Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Repentance Fruit

Yesterday afternoon, a package of wonderful fruit arrived at our house--an early Christmas present from a thoughtful parishioner. These days, one can find just about any fruit from any climate in the local supermarket. Not too long ago, you would have had three varieties of apple from which to choose: red, green, or yellow. Now, there are more than a dozen. Still, the pears that the postman brings to my door are a little sweeter than any I can find in the store, and the oranges are just a little juicier. Perhaps it's just the gold box and the tissue paper surrounding each one, but it seems like these fruits are worthy of something special (even if I am not).

"You brood of vipers!" John the Baptist cries out, shaking his finger at the crowd of sinners who came out to be baptized by him. "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance." Yesterday in staff meeting, Seth chuckled at the thought of "bear fruits." He mused, "I wonder what a bear fruit looks like." It's funny, but it leads me to an important point. What do fruits worthy of repentance look like? What does it mean to bear those fruits? Why not simply say, "Repent!" Why take it that extra step and envision something productive? What is John the Baptist talking about here?

I find it interesting that Luke's is the only gospel account to explain what those fruits look like. Matthew places those same words on John's lips, but he fails to explain what it means to bear that kind of fruit. It's as if Matthew assumes that we'll understand what "fruits worthy of repentance" look like. Luke doesn't leave it up to us. He lets us know exactly what it means. And now that we're in Lectionary Year C, which focuses primarily on Luke as the gospel lesson, we should probably get used to things like this because Luke, more than any other gospel writer, wants us to know what it means to live a life worthy of the kingdom.

Moved by his call to repent, the crowd looks at John the Baptist and asks, "What then should we do?" And the Baptizer replies, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." To the tax collectors, he said, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." And to the soldiers, he said, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." That's what repentance fruit looks like--sharing, caring, doing one's job, staying within the rails, keeping things above board, remaining satisfied with what we've got. Funny, that sounds pretty ordinary to me.

Fruits worthy of repentance aren't all that spectacular. They're the kinds of ordinary things just about any of us would find reasonable. And that makes me wonder...why in the world would we need to be reminded of something so simple as that? And then I remember something about all life's lessons being taught in kindergarten yet most of us forgetting them by the fourth grade. In other words, human nature gets in the way.

Stir-Up Sunday used to be the Sunday before Advent, but another liturgical innovation got in the way. I give thanks, however, to God that the collect for Stir-Up Sunday was preserved by transferring it to the Third Sunday of Advent. The effect has been to ameliorate the rejoicing of Gaudete Sunday, which I wrote about yesterday (as a comparison, see the 1928 BCP propers for 3 Advent and particularly the gospel lesson therein appointed), but the collect that we will pray this Sunday seems to fit with bearing simple, ordinary repentance fruit: "Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us..."

Again, it's simple, but it says it all. We are hindered by our sins. We need God's help to bear fruits worthy of repentance--even if they're pretty ordinary. Why? Because ordinarily our lives are a mess. Hear John the Baptist calling you to repent. Hear him inviting you to bear fruits worthy of repentance. Hear him explain how simple that is. And pray that God will give you strength to do the same.

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