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Sermon – December 05, 2010: Grain

 

 Sermon for Sunday, December 5, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Grain

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3: 1 – 12

In 1054 there was a definitive split between the Christian church centered in Rome

and the Christian church which had its origins in Ephesus, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. What

we now call Roman Catholicism separated from and began to stand against what we now

call Orthodox churches, and vice-versa.

So it’s not just us Protestants who couldn’t get along with those Catholics. I’m

kidding. No, the point here is that there are two conflicting tendencies in religion. One is the

tendency toward harmonizing and making peace, and the other is the urge to argue and

split.

One of the things that split the Roman and Eastern churches was the kind of bread

each used in its communion meal. The Roman tradition used unleavened wafers, and the

Orthodox used loaves of yeast bread. Those arguing for the Orthodox approach called

what the Romans used in their ritual “dead bread.” It was “dead bread” because it never

had risen, and so seemed to those Christians a poor symbol of the body of Christ.

I’m not here to solve the problem about which is the right bread to use. That’s not

the problem. Either bread taken faithfully fulfills the purpose of the person devoted to the

ritual. The problem is that thing in religion which makes people want to decide for God what

is holy and what is unholy, what is sufficiently pleasing to God and what must be offensive

to God.

That’s a problem in religion because religion involves both standing for God and

trying to please God. People can’t just “let go and let God”, to use one of those bits of

wise counsel about abandoning worry and trusting the Almighty. People have to have

some sense of what it is that God expects, in order to proclaim it, and in order to try and do

it. Religion’s responsibility to declare and accept discipleship to a particular vision of God’s

will for persons becomes all the more important in times of trouble and worry.

John the Baptist reminds us, as we look toward Christmas and its Prince of Peace,

that peace doesn’t come into a vacuum, but arrives to overcome conflict. There are things

wrong with the world which cry out for a Savior’s arrival. John’s “wake-up call” to his

contemporaries is a hopeful thing, not because people are happy to hear about grain and

chaff being separated and the chaff burned with unquenchable fire–but because the

difficulty of contemplating judgment is better than the difficulty of living in a world which never

gets resolved, in which there is no progress toward peace. At least with the arrival of God’s

servant, though it will be a judgment on the way the world now goes, there is the assurance

that God’s will will be done, and the wrongs of the world addressed.

There’s something suggestive and poetic to be done with good grain and those

natural processes which invite the action of yeast and lead to leavened bread, and I will get

there. First, however, we have to think about how to hear about God sending Someone to

sort out this world, the rod of whose mouth will smite the earth and whose breath will slay

the wicked. That’s Isaiah’s parallel to what John the Baptist says. God’s decisive

redirection of Creation’s continuing involves the annihilation of evils.

One way to hear it is to recognize that we are the faithful grain, and people who don’t

see things our way are the chaff, or that we are the good and others are the wicked. To be

fair, in some cases that may obviously be true. Generally speaking, however, the problem

with this assumption is that it is inadequately self-critical, and presumptuously judgmental

with regard to others. How can God give anyone new life whose response to the promise

of God’s intervening power is to expect to be found perfect already? How can those who

will be saved by a Prince of Peace, who counsels returning good for evil, prefer to see the

world’s judgment in terms of the destruction of others?

 

 

Doesn’t it make more sense to hear John’s proclamation as directed toward

 

 

 

 

 

 

everyone? Is it possible for us to be so unmixed, for us to be only washed sinners full of

pure intentions? Is it possible for those who don’t agree with us to be so unmixed, to be

only shameless evildoers? Why send Jesus at all if his business is only separating good

people from bad people? That’s not what Jesus does when Jesus arrives. Jesus speaks

to everyone–encouraging the hopeless and challenging the presumptuous, but offering

new life always. Isn’t the real project of God in Christ reconciling the world, and doing that

by getting us all to recognize what is wrong with each of us, and what in us may be right,

and aspiring to the good that God has created us to be?

I began by saying what goes wrong with religion’s necessary discerning of God’s

requirements is when religious people convince themselves that they are so right about

what God wants that other people must be intolerably wrong. That lack of humility about

aspiring to please God easily develops into proud contempt for others, if not outright

persecution. That’s why I think it better–in fact essential–for persons challenged by the

prophecy of Isaiah and the preaching of John the Baptist to look within their own hearts and

at their own lives to see what must be pursued, and what relinquished, in order to be

prepared for the coming of God’s servant. If they look within themselves for the right and

wrong of life, it will serve humility and peace among persons. If they look outward and try to

discern what’s right and wrong in terms of judging some persons only right and others only

wrong, it will serve pride and conflict.

One of the things which always has divided Christians is the variety of

understandings of communion. I think it pays us to wear such doctrines lightly. It’s better to

let our religious life fulfill us by trusting our faithful participation in things necessarily beyond

our entire comprehension, than to try to validate our religious life by insulting the beliefs or

impugning the motives of others. The things of God are deep, and the knowledge of them

is not exhausted either in theories or experiences. There is certainly room for trusting

traditions, especially as an alternative to relying on our own being exclusively right about

what traditions mean.

Now for what I think may be poetic or suggestive. As we share communion

preparing for Christmas, it occurs to me that Christmas is about life arriving and destroying

death. The world without light is illuminated, the old is put away and the new established.

The elements of the communion meal themselves remind us of the cycle, and this is not so

hidden or rare a thought that it may not have come to the disciples themselves: that life sets

the stage for death, and death for life. Grain is cut down and harvested, and preserved, and

when made into a dough invites from the air itself–we’re talking Orthodox communion, and

our own, so yeasted bread–in the centuries before commercially-available yeast–the

dough invites into itself in its first stages of spoiling the growth of the little organisms which, in

the oven, will expire and leave the loaf achieved. So with fermented grape juice–what

comes naturally as the onset of decay, properly husbanded, becomes a beverage with a

substance in it with which it preserves itself, and which gives the liquid a kind of life of its

own. This transformation of death into life is another way to hear both Isaiah and John the

Baptist, and the nourishment available through the pattern shows us that, just as the table

demonstrates new life being made available from old, the life of the spirit, when renewed,

makes for new possibilities and new hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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