I want to begin by thanking Dean Greenwell for inviting me to spend Advent with you exploring what the mission of Christ Church Cathedral might look like, and Canon Zacharia for organizing the details of my time here. As a former parish priest, cathedral and seminary professor and dean, I know how important it is to take time to reflect theologically on what we’re doing. And as one who has worked in the church for over 40 years, I know how seldom it is we actually take the time to do that.
I have been very fortunate in the communities I have been called to serve—from Malibu and Pasadena in California, to Evanston, Illinois, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, all the way east to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and finally the northwest part of Washington, D.C. Hey, somebody had to be in all those nice places, right? Nevertheless, one thing I’ve learned about serving affluent communities and their churches is that they can become a little, well, shall we say, “entitled”. Indeed, all “establishment” church institutions—urban or suburban--can become a little self-satisfied if they’re not careful.
One of the parishes I served still has to this day numbers on all its pews. Though they had stopped charging pew rents 50 years before I got there, parishioners still treated certain pews as their own and would ask visitors to vacate them if they happened to sit there. I thought of that parish and your challenge here at Christ Church Cathedral when I first read through the gospel for this morning. On this Second Sunday of Advent, we focus on John the Baptist, his strange habits, and his prediction of the coming of Jesus. But as I read the gospel this time around here’s the part of the passage that leapt right out at me.
Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe 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. [Matthew 3: 9-10]
John the Baptist directs his challenge precisely at the people we might today call “entitled”. But let’s not be too hard on them, shall we? The Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’s day were pretty much the “good Episcopalians” of today. I always try to resist the preacher’s tendency to beat up on the Bible’s entitled, establishment folks because my greatest personal spiritual battle has to do with taming my own inner Pharisee. Those of us who keep the church going—giving to support it, showing up every week, volunteering to do its many thankless tasks—we are pretty much just trying to get through life with faithfulness and grace. You could say the same for the Pharisees.
Yet here is John the Baptist calling us a “brood of vipers”. “Even now”, he says, “the axe is lying at the root of the trees”. He calls us to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”. Hey, John, give us a break! We’re just trying to hand out church bulletins here. Why pick on those of us who year in and year out keep the place going?
The answer to that question brings me back to the image of those numbered church pews. It’s one thing, says John (and later, Jesus) to live a faithful and pious life. It’s quite another to think that doing so confers on you a special status. What we Pharisees and good Episcopalians get right is our acknowledged need to experience and respond to God in this kind of setting. What we get wrong is the all-too-human tendency to confuse what we perform out of our own need to do it with being better than those who don’t. As John says,
Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe 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.
Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, a day on which we move closer to Christmas by hearing John’s prophetic critique [Matthew 3: 1-12] so that we may open ourselves to the grace and glory of God’s presence in and with us at Christmas in the birth of Jesus. “Repent”, says John. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” “Prepare the way of the Lord.” “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” How do we make sense of this language today? How do we move out of our own Episcopalian entitlement into something like bearing fruit worthy of repentance?
One thing I hear in John’s prophetic critique is a call to step out of the illusion of my own privilege and entitlement and into the truth of the human vulnerability I share with others. You and I live in a pretty scary moment in time. Early last week a young Ohio State student attacked his fellow students with his car and a butcher knife. The incoming administration in Washington seems determined to destroy even the minimal social safety net we have established for seniors, the sick, and the poor. The wildfires in Tennessee and the tornadoes throughout the south serve as yet another reminder (as does the ongoing drought in California where I live) that climate change is moving even faster than we thought. And the continuing spike in hate speech both during and after the election calls in question our shared sense of what it means to be an American.
What is all this but an axe lying at the root of our trees? You don’t have to be a religious nut or a seasoned preacher to hear God addressing us in this dangerous and frightening moment. When John the Baptist compares us to snakes slithering away from a fire, I know what he’s talking about. We humans are destroying our environment, rending our social fabric, and in danger of losing whatever we had left of empathy and compassion in America. If, as good Episcopalians—the Pharisees and Sadducees of our own day—we are to respond to this current moment, the least helpful thing we could do is to assert our own entitlement. We are the ones who have kept the flame going for so many generations. That is no small achievement. But what is our role now as we prepare for the advent of Jesus in the wake of the wrath not only coming but here at work among us now?
One of the ways our Anglican tradition has tried to tame its inner Pharisee is through the very heart of our established church heritage. We Episcopalians began life as the Church of England, and for the first several hundred years of our existence we were the established church of a nation state. Though we present-day Episcopalians can still behave as if we’re the ones in charge—believe me, I lived and worked in Washington, D.C--, we know that in America there is no one official religion. Nevertheless, from our established church days we carry within us a profound sense of our shared investment in the common good. Our great 16th century theologian Richard Hooker called that idea “commonwealth”, and he articulated a vision of the church which understood itself empowered by God to advocate for and act on a notion of what was best not just for us but for the entire community.
You and I here not only at Christ Church Cathedral but those of us who follow Jesus in this Episcopalian mode around the country—we have a shared calling and mission to speak for, to act for, to care for the common good. Even now, the axe is lying at the root of the trees. Even now we face together into the wrath to come. God calls us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. The way we tame our entitled, inner Pharisee is to empower our shared commitment to the common good. Who else will speak for an inclusive, generous, compassionate vision of America if we don’t? Who else will announce that entitlement also involves responsibilities if we don’t? Who else will represent Jesus with some kind of faithfulness to his actual message if we don’t? Jesus and his followers stood up to and outlasted Rome. You and I can be a force for resistance and transformation in this dangerous hour.
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Those of us who worship God in places like this can be silly and fussy and entitled. But we are also the bearers of a vision of God’s approaching kingdom made real in a nation and church dedicated to advancing the common good and standing with and for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the vulnerable. On this Second Sunday of Advent, let us prepare for the good news of Christmas by getting ourselves ready to offer a creative and hopeful vision to an angry and hurting nation and world. Let’s stand up, together, now for gospel values. If that’s not a mission statement for a cathedral church in the 21st century, I don’t know what is. Amen.