12/16/2018 - Testify to Love: Back to the Basics - Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18

Testify to Love:  Back to the Basics

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18

December 16, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev. Kathy Donley


Two farmers, Bert and Harry, are deep in conversation about socialism.  Bert thinks its great.  Harry is not sure he understands. 

“Do you mean that if you have two tractors, and I have none, that you are to give me one of yours?”

Bert says, “Yep, that’s what it means.”

Then Harry says,  “If you have two cars and I have none, you would give me the extra one?”

Bert replies: “That’s right.”

Harry is on a roll now, so he says “And if you have two hogs, and I don’t have any, I could have one of yours?”

“Dad-gummit, Harry,” says Bert.

“You know I have two hogs.”[1]

Bert is apparently all about socialism, until it impinges on his personal reality.

Like Harry, John the Baptist is keeping it real at the Jordan River.  People from all walks of life are coming out to hear him.  They’re coming out, it seems, to be yelled out and insulted by him.  “You offspring of snakes” is not exactly a warm and fuzzy greeting.  At the end of his sermon, they ask “what should we do?”  “That's not necessarily a question people ask when things are going well.  It's the question we ask when we've come to the ends of ourselves.  When the received wisdom has failed, when our cherished defenses are down, when our lives are splitting at the seams.  It's what we ask when we're weary, bored, disillusioned, or desperate. What should we do?” [2]

To the ordinary people, John says, “if you have two tunics, and someone has none, share one of yours.”  Tunics were their undergarments.  Most people had two of them, one for every day and one for the Sabbath.  Notice that John is not asking people to share out of their abundance. He may even be taking a poke at those who would value having special clothes to wear on Sunday over having compassion on their neighbors.  The real needs of the neighbor outweigh the outward appearances of religion.  Obedience to God happens in all kinds of ways, at all levels, even at the level of underwear. 

To the tax collectors, John says, “Just collect what is required.”  To the soldiers, he says “Quit terrorizing people. Do not shake them down, do not make false accusations, and be content with your wages. Just do your job.”  To the religious leaders, he says, “Don’t be smug and complacent. Your religious credentials don’t make you better than anyone else.” 

John is a compelling, strange figure out there in the wilderness, a sight to see, but his message is simple, down-to-earth and doable -- ‘Share what you have.  Be kind to one another.  Don’t fight.  Be fair.  Do your job.”  

John exhorts others to “act out of what they already know and affirm, out of the deepest values of their tradition.”[3]   It does not sound like a call to revolution, but what if everyone did it?  Wouldn’t that radically change life on earth? Rev. Kathryn Matthews writes, “I don't mean to reduce John's message in any way, but at the heart of it, it seems to me, are that basic justice and goodness that would knock the supports out from under every out-of-whack, awry, misaligned, upside-down, oppressive structure and system that we've built. A justice and goodness that would take the air, the power, out of every process and habit that we humans have practiced and perfected and with which we have hurt one another, and one another's children.[4]

If this is a message about good behavior that is older than John the Baptist, and it’s the kind of message passed on to future generations, then why isn’t it already universal?  Why is this revolution so hard to bring about?

Almost 20 years ago, Walter Brueggemann wrote an enduring essay  entitled “A Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity”.    In it he said, “We who are now the richest nation are today's main coveters. We never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God's abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity -- a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly. We spend our lives trying to sort out that ambiguity.[5]

We can see both sides of this in the way Christmas is often  celebrated, can’t we?  At this time of year, there are lots of opportunities to help others – toy drives, coat drives, food drives, bell-ringers catching coins in kettles every where you go, and many appeals to give to certain causes in “the spirit of the season.”  But for many, Christmas is a time of wish lists and acquisition,  a time of high expectations for more --  more presents, more fun, more and better stuff.  Often underlying those high expectations is a fear that there won’t be enough, that someone else will always get more than we do.  

I think that Brueggemann is right, that many of us spend our lives trying to sort out an internal conflict between trusting God’s abundance and living out our fear of scarcity.  John’s basic instructions are a way to practice trust in God’s abundance.  He proclaims a paradigm shift that releases us from the bonds of fear, from the bonds of scarcity, from the dogma that we must protect that which is ours. [6]   That is the release of liberating love.

When we are liberated from that fear of scarcity, love gets us out of our own way.  It reduces our dependence on stuff, our worries about having enough for today and for tomorrow.  It frees us to live today, to share generously, to act with fairness.  And, it does not stop with us.  When we share with someone else, they may receive our sharing as their own liberation.

 Let’s say I have two coats and I give one away.  That reduces my sense of dependence on my stuff.  It frees me up to be even more generous next time.  But let’s say that my coat is received by someone who did not have one.  What message might they receive?  Maybe they get the spoken or unspoken message that they are worth being loved?  That they deserve to be warm in the winter, protected from the wind, just as much as anyone else.  The more that a person feels loved and valued, the more they may also be released from internal fear and despair. This is the power of liberating love; it can go on and on, releasing the giver and the recipient, so that the recipient becomes the next giver and so on. 

At age seven,  Maya Angelou stopped speaking after being sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend, a event she recorded in her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Shortly after the incident, she was sent to live with her paternal grandmother. Despite being called an idiot by others because she wouldn't talk, young Maya was always told otherwise by her grandmother. Watch as Dr. Angelou reveals what her beloved "Mama" told her, how she used those words to travel the world as a teacher and why she says love like that truly liberates.


Love liberates.  God’s love liberates us from ourselves, releasing us from our sins and fears, our anxiety about enough, our hurtfulness of those we perceive as competitors or as different enough to be threatening.  Love liberates. When we are loved, we are able to love others.  When others are loved, they are enabled to be loving.   

It makes me think of the  challenge given to white Australians by Aboriginal people working for social justice.  They said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”[7]  Love -- concrete, real, tangible love can liberate a whole society if we can just allow ourselves to practice it.

In May, there was a royal wedding across the pond in England.  Perhaps you watched coverage of it.  Perhaps it did not interest you.  One of the surprising things to me was the attention paid to the wedding sermon.  It seemed that lots of people from many different faith perspectives found Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon powerful.  Some former Christians said that a sermon like that was almost enough to get them to try church again. 

As far as I can tell, it was just a sermon about the basics of love.   You know, the typical sermon one preaches when 30 million people are tuned in.  Near the end, Bishop Curry said this,

“Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives, and it can change this world.

If you don't believe me, just stop and imagine. Think and imagine a world where love is the way.

Imagine our homes and families where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way.

Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce where this love is the way.

Imagine this tired old world where love is the way. When love is the way - unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.

When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.

When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.

When love is the way, poverty will become history.

When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.

When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.

When love is the way, there's plenty good room - plenty good room - for all of God's children.” [8]


Sister and brothers, then what then shall we do?  When you get, give.  When you learn, teach.  If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have food, share it with the hungy.  Be kind.  Don’t fight.  Do your job.  These are the lessons of liberating love. May love be our way and the way for all.  Thanks be to God.


[1] A story told by the Rev. Eugene Bay in his sermon “What Shall We Do?”  Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Pennsylvania, December 14, 2002)

[2] Debie Thomas at  https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2030-what-then-should-we-do

[3] Wes Avram in Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Volume1, Cynthia Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2014),   p. 68.

[4] Kathryn Matthews at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_december_16_2018

[5] https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-liturgy-of-abundance-the-myth-of-scarcity/

[6] http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2009/121309_8am.html

[7] https://lillanetwork.wordpress.com/about/

[8] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/05/20/612798691/bishop-michael-currys-royal-wedding-sermon-full-text-of-the-power-of-love