Calling Out for Change
A Sermon on Luke 3:7-18
[An audio recording of the sermon is available here]
I imagine that many of you have heard the latest Christmas controversy this year… the one about whether or not there are serious ethical problems with the 1940’s holiday duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Now, don't worry I am not going to pontificate on my opinion about that debate from the pulpit. But I bring it up because the debate has me thinking about the phenomenon sometimes referred to as “call-out culture.”
The urban dictionary defines this term as “a group of people, especially on social media, who ridicule others for real or perceived words or actions that go against their beliefs.”
It’s a dynamic that we see a lot in contemporary interactions, often with a ricochet effect.
One person or group will point out the perceived negative or oppressive messages – either overt or hidden – in a statement made by someone else. Maybe inadvertently, maybe not, that observation comes with a strong shaming undertone, and perhaps even some self-congratulation about how “woke” the challengers themselves are.
The called-out person then responds by rolling their eyes and railing against the absurd lengths to which political correctness has devolved in our culture. Maybe inadvertently, maybe not, they communicate disregard for any real concern behind the call-out and throw back an equal dose of shame for being such a dupe to social pressures, while holding onto their own self-congratulation for being able to think for themselves.
It’s a back-and-forth pattern in which everyone gets offended, and no one gets heard, and shaming and division assert themselves as primary characteristics of our conversations.
In case you can’t tell, I have serious reservations about call-out culture. It’s not that I’m rolling my eyes about the kinds of things that often get called out, but I want deeper conversation that leads to understanding and growth on all sides – I’m not interested in shame-slinging and self-righteousness. I’ve walked that road enough in my life and I know that it very rarely leads to transformation.
Which is why you generally won’t hear me standing in the pulpit and calling anyone a “brood of vipers”…. Which makes today’s gospel text… a challenging one for me to preach.
At least in the first few verses of the reading, John the Baptist is not holding anything back! He’s not working to create a space of mutually transformative listening, or to frame a commitment to loving dialogue. He’s calling people snakes, and talking about a coming wrath, and warning the crowds – the very people who had come to him for baptism and for teaching – that the ax is waiting to chop down any trees not bearing good fruit.
Yikes! One commentator describes John’s words as “harsh and blunt” But I would say that is a bit of an understatement. They sound more like threats!
Then again, you could say the same thing about one of the most beloved holiday traditions in the English-speaking world: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
My family and I had the opportunity to see a live production of the play last Sunday night, and it was completely gripping. The actor who played Ebenezer Scrooge drew me into the pathos of his story: the pain of confronting all that he had lost throughout his life due to his selfishness and greed, and the terror he felt when confronted by the ghost of Christmas Future at Scrooge’s own gravestone…
And, if you think about it, the power of that moment in the story depends upon a threat… upon the terror Scrooge feels not just at the contemplation of his own death, but at the emptiness of his life … and the fear that he has lost the chance to change.
In the end the real threat isn’t that he will die (we all will die – Scrooge certainly knows this). The threat it that he might not have a chance to live a life of meaning, love, and joy.
Which makes me wonder…. Could it be that the important thing to notice about John’s shocking language in today’s gospel is not so much the threat, but rather it’s effect.
Because – unlike most call-out culture – the result of John’s accusations, just like the result of Scrooge’s visits from the three spirits, is not shame and defensiveness.
It’s change: The crowds hear his insult, and his warnings of wrath and axes, and their response is to ask “what then should we do?” (Luke 3:10, 12, 14).
The crowds choose NOT to defend themselves. They demonstrate a readiness for transformation, and this response changes the trajectory of John’s sermon. It provides the space for him to explain what he means by “fruits worthy of repentance” (John 3:8).
Do you have more possessions than you need while someone else is without? Give.
Do you have food while someone else is hungry? Share.
Do you have the opportunity to exploit the less powerful, to use your position or your status for your own benefit even though it might hurt the more vulnerable? Be fair. Don’t abuse your power. Be satisfied with what you have.
When John commands that we bear fruit worthy of repentance he means our repentance should have a practical impact on how we live our lives. Specifically, it should change the way we treat those whom we might otherwise ignore, or even injure, in looking after our own interests.
It’s important to recognize that the changes are actually possible. John isn’t describing an unattainable sin-free life,… but that doesn’t mean they are easy. The change for which he is calling is pretty radical.
Giving away a coat when you only have two means giving away half of what you have. It means not having any extra.
For a tax collector in the 1st Century Empire, not taking any extra means doing your job completely differently. Exploitation was built into the system of taxation. Refusing to collect more than was due meant having very little to live on yourself.
And for soldiers, the demand was perhaps the hardest. Soldiers were required to take an oath of loyalty to the Emperor that demanded total allegiance. For them, even asking the prophet “what shall we do?” could be considered an act of treason, because they were not free to do anything against their orders, and those orders might indeed include extortion and false accusations.
Which draws our attention to what makes these changes hardest of all: they are communal. John is not preaching some individualistic moral code. He’s preaching an orientation toward the needs of the other. An orientation that operates on the societal level, and not just the individual one. An orientation that challenges way that the fundamental institutions of the Empire – taxation and military might – should operate. Because the sin from which the crowds need to repent is systemic, not just individual.
That’s why, at the beginning of the reading, John calls the crowds a “brood of vipers.” Greek scholar D. Mark Davis points out that this phrase “points to the ongoing nature of destructive behavior, which is both inherited and passed down from generation to generation.”
The people are not just a bunch of individual snakes – they are a brood. They have been bred in a context of exploitation that leaves some people without a coat, without food, vulnerable to extortion. This is the evil that demands repentance from all who benefit from it.
Which brings us back to call-out culture, because at its root, at its best, calling out is NOT about shaming or ridiculing, or self-righteousness.
It’s about shining a light (perhaps the light of Advent) on the patterns of thinking or speaking that we have inherited from a culture that has its own share of exploitation and economic vulnerability.
It’s about calling for a repentance that that actually changes lives in a way that will help the people on both sides of the division.
It’s about prompting people, or ourselves, to ask “what then should we do?” What can we actually change?
And when it does that… it opens hearts to the one whom God came to proclaim.
As important as John’s call-outs are, they are not the end of the gospel. They are just the preparation. They point ahead to the one who is coming. To Jesus and to the Spirit he brings. John might sound like he is preaching a works righteousness gospel, but the story doesn’t end there. There is grace for the times that we will inevitably fail to bear fruit worthy of repentance. When Jesus clears the threshing floor he is clearing the sin and the brokenness out of our lives so that we can be gathered into his kingdom. This is actually a gospel of good news.
Today’s reading ends with the words “So, with many other exhortations, (John) proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3:18). This story is a story of good news. Even with the call-outs and the “brood of vipers” it’s good news.
It’s also a story of proclamation. Of witness. And it has lessons for us as our community continues to explore the Advent call to witness.
It teaches us that when our witness involves “calling-out” the evil in the world, that our focus should always be transformation, never shame.
It teaches us that we can also witness in the way that we respond when we get called out, not with defensiveness, but with the crowd’s question “what should we do?”
This story teaches us that our witness should be concerned with the fruits of repentance, with transformed life, and especially with how we are calling for the care of those who are vulnerable and hurting.
And it teaches us that our witness should always point to the one who is coming, to Jesus Christ… and that the openness to ask “what should I do?” is what opens our hearts to receive him.
Thanks be to God.
 Reverend Kimberly Knowle-Zeller. ELCA World Hunger Sermon Starters for Dec 16.
 This insight comes from D. Mark Davis: http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/12/fleeing-wrath-burning-rubble-and.html