The Joy of Practice – The Rev. Michelle Meech
December 12, 2021
Until I got to know John the Baptist a bit, I really didn’t like him. He reminded me of the fire-and-brimstone preachers who stand on the street corner trying to get people riled up into a frenzy of religious fervor. I mean… he starts off by calling the crowd a “brood of vipers.” And he tells people to repent. And he’s wearing an itchy hair shirt and eats locusts. He seems, well… eccentric and irrational… on first glance.
But I started to regard him differently as I began to understand the God he follows as the God of Life, the God who is Love. If I worship God who is Love and John worships God who is Love, then how do I make sense of something that seems so judgmental. What I’ve come to understand is that John the Baptist is someone who loves people so much that he finds himself doing all he can to help them, to educate them, to guide them towards experiencing God’s grace and love more often in their lives.
So it requires some examination on our parts to read this passage from Luke today through the lens of love. We read phrases like: “One is coming who is more powerful than I… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Or this: “He will… clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
From one perspective, we may get images of a rather judgmental savior. Which means, a judgmental God. As such, we may feel as though we are condemned to hell if we have the misfortune of being a member of “TEAM CHAFF.” It’s easy to interpret this as judgmental, I think, because the rhetoric sets up an either-or… a false binary. You’re either the wheat or the chaff. But what we miss in this is that it’s not that simple. It’s not a binary, not really.
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, like I am, you may recall that Harry begins to demonstrate some of the same abilities that Voldemort does and by the time we get to book 5, Harry, in his dreams, is starting to see what Voldemort sees. So he becomes concerned that he’s going to turn out like Voldemort – someone so selfish that his actions are all evil. His godfather Sirius talks with him about this, Sirius tells him: “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is what we choose to act on.”
What is true is that we have both wheat and chaff inside us all the time. We are both. We all have unkind thoughts and impulses from time to time that cause us to act out. And we all have incredibly gracious and loving thoughts and impulses that can, if we learn to trust them, become acts of kindness in the world.
It really is about the choices we make and how those choices develop the neural pathways of our brain. The habit of kindness is like any habit, it takes some time to develop. The more we do something, the more our brain becomes wired to think that way, and the more our bodies are equipped to perform a particular act. Our brains are incredibly flexible but it does take some effort. It takes a commitment to interrupting the pattern of thoughts and emotions to develop new ways of thinking, new ways of being in the world, new beliefs about ourselves and about the people in our lives.
The question is not: Are “we” good or bad? We are unquestionably good. We were made for love as beloved creatures of God who were formed of this earth. We were born to share this life with others and to seek one another’s welfare. To be our brother’s keeper and to love one another as God loves us. We are born to have our experience be one of grace and mercy, connected to all of creation.
So we’re definitely not on TEAM CHAFF, afterall. We’re on TEAM WHEAT. We are the Beloved of God with the capacity, the birthright, to be nourishing and whole.
And… wheat always has chaff. Chaff is the husk, the dry, scaly, protective casing of the seed. Indigestible by humans so it’s usually fed to livestock or ploughed into the ground or burned.
When we have grown up with a need to protect ourselves, which is all of us to some degree, we can learn to tend toward choices that are more selfish, judgmental, and, ultimately, not nourishing to anyone… even to us. And we can learn to think that that’s the only choice we can make. We lose sight of other options, other ways of being in the world.
This is all repentance is about, ultimately. To learn how we are tied to thoughts, emotions, and actions that are damaging so that we can hear the good news calling to us from our own hearts, that voice in the wilderness, and invite ourselves to wholeness and nourishment.
You see, John the Baptist is the voice calling us from our own hearts, not the voice of judgment, but the voice of love.
And so, the crowd asked John… “What then shall we do?” And he replies: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Even those whose own income relied upon taking a cut of the fees they collected – the tax collectors – asked, “Teacher what shall we do?”
“Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
And those who had the power to act on behalf of the government – the soldiers – asked, “And, what should we do?” “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
In other words… practice kindness.
Practice kindness so that your thoughts will become kinder.
Practice kindness so that your emotional experience will become more joy-filled.
Practice kindness so that you may be healed.
In his letter to the Philippians, which we read from today, Paul tells the people of Philippi to “Rejoice in God always. Again, I will say, Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”
Let your gentleness be known to everyone… because you are made to be gentle. In this way, God is near. Nearer than your own breath.
And Paul goes on to say, although it’s not in today’s reading… it’s the best part of this letter. He says:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Ph 4:8-9)
It’s unbelievable to me sometimes how ancient wisdom and modern science mirror each other. It seems as though John the Baptist and Paul both understood something about building neural pathways. Because they both tell is that by practicing kindness, we will know the joy that God has always intended for us because the chaff, the protective shell around the nourishing seed we have always carried around, will be burned away.
Practice kindness so that you can build those neural pathways.
Practice kindness so that you may be healed.
This is where we find hope, because we were designed, we were made for this.
This is where we can experience joy because this is where love is found.