December 13, 2015
A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Marlene Kropf (MCC) at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
Hush, Little Baby
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word. Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird
And if that mockingbird won’t sing, Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring…
I used to sing that lullaby to our children when they were tiny.
The song came to mind when I first read the texts for this Sunday where Zephaniah the prophet describes God as a singer:
God will rejoice over you with gladness, God will renew you in his (or her) love; God will exult over you with singing.
In other words: God is like a mother who sings over her babies!
The last six verses of the book of Zephaniah are filled with great joy:
God’s not gonna buy you a mockingbird or a diamond ring —
but God promises to save the lame and gather in the outcasts; God is going to bring us all home … rejoicing.
And that’s very good news!
But if you’ve looked at the book of Zephaniah recently, you will have noticed that the rest of the book sings a very different story.
It begins this way:
I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the Lord…
And it goes downhill from there.
I will sweep away the birds of the air, the fish of the sea. I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth.
The day of the Lord is near; judgment is coming.
Zephaniah calls the people of Judah a shameless nation; he castigates them for their greed, violence, fraud, complacency, their disrespect for their Creator and all creation.
It’s a brutal world. A lot like ours.
When we hear John the Baptizer in the gospel reading, it sounds like the second verse of the same song:
You brood of vipers: you don’t share your food with the hungry; You overcharge people; you extort money from the weak… Repent!
And don’t think you’re going to get by with anything
just because you’re Abraham and Sarah’s children.
We could use words like harsh, severe, jarring to describe John’s message, especially at Christmastime when we’re all trying our best to be sweet and cheerful. At the very least, John’s message is challenging, seriously challenging.
Here’s how Eugene Peterson translates this passage: The Message (p. 125):
When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do,
John exploded. “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there – children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if [God] wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.
At least you knew where you stood with this preacher!
But what I heard in the gospel this week was filtered first through the words of Zephaniah: God is singing a lullaby over us; God is rejoicing over us.
It reminds me of what Julian of Norwich wrote, long ago in the 1400’s,
How God is rejoicing to be our Father! How God is rejoicing to be our Mother!
What I heard when I got to the gospel reading was something I’d never heard before in this text: I heard my mother’s voice.
I grew up in a household of six children: two girls first, and then four boys. My sister and I were pretty good children. We tried to obey – and succeeded most of the time.
My brothers were of another tribe. They were livewires, mischievous, impulsive – not usually mean, just high-spirited and sometimes out of bounds, not well-behaved, like their older sisters.
I can remember my mother walking into the living room, where the boys had been rough- housing after school – sofa cushions on the floor, wastebasket upended, a couple of stray rubber balls in the middle of everything. She stood there, hands on her hips, shaking her head – appalled, disbelieving. “You rascals!” she’d say, “How could you do this?”
And don’t think they got away with it. Certainly not. They had to set it right. But what she said was: “You rascals!!”
In her voice I heard a mother’s love. These unruly, rambunctious boys gave her a heap of trouble, but she still loved them.
She wanted them to grow up to become orderly and decent people – but at this moment she understood they were still young, full of boy-energy, and they didn’t always remember everything they’d been told.
You can have your shouting version of John the Baptist, if you like. But for today, I’m going to listen to my mother’s voice:
“You rascals! You’re not supposed to do such awful things. So get busy and set things right again.”
My version is not entirely without biblical support. It’s interesting to notice that in the book of Zephaniah, after a couple of chapters of stern critique, there’s no record that the people of God actually heard and repented. Yet what erupts in the midst of all this is a song of love and joy – smack dab in the middle of the mess Israel has made:
Rejoice; God has taken away the judgments against you.
This sounds like the God we have been encountering in the Mezzanine series these past weeks where we’ve been listening to Richard Rohr teach about Saint Paul’s theology. Paul
writes about human sin and freedom and declares that we are justified by faith – but we often miss the full sense of what he’s saying. Paul’s word “justification” might be better translated as “acquittal.” It’s true that we are sinners, but in God’s sight we are acquitted: we walk away FREE! The slate is wiped clean. God has taken away the judgment against us.
The Very Reverend Bill Maxwell said it even more simply a couple weeks ago at Tom Wilson’s funeral. Bill told us that when he graduated from seminary many years ago, he thought he knew many things. Now, at age 90, he doesn’t know as much – but of a few things he’s very sure. And one of the things he is sure of is that Tom Wilson is SAFE.
Saint Paul would agree. Tom Wilson is SAFE with God. We are all SAFE. We are all acquitted.
What the Incarnation shows us is that God is on our side. We aren’t worthy. We’re all guilty of petty sinfulness and sometimes gross sinfulness. We’ve made a mess of God’s living room.
But the God of Zephaniah declares:
Judgment has been taken away. It’s gone.
We are held in loving arms, like an infant or a squirmy little child cradled on its mother’s breast. Nothing we do can stop the flow of our mother’s love – it just keeps coming toward us.
And Luke tells us: This is good news. In fact, this is the best news we could ever imagine.
When we have been loved so thoroughly and completely, there is only one response: And that is Love. Love begets love. We love God, we love ourselves, and we love all that God creates: the undeserving as well as the deserving. And we learn to sing the same loving song God sings: a song of justice and mercy.
If we have more clothing than we need, we give it away to those who need it: we purchase good socks to give to our guests at Just Soup.
If we have extra food on our shelves, we put it in the offering basket.
If we have money to loan, we ask for modest interest or none at all.
If we have money to invest, we invest in socially responsible companies. If we don’t have financial resources, we find other ways to give:
we share our organizational gifts or our artistic gifts or our fix-it gifts.
If our neighbors or friends complain about Muslims or Syrians – or whoever the current scapegoat is, we remind them – gently: we are all children of God. We are all beloved.
The third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday – because the word “rejoice” shows up in the assigned texts (Gaudete: “rejoice” in Latin). It’s still Advent – but the curtain is pulled aside ever so slightly. We catch a glimpse of the Joy on the way – the birth is near. We can almost hear the singing: Hush, little baby, don’t say a word …
In the meantime, we continue to prepare the way. We repent of our inattentiveness.
We open our hearts and hands to share generously. And in so doing, the peace of God which surpasses all understanding comes alive within us. The peace of God which surpasses all understanding keeps us safe in Christ Jesus — forever.
This is very good news — and we rejoice!