The Spirit of Giving
I have 15 coats. John the Baptist was preaching in the desert. So, he said I only need one. But, you see I have my black fuzzy jacket that is super warm, and I had been watching this year for Costco to get them again so I could get a burgundy one too, so that I don’t wear the black one all day every day of winter, so when I started working on this text, that jacket was just a week old. Then, I have a jacket that is also warm, but more weather resistant. And a barn jacket…I’m pretty sure those will come back into style. And, I have this hooded jacket that I got from the owners of Golf and Games…they gave it to their workers that year, and their pastors…and it is made for cold. I keep it in case I have to go outside and do some work when it is cold. And this one is really great for when it snows, and I can layer those two up and go play in the snow and stay warm. This one is for funerals in the rain. Then, I have 2 dress coats – grey and charcoal. I like the style of the grey one on the hanger, but I always choose the charcoal when I actually am headed out. And a brown leather jacket and a black leather jacket – because different outfits call for different colors. In fact, I’ve been thinking about getting a new black leather coat, too, the button has come off of this one, and I could get new buttons and put on, but it is looking a little worn. And I have 4 furs – one white rabbit, a mink, and two mink shawls. I didn’t bring those because I didn’t think they would fit under here. But, I didn’t buy those, they were handed down to me. I don’t wear them unless it is really cold and I am going somewhere nice. So, you see, I need all 15 coats. OK, I have 15 coats and I like them. And I don’t want to get rid of any. And, I might not wear them this year, but you know as soon as I get rid of one, I am going to wish I had it. I then, I hear the words of John the Baptist, and I know.
I know that I am caught up in the stuff. I know I have bought into the narrative that I have earned what I have. I know that I have bought into the culture of consumerism. I know that I have coats that could keep someone warm hanging in my closet unused. And, I don’t like that this passage is the lectionary text for the third week of Advent. So, I was relieved when I read that the word that is translated coat really is better translated as tunic, an undergarment that is worn next to the skin. I don’t have any tunics. And I liked when I read one commentator suggest that when John calls the crowd a “Brood of vipers” he was talking about some of the naysayers and Temple authorities from Jerusalem who had come out to investigate what he was doing that was drawing these huge crowds.
Christmas is only a week away. It is Gaudete Sunday – Gaudete means “Rejoice!” Today is the pink candle – the candle of Joy! We should be focusing on Mary and Joseph hearing the news that Mary would have a baby! And instead, we read about people who were searching for a Savior, who were desperate for their world to have morals again, who longed for honesty and integrity in their government, who were weary with the problems that were complex and who wanted to make a difference, wanted to prepare a way for the Lord, but really didn’t know how. Well, maybe a week before we celebrate his birth, it is good to consider how to prepare.
John’s words are harsh, but they force us to take an honest look at ourselves. Perhaps we are a brood of vipers; vipers are poisonous snakes who latch on to whatever they bite and continue to inject their venom. They are small and hard to notice, and they congregate in caves, where people in the Middle East go for refuge, for comfort. And I think about my 15 coats, that I have latched onto…that I find comfort in…and I realize that it is small and hard to notice, but there is poison there. Poison that causes me to rationalize keeping each coat rather than imagining it keeping someone else who has no coat warm.
Perhaps our Christmas trees should remind us of his words, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Don’t comfort yourselves by saying “We are children of Abraham” or he would probably say to us today, don’t comfort yourself by saying “I am Christian.” The people were coming to be baptized, but John knew that was only the beginning, so he shakes them and us out of our comfort zones! And their question is ours too, “What then shall we do?”
How radical do we have to be? Do we have to stay out here in the desert? Wear camel hair and eat locusts and honey like you do?
Rev. Debi Thomas suggests that “…the answer he gives them is even more radical than they have language to comprehend — so radical we stand in danger of missing it: What should you do? You should go home.
Go home to your families, your neighbors, your vocations, your colleagues. Stop fleeing. Stop insisting that God is far away from the nitty-gritty daily-ness of your particular life. Instead of waiting for a holy someday that will never come, inhabit the stuff of your life as deeply and as generously as you can right now. Share now. Be merciful now. Do justice now. Inhabit your life, no matter how plain, how obscure, how unglamorous, how routine…. To the tax collectors, he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the [soldiers]: “Don’t extort money by threats or false accusations; be satisfied with your wages.” …[You have two tunics, or two coats…you only need one, so share. You have more food than you need, there is enough food in this world to feed everyone, but when you keep more than you need someone else goes hungry.] To everyone who has anything: “You have gifts to give. So stop hoarding. Stop procrastinating. Stop making excuses. The day of repentance is now. (Thomas)”
Getting ready for Christmas is not about secular things like decorating Christmas trees and buying one of the top 25 gifts of this holiday season that you didn’t even know you needed, in fact didn’t even know existed, until you clicked on that link. And getting ready for the Lord to come is not about withdrawing from the world and living a solitary life of prayer and reflection.
Perhaps this passage is fitting for the third Sunday of Advent, rejoice, the kingdom of God has come near, in the midst of your life – how many coats do you have in your closet?
This morning as you leave worship, each of you will receive a tiny gift box. I invite you to place it somewhere you will see it every day. Maybe you will want to create a plan for yourself in the new year to think about what you are holding on to and who might need it. One man, Ted Hauser, decided that he would sell or give away something every day for 100 days and then gave away the money he collected. As you hold your little gift box, ask yourself, “What do I have? What do I need? What will I do with the rest?” I’m going to start by trying on the coats in my closet. I don’t need 15. What about you?