Editor's note: Following the events last week in Newtown, Conn., many sought meaning and understanding from a spiritual perspective. The Rev. Lisa Dempsey, pastor of the Epworth United Methodist Church in Candler Park, was just one of many religous leaders who offered words of solace and explanation to their congregations. She shared her sermon from this past Sunday with the East Atlanta Patch community.
"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."
— Luke 3: 9-11 NRSV
by Rev. Lisa Dempsey
"What shall we do?"
The people who were waiting for the Messiah were fraught with confusion and anxiety. They had heard the rumors and listened to the prophets for centuries. When things got bad, really bad, they looked even harder. The people of Israel believed that things could not get worse - in fact they were done trying to make it right on their own. They were ready and waiting, looking for the One who had been promised.
John – well, he looked like a likely candidate with his heralds of "repent - be baptized." He carried himself like the Nazarene that he was raised to be - only a little more in the extreme with his desert wanderings, locust meals and hair shirts. But didn't he look to be the one who would speak boldly, fight fiercely for right, bring hope and healing to a people who felt lost, beaten, forgotten, sold out, forsaken? Surely he must be the one.... and when he barked back at them and said - I'm not even a shadow of what will come to Save you... they were lost and afraid again, and began to ask a refrain that we can relate to.
"What shall we do?" We come today with hearts so heavy with the recent Newtown tragedy, spirits that lay as dry bones in an arid desert, minds that are numb with seeking answers to the evil that has been visited on the innocents, and I say to you, I cry for us all, "Lord, what shall we do?"
What shall we do, Lord as we await your coming? John says to bear fruit - not the kind on trees but in lives that redeem brokenness one action at a time. We, like the crowds at John's feet, ask but how, how? First - John says to the crowds - share - share what you have. Is it an abundance of property, food, or other? Giving is the first, best way to begin the process of redeeming the dark narrow place we find ourselves when life seems unbearable, when sorrows such as our country are facing this day come upon us.
Somehow, as we begin to search out what our resources are, and honestly ask - what can I do to help, our awareness of what we do have begins to fill the well that only moments ago seems dry and empty. Giving opens us to the value of unflinchingly stretching our spirits, minds, bodies and resources to take action. Giving requires that we peel back the layers of insulation that we wrap around ourselves to protect us from the pain we face, and moves us to a place of possibilities and yes - even glimmers of hope. In the giving of ourselves, we begin to return to the wider world and yes- begin to see that we can make a difference in the wellbeing of another. With the proffering of a simple prayer, a coat, a meal, a visit, a card, a note... whatever it is that becomes our offering, we discover new strength in the parting of our own resources for the greater good, to build up the life or spirit of another. Hope becomes a possibility as we extend ourselves to care, love and nurture of another of God's children.
Back to John's story, it wasn't just the citizens, the Israelites, who were looking hard and long for hope. There were tax collectors and yes, even solders - perhaps sent to keep the peace and disperse the crowds. Yet, no matter their job, no matter their responsibilities to the order of Roman rule, they too were filled with the same fears, filled with the same awareness of the brokenness of the world. Their marches into battle, skirmishes seemed senseless in reflection, and surely heightened their knowledge of the limits of just what even mighty Rome and all its powers could accomplish. They too, asked the same question "What shall we do?"
Then, John speaks to the tax collectors and solders question, and tells them not use your power and privilege to take from others. Be thankful for what you are given and do not take from others to make your coffers richer. What? In a question rooted in how we will find our rescuer, our salvation, we are expecting you to just let us lay down these arms and let the Redeemer do the fighting! And You tell us to live within our means. Stop taking from others when we have enough to satisfy? How can this bring the Messiah to us?
Giving and taking - basic to the function of all humankind. It's how we do it and how selflessly we take part in this exchange that prepares us for meeting, finding and celebrating the Messiah's arrival.
Much has been taken from us as a country these last few days.
We cannot restore the 26 lives that were taken, and the hopes, dreams, promises and potential they represented. We will not be able to erase the unjust destruction of a whole community's sense of safety, our sense of safety, our country's belief that we can protect our families and communities with doors, locks, surveillance cameras and guns. Evil will find its ways, and it continues to be among us. We will examine this time, likely for the rest of our lives, for it has resonated deeply around the world and moved us to a new awareness of our vulnerability. Yet while so much taken, let us steadfastly find our way to giving.
We ask the same question that others ask "What can we do?":
- Pray for God's guidance for what you can do.
- Act and look for hope that comes through your obedience.
- Remember that Christmas is God's gift of Salvation in Jesus Christ, born into the world for our hope.
- Share the story of Christ who came into your life and bring hope in the telling.
We may feel like the crowds who look to one another for saving in times as these. We are fraught with confusion and anxiety. Things are bad, really bad in this world, and we have tried, really tried to make it better. We have turned to government with hopes that it will intercede and right our world.
We are done trying our own way and leaning on our own understanding.
"Lord - come quickly - come redeem us and this broken world!"
Christ has come, and will come again. In our waiting, we are charged with making way for Christ to break in through our mindful giving and measured taking that honors the self giving nature of the God we worship.
It is in the giving and taking that we partake of the exchange that brings light into the dark corners we face. It is by selfless examination of all that we have to offer, that God reveals God's power to redeem us to be people who can proclaim hope in the face of evil.
Come, Lord to our broken and needy souls, and redeem us, and redeem this world. Make us grace bearers, peace makers, givers of hope and takers of Your message!
Your love is everlasting and triumphs over all evil. You suffer with us and teach us of your tender mercies, and make us fit to come into your presence. Your birth heralds the hope of the world, and we await with baited breath.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.