerous, and then you have people on fire to change the world. (That’s why that’s the advanced course.) Because that’s what we’re all about: changing the world. This is nothing short of revolution, my friends. A revolution of love, turning the world to love and justice and joy.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what we really want when we welcome Jesus on December 25. My suspicion is that most of us want honesty, even when the truth is brutal. And then we want someone to shine a light, to show us the path through all of that brokenness so we don’t get overwhelmed and just give up. When we see the mess, we say, “What then should we do?” And we want someone to say, “Take this first step. Share. Love people who are in need. If facing the truth means recognizing an addiction, go to that first 12-step meeting. Live your life with justice and love, even when others around you are swept up in corruption and brokenness. Speak up for justice. Rebuild homes that have been knocked down by hurricanes. And you will find joy. You will find Jesus in every stranger and in every loved one. You will hear the word of God guiding your life. You will experience abundance, no matter your circumstances.”
So ends our class, Change the World 101. The advanced course begins on the 25th. Your homework assignment is to go out and practice what you have learned. Share. Live honestly, even amid corruption. Love each other. Find joy through facing the truth together.