Saturday, December 12, 2015

Be generous, be kind, be fair

Luke 3. 7-18

So here we are again with John the Baptist near the Jordan River. He’s giving what sounds like a fire and brimstone message. He is definitely challenging his audience to wake up and change their lives. He calls them names: children of snakes. He warns them: don’t depend on your family history as children of Abraham. The point is, he shouts, if you are not bearing good fruit, God is done with you!
The crowd is composed of common Jewish people, Jewish tax collectors, Roman soldiers, and probably some scribes and Pharisees. They all are shaken up by John’s words, for various reasons. Just like us today, no one wants to be out of God’s grace. They are afraid, and want to know what they can do to get right with God.
John itemizes some recommendations for different groups.
John tells the people to be generous. If you have more than enough for yourself, share whatever is extra. Share your clothes, your food, so that everyone has clothes and food.
John tells the tax collectors to be fair. Tax collectors were notorious, and hated, for the way they extorted money out of people. They weren’t embezzlers, they had a habit of charging people more tax than they should, in order to make a nice profit. Frequently, the tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Romans, and therefore were seen as traitors. So they were doubly hated.
John tells the soldiers to be kind. Soldiers had the habit of using their size and their weapons to intimidate the people. They would force the people to pay them to leave them alone.
Three simple recommendations: be generous, be fair, be kind. But they represent a reversal of behavior. Don’t be selfish; don’t cheat; don’t be mean. While we would like to believe that we don’t need such behavioral reminders today, we do.
We tend to keep what we have, because we love our comforts. We don’t always respect other people as God’s children, we don’t treat everyone fairly. We get angry when someone hurts us, and we want to get even with them. What then should we do? Be generous, be fair, be kind.
John is a charismatic character, and many of the folks believe he must be the messiah. He preaches the way they believe the messiah will preach. He dresses and lives the way they believe the messiah will dress and live. He rouses the passions the way they believe the messiah will rouse the passions. He seems like just the right guy for the role. They can hardly wait to change their ways, so the John can lead them into a rebellion against the Romans.
But John is quick to tell the crowds that he is NOT the messiah. He is a simple forerunner, and not worthy to even tie the shoelaces of the true messiah. One who is greater is coming soon. The true messiah will sort out the good from the bad and make life very unpleasant for those who do not produce good fruit.
The crowds hear this news as very good news. Do they focus on the good news of the coming of the messiah, do you think, or do they focus on the good news that the selfish, unethical, and mean folks will soon be punished for their evil deeds?
Or do they focus on the good news that the way to get right with God is as simple as being generous, fair, and kind? John probably hasn’t heard Jesus’ message yet. He hasn’t heard Jesus’ message that we can’t earn God’s love and grace by our actions.
In our Wednesday class on Luther, we were reminded recently that God does not need our good works, but our neighbors do. So, when we are generous, fair, and kind toward our neighbor, we are honoring God while helping someone else.
We know what it looks like to be generous. As a whole, we are a generous congregation. The angel tree gifts will be purchased and returned. The general income is holding steady and increasing a little year by year. God multiplies our giving to make it worth so much more.
Are we fair? Are we kind? Mostly, I’d say, yes. Once in a while, we all think unkind things about someone else. We put all Muslims in the same category as radical Islamists. We think all homeless people are lazy or addicts. We think some people are less than others: men are better than woman, white people are better than black or Hispanic people, city people are better than rural people.  
A story caught my attention this week, reminding us that most Muslims are generous, fair, and kind. Muslim Americans were distressed to learn that Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the couple who shot so many people in San Bernadino, were discovered to be Islamist radicals. Faisal Qazi set up a fund raising account to help pay medical bills for the victims of the shootings. Qazi explained, “We want to respond to evil with good, as our faith instructs us.”  As of Thursday evening, over $173,000 had been raised so far.
Another story reminded me that generosity is simple and life-giving. Courtney and Tanya were riding a commuter train in Chicago and noticed a disabled homeless man sleeping in his wheelchair. Before getting off the train, they slipped some paper money into his bag. Another traveler noticed and snapped their photo. He then posted the photo on Facebook, urging everyone to see and share the story. “Thank you,” he wrote, “for reestablishing my faith in humanity.
A business man was recently questioned about the small number of women in his company in relationship to the number of women. He stated, “We’re not about to lower our standards” in order to hire women. He subscribes to the belief that men are better than women. We know that this is not a new belief – it’s as old as the world of the Old Testament and surrounding cultures. It’s as old as the world of the New Testament.
It’s not fair when the same statements are made about people of color, or people of other faiths, or who come from other places, or who have disabilities, or who are younger or older. It is not fair, and it’s up to us to stand up to such prejudices and out-of-date standards.
We can’t earn God’s love by doing good things, by being generous, kind, or fair. But the world we live in depends on us and others like us to make a difference, to show another way to be in the world. This week, remember. You have been baptized, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and empowered to be different than the world around us. Go out and live generously, fairly, and kindly.

Please pray with me. God of justice, kindness, and mercy, we thank you that you are so forgiving. We are not always generous. We are not always kind. We are not always fair. Lead us to follow your ways more closely. In Jesus holy name, Amen